Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, December 16, 2007

The mind, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, has "cliffs of fall" that are "no-man-fathomed," suggesting a jagged, dangerous terrain with unexpected and potentially lethal gulfs. Sometimes, as in Jill Rosser's new collection of poetry, it's a comic, irritable gesture that recalls the abyss a footstep away:


Every time I'm reminded of the actor

who willed his own skull to repertory

for use as that of poor Yorick

in stagings of Hamlet, I wince to think

I forgot his name. Was it Cooke?

Cronin? Cracken?

Cooke I decide, and

doubt sets in. So the thought I always

nearly have about this morbid legacy

never fully shapes itself. I've almost

had this thought at least a hundred times.

For some reason until I get that name right

I can't permit myself to think it through.

Maddening, like a sneeze that won't quite,

all day it just, climax unbrought-to . . .

Sir Arthur Cronin seems plausible

until I suspect I've conflated the actor

with Conan Doyle, who solved hard cases

of lives dissolved. Absurd, really,

this paralyzing sense of obligation to a name.

Alas poor whoozis, who'd have given rise

to some thought in my still humming skull,

my wracked skull rich with the image of his,

held aloft nightly to shadow forth past performances,

like the echo of a hermit-crab-deserted shell.

Is it still in use? No prop man could throw it away.

Did he love puns? Was he the boneheaded sort

who felt Ophelia must be played by a man

because she would have been in Shakespeare's day?

Did he upstage a friend? Was he gifted enough to?

Sir Something. Arthur, George? Frederick.

It's killing me, since his whole idea was to be

remembered -- literally -- letting his too solid skull

stand for his love of the curtain-hush, the lights,

the flourish of lines and crushed velvet and the gasp

just audible in the front row; to be a part of it,

a body part of it. The thought I want to have

undoes itself again. You go ahead and think it for me.

I guess I never wanted it. I think that may be why

I had to tell you. Here, take this from me.

You'll think of something. Please. This is as far as I go.

"Alas poor whoozis" propels a slide toward the outrageous death-jokes of "my still humming skull" and "it's killing me." These suitably theatrical jokes and hi-jinks, like Hamlet's musing on the skull of Yorick the jester, link the limits of memory with the limits of life itself. By closing with the seven little words that hand over the anecdote and the search for that actor's name, giving them to the reader, Rosser makes a final allusion to mortality, in the mordant, laughing tradition of Shakespeare's graveyard scene.

(Jill Rosser's poem "Unthought" can be found in her book "Foiled Again." Ivan R. Dee. Copyright 2007 by J. Allyn Rosser.)

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