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.

The Simple Hell People Give Other People

Marie Howe’s book of poems entitled What the Living Do begins with a simple, straight-forward poem that rings more of truth than poetry:

The Boy

My older brother is walking down the sidewalk into the suburban summer night:
white T-shirt, blue jeans-to the field at the end of the street

Hangers Hideout the boys called it, an undeveloped plot, a pit overgrown
with weeds, some old furniture thrown down there,

and some metal hangers clinking in the trees like wind chimes.
He's running away from home because our father wants to cut his hair.

And in two more days our father will convince me to go to him – you know
where he is – and talk to him: No reprisals. He promised. A small parade of kids

in feet pajamas will accompany me, their voices like the first peepers in spring.
And my brother will walk ahead of us home, and my father

will shave his head bald, and my brother will not speak to anyone the next
month, not a word, not pass the milk, nothing.

What happened in our house taught my brothers how to leave, how to walk
down a sidewalk without looking back.

I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he was,
calling and calling his name.

Coincidentally, this poem reminded me of Jonathon Delacour’s entry today entitled Tansu and moved me in much the same way. The power of the poem comes from the careful description of the event itself, not from poetic techniques, per se. At first the poem seems like a simple tale of a child running away from home. It’s not until we hear the phrase “will shave his head bald” that we begin to see that something is seriously amiss here, confirmed, of course, by the lines “What happened in our house taught my brothers how to leave, how to walk/ down a sidewalk without looking back.”

The more we read Howe’s poems, the more we realize that she is describing a profoundly dysfunctional family that wreaks havoc on its children. It’s amazing that the author is able to present this family as objectively as she does. In a sense, though, it is this matter-of-fact objectivity that makes the poems so powerful. These poems are the heirs of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath’s confessional poems, but actually seem more moving to me because they are less dramatic, less hysterical, and, thus, truly undeniable. We learn that the father sexually abused the girl while the mother sat listening downstairs. We learn that brothers not only had to endure their own abuse but had to stand by while their sisters were abused:

The Attic

Praise to my older brother, the seventeen-year-old boy, who lived
in the attic with me an exiled prince grown hard in his confinement,

bitter, bent to his evening task building the imaginary building
on the drawing board they'd given him in school. His tools gleam

under the desk lamp. He is as hard as the pencil he holds,
drawing the line straight along the ruler.

Tower prince, young king, praise to the boy
who has willed his blood to cool and his heart to slow. He's building

a structure with so many doors its finally quiet,
so that when our father climbs heavily up the attic stairs, he doesn't

at first hear him pass down the narrow hall. My brother is rebuilding
the foundation. He lifts the clear plastic of one page

to look more closely at the plumbing,
-he barely hears the springs of my bed when my father sits down -

he's imagining where the boiler might go, because
where it is now isn't working. Not until I've slammed the door behind

the man stumbling down the stairs again
does my brother look up from where he's working. I know it hurts him

to rise, to knock on my door and come in. And when he draws his skinny arm
around my shaking shoulders,

I don't know if he knows he's building a world where I can one day
love a man-he sits there without saying anything.

Praise him.
I know he can hardly bear to touch me.

While this poem relies on poetic devices more heavily than “The Boy,” the brother is compared to a “tower prince,” after all, it is primarlily the boy’s predicament that drives the poem. Doesn’t the prince traditionally rescue the princess? Shouldn’t he rescue the sister from the evil father? Why is it better that he has “willed his blood to cool and his heart to slow,” unless, of course, those are necessary to survive in the real world, as opposed to a fantasy world where good always wins and evil is always defeated.

The son has learned to survive in an alien world, a world that he hates but has to endure in order to provide what little comfort he can to a sister who is brutalized by a father who is beyond caring. And, yet, he is Prince who rescues the maiden because he gives the girl hope for a better world by showing that there are men in the world who aren’t like who father, who love and support others even though it pains him to do so. Without him, she would inevitably lose faith in men and come to believe that all men are as brutal as her father.

Personally, I often found it painful to read these poems, to see the kind of pain that men, and it’s not just the father who does so, can inflict on women. It was like touching an open wound, probing for the cause of the pain. Somehow, though, the very retelling of the poems seems like a victory, just as singing the blues transcends the despair that drives them. The pain often seemed remarkably personal; it was almost as if you had accidentally overheard someone’s darkest secrets. And, as a man, reading these poems almost made me feel that I was somehow in confronted by one of Burningbird’s discussions of sexism, as if I were somehow violating a woman’s personal space

What the Living Do

What the Living Do

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil
probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty
dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the
everyday we spoke of.



But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of
myself in the window glass,
say the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a
cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face and unbuttoned coat
that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

Marie Howe in Sixty Years of American Poetry

It’s far too easy to get caught up in the outside world, to focus on those things we have little or no control over and, as a result, to feel vulnerable, helpless and alone. As much as I might rail against the terrorists or past American policies that have helped to empower the terrorists, I doubt that posting to a blog inflluences events any more than the man who hangs a huge American flag from his oversize pickup insures America’s victory.

Who could watch the media lately and not feel schizophrenic, caught between two very different worlds and unable to control either of them.

Not surprising, then, that too often we forget the wonder that is each of us.

Personally, I read poetry to be reminded of that wonder. Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke, Robert Penn Warren, and David Wagoner are some of my favorite poets because they do remind me of that. Ancient Zen poets, but recently discovered by me, startle me to new awarenesses precisely because they are new to me and force me to see my world in a new way.

At their best, though, all poets, and perhaps all true artists, force us to rediscover ourselves. I had not encountered the contemporary poet Marie Howe before yesterday, but I found this poem a perfect reminder of that which does give us control over our world.