Below is a poem I wrote and read at an art opening by John Kotula at AS220 in Providence last night. John’s installation focused on 100 Ways an Old Artist Can Die, his way of slapping the hand of death as he celebrated his 70th year. He and other artist friends created pieces of art that showed John … well … dying.
We were asked to write a poem in response to a well-known piece of art that illustrates the death of a famous character — mine was Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais. Actually, another artist took photographs of John in these death poses, too. It was a little freaky to see John posed as Ophelia. Anyway, the show was a bit out there, but really interesting and very well done!
Ophelia is the young woman who is in love with troubled Hamlet in Shakespeare’s tragic play. After lots of horrible things happen, she drowns in a river and is never seen again.
Response to Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais
You were wrong, my dear Ham.
The question wasn’t: “To be or not to be.”
But how to be in a world gone mad.
Not to be is easy. Just climb a willow tree
with branches as brittle as my father’s bones.
Reach for what you can’t have – I’m good at that –
and fall without grace – something else
that comes naturally.
Then land in a rushing stream,
eager to take you anywhere but here.
Let the current hold you, caress you, sing to you.
Let it flow – and then, let go.
Wear flowers in your hair and around your neck.
They will speak up for you as you could not.
Daisies for innocence, the sweet rose of May,
forget-me-nots, a garland of withered violets.
One dead, red poppy.
Their meaning will not be disputed,
as mine was by those who swore their love –
my brother, my father, my handsome prince.
In life, you all nailed me into a coffin
and now I float free reaching for the sun.
Who knows what dreams may come,
my sweet boy? Now that I am free to dream.
Now that they won’t die behind curtains,
or damn me to a nunnery.
Remember what you said so long ago?
“Doubt thou the stars are fire.
Doubt that the sun doth move.
Doubt truth to be a liar,
but never doubt I love.”
Something tells me we will meet again.
Whatever is breaking you in two
will be your end.
But I think I know what dug your grave.
For your mother is watching me.
Even now, Gertrude is shaping the story of my death.
Kings may lead countries, but the idle gossip
of women in waiting whispers the truth
of how a king died.
My love, she knows I knew.