Poetry Classroom: Dona Nobis Pacem

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet and professor Todd Davis. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Todd and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

Dona Nobis Pacem

The moon grows from nothing to a porcelain sliver.
The cat bloodies her feet against the screen chasing moths.

Our children sleep in the rooms above while I drag a cloth
across the red petals the cat leaves on the kitchen floor.

I join you in the bed of this passing hour, knowing
porcelain will again sift through the screen, and, again,

moths will flood to it: light cut by their beating wings,
which come morning our children will find in pieces.

—Todd Davis

Photo by Josemanuelerre. Creative Commons, via Flickr. Poem by Todd Davis, author of In the Kingdom of the Ditch


Discussion Questions:

1. Do a little research if need be. What does “Dona Nobis Pacem” mean? What would you expect from a poem titled as such, even before you read it?

2. Consider the verbs in this poem. What feelings do they give you? How would the poem be different if you substituted verbs (for instance, “pinks” instead of “bloodies”, or “smooths” instead of “drags”, or “fluttering” instead of “beating”?)

3. Now take a look at the images. Do they have anything in common with each other? On the picture level? On the sound level? What do these images make you think of?


Great Teaching or Learning Resource on How to Read a Poem

How to Read a Poem by Tania Runyan 2


  1. says

    A gorgeous poem.

    Fine setup of contrasts, with the images and music (or, more prosaically, the sounds) of the poem disrupting whatever expectation one might have, knowing the meaning of the title. The poem beautifully draws on the consonance and dissonance that attend the canon, with its separate voices, an effect the poem mines.

  2. says

    There is so much of “the circle of life” here for the reader.

    The images suggest to me, a connectedness at every level. And there is a tethering through blood and light and living and dreaming and growing that feels very “in sync”.

    The rhythms and lines between earth and heaven, life and death, young and old, seem beautifully and clearly drawn.

    cut, drags, bloodied versus grow, light, join give me a sense of sharp contrast between broken and wounded and whole and alive.

    I want to go exploring over and over again…..within the lines of mystery.

    Thank you.

  3. says

    Well, I kept hearing the song of the title.

    There’s a circularity, with certain words repeated at different times. And even the word “cut” at the end of the poem goes with “bloodied” at the beginning.

    It feels very sad to me.

    • says

      I was fascinated by Elizabeth’s feeling peaceful, while I felt more in the direction you felt, Megan. In fact, it felt beyond sad. It felt tragic and unstoppable.

      And… the children wake and find… the pieces.

  4. says

    Thanks for the good words and thoughts about this poem.

    It’s a pleasure to see that so much of what I hoped the poem might do actually is accomplished in your reading of the poem.

  5. Todd Davis says

    Sorry for the delay in my response. I was at a basketball game for one of those children in the poem. The boys are now 16 and 19 years old: one plays college basketball and the other is a sophomore guard on the high school team.

    So where to begin?

    First, yes, poems make gestures toward mystery, towards what we can’t tell exactly. I certainly am influenced by the Deep Image Poets (Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Robert Bly, among others) and hope the images in the poem carry something that will resonate with readers, connecting us in ways that an essay can’t. Thus, I don’t want to “tell” you what the poem means.

    But I’ll try to say a bit about what the poem does for me, as its maker, while reminding all of us that I don’t control the poem once it enters the world. It’s meanings grow as it’s read, for which I’m thankful.

    On the most basic level, I wanted to capture a domestic moment that had moved me.

    It was a summer evening. The moon was full and as bright as I’d ever seen it. My boys were very young at the time and asleep in their beds. My wife Shelly, exhausted from all the mothering she’d done all day was asleep, too. The cat and I were alone downstairs and moths were flooding the screen–some drawn to the light within the house, while others, who had flown inside, tried to escape towards the light of the moon.

    The poem was my attempt to capture not only the physical elements that I describe but also the way those elements were transforming my spirit and emotions. I don’t wish to say more than that because the spiritual and emotional aspects of our lives are far too complex, and that’s were the image enters to “suggest,” rather than “tell” in some banal fashion that would not honor the actual experience.

    I had the poem in a draft for a few months. No title was working. Then one Sunday in church we sang “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

    It was an instantaneous clicking in the skull. I scribbled it down and went home with my title for the poem. I hope the title offers an allusion to that sacred song but is not controlled by that allusion. Yes, Lord, grant us peace. But, even more so, may this physical world grant us peace.

    Hope some of this helps answer your questions.

    Thanks for such close reading and interest!

    • says

      One of the bits of teaching that I read into this is how being present to what could be dismissed as prosaic (moths on a door screen) can be turned into a beautiful piece of writing that also has more profound meaning far beyond what the words convey. Everything can be available to and used by the writer who pays attentions, both to what’s within and what’s without.

      I think the decision to write the poem in couplets is notable. The couplets work individually and yet together create such a stunning moment captured in that wonderful title.

      • Todd Davis says

        Three cheers for the prosaic! Yes, yes, as Mary Oliver says, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

        I think many of the best poems are written from that devotion, which demands close attention and observation, often of the most mundane or overlooked matters.

        As for the decision to use couplets, as you might guess, that was a decision very late in the process of making the poem. Earlier version had the poem in one stanza, in tercets, in two stanzas, etc… When I tried it in couplets, the poem came together for me.

  6. says

    Todd, wow what insights into your creative process. So grateful for that. Truly. You tell and share ways that are instructive and yet some mystery remains.

    Ann Kroeker says in Tania Runyan’s book “How To Read A Poem” that a poem must stand alone.

    So this poem does, and it does very well on its own. It does not need an advocate. But if I were walking it to the jury and stating the case of why and how it speaks to me of hopefullness I would.

    See, see the transformative quality of the moon. From nothing to silver.

    See the parents lovingly protecting the children as they sleep. Predator cat was born to hunt and prowl. This is who cat was created to be. Occupational hazard. Bloodied paw. But lovingly the parents protect the children from the bloody scene. Cleaning up the scene.

    I join you in the bed….knowing procelain will again..and again. At peace is the narrator with the day’s work and the beginning and ending of his day. It is now time to rest. The light is cut by the wings of moth. Light does not bleed. The light is cut which is a beautiful image that should not carry pain or angst.

    The cat chased the moths but poet doesn’t say they were caught.

    The”pieces” the children find in the morning are “morning has broken,… praise for the singing. praise for the morning, fresh from The Word. Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning, born of the one light Eden saw play. Praise with elation, praise every morning; God’s recreation of the new day.”

    Peaceful. Restful. Calm.

    I rest my case (tongue in cheek). I do love this poem.

    Ironically, Cat Stevens :) recorded this. THe lyrics are parsed a bit in the above paragraph.

    • Todd Davis says

      Elizabeth, I’m glad the poem stands alone. I never want to try to control how my poems are read by others. (Flannery O’Connor tried, through many essays, to control the interpretation of her fiction. I adore O’Connor, but think her desire to suggest singular readings of her work was misguided.)

      Having said that, I’m so glad that you have put forward your case for “Dona Nobis Pacem” as a hopeful poem.

      Much of my work is an attempt to show beauty in what many perceive as ugliness, to demonstrate hope and love in its complex relationship to sorrow or grief.

  7. says

    Reading what all of you have written about this amazing poem certainly got me thinking about my own reading. There is a poem by Wallace Stevens (and there are poems by other poets likewise) that I refer to as I would a prayer.

    That Todd explained he wrote the poem and then months later found its title, seems all the more reason to think of it also as a prayer “standing on its own.” The poem by Stevens is “Reality Is An Activity of the Most August Imagination.” I see these words as I see Todd’s, as prayers, words to be remembered when they are needed.

    However, in a way, they are somewhat different. Dona Nobis Pacem begins with light “growing” from darkness. The couplet concludes with an impassioned, but unsuccessful effort by cats to catch moths through a screen (or so I interpreted).
    I see Stevens telling us to engage our imaginations to give life meaning, not the imagination of fabrication, but the imagination of the open mind of poetry. Todd’s poem seems to say to me to accept the futility of life, while asking for peace to do so.

    The light that moves through the darkness breaks itself, flowing through the screen of our observation and understanding, into pieces on the floor, for us to try and make whole.

    There were so many excellent word choices in Dona Nobis Pacem. One such choice was describing the blood droplets as “petals” (parts of flowers) left on the floor by the cat. So often I find my favorite poems are written in couplets and are shorter poems that get a lot of mileage out of a relatively simple observation using a more complex perception. In this sense, maybe Todd and Stevens aren’t that far apart in how they see.

    • Todd Davis says

      Such fine readers and such fine readings!

      Thanks for the care and time you took with this poem, Richard.

      Perhaps you know this quote from W.H. Auden:

      “Whenever a man so concentrates his attention––be it on a landscape or a poem
      or a geometrical problem or an idol or the True God––that he completely forgets
      his own ego and desires in listening to what the other has to say to him, he is

      I think in this respect that for many writers, myself included, this kind of close attention and observation in the making of a poem–in the actual experience of the world and in the scribbling representations of the world–a kind of prayer takes place.