Watching My Children at Play in a Graveyard

Laughing, the children slip between the stones
Laid out in rows like cracked and crooked teeth,
And tread with little care upon the bones
Of those who dream of better worlds beneath
Grief’s gifts of plastic flowers, faded pale.
But youth is too ensconced in self for fear,
Too drunk on being now to dread its end,
So that last loneliness the runes portend
Means nothing, for the dead were never here
And history is but a fairytale.

But their big brother knows what numbers mean
And in time’s cool precision he’ll soon see
The workings of some monstrous, cruel machine,
So his anxiety at what will be
Shall grow proportionate to his regret
For that which was; the present ever mourning
It’s inability to rest at peace
In plays of was and will-be without cease
Until, at last, Eternity comes yawning
And, in becoming memory, we forget.

Upon a stone he reads life’s curt confession
Then flees to search for solace in distraction,
And thus his years shall fall in fleet succession;
Forever wanting some small satisfaction
When nothing of this world has aught to give,
For all its sweetnesses are slaves to strife.
But should ten thousand dawnings die unmourned,
He might just win a dozen days adorned
With clearer light, and he’ll remember life
For one bright moment, watching others live.



Shaun C. Duncan is a picture framer and fine art printer who lives in Adelaide, South Australia.

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18 Responses

  1. C.B. Anderson

    We all dance among the tombstones, and I am reminded of a joke I heard as a boy while we were driving past a graveyard: People are dying to get in there.

    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Ha! I told that same joke, which I first heard from my now deceased father, to my children just last week as we were driving past the local cemetary.

  2. Mark Stellinga

    Another wonderful piece, Shaun, and in an ‘I’ve-written-very-good-poetry-for-a-very-long-time’ rhyme-scheme to boot! As easy-to-visualize as it gets. VERY impressive. Thanks for a great read –

    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Mark. I struggle with brevity, so I find I need to employ more complex rhyme schemes to allow my sentences to flow. This particular form of stanza seems to have become my go-to, and I probably need to branch out a bit!

      • Mark Stellinga

        Nothing wrong with a well-constructed narrative running as long as 10 to 20 pages if its message is either currently meaningful, good for a laugh or cry, or both. I’ve got a bunch that would put some to sleep were they not legitimate page-turners. IMO – if they’re ‘really good’ – length is not all that critical. ‘Shorts’ are definitely more often read, but I’m a long-time story-teller, too, so my pieces never end before the full story’s conveyed. Love your work –

  3. Roy Eugene Peterson

    The contrast of the innocence of the younger children and the solemn understanding of the older brother is well-told and meaningful.

  4. Paul A. Freeman

    I really enjoyed this, Shaun. The stanzas are well constructed, with innocence being the main theme of the first, jadedness that of the second, and a mix of both in the third, but ending on a positive note (which is what I personally wanted from this stanza-turner).

    Some brilliant lines, too. I particularly liked, ‘Too drunk on being now’, ‘for the dead were never here / And history is but a fairytale’, ‘Until…Eternity comes yawning’ and ‘he’ll remember life / For one bright moment, watching others live’.

    Job well done. Thanks for the read.

    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you for the kind remarks, Paul. You’ve described the structure I used for the poem quite nicely and I’m glad you liked the ending. To me it seems the most obvious escape from the kind of morbid introspection that can consume us when we contemplate our own mortality is to spend time with children. That’s hardly a profound or original point on my part, but one which I think bears repeating.

  5. Margaret Coats

    Shaun, there are four levels of “viewer” here: the small children, the big brother, the parent poet, and the deceased–all of whom get some opportunity for expression. That’s quite something for you as purported speaker to achieve! It challenges the reader’s attention as well, with a kind of “inability to read at peace.” I’ve read several times, and must simply say the poem does not correspond to my own liking of cemetery walks, which was always shared by my siblings so much that we sometimes sought out a cemetery even when there was plenty going on in the world of the living. With so many points of view, you offer line after line of intriguing reflection on life and death and the interactions thereof. An excellent use of the poetically suggestive setting and characters.

    • Shaun C. Duncan

      It seemed like a very simple poem when I started writing it, but it soon proved to be more difficult than I imagined to express what I wanted. I’m glad the different points of view came across, and I understand your remark that it doesn’t correspond to your own love of cemetary walks because it’s not necessarily mine either. The poem was inspired by a real excursion, but the character of the parent/observer is semi-fictional. We had a lovely day out that day but it was at the end of a particularly busy working week for me when I’d been more focused on the mundanities and anxieties of day-to-day existence – maintaining the life we have – than on taking joy in the very things I was working for.

      I also made a very conscious decision to avoid any discussion of religion and focus purely on the material realities of life and death, though if I ever get around the revising the piece I might work in a reference to the fact all this took place on a Sunday.

      Thank you once again, Margaret, for taking the time to read it so carefully and comment so generously. It means a lot to me.

    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you for taking the time to read it and comment, Allegra – I really appreciate it.

  6. Gigi Ryan

    Dear Shaun,

    I felt as if I were watching you watching your children as I read your poem.

    As a mother, I felt the gladness for the carefreeness of the younger children, as well as the pain for the sensitive older brother, and of course, your suffering, which the children are not mindful of.
    I really liked the line comparing the stones to cracked and crooked teeth, the kind of observation that happens when one spends time meditating on a scene.
    Thank you for sharing this moving poem.

    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Gigi. I rarely write anything autobiographical and this piece is still semi-fictional – my eldest son had a great time that day but he is of the disposition and has reached the age where we have had conversions about the reality of death, which is a difficult but important part of growing up. I had fun as well, and my own suffering in that moment was born of the realisation that such joy can easily pass by unnoticed if we aren’t paying attention. Too often we’re not.

  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Shaun, this is one of those poems that had me so engrossed in the magic and meaning of the words (philosophical words that paint pictures and conjure memories) that the fine details of the craftmanship slipped into the background to await a later study. For the moment I am reveling in the initial affect your poem has on me. I have had many a conversation on the ages and stages of life and how our thoughts on the present, future, and past change as years move on. You have captured all I have thought about and think about perfectly in this superlative poem… a poem I simply have to return to. Shaun, thank you!

    • Shaun C. Duncan

      I’m glad the craftsmanship faded into the background because it actually caused me a bit of grief with this one – I don’t know why but there were just a few lines, particularly in the final stanza, which took a while to hammer into shape. Given your profession, I’m also very gratified to hear that the sentiments ring true. One perspective which is not explicity mentioned, but which none-the-less informs the poem, is that of the grandparent for it seems to me that grandparents are often more attentive to those small moments of joy than parents are precisely because they know how quickly it can slip away.

      Thank you once again, Susan, for taking the time to read my work and offer such perceptive comments.

  8. Joshua C. Frank

    I like this! It calls to mind Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven,” in which the girl mentions that she and her brother played around their sister’s grave.

    It seems that many of us poets write about death in general through writing about graveyards.


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