While Playing Hamlet at the National Theatre, Daniel Day-Lewis Leaves the Stage, Having Seen the Ghost of His Own Father

A poem for Sunday

An image of an empty stage at a theatre
Mark Power / Magnum

He does not return: not to the evening’s performance,
where his understudy gains a standing ovation, & not
to the theater, where the treasonous stage is made

for turning one place into many, one person to another.
Ten men become an army, halved coconuts a cavalry;
the absence of vastness & sky is transformed

into vastness & sky: field, forest, cliff, sea, a castle
& its ramparts: What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord …
And draw you into madness? Though each night he cried out, each night

no angels came, no ministers of grace to save the son
from the spotlight glare of grief. Day-Lewis later claimed his vision
less hallucination than a metaphor: To some extent, I probably saw my father’s ghost

every night. A metaphor, then: how he collapsed, his long body
his own again & folded into three parts, like a letter. Dear Father
Dear Ghost—What is he doing here, in Elsinore? The planks

of the London stage grow cold beneath the actor’s face.
Haunt merely meant to frequent, until Shakespeare gave
the word to all the dead. They frequent us, a favorite pub

my head. And when my head is gone? Say, why is this?
Wherefore? What should we do? This too is more a metaphor,
& makes the grieving man a room to linger in

or leave. Poor ghost, dependent on a restless crowd’s imaginings.
How pale he glares! The seats grow stiff; the floodlights seem to fade.
The speeches spin out into air. Far below on the little stage, an actor falls

just as he might be meant to, but is not. And in the breath-held pause
before the castle vanishes entirely—the vastness narrowing, a roof
where there was sky—we struggle to recall the words just heard:

Hamlet, remember me—the line almost, if not quite, forgot.