The designated survivor


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It is as if you had arrived in a brown basket on a porch near St. Paul, a piece of bonnet poking out the one side and a wintry mix coming down. You couldn’t help but look up, mouth an O, but all you could see were four sets of dark eyes staring back down, blinking. Or more like a great tumbledown from a brilliant sun to a duller one, the fall through space across a frigid crosshatching of having-all-but-given-up-on-yourself and for what: a guest room with a busted lock and a Princess phone?

Montana 1948: a novel

readingSome years ago, I taught a literature course in which, among other works, we read Montana 1948, a powerful novel by Larry Watson. The book sparked interesting class discussions over a period of several weeks, though none more intriguing — to me at least — than the one that took place after I found myself reminding students we were talking about a work of fiction, which meant the story, though written in the first person, was not true.

One student, a very quiet young man who always sat in the way back, seemed not to have understood that the book was entirely spun out of sugar and air until he heard my jolting reminder. When my words registered with him, he looked as though I had punched him low and hard. Because he had all along believed the story to be true, he said he felt betrayed — so much so that he told us he would never again read another novel. Other students said they also felt bamboozled, though no one else vowed to give up on fiction for good.

Even when I was a very young and inexperienced writer of fiction and poetry, I often got twisted around this idea of truth-telling and wondered what it actually meant for me to be an honest writer of made-up stories and poems. Over time, I have come to think that truth-telling is any writer’s true north and that sensitive readers will know an honest piece of writing, no matter the genre, by the way it makes them feel. Judging by the student responses in my class, I’d say Larry Watson’s compass needle was stuck on “N” all the while he was writing Montana 1948.


About the dramatic monologue

For many years I have been fascinated by the use of a technique in poetry known as the “dramatic monologue.” Though he certainly wasn’t the first to use this technique (or form), Victorian poet Robert Browning perfected it in such poems as “Porphyria’s Lover” (a favorite) and “My Last Duchess.” Later, T.S. Eliot used the form in his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (another favorite), and John Berryman used it in his “Dream Songs.” Poems that incorporate dramatic monologue — also known as persona poems — typically make use of one “character” through whom the poem is spoken or delivered. Because a poem using this technique is often in the first person, it is tempting to conclude that the poem’s narrator and the poet are one and the same. But don’t be fooled! Writing this type of poem allows the writer to adopt the “voice” of the character and to inhabit him or her from the inside out (as an actor might). And, because there is no overt commentary about or analysis of the character given within the poem itself, it is left to the reader to decide the poem’s meaning and power by paying close attention to what the often “unreliable narrator” says — or doesn’t say.



but the best encounter


I’ve ever had

the best one

was when

I was tracking a jaguar

in the jungle

by myself

which I usually don’t do

I saw these big male tracks of a jaguar

I’d never seen before and

I just took off thinking okay

I’ll track it a little while but

I shouldn’t be alone but

I ended up tracking it for hours and

 it was getting dark and

I didn’t have a flashlight and

I can’t be alone in the jungle without a flashlight so

I turn around and

there’s the jaguar

in back of me



(Excerpt from an 8.18.14 interview between NPR’s Diane Rehm and zoologist/wildlife ecologist Alan Rabinowitz )

It was like the end of the world.


in those fields

the grasses were very high

wheat fields sunflower fields and

you would come upon the bodies

in their strange shapes and

it felt so deeply sad that

no one was coming to help them that

they were alone


there was a little girl

who had a little

pink T-shirt on and

she was in this distant area near a pond

totally thrown clear

not near anything at all

they stay with you

the faces of the people and

how they lay in the grass and

they come into your mind and

it’s hard to get them out


(Excerpt from an 8.6.14 interview between NY Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise and NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross)

The sea

You’ll want to go and see the Mother’s Day animation on Google’s home page. There’s such a pure sweetness there that it would almost certainly turn you tender even if you aren’t inclined that way.

It touches down to a deep ache, though, much as a piece of chocolate candy causes a wince when it meets up with tooth decay. There lives within me a dark part where my mother lingers on, where love knows only yearning and memory wants to weep. I nearly drowned in her, my drowning mother, until the day I first held my infant daughter and swam up to the foamy surface of the water and crashed into the light.



This afternoon in the car I listened to a radio interview with knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey. Although I’m not interested in baseball, I made myself stay with it, as I might make myself eat spinach. I always think it is good for me to examine what it is I reject out of hand.

I was taken with him, though, and especially with his knuckleball descriptions. They were as much poetry as any poem.  When I returned home, I listened again to the interview and transcribed certain parts.


At least it was a loneliness of my choosing


A knuckleball is like trying to hit a butterfly in a typhoon.

It’s impossible to throw a knuckleball on the outside corner.

You just simply get it started in the right direction

at the right height and

the ball is going to do what

the ball is going to do.

It comes in like a buck-toothed termite trying to saw through that wood.

With most knuckleballers

the velocity is anywhere from

62 to 69 miles an hour but

my knuckleball is anywhere

from 69 to 81.

You have an angry knuckleball.

I start my knuckleball about two balls above

the catcher’s helmet.

If I throw a 100 in a game I want

85 to be knuckleballs

and the other 15 will be

sliders, fastballs, curveballs, change-ups.

What have you.

Your dad left your mom early.

And your mom had a drinking problem

and used to take you to a bar called Joe’s Village Inn

when you were eight years old

you were abused by a babysitter and then more brutally

by a 17-year-old boy.

You went to live with your dad, I guess.

In your teenage years. Right?

Because your mom’s drinking was becoming more apparent to you,

and we should say that she’s been in recovery now

for many years,

and that’s great.

Yeah, she’s great.

But that was a rough time for you.

When you began sleeping in

vacant houses.

What made you do that?

How did you figure out

where to go?

It was lonely at home.

I would go into the library and look at the classified ads.

I would tell my Dad I was spending the night out.

I would find a vacant home,

and there was always a key

under a mat or under a flower pot

or something like that,

and I would just let myself in.

We always stayed at this hotel. It overlooked the Missouri River.

For years I would wonder,

Can anybody swim across that?

I thought,

I’m gonna do it.

I’ve spent a lifetime not taking any risks.

My teammates got out there.

They watched me get down into the shallows of

the Missouri before

I took off and tried to traverse it.

It’s a big, fast-moving river. What happened?

Well, it’s big, it’s dirty, it’s fast moving.

Come to find out it has a significant undertow

and all of a sudden the river

swept me very far down, and my teammates

who were once standing right in front of me

at six feet tall

just looked like little ants

on the horizon.

I’m thinking I have a zero shot at getting to the other side.

And I know at that point it’s going to be a fight just to stay alive.

Every stroke was a determined stroke,

and I had given myself over to the fact that

this was it.

You know, I wasn’t gonna make it.

And I closed my eyes and started to sink.

I remember the sensation of weeping

under water,

and I was praying to God

to protect my family.

I had come to grips

with dying

and I started sinking

and right as I was about to open my mouth and

take in all of this water just to end it


my feet hit the bottom of the river and I surged up

and I survived.


The end of innocence

I would likely die of heart failure if today I found chameleons in my bed, but there was a time when I couldn’t get enough of them. Granted they are lizardy, but when I was a child I was desperate to get to the bottom of their sorcery.

From time to time I would visit the “Pets and Fish” section of the local 5 & 10 and there would watch these Merlins work their magic. How was it that they could switch from brown to green on a whim or that they could be so wily underneath all that stillness?

It is true that I was curious about the physiology at play, but it is probably more true that I wanted to learn something about the nature of artifice. One thing I know for sure, though: Chameleons taught me that people are never as they seem.


Who wrote this?

Sometimes when I go back to read what I have written, especially after years have passed, I have the odd sense that someone else did the writing. Whose voice is that, I have wondered. Where did that opinion come from, I have wanted to know.  How did that particular image come to be born?

I tell myself I could not have been the author of my work because I am not capable of it. The person who shops for groceries, puts gas in her car, changes the bed linen, throws on pants, or teaches a class is not the one who can think up strings of words, and certainly not elegant ones. She is not even someone who enjoys writing, or not much.

The creative impulse seems to arise from something both within and above me. It can arrive without my sweet talk, but more often it strobes only when I am still and can allow myself to swim down into a dark secret. Once I surface, the donkeywork of my daily life rushes in and I leave myself.

When I was a small child I was not separate from my wanting. I could touch God and burn up.


The end of oxygen

When I was an adolescent, I would go to Jones Beach in the summers and would often take a bus home at the end of a scorching day. Once, I was unlucky enough to be in the middle of a stampede of teenagers pressing to get through the doors before the bus filled and the driver had to turn away the spill. They lifted me off the ground, pinned my arms flat against my sides, and took away my air. I thought I might die. This is a little like how it is for me every time I log onto Facebook. I am sure Facebook is good for other people, but to me it feels like the end of oxygen. Everywhere there seems a clamoring to get on before the doors close and all of the seats in the front are taken.