The Bodies Fill The River

Jessica Denzer

Editorial Criticism

the explanation:

Lately, I’ve noticed a pattern. After I’ve spoken to someone on the phone — anyone who I love and who loves me — I say to myself, “See, you are not alone.” As if the purpose of the phone call has been to affirm this. You are not alone, You are not alone. As if this reassurance can ward off loneliness. Or aloneness. But these words don’t work. They don’t get to the heart of the fear. I tried to describe this to a friend, this feeling that creeps up during conversations, this small voice in the back of my mind whenever I’m with someone who knows me: They know you, don’t worry. You are known. You are seen.

“Learning to be alone with yourself is really important,” my friend told me. “It’s very hard to do.” This isn’t the problem, though: the problem of being alone with myself. Or maybe it is, but the words are insufficient. They’re missing the pain of it.

“I’m alone all the time,” I said. “I don’t think that’s the problem.” She just shrugged and gave me a look of worried annoyance. 

“Okay, whatever you say,” she said, and then took a long sip of her drink. 

Sitting in my therapist’s office, I try again. “Let me explain,” I say, seeing her brow crinkle slightly. I don’t know if she knows that I’ve noticed. Or perhaps she does. She is my therapist, after all. She looks at me and gives a nod. I begin: “In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello’s greatest fear is isolation. And it’s this fear that allows Iago to convince him of his wife’s infidelity, and so turn him into a murderous monster.” I don’t know why I go here. I’ve already said this today in front of a room full of students. They all watched me, wrote things down, nodded silently. Now, sitting across from my therapist, the words come out of my mouth in the same order. It’s a ripe and ready piece of lecture: “‘I know our country’s disposition well,’ Iago tells Othello. I know what you do not. Iago is reminding Othello that he is alone. But Iago is also alone. Everyone is alone.”

My therapist smiles at me from across the room and writes something down. Dramatic, is the word I imagine her sketching into her notepad. I imagine big loopy cursive in pressed black ink.

I stop talking. This isn’t what I want to explain to her. I don’t want to talk about Othello or Iago. I want to diverge from the lesson. I want to go off the rails. It’s Emilia!, I want to say,  Emilia is the only one who understands what’s at stake. The debate over whether Othello is evil is old. Iago is a villain, and Othello is a fool. Both are misogynists. Really, the only one who isn’t a misogynist is Emilia. She is killed by Iago, but she doesn’t die for him. She dies for Desdemona so that Desdemona won’t die alone. You are not alone, I can almost hear Emilia whisper into Desdemona’s ear, My mistress, you are not alone.

But I don’t say any of this. 

“Everyone is alone” is where I end it.


This is true for so many of Shakespeare’s characters. Othello is alone, Macbeth, Lear. Hamlet is alone in his grief, isolated in his revenge. The ghost will only speak to him; how can we know what it’s truly saying? And then there is Ophelia: the quietness of the water, the refuge of death, escape.

Escape Escape Escape. You are not alone. Do you think she said this to herself whenever she spoke to Laertes? Do you think she whispered it to the water? I’m thinking about her loneliness. Loneliness is not the same thing as isolation, to be fair. There is a fine line between loneliness, aloneness, and solitude, but they are not the same. They are each different from isolation.

Again, language falls short. It’s all gray. Like New York in the spring, everything is gray. Even when it doesn’t rain, the slate sky crawls over us, cutting itself here and there, a bleeding of sun slipping through the slits for a moment. It’s sickness weather, the kind of weather that brings the common cold on its wings. And I cough an uncontrollable cough, reminiscent of years ago when I had bronchitis and pneumonia for a month and coughed so much that my gag reflexes took over and I vomited every time. Perhaps I will stop eating. I will become bone thin. Earlier today, while coughing, I felt that old pull in the throat; that bitter taste of bile on the back of my tongue. I could have let it all come up. Instead, I swallowed.

But this isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to talk about Ophelia’s loneliness. I’m thinking about her while I cough, one hand on my chest, feeling the thin layer of skin between my fingers and bone. We will all tear at some point. We will all split open.

green girl

When Polonius discovers Hamlet’s love for Ophelia, he doesn’t believe it. He assumes the prince’s motives are dishonorable, like those of his own son, Laertes, whose lusty desires are the talk of Paris. He berates Ophelia for her naivety, calling her a “green girl.” I imagine her covered in green, a dress of moss and lily pads and the verdant green of the scum that collects on river stones. “You do not understand yourself,” he tells her. You do not know yourself. You are not known. What does it mean to not know yourself? For someone else to tell you who you are? You are green.

I think of my own body covered in moss while standing half undressed in front of a man. It is late and we are both tired and have to get up early the next morning. As I stand in the middle of the room, dreading the long train ride home, he looks up at me from where he sits, his head resting in his right hand, elbow propped on the arm of his sofa.

“Are you okay?” he asks. My fingers move through my hair, gathering the fine strands into a ponytail when I realize my hair tie is missing. He asks me this question as I scan the floor, unwilling to leave an artifact of myself behind.

“Why do you keep asking me that?” I say, kneeling down to grab the band from where it has fallen.

“Jess,” he starts, which bothers me – the authority with which he calls me by a nickname I have never used, the ownership he takes over it. “You just seem sad. I don’t know if you know this about yourself, but—” I stop listening. Whatever words come next are lost on me. I pull my hair into a knot and gather my things, making sure all of me is in one place.

“I am sad,” I say after he stops speaking. The words hang there for a moment. I let them. 

Hamlet holds the skull in his hand and he asks whether it is worth being. Just being. But he doesn’t actively seek the answer. It’s Ophelia who goes into the water. I think to really understand the drowning we have to be in the water. We have to feel the cold: the piercing ripples tickling our cheeks and pouring into our ears and mouth. We have to become a vessel, filling up. But I hate being cold. I don’t have the courage. No one likes to think of it as brave. It. What are we talking about? Should we call Ophelia brave and Hamlet weak? Should we compare Romeo and Juliet to Mark Antony and Cleopatra? Othello? Some might even suggest Desdemona goes willingly to her death. Lady Macbeth wanders the castle in madness, her death as controversial as her character. Her strength is also her undoing. It drives her, as it does so many, to the cold.

I want to stay here. I want to talk about weakness. Shakespeare seems particularly interested in the moment of not being. Hamlet is not the only one who holds the skull in his hands. The list of characters who contemplate or who follow through, who move towards the water, is long. Ophelia is not alone. The river fills up quickly. I imagine all the bodies.

I think about my own bones, the joints, the white, smooth pathways. So much of the body is bright. The insides, I mean. Red and blue and slick and hot. Blood and muscles and veins. But all of it rots away in the end. The beating and pulsating beauty of our organs, the sweetness of our skin, the brightness of our eyes. It all goes away. Dust. Light. Those are the only things that remain. Except the bones. The bones stay behind. The skeleton withstands. The white, smooth fossils of our making. The image of our death already lives inside of us. And it is the thing that stays behind. The strongest part. The thing that does not feel the cold. 

Upon finding the skull in the graveyard, Hamlet calls out to it, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him.” But what is Yorick now but bones? A clean ivory grin left in the dirt. “I knew him!” Hamlet cries. He was known. He was seen. 

But we were discussing weakness. This is where I need to return. I need to cycle back to the moment the word “weak” entered the conversation. 

I bring this up to my therapist and she looks at me quizzically. 

“What is weakness?” she asks, and I say, “Vulnerability.” 

“Those are the same thing?”

When Hamlet famously asks “to be or not to be,” he is being watched. Polonius and Claudius wait in the wings to learn if he’s gone mad. He’s seen and heard. But Ophelia goes into the water alone. The audience isn’t there to witness it. She has no parting words for us; no signal of goodbye. She is not afraid. You are alone, You are alone. Perhaps this is why we linger over her image: her eyes closed, body hovering just under the surface, her dress spread wide, beginning to take on the weight of the water. We come back here again and again. We imagine her in the water, the greens and blues. Green girl. We return here because we are denied this in the narrative. We do not get her question on being, just being. We do not see her filling her pockets up with smooth stones. She gives us nothing. Perhaps this is what strength really is. To not just go into the cold, but to go in alone. To be alone and to close your eyes. 

Perhaps we are better weak, then. Perhaps the fear is better than no fear. “Such loss is no loss,” H.D. writes in her poem “Eurydice”. Eurydice has lost the Earth because of a man. Because of a man, she has been dragged back to Hell. “Such loss is no loss.” Perhaps this is true of fear, too. Such fear is no fear. But still, both are there. The words punched out in black, bold against the paper, the consonants solidifying their existence. Loss. Fear. 

“Vulnerability,” I say to my therapist, and my face cringes without my awareness. 

“Did you know your face did that?” she asks and I laugh. 

I think of what it would take to really open up, to let it all fall to the ground, to rip into the insides. I think of the bodies that fill the river, the names we have memorized. “To sleep,” Hamlet muses, “perchance to dream.” Do we dream when we are dead? Ophelia gives us no answer.  She remains silent. In the quiet, then, perhaps we feel the truth. We know the answer. She opened up. She let it all spill out. 

I know if I told this to my therapist, she would be very concerned. She’s already worried about the laughing. I laugh at myself through half the session. 

“It’s absurd,” I tell her, “to hear myself say something so stupid.”

“Why is it stupid?” she asks. I don’t answer. There is no need to give that question authority. There is no need to repeat what I have already said to myself. Such loss is no loss.

the question:

Before I leave the man’s apartment, I wish him a happy birthday. This man, the man reclining on the sofa, is not a friend. There is no, You are not alone, You are not alone. No. With him I’m always alone. He calls me by a name that is not mine and attempts to tell me who I am.  

“Jess,” he says, “I don’t know if you know this about yourself.” Still, I see him and I wish him a happy birthday. He tells me he is afraid of dying. He says this with the palms of his hands against his cheeks, pulling the skin. I can see the pink under parts of his eyes. He’s a little drunk and his apartment smells like sex and pizza grease. 

“Why?” I ask, just to ask. It’s not a real question, but he answers anyway. 

“Isn’t that what we’re all afraid of?” he says as I put on my shoes.  Hamlet calls death “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns.” He says it makes “cowards of us all.”

“I guess,” I say. 

This is not the right answer. The answer is no. Not all of us are afraid. Hamlet is wrong. So then, I suppose “why?” is a real question. Or maybe not why, but what – what are we afraid of? The losing. But what is lost in the river? Ophelia gained the water. It’s Hamlet who loses. It’s the rest of us. We lose. 

Maybe this is too on the nose – the recognition of being purposefully left behind. But I’m trying to get to the words. I’m trying to choke out the language, to give sound to this silence, this absence of sound, where our words have failed us. 

Words, words, words,” Hamlet says to Polonius during one of his many moments of performed mindlessness. But he’s never mindless, really. He thinks everything; he thinks about all of it all the time. 

“Hamlet isn’t a warrior,” one of my students tells me. “He’s a scholar. He can’t act because he thinks too much. Thinking is what causes him to fail.” But earlier, before he meets the ghost, Hamlet tells us that thought is what keeps us from failure. He tells Horatio that our failures are because of an “O’ergrowth of some complexion,/Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” It is desire, not words, that lead us towards ruin; it blots out our virtues, destroys our ability to think, and leads us to evil. 

The man puts his thumb in my mouth. He pulls my lower lip down and I feel the hook of his joint on my teeth. I bite down. This is before we talk about death. But isn’t that what we’re always doing, why we keep putting our bodies together, why we tumble onto the floor or into his bed? He is a few years younger than me and this annoys me a little. I want us to be old. I want us to be in the dirt. I like when he puts his hands on my hips and grips my bones, holding me there, his fingers pressing into the layer of skin, pushing towards the hardness. I like when he has me in his hands, my ribs, my shoulder blades, my wrists. I like to feel him feel the hard edges, the skeleton.

“I want to be devoured,” I tell him. 

“I know you do,” he says, but he doesn’t. How could he? 

I close my eyes and press my body into the spaces his has made for me. His thumb is still in my mouth. I can taste the salt of his skin. I bite down hard and think of Ophelia. Were the fine strands of her hair gathered when Hamlet  came to her with his jacket open and his garters down? She says she was sewing when he appeared wild in her room, and I wonder if it matters that she is stitching up while he is coming undone. 

I think of how she describes this scene to Polonius; how she tells him of Hamlet coming to her and taking her wrist in his hand. Hard is the word she uses: “He took me by the wrist and held me hard.” His fingers wrapped around her bones – pressing deep before taking her the length of his arm, studying her face, summing her up. My students call this abuse and I’m inclined to agree.

But the pain is always there, even in the pleasure. 

I’m still biting. I hear him moan. I wonder if he’s aware of the ridges of my teeth. Does he think about my mouth? If we could make each other bleed, I think we would. 

“Don’t make any marks,” he said to me before sticking his hand in my mouth. 

“Do you think I’m going to hurt you?” I asked, but this is not the right question. 

“I’m seeing my girlfriend tomorrow.”

The right question is: Do you want me to hurt you? But I don’t ask that question. I don’t say anything. I just open my mouth and bite down. 

“So weakness is pain?” my therapist asks. 

“Did I say that?” I don’t think that’s what I meant, but I must have said it. My therapist has no reason to lie. Words, words, words.

the fool: 

If I were Desdemona, Othello would have been justified in my murder, if murder can ever be justified. If sex is a crime. “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!” Iago warns Othello in the beginning of his manipulation, “It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss/Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger.” Later, Othello will call the cuckold a “hornèd man” and “a monster and a beast.” The cuckold’s monstrousness is in his foolishness. He is a fool in a city where, Iago tells Othello, women “let God see the pranks/ They dare not show their husbands.” This is enough, then, for Othello to kill, it is enough to become one kind of monster in order to avoid becoming another. Hamlet’s choice is not dissimilar. One monster is made from love, the other from revenge. The latter monster seems more fitting to him; like Othello, the murderous beast is preferable to the fool. Polonius, too, thinks women make fools of men. “You’ll tend me a fool,” he tells her when he learns of his daughter’s relationship with the prince. But he is foolish, with or without Ophelia.

All these men. All these bodies. 

I know the space I fill with another’s body will be empty within minutes of its filling. I know this entirely. But maybe I’m looking for the empty – the lack. I find it in the absence of it. It burns more in the return, in the bruises, the smear of saliva, the bitter and salt lingering on the tongue, the memory of the other, pressing, pushing; the empty is more present in the aftermath. You are alone, You are alone. 

I don’t tell this to my therapist. I just gaze at it silently while sitting in the chair across from her. Mostly because I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what I’m saying. Maybe it’s just words, words, words. Instead, I try to forget. 

Hamlet tries to forget. He fears Ophelia. Or his love for her. Isn’t that why he abuses her? I try to get my students here, to get them to understand the fear. “Get thee to a nunnery” he tells her. But why? My students tell me it’s because he hates women, that he’s insensitive, that he’s selfish. I don’t disagree. He all but says it: “Frailty, thy name is woman.” But I also think it’s more complicated than this.

“The fair Ophelia!” he calls her before he frightens her. Before he begins to break her. “Nymph!” he cries out to himself, “In thy orisons/Be all my sins remembered.” Orison means prayer. He prays to her, to God, to himself. In the face of her, he prays to remember his sins. He knows she will make him weak. Love will make him forget what he has promised the Ghost: “Remember thee! Yea, from the table of my memory/ I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,/All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,/That youth and observation copied there;/And thy commandment all alone shall live…” Revenge shall live, “Unmixed with baser matter: yes, by heaven! O most pernicious woman!” 

Who is the woman? Who does the sin belong to? Is it Ophelia’s sin he wants to remember? The sin of desire. Of Love. She is dangerous. She will cloud his rationality. Make him weak.

“Love is weakness?” This is not what my therapist asks me because we don’t get here.

Our time runs out before we can arrive at this moment, the moment where love becomes the enemy. I tell my therapist I’ll see her next week but I know I’m going to cancel. Outside, in the late afternoon, the sun is warm and golden. The cough still lingers, and I feel the weakness of my muscles after two weeks of consuming only liquids. 

“So weakness is sickness?” I think, mimicking my therapist’s voice in my head. Normally I would run home, pacing through Union Square, down to the East Side until I hit Avenue B, then a straight shot to the Williamsburg Bridge. I like to run home after seeing my therapist. It feels like I’m drawing a distinct line between who I am in that room and the rest of my life. Like letting go. Forgetting. 

On days like today, I would take notice of the glow of the water towers on Park Avenue, those rusty old things sitting on stone and brick buildings. I would linger on the bridge once I got to the Brooklyn side, looking out at what I’ve left behind. Usually by the time I get there, the sun hovers gently over lower Manhattan, its rays scraping the towers and roofs of the taller buildings. I have many photos on my phone of the sun on the water towers, the sun over lower Manhattan, the sun on the dome of the old Orthodox Church just on the other side of the water, the sun on the water. The water, the water, the river. 

But not today. I am too sick. My throat is raw from coughing, my lungs heavy, my ribs sore, I have no voice. I take a photo of the long shadows stretched across 19th street, archiving this moment just as I have archived all the light of the city. I go to take a photo of myself, the instinctual need, as of late, to place myself in the lens. You are here. You are seen. But this time I see the gray of my face and the sunkenness of my cheeks and I quickly turn the camera off. 

In the last scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, he asks if he can lay his head in her lap. She says no. He repeats his question as if she misunderstands. “Do you think I meant country matters?” he asks, giving that doublespeak he’s used since he met the ghost.

“I think nothing, my lord,” she responds. At this point, Hamlet has held Ophelia hard by the wrist. He has accused her of dishonesty because of her beauty. He has stood alone with her and commanded her to “marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.” He all but calls her a whore. And yet, in his last conversation with Ophelia, Hamlet asks to lay his head in her lap. No, she tells him: “I think nothing, my lord.” But she thinks everything; she thinks about all of it all the time.


Here’s what I did not tell my therapist: The night I saw the man who’s afraid of death, it was not planned. I was in bed when the screen of my phone lit up watery blue and mossy green. 

Hi. Sorry. It’s late.

It’s always late when he texts me. I shouldn’t have responded. I should have closed my eyes and slept. But I responded, and eventually I found myself in his apartment. Is this what it means to be a whore? A monster-maker?

“I don’t know why you’re here,” he said to me when I walked in the door. But, of course, he knows. I didn’t respond. This is a common theme, this theme of his meanness, his guilt thrown onto me.

“I’m trying to be more faithful,” he said. I took in the mess of his apartment. I thought of the street below, the moment I was standing on the sidewalk. 

“I’m trying to be better about not thinking about you,” he continues. Later, we fucked in his bed. He called me baby, and perfect, and love. 

“Why has it been so long?” he whispered. I stayed silent and closed my eyes and tried to memorize everything – where he pushed into the spaces between my bones, found the soft parts between the hard edges. When it’s over, after I’ve wished him a happy birthday, he says goodbye from across the room.

“I’m not going to kiss you,” he told me. “I’m tired of kissing you.”

“You’re an asshole,” I said back. Walking down the hallway stairs, I make a promise to myself to never see him again, but this promise is empty.

the river: 

Hamlet throws his anger directly onto Ophelia. My students want to know why. 

“Is it necessary?” one of them asks. Her brow is furrowed with concern. I feel the heat of her anger. I understand her indignation. I feel it every day.

“I don’t know,” I tell her.

Hamlet calls Ophelia a whore, an adulteress, a monster-maker. Later, after Hamlet kills her foolish father, she will throw herself in the river. 

“I think nothing, my lord.” 

She wraps herself in garlands before diving in the river. She knots together rosemary, pansy, and fennel with violets, rue, and columbines. I make my students read the footnotes and memorize the meanings of each flower, each herb: remembrance, faith, betrayal, sorrow. I want them to see it. I want them to see her strewn in vines and flowers, each petal and bristle pressed tight against her skin; the greens against the purple, almost blue. Everything wet. 

The clowns who dig Ophelia’s grave debate over the nature of her death and whether she deserves a “Christian” burial. The First Clown takes offense; he asks how it can be that her grave should be straight and sanctified if she took her own life, “unless she drowned herself in her own defense.” This line makes me laugh. I’m not sure it’s meant to, but he is a clown after all. 

When is it ever not “in her own defense”? When confronted with such a choice, what is the alternative? Hamlet with his hands wrapped hard around our wrists?

Not that this is a reason. Not that this is the answer. I have to keep telling my friends that. I have to keep reminding them not to worry about me, but not for the reasons they want me to say. Not because I am well. We know I am not well. I keep going out in the cold. I keep running in the rain. I keep finding myself soaking wet. But it’s not enough. I am not Ophelia. I am more like Hamlet holding the skull. I wander the rooms of my apartment and ask. But that’s all I do. I can only ever ask. I am a coward. It’s enough to say that. I wonder if I were to tell my therapist that my pain is not enough, that my suffering isn’t deep enough – that it is invalid, unjustified for the action towards the water – what she would say. I wonder if she would know what I am admitting.

I am still standing on the street outside her office. I put my headphones in my ears and turn up the volume. I think to drown out the world, but then I change my mind. I turn off my music and let in the sound of car horns, traffic, people – all of the city floods my head. I walk south towards the train but then I decide to keep walking. I won’t run, but I can walk. It’s warm today, no chance of rain. The sun won’t set for another two hours.  I’ll walk over the bridge. I’ll walk over the river, and I’ll come, eventually, to land.

Jessica Denzer is a writer and educator. She received her B.A. in English Literature from Fordham University and her M.F.A. in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a researcher in residence at the New York Public Library and writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, and she supplies a range of editorial contributions to West Trade Review, L’Esprit Literary Review, and Four Way Review.

Photo credit: Brandi Redd, Unsplash

One response to “The Bodies Fill The River”

  1. This line stayed with me after the first time I read it here a few days ago, but I forgot where it came from until I read it again today: “The image of our death already lives inside of us. And it is the thing that stays behind. The strongest part. The thing that does not feel the cold.”

    I concluded that Shakespeare can make you feel less alone; he sees you with each understanding you bring to his characters.


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