artpoemsI should say right off that what I think I’m doing as a literary artist is writing toward revelation, usually revelation of a personal sort, which may or may not be of use to my readers. I also must confess that “not knowing” comes way too naturally to me. Not only that, but I’m too lazy to carry out more than superficial research, so speculation is about 95 percent of what I do in my writing.

Poets use the tools of poetry – line, stanza, metaphor, sonic intensity – while fiction and nonfiction writers use the tools of narrative – character, dialogue, setting, action, interior monologue – to think about the experience of being human. This particular area of study is so intangible that speculation is the only suitable approach. Umberto Eco has said, “Those things about which we cannot theorize, we must narrate.”  Philosophers, historians, sociologists, even theologians have much more precise tools available to them. But we makers of poems and stories and essays wouldn’t trade with them. Wielding the mighty instrument of speculation – to try to know what we can’t really know – is the most thrilling experience available to an artist.

Though much admired as a writer of short fiction, Andre Dubus is not considered a virtuoso literary technician. Indeed, rumor has it that as he began to think about a story, he purchased a college notebook, wrote out his composition in longhand, and made very few changes in it after the initial draft. I’m going to discuss a story that executes a bold point-of-view maneuver so gracefully that most readers won’t notice the technique Dubus used in order to make his way to the revelations toward which his narrative led him.

“A Father’s Story” is narrated by Luke Ripley, a deeply spiritual man who “is called” to be a father when his daughter hits and kills a young man while driving home from an evening of drinking with her friends. She doesn’t stop the car after hitting the man; instead she drives home, wakes her father, and tells him, “I hit somebody. With the car.” Luke Ripley ends up helping his daughter cover up the felony she has committed. Yet at the end of the story, against better judgment, against rational thinking, against a riled up sense of decency and morality, a reader can’t help feeling a deep empathy for Ripley.

Dubus manages the powerful and complex revelation of the story’s conclusion by way of an array of narrative elements, but his primary tool is that of shifting point of view, so that Luke actually “lives” his daughter’s experience. Dubus allows his narrator a way to know what he can’t possibly know. Following is the crucial scene (it’s worth noting how seamlessly the point of view shifts from first person to third person):

They had each had four beers, but now there were twelve empty bottles in the bag on the floor at the passenger seat, and I keep focusing on their sound against each other when the car shifted speeds or changed directions. For I want to understand that one moment out of all her heart’s time on earth, and whether her history had any bearing on it, or whether her heart was then isolated from all it had known, and the sound of those bottles urged it. She was just leaving town, accelerating past a night club on the right, gaining speed to climb a long, gradual hill, then she went up it, singing, patting the beat on the steering wheel, the wind loud through her few inches of open window, blowing her hair as it did the high branches alongside the road, and she looked at them and watched the top of the hill for someone drunk or heedless coming over it in part of her lane. She crested to an open black road, and there he was: a bulk, a blur, a thing running across her headlights, and she swerved left and her foot went for the brake and was stomping air above its pedal when she hit him, saw his legs and body in the air, flying out of her light, into the dark. Her brakes were screaming into the wind, bottles clinking in the fallen bag, and the music and wind inside the car was his sound, already a memory but as real as an echo, that car-shuddering thump as though she had struck a tree. Her foot was back on the accelerator. Then she shifted gears and pushed it. She ejected the cassette and closed the window. She did not start to cry until she knocked on my bedroom door, then called: ‘Dad?’

For “A Father’s Story” to work, Luke Ripley must imagine his daughter’s experience so vividly that he comes to “own it” along with her – and we readers must follow Ripley’s speculative journey so intensely that we can’t help empathizing with him at the end of the story. We readers come to own the experiences of being a hit-and-run driver and of being the father of that driver.

Now I’m going discuss an untitled narrative poem of mine, the one that ends my 1988 collection called Stopping by Home. In composing this piece, I settled into a five-line stanza pattern of expanding and contracting lines of two, five, ten, five, and two syllables. That form, discovered in the highly emotional occasion of writing it, enabled me to use the emotion that rose in me as I tried to grasp the experience of my father’s dying; to carry out some necessary grieving; and to make my way to a revelation that remains essential to my writing life. That expanding-and-contracting stanza form is one of the poetry tools I used to carry out my speculation. The other tool is a metaphor I can’t take credit for inventing – a thick morning fog that prevented my mother from driving the 17 miles to the hospital to be with my father before he died. Here are some stanzas from the middle of the poem:

he was
dying – my mother
heard that word singing through the telephone
and it must have been
the sound

she’d heard
whispered in her dreams.
She got up quickly, dressed, made herself think
of everything,
stepped out

and turned
to lock the door when
she realized it wasn’t just dark out
there, there was a fog
so thick

the end
of the lighted porch
was invisible to her. But she kept
going, she walked
on out

the garage, her hand
outstretched, touching nothing, the light behind
her diminished now,
she took

two more
steps, and the planet
dropped away from her, she couldn’t even
see her feet.  I am,
she thought,

to the hospital
to be with my husband who is dying.
She took one more step
and closed

her eyes,
and it was the same
darkness either way, eyes closed, eyes open.
She thought it harder
this time:

I am
going… She turned back,
and in four steps she could see the porch light.
She went in and made

and sat
down at the table
with the empty cup in front of her, she
lost track of time, she
sat there.

From details she provided me, I constructed my mother’s experience of that early morning. The more urgent journey I had to carry out was that of making my own way to my father’s bedside in his moment of dying – though in fact I was 810 miles away when it happened. Here are the relevant lines of the poem:

….I have to see them there beside
his bed, three of them,

him breathe,
taking his pulse, then
catching each others’ eyes when there was no
more breath, no more pulse,
no more


Right here is where it happened for me, where I “came to terms” with my father’s dying, and as you can see (or hear), I made this journey by way of imaginative speculation. I came to know what I couldn’t know. This, of course, wasn’t enough. Once I had grasped what had happened, the poem kept pushing me forward to “make something of it.” In these closing stanzas, you can see (or hear) how the fog metaphor begins working in concert with the expanding-contracting form as the poem speculates its way toward its ending:

I want

no one ever again like
Mother to have to grope out into that
complete darkness
where it

matter if she was
alive or dead, for that moment she was
not anywhere and did not

He was.
I say my father was
here. I say he lived thousands of strong days.
I know he got sick. My

died.  I
can say that, can walk
from work to home, can touch my daughter’s hair,
can say anything
I want.

This was an unplanned conclusion – that my father’s death granted me exhilarating artistic freedom. Those words – “can say anything / I want” – shocked me when I first typed them out.

It’s been 20-some years since I wrote the poem, and it goes on being of use to me in demonstrating exactly what moves me to write. Art gives us the tools to know what we can’t know; imaginative speculation is the most important of those tools. It’s the one that lets us go where we have to go.

David Huddle is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University and a faculty member of the Bread Loaf School of English. In 2012, LSU Press will publish his seventh poetry collection, Black Snake at the Family Reunion, and Tupelo Press will publish his third novel, Nothing Can Make Me Do This.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore