Poetry 52: Shadow by Lenni Sykes

Death is stalking you
Following you like a shadow
It clings
And claws
And has you in its grip
But you are resisting
You will not succumb
Not yet
Not today
But soon
Next week?
Next month?
Next year even?
I do not know when it will win
I only know you won’t give in
Not readily
Not easily
You will fight and stay
Until you have no say

(c) L Sykes 20 Nov 2014

Image courtesy of webring.org

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

7 thoughts on “Poetry 52: Shadow by Lenni Sykes

  1. This emerged after days watching my mother in bed asleep. Her condition is deteriorating but despite numerous times when I thought she would be gone, she is still here. The day after I wrote these words, she had bounced back once again, so the shadow has moved away for now but it is still close by…

  2. Like the panther image, the poem is powerful, moves with stealth and suppressed power; and it is very black.

    The rhythm of the lines seems modeled on the panther’s predatory gait, with short quick passages alternating with longer ones as she moves forward menacingly but unseen towards her prey, to take it unawares.

    I found disconcerting the change of voice from third person (“Death is stalking…”) to the first person (“I do not know when it will win…”) disconcerting, and threatening. This may have been your intention, Lenni. It is certainly dramatic.

    I’m not in sympathy with the overall pessimism of the poem though. It seems to characterise death as a brutal event, involving a predator and its prey, an inevitable fight with only one outcome. I suggest this may be unnecessarily bleak and unduly pessimistic.

    I’m not basing my critique on any absolutist belief about death, but on my experience as a nurse. I have cared for and supported many hundreds and perhaps over a thousand people in their progress towards death, some across months and even years, in hospitals, hospice, nursing homes and in their own homes.

    Most of these have been aware of death’s approach, and seem to turn towards it; not all talk about this explicitly. Although there have been a few exceptions, it’s my experience that people face death without persistent fear, and usually succumb – and even cooperate with death – without a struggle. I’ve noticed a strange parallelism in the processes of gestation and birth, and those of dying and death. Both involve a kind of “quickening”, and call for cooperation from the unborn to life, as from the living to death.

    This is not to say that anxiety and sadness don’t arise, but they do progressively subside. So my second hand experience of death is certainly not that death is unfeeling, or unkind, but on the contrary a quiet visitor, and a gentle one. Most nurses, I think, would share this perspective.

    Thanks for the poem, which will I think evoke many opinions on this topic, and does that very effectively.

    1. Thank you, Peter, for your thoughts on the poem. I am pleased to hear that the presentation of the words and the imagery worked for you in the way I intended, reflecting “death” stalking its prey. The black panther seemed to fit perfectly.
      I guess the only differences I might add is that for me the poem is not all black, it speaks to me as much about the strength of the will to live as much as it does about death. It is expressing some relief that death is not coming today, soon maybe, and inevitably it will come but for now it is celebrating life remaining as well as the certainty that it will end.
      And even the inevitability of the final outcome is not something I necessarily see as pessimistic, more naturalistic. This is where the image of the panther adds that natural dimension, whereby as a top predator and carnivore it is merely acting out its nature in pursuing and killing its prey – there is nothing malevolent or “dark” about it.

      I found your thoughts on death and experiences of the dying very interesting and I have also noted a correlation with the birthing process.
      I completely agree about death not having to be a brutal event and the pessimism in the poem does not reflect my broader, more holistic view of death. It is just following one train of thought about it. For me, facing such thoughts head on is a big part of the process of moving beyond them to a more balanced and, perhaps, accepting view. It is a process of integration, once the darkest “stuff” has been addressed, inevitably what follows is a more positive outlook. Perhaps this is what you have witnessed as people approaching death move through their fears to a more peaceful, even welcoming stance towards their approaching death.
      I have recently become involved in a local Death Cafe and I find this increasingly popular culture a really positive step in exploring and integrating our experiences of death and dying.
      If my poem helps broach the subject, I will be delighted. I am sure your wise words and the benefit of your experience will be reassuring to many – and just the sort of information that would be welcomed at Death Cafés everywhere. Thank you.
      For anyone interested, more info on Death Cafés here: http://deathcafe.com/

      1. Thanks Lenni for your very generous and helpful comment. Your footnote on your mother’s decline adds poignancy to the poem and my understanding of it.

        I especially appreciated what you wrote about integration, how this can come about by attending to both poles of experience, not by clinging to a preferred pole, or trying to add layers of meaning to the firmly attached ones through repetition. I see that tendency in myself, so I needed to have you remind me.

        I shall also follow up the Death Cafe suggestion. I remember your talking about it at the August retreat and I was less than receptive to it at that time.

        I’ve been thinking about the first dead person I saw. I was a couple of weeks into my first ward assignment as a student nurse at Hackney Hospital. During my morning tea-break a patient had died, and he had been ‘saved’ for me to discover on my return. He was screened off from the rest of the 26 other beds in the Nightingale ward, and was still propped up in bed as he had died. I was not told he had died, but instructed to attend to him, alone. Those were less sensitive times (it was 1956).

        I knew at once that he was dead, but I checked his pulse and absence of respiratory movements, then reported immediately to the senior nurse with my findings: not that he was dead (which was not allowed) but that I thought he had collapsed, and might be dead. This grim announcement was met with the requisite humorous response by those who had gathered to witness this initiation, then I was told to perform Last Offices, so I proceeded to prepare the equipment for this procedure, including a paper shroud and a mortuary tag for the right great toe of the deceased. I can see him still, his dishevelled pyjama top, his hair standing up, eyes and mouth open, the wax-yellow pallor of his face; life extinguished.

        I’m sure this initiation has affected – and still affects – me, feeding into the ocean of experience that laps around me still. It was a dark event, but I think it has helped me to see beyond it, and around it, as you have done with your poem.

      2. Thanks, Peter. It seems you had something of a breakthrough and if my poem and this comment thread has helped with that I am glad. We all have our preferred poles we like to cling to, I think 🙂
        Your “initiation” sounds awful and no doubt would have had a lasting impact.
        I hope things are less brutal nowadays.

        It has been interesting for me to experience the variety of responses to my poem. One person described it as “beautiful”, another as “lovely”, whilst one found it “dark” but really likes it. Others who have seen it have not commented so I don’t know whether that is because they don’t like it and are reluctant to say so, or perhaps are simply reluctant to engage with its subject matter. And these reactions cover a wide span in age range, from mid twenties to mid eighties.

  3. Thank you for sharing you poem.

    As I read I guess your motivation to write was emintating from your thoughts around your mother. The panther image is so apt for its ‘grim reaper’ effect. Great poem that captures much feeling around the subject.

    1. Thanks, Vedanta Sadhana, for your feedback. Good to see you on here and I am pleased the poem and the panther image worked for you in capturing something of my (and our) experiences of the “shadow”.

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