A mini-review of Ophelia Unraveling by Carol Berg
by Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor
Ophelia is a character who infuriates some readers of Hamlet, or some audience goers, depending on the actress’s interpretation of the role. If she’s a helpless innocent, an ingénue undone, a girl without spunk, unable to disobey her father, suicidal when spurned in love…well, it can be frustrating to watch. But even if you give Ophelia an attitude or an edge, you can’t undo the plot. She goes mad, she distributes herbs and flowers, singing, and she drowns in the river.
Carol Berg’s Ophelia, in Ophelia Unraveling (dancing girl press, 2012), gets to find a new lover in the river itself. They romance each other, and Ophelia seems to know what she is doing. Yes, there’s method to her madness.
In the very first poem, “Ophelia Introduces Herself to the River,” she defines herself. In a baby book her name may mean “help,” but in this poem, “My name means slender sapling leaning closely / …willow leaves tasting echoes / …water rising to furious moonlight.”
And she means business: “My name means vengeance pays attention to the tides.”
The river speaks, too, questioning Ophelia, describing her, confessing to seducing her. The river is in love with Ophelia, as shown here in a title and partial first stanza:
The River Tastes Ophelia
and she is raindrops stippling me
rippling along me as if I were naked
This is lovely, familiar to anyone who pays attention when rain first touches the skin of a river! Later, “The River Offers a Ring to Ophelia.” (At least it is honorable!) And, in confessing to all in “The River Confesses,” the river asks absolution:
…And so when she came
upon my unbuttoned riverbank and when I peeled
off my green shirt and when she dipped her
fingers inside of me what could I do but open
my book of dreams to her. She read herself
inside of me. And then I unwound myself inside of her.
It’s a wonderful, sexy poem that transforms the river into Hamlet and vice versa. It’s preceded by “Ophelia Drowning,” which begins, “I had no idea he would be / so warm the water this other Hamlet,” showing her fragile sanity, her in-between state. The river is not Hamlet, but it is “other Hamlet” and male. This one ends beautifully, gasping:
He murmuring is blue promises
He is my is my is my
I am spreading into
I am almost home
Ophelia Unraveling is a brief book for a brief life, with cover art by Annette Willis. You can see the cover at dancing girl press and more of Willis’s work (art and quilts) at chasing lightning bugs, an etsy store. Sample poems are also available at the links below.