Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

‘You must live through hell’: On Survivor’s Notebook by Dan O’Brien

Nicola Healey

Survivor’s Notebook (Acre, 2023) interrogates the aftermath of Dan O’Brien’s recovery from cancer. A memoiristic sequence of prose poems, it forms a companion to Our Cancers (Acre, 2021; reviewed by Wild Court here), which recorded how O’Brien and his wife, Jessica St. Clair, both developed cancer in close succession – possibly due to the ‘carcinogenic dust’ which ‘suffused’ their apartment during the 9/11 attacks fourteen years previously. The poem ‘Fish Market’ here vividly recreates how ‘The stench / in the air we took into our lungs was ash, glass, cinders, flesh, bone – / what would one day give us cancer.’ He explores how a person chastened by acute illness experiences life and their own mind when ‘the emergency’s elsewhere’ now (‘The Voices of Doctors’), yet is still hovering like dust within one’s shell-shocked, expanded consciousness.

Formally, it is very different to Our Cancers, in which spare tercets, without punctuation, were stacked on top of each other like balanced vertebrae, heightening a sense of fragmentation and fragility, as if the very poems themselves could topple at any moment. They were nevertheless calming poems to read: they have an ancient, timeless air, like pieced-together fragments of Sappho. In Survivor’s Notebook, through the more flowing, capacious prose poem, there is a less precipitous feel, more an expansive mood of intensive searching, and, often, an onward rush of packed mental busyness and racing novelistic flights. While Our Cancers was more ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’, these poems show more ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling’. There are 120 poems, which isn’t as long as it sounds: a few lyric fragments are as short as one or two aphoristic lines, or just half a line; others are more discursive monologues. The book is interspersed with black-and-white photographs, mostly by the poet, which brings a welcoming intimacy, and helps to break up the dense text.

While various poems are set in the present, many recall – often in graphic detail – the specifics of O’Brien’s illness and treatment, and reach further back into troubled family history. The prose poem is a good choice for his roaming quest, as it allows him to channel free-flowing, often turbulent, thoughts and feelings. Rather than a sense of completeness to each piece, the reading sensation is more in medias res throughout (indeed, he states in ‘Wailing Wall’: ‘I don’t know where we are. We are in medias res.’). Each lucid fragment is a part of the whole shattered mosaic of restless living. They are like tessellations of the mind – impressions, reflections and memories, appearing and reappearing, changing across time, never quite settling into a ‘final’ image. This gives them an elusive quality, as though the poet is trying to piece together and fix what cannot be fixed – learning, in midlife, how does the recent past slot into and alter the new present, the more distant past, and the uncertain future. I liked the subjective authenticity of this unsettled and ambitious project.

Many passages have an almost feverish tone or a manic energy, even a hallucinatory quality, as though O’Brien is remembering dreams or nightmares rather than the horrors of real life (I’m quite amazed at his power of recall). Some of the longer, free-associating poems can feel sprawling rather than focused – I preferred the more pensive shorter poems – though this is also a legitimate, conflicted mental state that O’Brien is seeking to represent, where intrusive thoughts, memories and circumstantial speech circle in a truth-seeking loop. He frequently uses what Don Paterson describes as the quiet (yet loud) ‘non-ending’ – where, Paterson points out in The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre (Faber, 2018), a poem appears not so much to ‘end’ as just stop; this works particularly well against these poems’ piled-up texture. The fall-off from high force to nothing can make a poem sort of harden into the blank space, like a fixed stare, taking on the aura of the void’s indifference. It somehow captures the ‘nothing’ that surrounds every ‘something’, and its audacity can be unnerving for the reader.

Against these high-octane poems, O’Brien’s clean, spare titles – ‘Toothbrush’, ‘The Nurse’, ‘Fire Escape’, ‘Ativan’ – are very effective and inviting: he has the confidence to let the poem speak for itself. Wilfully abstract titles can be distracting; the bald minimalism of these is strangely calming and grounding, yet they also have a stranded, almost forlorn air. Their ‘flat affect’ reflects a truth of illness and trauma, where emotions can become blunted or numbed.

I especially enjoyed and will remember ‘Sunday’, which relishes an ordinary day of enhanced clarity. O’Brien shows how the alive present moment can take on a euphoric quality after having been brought back from the brink. He notices intense sensory detail: ‘women with breathless cheekbones wavering in line for coffee’ – that line itself has a breathless feel, reflecting the immediacy of the moment. Meanwhile, ‘Seagulls alight as if to say, Look where you are / standing. For this you have survived. Our daughter laughs as she pummels / us both. O may it be always and everywhere now.’ The line recalls the end of Eliot’s Four Quartets: ‘Quick now, here, now, always – / A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)’. The sad burden of real life and time, as O’Brien’s book goes on to explore, is that one cannot maintain hold of that insightful ‘now’, however much it is appreciated. It can only be kept and half-glimpsed in one’s memory (and by the poem).

Indeed, lines which feature his young daughter are among the most tender, infused with gentle wonder, awe and gratitude (tinged with stilled fear). In ‘Perseverance’, he watches their ‘ringleted daughter / bouncing downhill to the Sheen in a burnishing dusk. This is our reward / for surviving cancer, or a last-ditch effort to bank some memories of us / for her before it’s too late.’ In ‘A Dryad’, the unknowing, exploring child shows more innate volition, direction and intrepidness than her parents: ‘Correcting us our daughter shows the way and doesn’t shrink but steps / through columns of gargantuan rhododendrons’. In a later arresting poem, ‘Gethsemane’, his suppressed fear becomes starker. It has a slight ring of Wendell Berry’s ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ at the start, but the contained anguish – more echoed in than alleviated by nature – is reminiscent of Munch’s Scream: ‘When I fear what may come I cry without sound. Mouth an O. O for / olives. And the agony of the olive tree like the body gnarled and scarred / but endurable, inhabited.’

I was struck by ‘Disaster’, in which O’Brien reflects on past near-misses, the fates of those who haven’t survived their own random disasters, and the arbitrariness of all this: why do some of us survive, and some don’t? The poem features car accidents, leukaemia, brain tumours and broken backs. ‘So many divorces, suicides / during this, our latter-day adolescence.’ He considers the thickets of chance again in ‘Genetics’, which he envisions as a ‘hidden staircase’:

Why the crack in this step and not
in that? Why the foothold lost here and not there? Surely the designer
is to blame, or the maker. Or our place in time. Or the fault unknown
unsettling. There is no rail.

The repeated questions, and refrain of ‘or’, ‘or’, ‘or’, heighten a sense of confusion and cyclical rumination, where root cause and reason cannot be found, and there is no security. Like creative success – on which he muses in ‘Headshots’ – ‘it’s uncontrollable, / of course – luck builds like the weather and breaks in your favor / sometimes; rains on you too.’ O’Brien’s continual, somewhat (self-)tormenting straining for answers reminded me that the most helpful and kinder task to learn may be one of Keatsian negative capability, rather than over-analysis: to be ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

O’Brien often probes changes that he perceives in his personality and behaviour after the ravages of ‘our cancers’, which returned him and his wife to life ‘astonished and timorous’ (‘New Hampshire 2’) – these are among the most thought-provoking poems. In ‘Funny’, he misses his freer flights of humour, while, in ‘Flying on Easter’, he has a newfound appreciation for quiet strengths and small courtesies: ‘You admire most, now, those who speak softly, / say thank you.’ In some poems, when he is at his most honest and self-examining, and the poetry most condensed, there is a Lowellian throb: ‘Suburban’ finds him ‘Driving. Tender scars crawling / under wraps. My stripped nerves numb’, which brings to mind ‘Skunk Hour’: ‘I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell / […] / I myself am hell’.

‘Forgiveness’ is probably my favourite, and for me the most memorable, poem here. I have never heard someone articulate the feeling he describes, let alone seen it brought to life in writing. O’Brien flashes back to hospital, how he was once ‘outside for the first time since surgery’, ‘eavesdropping on a hundred / healthy humans eating’ – this is a great phrase and image which perfectly distils the distance felt between the ‘kingdom of the sick’ and the ‘kingdom of the well’, as Susan Sontag termed these realms. In hospital, the transformative partition is so total, the severance so vast, that this flock of ‘healthy humans’ is watched in astonishment as though they are flamingos in a zoo – an open zoo, however, overwhelmingly marked by freedom, a freedom ‘healthy humans’ take for granted. This includes the ‘Doctors and nurses, / staff and visitors. Laughter, chitchat, gossip. Plans for the weekend. […] they were / all the same to me’, O’Brien writes: ‘free to go, frivolous; nobody noticing’, while he ‘was doing everything I could to endure. […] Why wouldn’t they see?’ It is a brilliantly observed and realised hospital poem.

There are many funny poem-ruminations here, particularly on the life and anxieties of a writer. Some may find this self-indulgent, but there’s no reason this reality shouldn’t be a poetic subject just like any other, as it is very psychologically and socially revealing, and interesting. Being entertaining is underrated in poetry, and O’Brien is not afraid to expose his human weaknesses, which is unusual and risky. ‘Dedication’ opens, ‘What do you do when an old friend has dedicated his poem to you / because he thought you were dying? As you are – we all are; who knows / the day or hour?’ ‘Anger’, in particular, made me laugh: he states that a ‘prospective therapist’ ‘asks if I’m aware that OCD is anger unspoken and right away / I’m angry.’ Humour aside, he skilfully conveys a hair-trigger inner emotional response – he is very good at delivering these swiftly and concisely, which requires a surgeon’s precision. I also enjoyed these lines in ‘Therapists’: ‘Now, I’ll agree there is an elephant in the dark office: / so few of my therapists have been men. The truth is I distrust them, / though I have tried.’ The threads of self-mocking levity in Survivor’s Notebook, whether related to writing or illness, offer welcome respite. No sign of a loss of humour here.

I’ve always been wary of the crude word ‘recovery’: its optimistic clearcut-ness feels euphemistic for the sprawling, shapeshifting distress and progress that it often denotes. It implies that once someone is ‘recovered’, it’s as if the past, and the illness, never happened, and they are no longer at risk, when they have effectively been to the underworld and back; and where you have once fallen, you now know you could fall again. What O’Brien’s richly detailed book shows is how the assault of illness and treatment is, often invisibly, carried forward into the present and the future (and can even alter one’s sense of the past), even when one is ‘better’ or there is ‘no evidence of disease’; for better and worse, you are changed, as has the world.

Nowhere is this metamorphosis more simply and clearly portrayed by O’Brien than in ‘Success’, which considers how collisions with mortality completely realign one’s priorities and understanding of what success really is:

I do not wish to achieve anything any longer
or not for the old reasons. I wish only to wake beside my wife as if nothing is always changing. I wish only to know our only daughter when she has changed uneventfully into a woman.

There is an incantatory, prayer-like air charging these direct wishes, stripping life down to its unanswerable love-held essentials.


My favourite poem in Our Cancers was number 65, a masterly slip of a poem, with Rilkean overtones, which reads in its entirety:

The old poet
told the young poet
You must live

through hell
once or twice

The young poet
smiled to be

The poem suggests – perhaps only half tongue-in-cheek – that ‘going through hell’ is the making of some poets, bringing access to a fuller range and depth of the human experience. In Deaths of the Poets (Cape, 2017), John Berryman is quoted as saying: ‘the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. […] I hope to be nearly crucified’. While there is a necessary gallows humour going on here – an ironic sense of finding the best in a bad situation – where Berryman goes too far and becomes tactless is in elevating the art(ist) as being more important than the human within the artist, when the reverse is true. The art, though it may redeem the suffering, is a consequence of it, not a purpose to be recklessly willed into being; that would make the artist lose their humanity (unless they are a martyr or a saint – like Simone Weil). I like the way that O’Brien’s ‘young poet’ – who has already been through hell at least once – smiles politely, as if inwardly saying: ‘No thank you’; some things are more precious than art. Or perhaps the young poet is thinking he will somehow escape the multiple sufferings of the old poet, or that he knows more. Perhaps he is terrified. It’s funny, and astutely rendered, but in a quietly clever, restrained and ambiguous way, which doesn’t amplify its import to Berryman’s shocking level (a very skilful balance).

Another, more moving, reading (rather than one of intergenerational conflict) is that the old poet and the young poet are two imagined ages of O’Brien himself, counselling his own divided self with the care that you would give another person. The younger poet doesn’t actually say anything (that forced, tense smile says, or conceals, everything), because ultimately there isn’t a choice when calamity befalls us; what we then make of it, or out of it, is therefore presented as something of a reluctant Faustian pact. But one which can save the writer, too, as O’Brien has found: ‘Only writing / has ever helped me’, he confesses (‘Parents Crying’). In A Story That Happens: On Playwrighting, Childhood, & Other Traumas (CB Editions, 2021), he presents this as the writer’s obligation, a sort of missionary duty, where, again, choice doesn’t really come into it. However exposed and vulnerable it can make him, his goal is

[…] to try to tell the truth about that which is most difficult to be truthful about. To tell others the truth, as skillfully as possible. To make art out of pain. To heal. (p. 26)

This, he finds, ‘in [his] more priestly moods’, is his ‘calling’. The alternative could be as overwhelming as illness – to have no outlet to articulate – and make some order or sense out of – chaos.

I like that O’Brien also says, in A Story That Happens: ‘I have learned that I feel annoyed to be called brave. As an artist and as a survivor’ (p. 25) – a common, natural irritation after serious illness, trauma or grief (it can be similarly annoying when people say that you are ‘strong’ when you feel crushed). It is brave (how can it not be), but in the sense that life itself is brave – no individual has actually chosen to come into existence. Though people mean well, it implies that you are doing something that they couldn’t possibly do, or that you have chosen this course, when, as O’Brien points out, ‘we’ve had no choice – the choice was whether to give in and give up’. In their ordeals, he stresses they had some hope to hold on to: ‘we were given hope by our doctors, and before that we’d been given our daughter’, and each other. For people who don’t have these primal lifelines – and even when they do – writing itself can become hope. I don’t know what is a better word than brave in this context – faithful, perhaps.

I come from a medical family, so illness has always been a part of life to me – when you’ve grown up hearing your family talk about medical problems and bodily ailments around the dinner table, it becomes the weather (that doesn’t mean I find it easy). I’m often bewildered to realise that illness is still widely considered a taboo: its validity, in life and as a poetic subject, O’Brien suggests, is repressed or denied by many who don’t want to read about illness or affliction (that’s like saying you don’t want to read about life). Illness and trauma show ‘life persisting / in reality / violently’, as O’Brien writes in Our Cancers (66). In his excellent and very moving essay ‘Confession as Transgression: On the redemptive power of confessional writing’ (Poetry London, Autumn 2023), O’Brien recalls: ‘many other friends and strangers wanted nothing to do with us. I saw clearly that cancer, like any formidable illness, is taboo (perhaps illness is the taboo)’. (I would say death and grief are even bigger taboos.) So he did what you should do with oppressive and isolating taboos: ‘I wrote about cancer’.

In Notebooks, E. M. Cioran states: ‘Writers – I can read only the really unwell, those whose ailments light up every page, every line. I like health willed, not inherited or acquired.’ This striking confession, which implicitly equates health with wealth (which it is), and places a value judgement on whether your health is taken for granted, an accident of birth, or whether you have had to fight for it, sounds almost sadistic (though a writer who has himself truly suffered earns the right to say such a thing). What Cioran means (I sense) is that deep suffering can have an irreducible vividness, the light of truth, with the artifice of living stripped away (Dickinson similarly says, ‘I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true’). And, that the return of health, if it happens, or even if it is just tried for, is proportionate to the loss, and brings with it insight and knowledge, revealing the capacity and limits of the human body and spirit. There is illumination here. Dan O’Brien’s disintegration and survival lights up every page, every line.

Note: The Cioran quotation is taken from ‘A Man in Fragments’, an excerpt from the forthcoming Notebooks, translated by Patrick James Errington, in Tolka, Issue Six (2023), p. 32.