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

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