Understudy – Elizabeth Sylvia

Shall I go win my daughter to thy will? – Richard III
I think of Elizabeth, Edward’s daughter, that pretty box
for reconciling hopes. She never is onstage
except in the mouths of those who bid on her.
Here is a play with ghosts, two princes
locked in a tower.
		     Here is a play staged
in daylight, the stage boards inclining softly
like a woman would be said to move
towards an audience of shifting tastes.
And here is a girl who shares the name
of her mother
		who was a queen 
and wants this daughter to be queen,
though that life is a mouth of ashes
to speak her name with, this daughter
absent  as an unworn costume
stuffed in the rafters
			behind the stage.
An understudy earns her keep by learning
all the lines. Elizabeth can hang all day
closed in among the musty velvets
used, unused, waiting to be used again.
Three queens run				
		       repeat on the boards:
the one whose husband died, the one
whose husband died, the one
whose husband died, but not before
he murdered her so she could reappear
in plaguing dreams.
			 Even the dead
want their stories to be told, are not content
the action should unfold without their curses
or their approbation. Everywhere language:
from the heckling audience,
				 the echoes
of these wars and famines whistling
through their bones, from the gallery above,
a procession of the dead calling death
for death, but nowhere calling, still as bones
hidden in the tower walls, as a mulberry
carried towards division in the womb, Elizabeth.

Read: Reading and Writing about Shakespeare by Elizabeth Sylvia

Elizabeth Sylvia (she/her) is a writer of poems and other lists who lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she teaches high school English and coaches debate. Elizabeth’s work is upcoming or has recently appeared in Salamander, Pleiades, Soundings East, J Journal, RHINO, Main Street Rag and a bunch of other wonderful journals. She is currently working on a verse investigation of the writer Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard.

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