Finding A Way to Survive

The second section of Marie Howe’s What the Living Do shifts from her childhood and focuses on the death of her brother, and others, from AIDS. Although I wasn’t as moved as I was by the opening section of the book, at times it was extremely painful to read her description of his illness and her reaction to his loss.

Fortunately, enduring these illnesses brings new insights into life for both Marie Howe and the reader, as despair is balanced against a new awareness of the fragility and preciousness of life:

The Promise

In the dream I had when he came back not sick
but whole, and wearing his winter coat,

he looked at me as though he couldn't speak, as if
there were a law against it, a membrane he couldn't break.

His silence was what he could not
not do, like our breathing in this world, like our living,

as we do, in time.
And I told him: I'm reading all this Buddhist stuff,

and listen, we don't die when we die. Death is an event,
a threshold we pass through. We go on and on

and into light forever.
And he looked down, and then back up at me. It was the look we'd pass

across the kitchen table when Dad was drunk again and dangerous,
the level look that wants to tell you something,
in a crowded room, something important, and can't.

I particularly liked the lines “like our breathing in this world, like our living,/ as we do, in time” because of the idea that, given time, even the death of someone we love has the potential to enrich our lives by making us think about what life means, whether that’s exploring our religious beliefs or simply examining what it means to live. It’s this exploration of death and the meaning of life that the narrator sees in the “level look that wants to tell you something,” something important, but can’t because you have to discover it for yourself.


The third section of the book shifts its focus to her ongoing relationship with her boyfriend and she struggles to overcome her pain and live her life. In doing so, she finds a way to bridge the gap between the past and the future, paying the proper due to both:

My Dead Friends

I have begun,
when I'm weary and can't decide an answer to a bewildering question

to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.

Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child
in my middle age?

They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling-whatever leads
to joy, they always answer,

to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy's ashes were-
it's green in there, a green vase,

and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.
Billy's already gone through the frightening door,
whatever he says I'll do.

Unfortunately, far too many people are destroyed by such experiences. The poetry of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath serve as constant reminders that such painful experiences can end in self-destruction. On the other hand, sometimes painful experiences can lead to new insights that make a better life possible. No one in their right mind would willingly endure such experiences for the insights they yield, but since it is often impossible to escape such experiences we must learn from them if we are going to go on.

It’s impossible not to read Marie Howe in the context of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and I’m sure many readers would prefer the more famous poets. In some ways their poetry seems more polished, and perhaps more “poetic.” Personally, though I find Howe more compelling. Her ability to transmute her experiences into a source of joy, rather than a source of despair, may sound superficial to some, but to me there is no denying her authenticity. Her problems are not glossed over and there is no “living happily ever after,” but there is an honest attempt to find new meaning in her life and a determination to do “whatever leads to joy” while still returning “the difficult phone call” that requires us to face life’s problems rather than evading them.