Turning Fifty

Dunn, Stephen

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney
  • Date of entry: Nov-20-2003


In the first of this poem's three stanzas, the narrator is looking out the window, presumably on or near his fiftieth birthday. He watches as a baby possum is snatched up by a fox while the possum's mother stands dumbly by. Seeing this, the narrator notes that it is one more thing he "couldn't do anything about." In fact, he sees the drama dispassionately. He says that instead of "feeling very much" he had the sense of "something dull / like a small door being shut, / a door to someone else's house."

In the next stanza, later that night, the narrator is flipping through the TV channels but stops when he is captivated by a nurse who "had a beautiful smile / while she spoke about triage and death." Again he observes death from afar as the nurse talks about her experiences in Viet Nam and how a dying soldier asked her to bend closer so he could smell her hair.

In the final stanza, the narrator's wife comes home, tired. The narrator, however, is somehow energized; he wants to talk about the possum, the fox, and the young man who "wanted one last chaste sense / of a woman." The wife wants a drink, some music, everything "normal." But the narrator, transformed by the nurse's smile, its "pretty hint of pain / the other expressions it concealed," is no longer just an observer.

He now has "something to say," something almost inexpressible about life and death, the death that he is moving closer to but was, at the poem's beginning, unable to face. The nurse's experience--her proximity to death, her ability not only to observe but to acknowledge and honor it--has somehow transformed him.


At first the narrator seems depressed by the seemingly impersonal nature of death and his lack of feeling when he observes the fox killing the baby possum. As the poem continues, he finds, in the nurse's face and smile, a different, more profound way of considering death. While her smile hides some emotions, as did his impartial witnessing of the fox and the possum, it also reveals an ephemeral something that he recognizes and, excited by this revelation, wants to share.

What this revelation is the poet leaves to the reader--perhaps the narrator, seeing the nurse's pain but also her almost poignant acceptance of death, is reassured that he, like the soldier, will not be forgotten. Perhaps he now sees that every life is significant.

This poem might be explored on many levels. To me, one of its accomplishments is the way it captures, in very straight-forward language, the bittersweet and unique relationship between nurses and death, something the narrator recognizes. Nurses are present at the death bed more often than any other caregivers. The mysteries and profound moments nurses share with the dying might be worthy of envy, in a way, especially by a man approaching his age who has been unable to look death in the face, unable to feel how death connects us to life's most sensual and urgent moments--until he experiences death through the nurse's eyes.

Primary Source

Landscapes at the End of the Century


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York