Be it fop or magistrate, Wall-Streeter or window
cleaner, stalker or star flower: inhabit it with gusto—
though knowing it’s a role,
an art, may make you cynical or quizzical.
If you’re unsure about your part?
Become a stand-in; as understudy,
you yet may pace the boards. If uncertainty is laced
into the act—as though as street cat you had
to figure whether to leap that ledge
or stay—make uncertainty your role: the half-slipped
mask, hesitant dancer, jittery lover. Rehearse
reluctance with vehemence. The wavering scene
Published in The Georgia Review Summer 2013 issue.
Sharon Dolin, Ph.D. is a Brooklyn, New York-born acclaimed poet and Fulbright scholar. She is the author of five books of poetry and five additional books. She has received degrees from Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley. She has also taught at Hofstra University and New York University.
The title alone holds a lesson: “Always Act Well the Part That Is Given You.” We are each designated a certain role within society and, considering the importance of these roles, we are charged with the responsibility of conforming to its confines. We must enthusiastically embody our role.
If we don’t understand our role or don’t want to enthusiastically portray it, then we are still responsible for holding a place within the strategically constructed society. We are, then, a “stand-in,” a background actor highlighting the attributes of others. Regardless, within the act of life, we must hold a role at any given time. Some people switch positions but they are never without categorization. While this is the explicit message that Dolin portrays, she finds a way to undercut it with sarcasm. She finds humor in humanity’s willing acceptance of role-play and conformity.
This poem considers society and human submission to it. It provokes personal reflection and inspires individuality both explicitly and implicitly.
Short Author’s Note about “Always Act Well the Part That Is Given You” for Shenandoah:
“This poem is towards the end of a 24-poem series called A Manual for Living. By chance, I picked up Sharon Lebell’s contemporary translation/reworking of the Enchiridion by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, a book that Lebell calls A Manual for Living. I began to write down her chapter headings as a way to launch into my poems. The poems are my attempt to write a somewhat tongue-in-cheek self-help book, which I intended as advice for myself as well as for others.” — SD