Election Night

Kevin Prufer

When the deified Nero

ordered Seneca to “open his veins,”
                                                                the playwright
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
successful,
                      drowned him in it—

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and that is the end of Seneca who,
until then, astonished the world.

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I was awakened late that election night
by raccoons.
                         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
never woke

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                       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
count them.

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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,

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                                                 no matter that the empire itself
was thick with rot,
                                   no matter that Nero was lavish and plundering,
homicidal,

                      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, 

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“was simply the best way to accomplish

                                                                       a patriotic exit,
and the only pity was
                                         it didn’t work exactly as Seneca
had planned—”

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                              and what of the citizens
who took years to tire of Nero?
                                                         He had, after all,
to execute his own mother before they turned
against him—

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                          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.

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                                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,

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as, the next morning,
                                          I’d return to mine
picking cold, wet trash from the lawn,
                                                                     filling fresh
black bags with it,
                                   hosing down the driveway,

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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,
                                                                having shown
with his friends

                                 a correct awareness
for the truth of power
                                          and the rightness of the state.

More by Kevin Prufer

There Is No Audience for Poetry

They wanted him to stop kicking like that—
it made their eyes corkscrew, drilled the sun in the sky
so light dumped out like blood from a leak.
The boy in the trunk wouldn't die.

They drove and drove, and he dented the trunk's tight lid,
called their names, then pounded the wheel wells
with a tire iron. The sun filled
their skulls so they felt like hell

and the boy in the trunk wouldn't listen. You'd think
it was burning hot in there, you'd think he'd be gone,
passive, but no. The boy in the trunk
banged on and on

until the noise grew godalmighty unforgivable
and they had no choice but to pull into the woods,
leave the car, try to hitch a ride with someone
quieter, someone who could

listen without interrupting. They'd had a hot day.
The road simmered to the overheated sky.
But from far away they still heard him, the boy
in the trunk, his empty cry.

In a Beautiful Country

A good way to fall in love
is to turn off the headlights
and drive very fast down dark roads.

Another way to fall in love
is to say they are only mints
and swallow them with a strong drink.

Then it is autumn in the body.
Your hands are cold.
Then it is winter and we are still at war.

The gold-haired girl is singing into your ear
about how we live in a beautiful country.
Snow sifts from the clouds

into your drink. It doesn't matter about the war.
A good way to fall in love
is to close up the garage and turn the engine on,

then down you'll fall through lovely mists
as a body might fall early one morning
from a high window into love. Love,

the broken glass. Love, the scissors
and the water basin. A good way to fall
is with a rope to catch you.

A good way is with something to drink
to help you march forward.
The gold-haired girl says, Don't worry

about the armies, says, We live in a time
full of love. You're thinking about this too much.
Slow down. Nothing bad will happen.

A Story About Dying

The old cat was dying in the bushes.
Its breaths came slow, slow, 
                                          and still
it looked out over the sweetness of the back lawn,
the swaying of tall grass in the hot wind,
the way sunlight warmed the garbage can's 
sparkling lid.  
                   It closed its hot eyes, 
then struggled them open again.

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In unison, the dogs explained themselves
to the passing freight train.

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I don't know where it's gone, 
her husband said without looking up from his paper

while she stood on the back porch shaking the food bowl,
calling one of its names.   

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All this the dying old cat observed 
from beneath the bushes, its head
sideways in the grass, its fur wet where the dog
had caught it in its teeth.

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And now there's another train, 
and the dogs are explaining themselves again.  

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The food makes that sparkling sound in the metal bowl 
and the cat tries to lift its body from the grass

but it's feeling hollowed out, empty and strange
as though it's floating just above the tips of grass, 
as if its paws barely touch the blades' rich points.

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Sometimes, the dogs explain themselves to each other, 
or to passing cars, but mostly they address the trains.
We are powerful dogs, they say,
                                            but we are also good,
while the children on bikes, while the joggers, 
while the vast, mysterious trains 
                                              pass them by.

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The cat is still drifting above the grass tips,
and the sun is so bright the yard sparkles,

and wouldn't it be nice to rest there on the garbage can's hot lid, 
there by the potted plant, there on the car's hood?

But it wants the food glittering in the metal bowl,
the food that, also, drifts above the grass tips.

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And then the cat floats down the tracks, 
the train's long call a whistling in its head.

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And the dogs explain themselves to it,
we are good dogs, good dogs, 
                                        as the cat grows
impossibly far away, we are good dogs, 
as the cat is almost a memory, 
   
is barely a taste in the mouth 
of one of the chorus.