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Poetry Moment: 'How We Lived,' by Jeff Oaks

Jeff Oaks and his dog

This is Poetry Moment on WPSU – a weekly program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Your host is poet and author Marjorie Maddox, a 2023 Monson Arts Fellow, author of 20 books, and professor of English and creative writing at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University. 

Welcome to Poetry Moment. I’m Marjorie Maddox

Sometimes we look back on our lives and wonder how we made it through certain years. Perhaps it is our memories of what not to become that save us. In today’s poem, “How We Lived,” Jeff Oaks voices the terror of domestic abuse. “Remember all of this,” his mother reminds him and, in the heart-wrenching voice of a child, he does.

Jeff Oaks was the author of two books of poetry, Little What and The Things, both published by Lily Poetry Review Books. A recipient of three Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships, he published poems in a number of literary magazines, most recently in Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Superstition Review, and Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere His prose appeared in At Length, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Kenyon Review Online, and Water~Stone Review. Both poems and prose appeared in the anthologies Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them. He taught writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Known as a brilliant writer and teacher, he died on December 20, 2023.

This past September, Jeff wrote to me, “I struggled with [this poem] for a long time. . . it's about. . . escaping [my] alcoholic father. . . [sometimes staying] at campgrounds to avoid his . . . rages. It's from the point of view of the child who needs to hold as still as possible, who is nevertheless recording everything, afraid for the mother really more than for himself.”

Here’s “How We Lived” by Jeff Oaks

- - -

Again and again we drove into the night
to find a place where no one could find us.
Over and over we parked in darkness,
practiced being nothing but breathing, fog
on the windows instead of our faces.
We sat sometimes a long time, listening.
Our two dogs in the backseat settled
into waiting. One night something was wrong
with my mother’s right elbow; another night
something kept her hand from making
a fist, something gone rose-colored, a throbbing pain
she kept to herself. Some nights when
her left hand let loose the steering wheel
its knuckles were snow. When she opened the door,
the domelight was a headache, another slap.
I opened my door; the seatbelt reeled back
its elastic. We were no one to know,
we hoped no one would see us check in
for one night, with two dogs and no tent.
How we signed in, her with a broken hand,
bruises on her arm, unable to write,
I don’t remember. No one asked.
Somebody always took our money
and let us stay in a spot where a family’s
supposed to go. Instead, we unfolded
the backseat into a bed, climbed in, and slept.
The dogs folded themselves around us.
In the morning we drove back
to the house we escaped. I shifted
the stick when she said Now, heard
her grunt of pain around each lurch. Remember what 
we’ve had to do, she said when her breath
returned. Remember all of this.

- - -
May we likewise remember Jeff, the impact his life and words had on so many of us, and, most importantly how he lived.

That was “How We Lived” by Jeff Oaks.

Listen for Poetry Moment with Marjorie Maddox, Mondays, during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on WPSU. You can more episodes at

Our theme music is by Eric Ian Farmer.

Marjorie Maddox is the host of WPSU's Poetry Moment for the 2023-24 season. She has been a professor of English and creative writing since 1990 at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University.