Sunday, July 26, 2009

Memento Mori

Memento mori is the flip side of carpe diem and perhaps more challenging. I was reminded this morning of what is becoming one of the crystalized themes of how I understand life: remembrance is the key problem of being human.

It's been two years since I taught Hamlet, but for the previous 14 I taught the play seemingly nonstop. One ambitious summer when I was hungry for the good pay that comes with summer courses, I had three literature classes back to back to back. Those of you who've taken summer college courses will probably have one defining memory: those suckers are looooong. 2 hours every day for a month. So for 6 hours straight every day for a week I'd cover scenes from Hamlet, rewind, do it again for two more hours, rewind, do it a third time for three more hours. By the end of that week I hated him. I was lobbying for Hamlet to meet Nike and just do it so he wouldn't stand around yammering for so damn long, scene after scene.

Of course, the philosophical side of me prevailed, but I never again did three of the same classes in a 6 hour stretch in any given summer. You just have to protect both sanity and love for Hamlet.

Alright, I've wandered away from the point (again.) and am ready to get back to it: Hamlet, like life, is primarily about remembrance. It's the ghost's last command as he returns to purgatory and it's the command Hamlet struggles with throughout the play and, in the end, ultimately fails quite miserably at.

The Ghost is plain in his description that he is forbidden to share (clever boy) when he speaks of his confinement to fast in flames of fire until his sins are burnt and purged away. He comes up from the depths of the stage in the production, not from on high. That Shakespeare is writing this and having it performed in the midst of a power struggle most unfriendly to any public suggestion that Catholic purgatory exists is quite fantastic. The ghost wants Hamlet to kill his uncle and leave his mother along to her own guilty conscience, but what he wants most is his last command: remember me.

And then Hamlet promptly and repeatedly forgets. In the end, when he's finally managed to kill his uncle and care a bit about his mother, who is collateral damage in the carnage, we don't hear a PEEP from him about his father. It's all about Prince Hamlet, not the King. The Branagh Hamlet version, full-text with all its warts, does a lovely job at the end having the King's statue struck to the ground in pieces to reiterate the final failure.

Hamlet came to me in church this morning, when the young man tasked with leading the communion began to read the familiar passage, This do in remembrance of me. But He knew we wouldn't, couldn't, not for long and never very well. So while I was contemplating this during communion, one of my favorite Memento Mori poems, in its loose terza rima, arrived unbidden but quite welcome:

When I was twelve, I chose Dante's Inferno
in gifted class—an oral presentation
with visual aids. My brother, il miglior fabbro,

said he would draw the tortures. We used ten
red posterboards. That day, for school, I dressed
in pilgrim black, left earlier to hang them

around the class. The students were impressed.
The teacher, too. She acted quite amused
and peered too long at all the punishments.

We knew by reputation she was cruel.
The class could see a hint of twisted forms
and asked to be allowed to round the room

as I went through my final presentation.
We passed the first one, full of poets cut
out of a special issue of Horizon.

The class thought these were such a boring set,
they probably deserved their tedious fates.
They liked the next, though—bodies blown about,

the lovers kept outside the tinfoil gates.
We had a new boy in our class named Paolo
and when I noted Paolo's wind-blown state

and pointed out Francesca, people howled.
I knew that more than one of us not-so-
covertly liked him. It seemed like hours

before we moved on to the gluttons, though,
where they could hold the cool fistfuls of slime
I brought from home. An extra touch. It sold

in canisters at toy stores at the time.
The students recognized the River Styx,
the logo of a favorite band of mine.

We moved downriver to the town of Dis,
which someone loudly re-named Dis and Dat.
And for the looming harpies and the furies,

who shrieked and tore things up, I had clipped out
the shrillest, most deserving teacher's heads
from our school paper, then thought better of it.

At the wood of suicides, we quieted.
Though no one in the room would say a word,
I know we couldn't help but think of Fred.

His name was in the news, though we had heard
he might have just been playing with the gun.
We moved on quickly by that huge, dark bird

and rode the flying monster, Geryon,
to reach the counselors, each wicked face,
again, I had resisted pasting in.

To represent the ice in that last place,
where Satan chewed the traitors' frozen heads,
my mother had insisted that I take

an ice-chest full of popsicles—to end
my gruesome project on a lighter note.
"It is a comedy, isn't it," she said.

She hadn't read the poem, or seen our art,
but asked me what had happened to the sweet,
angelic poems I once read and wrote.

The class, though, was delighted by the treat,
and at the last round, they all pushed to choose
their colors quickly, so they wouldn't melt.

The bell rang. Everyone ran out of school,
as always, yelling at the top of their lungs,
The Inferno fast forgotten, but their howls

showed off their darkened red and purple tongues.

-- Diane Thiel, "Memento Mori in Middle School"


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