When the deified Nero
ordered Seneca to “open his veins,”
complied—though he was, by then, sick and infirm
and his blood wouldn’t flow quickly enough
from the wounds,
so his friends gave him poison
to speed his demise,
though this, too, failed,
and, seeing no other option, they ran a bath
for the groaning old man and, finally
drowned him in it—
and that is the end of Seneca who,
until then, astonished the world.
I was awakened late that election night
They were plundering the garbage
again, their claws scraping
inside the bins,
the noise of ripping plastic bags.
A bottle rolled down the driveway into the grass
while I lay in bed, my book where I’d left it
under the lamp.
Then a sudden, frantic shuffling
as they fought over, what?
A piece of old bread,
an apple, sweet with rot.
Beside me, my wife
even when I went to the window,
moving the curtains aside,
squinting into the dark yard
where there were so many raccoons
climbing among the garbage bins that I couldn’t
Whether Seneca had conspired against Nero
remains an open question,
but his friends
had more immediate concerns.
The emperor had said
the old man must die,
and helping him on his way
was the proper thing to do,
no matter that the empire itself
was thick with rot,
no matter that Nero was lavish and plundering,
that he’d “lost all sense of right and wrong,
listening only to flattery,”
as the historian I’d been reading
that election night
told it. “Opening his veins,” she wrote,
“was simply the best way to accomplish
a patriotic exit,
and the only pity was
it didn’t work exactly as Seneca
and what of the citizens
who took years to tire of Nero?
He had, after all,
to execute his own mother before they turned
while the raccoons scrambled in the trash,
and “Darling?” I said,
but my wife didn’t stir,
she was dead asleep.
And then the raccoons
turned to face the flashlight
I aimed at them from the porch steps,
their eyes reflecting
the glare greenly.
They froze that way—
cold air swirling,
a night breeze
high in the trees,
a car passing somewhere,
the darkness, for a moment,
quiet as history,
their glowing eyes—
before they returned to their work,
as, the next morning,
I’d return to mine
picking cold, wet trash from the lawn,
black bags with it,
hosing down the driveway,
while my wife slept in,
and the raccoons,
fat and satisfied, dozed
in a black drain somewhere,
and Seneca stayed dead
in the book on the table by the bed,
with his friends
a correct awareness
for the truth of power
and the rightness of the state.
Copyright © 2018 Kevin Prufer. Reprinted with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review, Autumn 2018.