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

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 4, Number 1
(Spring 2009)

Copyright © 2009
by Leah Browning, Editor.  

All future rights to material
published in the
Valley Review
are retained
by the individual authors
and artists.