Present Tense in Past Narration
by Sarah White
It’s September 24, 1945 My father collapses, cardiac infarction, his
second, and I get sent up the street to a friend’s house. When I’m
told to come home, the family doctor is waiting to explain that while
Judy and I were watching model trains, my father’s heart stopped and
he’s gone. Nothing anyone could do.
Years go by. I meet Judy again. She tells me she never had model
trains and by 1945 her family had lived for three years in another
What did I get wrong? The date, the trains, the friend, or the frame
in the film where a girl sees a man bend and fall?
Sarah White has published a collection, Cleopatra Haunts
the Hudson (Spuyten Duyvil, 2007), which includes poems first
appearing in The Paris Review, Shenandoah, Spoon River
Poetry Review, Western Humanities Review, and other
magazines. She has also published a chapbook, Mrs. Bliss and
the Paper Spouses (Pudding House, 2007), and a memoir
online at Proem Press.
On “Present Tense in Past Narration”:
I have written other poems about aspects of grammar,
especially about ways of using verbs. In practicing
translation, I find that the impact of a narrative is much
influenced by choices of verb tense. Here, using what is
sometimes called the “historical present,” I recount a
childhood trauma remembered vividly. One poet friend
has said that the piece would be strengthened if I ended the
poem after “another city.” I would be grateful to know
whether readers concur with her suggestion.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 4, Number 1
Copyright © 2009
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors