“The Exact Moment of His Death” is another poem from the narratives of The Father; in it, Olds examines the strange mystery of the dividing line between living and not-living. At what point, she seems to ask, does the dying man change from being father into being mere inert flesh?
The poem opens with a series of painful details about the physical state of the dying man; he has been so changed by his illness that no one would recognize him. Nevertheless, it is still the man himself, the man with whom the family has come “so far,” the speaker says, suggesting both the journey of the illness and even more the whole difficult journey of the man’s life with them. When he has exhaled his last breath, “light as a milkweed seed,” and the nurse has listened to his heart to confirm his death, for a moment he remains the speaker’s father. Then, in an instant, he seems to change, “as if the purely physical were claiming him,” and in that instant, he ceases to be the father and becomes part of the “unliving . . . matter of this world.”