Survivor's Notebook

Books distributed by the Chicago Distribution Center

116 pages | 35 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

ISBN (pbk): 978-1-946724-63-2 

ISBN (ebook): 978-1-946724-64-9 

ISBN (audiobook): 978-1-946724-78-6

Published September 2023

Survivor’s Notebook


Dan O’Brien

This powerful companion to 2021’s Our Cancers catalogs the recovery of a cancer survivor, whose wife has recently survived her own cancer, as he returns to his daily life while raising a young daughter. This prose-poem sequence is truly a survivor’s notebook, using photos and the tools of memoir to evoke the ways in which disaster can constellate our past, present, and future.

In his poems, plays, and nonfiction, Dan O’Brien has explored, as he says in a 2023 interview, “how trauma shatters identity, and in its aftermath we reconfigure and rewrite, as it were, the story of who we were and are and maybe will be.” In highly personal poems reminiscent of dramatic monologues, as well as shorter lyric fragments, the protagonist reconsiders the people and places he knew before his illness, including his estranged family and others with cancer. While looking back he moves forward again, revisiting Ireland, resuming his career as a writer and teacher, and making a kind of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There is a confiding and at times comical tone in these poems, as he awakens to the delights, absurdities, and wonders of existence, and as he and his wife work through the aftershocks of their trauma toward a deeper love.

With text and image, Survivor’s Notebook shows how we go on, with resilience, gratitude, and joy, when “the emergency’s elsewhere” now.

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About the Author

Dan O’Brien is a poet, playwright, and essayist whose recognition includes the UK’s Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship in Drama, and two PEN America Awards for playwriting. His previous poetry collections are Our Cancers, New Life, Scarsdale, and War Reporter. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.

Dan O'Brien

Photo Credit: Cambridge Jones

Praise for Survivor’s Notebook and Our Cancers

“O’Brien has said that he’s a ‘playwright moonlighting as a poet,’ but I don’t think that’s really true. These distinctions don’t ultimately matter. As a playwright, he well knows the ‘Old Masters’ wrote their plays in verse. And like the Old Masters, he understands how our human songs are ‘made melodic with pain.’”
—Amanda Newell, Plume

In wielding the tools of memoir, O’Brien illuminates the traumas and triumphs of two cancer survivors to profound effect. This complement to O’Brien’s 2021 collection Our Cancers is as inspiring as it is skilled.
New England Review

The playwright and poet lays bare the bones of his life, giving us entrance to the reality of his struggles in the space of a few perfectly chosen words.”
American Magazine

“Part celebration, part extrication, fans of personal stories about imperfect lives will enjoy this brave and bittersweet book.”
Jesi Bender, Exacting Clam

“[O’Brien] has produced an exquisite and terrible beauty in these pages.”
Stephen Wilson, The Times Literary Supplement

“Dan O’Brien’s collection has brought his experience of his wife’s and his own cancer into the realm of shared memory. Although deeply personal, his poetic memories transcend into the universal story of grief and caregiving.”
Megan Kuklis, The Fiddlehead

“[A] powerful [meditation] on being a husband, a father, and a human while dealing with the very real possibility that it could all come to an end.”
Ryan Buxton, Katie Couric Media

Our Cancers tells [O’Brien’s] truth not only skillfully but masterfully, making from pain a lasting chronicle of art that traces fragmentary moments of healing over time.”
J.D. Schraffenberger, North American Review

“Like all those who write about their own illness and suffering, O’Brien offers up the deepest recesses of his pain for the rest of us to pick over and examine. These are spare and beautiful poems to live by.”
Sophie Thomas, Magma Poetry

“The title of this new volume of poems by playwright Dan O’Brien is heartbreaking. Our Cancers is an account of the illnesses suffered by both by O’Brien, and his wife, Jessica. In an especially harrowing twist of fate, O’Brien discovers he has colon cancer on the very day his wife receives her final treatment of chemotherapy. . . . The reader is called to witness, to hold the sorrow, to understand. . . . We might wince, look away, or we might gaze and offer a hand. I think that is O’Brien’s message for his readers: anyone one of us can be so afflicted at any time in our lives. Our Cancers then becomes universal, a quiet warning.”
Indira Ganesan, The Key Reporter

“O’Brien’s books are raised far above the run of subjective accounts of recovery. Not once does he beg for pity or trumpet his family’s remarkable defeat of the odds. You can’t finish these books without wishing them all continued health. But where the books most fully succeed are as uneasy and compelling irruptions of American conscience.”
James Peake, Wild Court