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Writing as Living Document / Writing as Memorial: Dan O'Brien's Survivor's Notebook

Jesi Bender

Survivor’s Notebook
Dan O’Brien
Acre Books, Sept. 2023


an O’Brien’s Survivor’s Notebook is a beautiful little hybrid book that calls itself poetry, though the paragraph-length entries inside are more memoir or, at the very least, are reminiscent of confessional poets like Robert Lowell or Russell Edson. The collection spans all four seasons and ends by circling back to Spring, which, for a book about cancer, seems very meaningful. Perhaps it’s not fair to call this a ‘book about cancer’, though there certainly is a lot of it in these pages. It’s probably more accurate to say this collection is about the aftermath of survival, its memories and lingering questions.

The book open on Good Friday and the image of Christ follows O’Brien silently through his documented year. In the background, the reader sees a discarded hospital gown like the shroud of Turin, there’s a terra cotta bust of Madonna, and, by the end of Fall, he’s in Jerusalem. O’Brien isn’t a Christ-figure though; instead, these Christian elements act as counterparts to the lengthy existential questions he asks himself and to his pervasive doubt. For many who undergo trauma, G-d feels far away. As O’Brien reminisces about a time where a play of his received no reviews and he thinks “maybe it’s true that nobody is really watching but you.” At another point, he says “I prefer NED (medical speak for “No Evidence of Disease) because remission reminds me of sin.” Though he distances himself from faith, it is always there, following along. The reader sees its influence, silent but steady throughout this work.

And if G-d is always there, lurking just out of reach, so is health (or its absence). In the passage “Now”, O’Brien states definitively:

Everybody has cancer, everybody has had cancer, everybody will survive. Everybody will die of it; or something . . . Must I get a real job now? Must I become bored again? Meanwhile the forever war drags on.

Indeed, this seems true as he catalogues all of the people that he’s encountered throughout his life, loved ones to strangers, who are eventually diagnosed with various types of the disease. The amazing rates do make it feel like an inevitability. To make matters worse, “[w]orry, my mother said, caused it . . . The more you worry about it the more you make it occur.” Loudly, cancer menaces the reader and their narrator throughout these pages, with harrowing images of “doom-dim afternoons of the languishing months in the bardo of chemotherapy [, t]he static nebulas vibrating in the cobwebbed corner of my sickbed.”

This is a very honest work. There are personal phobias and fears, secrets and longings exposed. Memoirists—how do they do it? Expose themselves to strangers? O’Brien seems to answer this question by saying that his “mother seemed to imply as she handed me a pen: You cannot cry to me so cry to them.” He reflects on his “unspeakable almost cellular sense of humiliation” but is still able to examine painful memories, outside of his mortality, things that live on, like his family’s issues. In as many ways as writing is a living document as long as it’s observed, it is also memorial. O’Brien says that wanting to write it all down can be an excuse, a reason for living. So can reading. Particular gems in this collection include: “Motherless 1 &2”, “The Cup”, “Sunday”, and “Kite”. Part celebration, part extrication, fans of personal stories about imperfect lives will enjoy this brave and bittersweet book.

O may it be Sunday always and everywhere in California . . .
The enlarging bright aperture of sand . . .
The mountain snows dribble from a drainage pipe like the seminal Jordan. 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.


Jesi Bender