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Unread 02-16-2021, 12:00 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 4,635
Default David Is Dying

David Is Dying

He never reckoned there would be a dusty sun
lounging across the bed, or that the lives broken
beneath burdens never carried would be there.
Trees with congenial limbs crack across the sheen
and make him merry the way wine had made
him merry when the blood still flowed unheeded,

until words make shadows, malicious shadows,
across his wall. He lies awake, dreaming
and scheming designs the words cannot change.
Twists and turns, reversals . . . nothing is still.
Clear shadows find the wall and stain it . . . .

What happens in the blue field? There is distance,
an undulation of white, the starkness of gone.
Will he have a moon, a strangulation of crickets,
or trees to spring before him, only to burn
in a fire made from an avalanche of flesh?

Last edited by John Riley; 02-22-2021 at 09:45 AM.
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Unread 02-17-2021, 11:20 AM
Andrew Frisardi Andrew Frisardi is offline
Join Date: Nov 2003
Location: Lazio, Italy
Posts: 5,320

This is quite devastating and moving, John. The movement from the more literal play of light and shadow in the first stanza, to the psychological or mental shadows associated with words—perhaps bad news—and thoughts is very effective. I read it as a movement from outer to inner, as the ill man’s health further deteriorates and the world grows more distant. I found the line “Clear shadows find the wall and stain it” to be especially powerful and resonant, for how the light and dark ("Clear shadows") combine in a stain on a solid object like an augury of death.

The last stanza evokes an unspecified “beyond,” before there is one last return to the real presence of the things of this world, which his body (flesh), however, may not be able to endure or hold up to.

I very much like the poem as it is, and so far, after a couple of reads, I think it is very close to finished, if not already there. One word I wondered about is “avalanche” for the flesh’s inexorable or overwhelming dominance. I only wondered a while, though, and now think it is just right for a passionate outcry at mortality.

Beautiful poem, John. My sincere best wishes to you if this is about an experience you are going through at present.

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Unread 02-18-2021, 09:17 AM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 4,635

Andrew, thank you for looking in and commenting. I must say your closing line was touching and said something I wanted to hear about the poem. I've been reading the Old Testament a bit recently and this came from that, I assume. The notion of a great man dying and watching all of everything concentrate into a dot is an experience I can imagine David experiencing it. The light on the wall telling a final story. That was my plan and I am happy you were able to connect with it. Thanks for reading and commenting.
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Unread 02-19-2021, 02:31 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 3,973

Hi John,

I found a lot to like here John in this description of a man dying. I really like his not knowing: the "he never reckoned" of the opening, and then the questions of the last stanza: "what happens in the blue field?" and "Will he have a moon ...". I take the blue field to be the space of his dying, and he's asking what death will be like. And I really like that it's depicted as a blue field and populated with trees and crickets and distance.

I hadn't clocked that this was King David. If you want the reader to know it's King David, another clue might be necessary. I think your only clue other than the name "David" (which is shared by many) is "dusty" to suggest desert. But that's a very small clue, I think. And dust already associates with time, age, etc.

I liked the sound of "the lives broken / beneath burdens never carried would be there", but don't know if I managed to work it out. One possibility is that these are other people's lives, in which case which I wonder what burdens and how this relates to David -- was he responsible for these other people and/or their burdens? If so, I guess it would make sense if they were there to haunt him on his deathbed. On the other hand, how do you inflict other people with burdens they don't carry. And how are they even burdens if they're not lifted? Alternatively, perhaps these are David's lives that are broken -- the plural seems like it might still work for one person I think: the lives he didn't live, say, by virtue of making other choices. So perhaps these lives he didn't live by virtue of avoiding carrying burdens he should have carried?

S1L3, "sheen" had me puzzled. I couldn't work out what this was the sheen of or sheen on.

I'm not entirely sure about the "scheming"/"dreaming" rhyme.


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Unread 02-21-2021, 06:17 AM
David Callin David Callin is offline
Join Date: Jun 2014
Location: Ellan Vannin
Posts: 2,228

You will understand if I have been chary of this one, John. There is a power to names, of course, and a title like this can seem troubling to any of us other Davids.

However, I have conquered my inhibitions, and I found much to like here. Like Matt, though, I wouldn't have picked up anything about King David without your pointing it out, but knowing that it is him I can read some details back into the poem - which I like a lot, with only a few minor quibbles.

I am wondering, for instance, about the congeniality of the limbs of trees. (Do they remind him of his women?) And about the strangulation of crickets. (Norman MacCaig has a poem in which he refers to lying at night "in the absolute darkness / of a box bed, listening to / crickets being friendly." That sounds much more like them, I think, but I'm happy to be corrected.)

And, to be honest, about the avalanche of flesh.

Other than those two points, I think the last stanza, in particular, is wonderful.

I had a quick look at my AV after reading the poem, and was pleased to be reminded of Thomas Hardy's description of King David: "Shrewd bandit, skilled as banjo-player" ... I like that.



Last edited by David Callin; 02-21-2021 at 06:43 AM.
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Unread 02-21-2021, 07:14 AM
Jim Moonan Jim Moonan is offline
Join Date: Aug 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Posts: 2,892

Now that David has chimed in to voice his initial chariness (I love that word, David), I, too, felt the same, as my brother David's life loomed large over this the first few times I read it. I really had no choice, given names can often trigger such strong associations.

My brother David was the opposite of a king; though he died seeing the same dot, I'm sure. Quite literally, he was a pauper. After years of alcoholism and the self-destruction that it unleashes, he hit the bottom and surrendered himself to the state, where he lived out the rest of his life as a ward of it. Happily, we reconnected and rekindled our brotherliness.. A few years later he died of lung cancer, but I visited him regularly. It was remarkable how much of his child-self he was able to retain through all those years of storminess. Though he died too young, he had achieved a large measure of redemption having gotten control of his life and reconnecting with me and having the privilege of spending time together. It is nearly impossible to escape the association of this poem and of him and his name. So I have difficulty with this poem for that reason, though I've read it enough to be able to create some distance.

It's an excellent conceit. We do all die like David.

Although I love the word/image of "avalanche of flesh" it feels a bit hyperbolic. I think. I'll think some more...

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Unread 02-21-2021, 07:21 AM
R. Nemo Hill's Avatar
R. Nemo Hill R. Nemo Hill is offline
Join Date: Jan 2006
Location: Halcott, New York
Posts: 9,352

I think the identification of David as King David is deliberately incidental, slyly so. Death being the great leveler, Kind David becomes any man named David.

The whole poem so devastates me, that I find am reluctant to pick at any of its details. Rather I strike deeper into myself to meet them where they drift and land with such gentle authority. To quibble is a life-habit, but this poem is leaving life-habits behind, stripping them away, slipping and seeping into new vestments.

....................He lies awake, dreaming
and scheming designs the words cannot change.

Taking my cue from this, I can only watch the words, note where they fall, how they echo, and accept them. It is a relief, really, this passivity the poem conjures in me. And, ultimately, it aligns with the flesh as well, for that flesh also grows passive, falling from the bones of the poem, collectively, in an avalanche, the avalanche of all who have died before me—because, yes, I have died while reading the poem, John.

This is one of the finest things I have ever read on the Sphere. It seems to have been written in a trance, and it induces trance in me as I read it, again and again and again.


Last edited by R. Nemo Hill; 02-21-2021 at 07:26 AM.
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Unread 02-21-2021, 09:18 AM
Andrew Frisardi Andrew Frisardi is offline
Join Date: Nov 2003
Location: Lazio, Italy
Posts: 5,320

For me, that King David is behind the David of the title is incidental. The poem powerfully depicts an experience of dying which I recognize from being with loved ones who have died. I'm more than content just taking the poem on that level. Because the title sounds intimate, "David Is Dying," I assumed it is about someone known personally. But it doesn't have to be that either. It can be about the dying of both a great historical figure and an average person named David, as well as neither, since it is universalized by the deeply intuitive and well-observed details, the elemental imagery, and the masterful pulse of the language.
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Unread 02-21-2021, 09:25 AM
W T Clark W T Clark is offline
Join Date: May 2020
Location: England
Posts: 323

I have to second Nemo's argument. To leave the "king" out of "King David" makes both a poetically and culturally poignant point. Trust in the reader.

Hope this helps.
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Unread 02-21-2021, 01:20 PM
Matthew T. Barber Matthew T. Barber is offline
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Join Date: Oct 2005
Location: Grove City, PA
Posts: 77

It's a striking poem. I will say that upon reading the title I thought of a generic 'David' (possibly the N's relative, friend, or lover), then very soon in S1 I could see King David was at least alluded to (the 'dusty sun' evoking Israel, even, right away -- living, as I do, in the lush groves of Western Pennsylvania) -- the wine, the blood (David's blood, David's army's blood, and David's army's victims' blood), and then the shadows (writing) on the walls in S2 clinched it. But I understood that it nevertheless looks to the universal, not just the particular.

I stumbled a bit on S2 because it switches to the present tense, even in the middle of the sentence that had begun in S1. I was tripped up on "make," when I expected made. That might have been deliberate (he is dying - this isn't retrospective), but I don't think the poem would suffer if the past tense were used, "made," and then switched to present with "lies."

"Twist and turns, reversals" -- should it be "twists," plural?
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