Ophelia by Rayfield A. Waller



I’m too much with family now and not with child.
The man I knew is dead, he’s
gone ahead of me Into madness,
slain by now on England’s soil; he’s left me
a mingy father
who ate my mother and
a peeving, brother
who brims with womanish talk.


Elsinore now is
a procession of pantaloons.
This kingdom of visitations, this creation in a jar
that radiates not for me. It seems to me
a sour firmament casting shadows but little light.

No one recollects a goodly King who is dead,
replaced by a Brother-King whose face rots
as if it were a swollen fish,
and so Denmark rots from the head.

The Mad Prince I’d loved became a comet
and descended, to set afire
this manor — this cask of weddings
fed by funerals.


A mannish nurse, froggy bitch who
smells of rancid milk, squats by my bed
to rub emollients upon my vacant belly.
Or else she fills the air with vapors,
sulfur and pine.
She studies my piss, she means
to scrub away my tongue.


They’ve swaddled me in white—
since I am bloodless now, made
a rue-fed maiden again.
The Brother-King’s apothecary
thrusts menthol up inside me
to burn away the Prince my lover’s gifts.
The fellow lusts, I suspect,
to press his blistering lips
where late my dear dead Hamlet did.


I’ve only a woman’s dispensation:
these mawkish skirts, a fist of salts, a copper stave
that took what was left of me. A tatty bodice
to match this mock and playful diadem
that the Prince had given me, which one day
would be real.
See those baubles there?
And here a pot of red smudge,
to make my lips a man’s.


I’ll have it not.
Away with me to some cold river where
I’ll embrace the better part of this dispensation.
Not to be
is to be.

Rayfield A. Waller. Detroit, Michigan, United States. Waller is a poet, cultural critic, labor activist, and political journalist who is a professor of literature, history, and the social sciences at Wayne State University and Wayne County Community College in the postindustrial city of Detroit, Michigan.

2 Replies to “Ophelia by Rayfield A. Waller”

    • Love it, Vincent–from “Much Ado About Nothing,” and the passage you selected echoes Ophelia’s suicide by water–a preoccupation of Shakespeare’s:

      “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.
      Men were deceivers ever,
      One foot in sea, and one on shore…”

      Isn’t he a genius? Like Einstein is the inescapable giant of modern physics, everyone and everything after William in English language narrative and verse can be folded back into William. His reach and scope are superhuman. I thought when I read your comment, back to the monumental sadness of Clarence in “Richard III” also a victime of water in a dream, describing his dream, in his last minutes in the tower, talking to his ‘Keeper’:

      “As we paced along
      Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
      Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in falling
      Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard
      Into the tumbling billows of the main.
      O Lord, methought what pain it was to drown…”

      Water. And not described as waves, but ‘billows’. That poet was the father of all English language poetry as some French poets sometimes say Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire were fathers of French narrative and verse. Definitely Baudelaire. William, Hail! He’s the founder of the English language feast.

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