SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: MARIE HOWE




WHAT THE LIVING DO
by Marie Howe

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.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.

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 is a noted American poet. Her first book, The Good Thief, was selected by Margaret Atwood as the winner of the 1987 Open Competition of the National Poetry Series. In 1998, she published her best-known book of poems, What the Living Do. The title poem in that collection (featured here today) is a haunting lament for her brother with the plain-spoken last line: “I am living, I remember you.” Howe’s brother John died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989. “John’s living and dying changed my aesthetic entirely,” she has said. In 1995, Howe co-edited, with Michael Klein, a collection of essays, letters, and stories entitled In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, Agni, Ploughshares, and Harvard Review. Her honors include National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships. (Annotated biography of Marie Howe courtesy of Wikipedia.org, with edits.)

Editor’s Note: This poem was by request. If you have a request of your own please feel free to post it as a comment.

A special thanks to my mother for, yet again, turning me onto a poem that I instantly revered.

I read this poem first out of context, without the knowledge that it was about her brother’s death, and I loved it in its own right. I love the concept of these day-to-day things that we do as humans- that life is made up of errands and waiting for the weather we prefer. And I love the image of the poet catching a glimpse of her reflection and being in love with it- I have yet to meet the mirror I can pass without delving into a bit of narcissism.

Then we are given a gift. We are given the context and background from which the poem stems. We get to know that this poem is about her brother, that he has passed away from AIDS-related illness, that the poem is addressed to him and held up against the backdrop of their relationship and his death. And then I re-read the poem and suddenly it has a new life, a new light. Suddenly we know why it is important that the sink is clogged, that grocery bags break, that one notices how much time in life is spent waiting for better seasons and wanting more love. It is important because the narrator of the poem is alive, and she is painfully aware of what it means to be alive in the face of the memory of one who is not.

And what does it mean to be living? For Howe, in this poem, it means that after she takes note of the external world, then of the desires within all of us, she looks at herself and loves herself, loves that she is living, and knows how precious a gift that is when she remembers her loved one who is not.

Want to read more by and about Marie Howe?
MarieHowe.com
Poetry Foundation
Poets.org

About Sivan Butler-Rotholz

Sivan is the Contributing Editor of the Saturday Poetry Series on As It Ought To Be and holds an MFA from Brooklyn College. She is a professor, writer, editor, comic artist, and attorney emerita. She is also the founder of Reviving Herstory. Sivan welcomes feedback, poetry submissions, and solicitations of her writing via email at sivan.sf [at] gmail [dot] com.
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3 Responses to SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: MARIE HOWE

  1. John Zussman says:

    It’s a lovely poem and your commentary is spot on. Thanks for posting it.

    John

  2. Deborah says:

    I love it how the imagery of her loving catching a glimpse of herself (universal narcissism, which we all but feel ashamed of) becomes a relishing of living simply by knowing the context of the poem. Great choice Sivan! When is your mother going to teach a poetry class? Sign me up.

  3. Lezlie says:

    Sivan, beautiful poem. I especially respond to the end of the poem because it goes way beyond everyday narcissism to a true moment of love and recognition that embraces imperfection.

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