I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.
—Tim O’Brien, from “The Lives of the Dead”
Poets think in lines, prose writers in sentences; the best of both work from sound to sense, with an ear for the music in their compositions. S for Sentence celebrates lyricism in prose, the play and craft at work in the artful sentence. We post a sentence a month along with comments by a guest writer on the craft that shapes it, on what makes it great. In one or two sentences.
—Pearl Abraham, Editor
—Stephanie Grant, Guest Editor
This sentence, which ends the story, also completes the much-celebrated collection The Things They Carried. As a thinking machine (where “sentience” meets the root of “sentence” from the Latin sententia), these last words capture the collage effect of O’Brien’s writing, in which childhood, young adulthood, and middle age are happening at once. Half of the sentence is thinking in present continuous, skimming, while moving, while riding, while doing, and the second half, beginning with a conjunction and a subordinate clause (“and when I…”), hones in on just one activity: the leap. The leap projects us into this moment, thirty years into the future, in which O’Brien is 43 and writing the story of his life, trying to remember who he was and, beyond his wounds, who he still is. The grammar is like a slingshot—the cord stretched back and then let go at “and when I”—so that writer and reader are flung forward to another part of the icy surface of memory, where we land on the tip of a skate and at the end of the novel.
David Keplinger is the author of four poetry collections, including The Most Natural Thing