Stage Directions

Enter Cinna, the Poet

He has the misfortune to have the wrong name
in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is not
Cinna, the conspirator, but Cinna, the poet.
It doesn’t matter. A mob will do what mobs do,
finding any justification for the violence it desires.
“Tear him for his bad verses,” someone shouts,
“Tear him for his bad verses,” another agrees,
and we laugh darkly, even us poets, especially
us poets. We are not Caesars, rulers, or soldiers,
but we’ll be torn down and torn up just the same.
The names and nouns don’t matter. The verbs,
the verbs, determine all. And don’t be fooled
by the adjective. There are no good verses.
At least none good enough to save you.

Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other

Their attention shifts quickly
from politics to poetry:
Tear him for his bad verses!
Tear him for his bad verses!
A rallying cry as good
as kill him for his treachery,
his lack of humility,
his refusal to be whatever
it is they think he should be.

A mob has reasons
that reason knows nothing of.
Gathered together, it shouts,
simply because the ones in the seats
on either side are doing so.
The lights go down, and we glory
in being part of something larger
and the way a stone fits the hand.

Enter the Duchess in a white sheet

Those working wardrobe know
there are two kinds of sheets
in Shakespeare, white and bloody.

The first often becomes the second
and then becomes the first again:
wedding to wounding to winding.

It’s a common progression,
perhaps the fundamental one;
still, each time he has to start,

as every writer does,
contemplating white sheets,
then staining them, one by one,
until by the end, crammed
with rhymes and bodies,
they sail ever graveward.


Joe Mills is a faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Mills has published four collections of poetry with Press 53. Mills’ fifth, This Miraculous Turning, was published in September 2014.

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