Hamlet, A Failure in Three Poems

Recently, on a Sunday evening, I visited Ground Zero for the first time since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to see a production of Hamlet.  I thought the play, a prism of sorts, might pull apart and make visible the events I had first seen almost a decade ago on television (another prism) and that the play’s themes of violence, mourning, political upheaval, and revenge might offer some insight, however oblique, into the attacks and their aftermath.  

I also thought the play would fail.  Not because of any particular fault in the production, but because the tragedy of the play is essentially singular (Hamlet speaks almost a thousand lines more than any other character in the play) and the tragedy of 9/11 is collective.  How, for example, could you successfully stage the return of one ghost on a mass grave?  The play, I thought, would crack on the site of its staging.

Yet I believed this failure might be helpful.  For Hamlet is a mind flexed inward, seized on the very questions that rend and reveal it.  Hamlet is a fever dream of reason.  Perhaps by seeing the limits of Hamlet’s understanding, I could see the limits of any single person trying to understand the tragedy at Ground Zero.  Perhaps the failures of Hamlet (and Hamlet) would let me reckon with my own. 

The production did fail, horribly.  It took place in the shopping mall of the World Financial Center, and its theme-park costumes and ham acting amounted to a denial of its surroundings (or a complete embrace of the mall’s aesthetic and worldview).  I left before it finished.  But afterward, its possibility—the possibility of a better failure—haunted me.  Haunts me still.

Begin with a Question that Believes in Answers

The never-dark of Manhattan hunches above us, floodlit, stars eclipsed. 
Who’s there? 
Begin with a question that believes in answers
(he is not here, she is not here),
as though questions weren’t a wire we grope for, a harkening god.
Nay answer me.  Stand and unfold your self.
From the granite underneath us, new steel jags skyward, fraught, unfinished, rust-shaded
and flagged, alive
with its final cause.  There’s no self left. 
Not a filling, not a leg brace, not a cell phone, not a bone for us to bury.
The air shakes its invisible folds.
The cabs go by. 
Stand: who’s there?  We’re here, on hollowed ground.

They Fall, They Are Falling

Look where it comes again.
Like shards from thicker clouds or mist in descent, their ghosts
fall from a height we can’t call human.
They break in silence
against our eyes and push our sight inward—see the pulse run at the back of the skull.
They fall, they are falling.
The children among us (within us) try to cup them in their hands.  Stay illusion.

Incommensurately (at the Point of Failure)

In tears, in sighs, in ink, Hamlet is a hero of loss.  He
(no) will not draw a nail across his face and let it (no) be called a smile,
(no) will not make pebbled gestures, 
(no) will not.
I know not seems.  Loss is not a nothing.
We build a wall, with photos and flowers, photos and words, and the world pours
with photos and flowers and words.  These indeed seem.
Hamlet scours the inside of seeming the way rubble scours the ground:
But I have that within that passes show.
In loss, within yields its terrible measure.  It is as large as love.

Eric LeMay is the author of Immortal Milk (Free Press, 2010) and The One in the Many (Zoo Press, 2003). He taught writing at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago, and is currently on the faculty at Ohio University. He is the editor of the New Ohio Review and Alimentum: The Literature of Food. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Harvard Review, The Paris Review, Gastronomica, Poetry Daily, and other venues. Check him out at ericlemay.org.