I recently finished Marie Howe’s book of poems What the Living Do, published in 1998. A friend of mine sent me the book for Christmas; she’d described the poems as not terribly innovative with poetic technique, but interesting in their emotional complexity, and now that I’ve read the book, I agree. I thought the collection was powerful. I don’t usually find myself compelled to keep reading in a poetry book; I’m content to read a couple poems and then put the book down, but with this volume, I found myself wanting to read on.
This might be a good book to read if you’re not terribly familiar with or comfortable with poetry but would like to try it — one of the blurbs on the back of the book says that it has “the fierce galloping pace of a great novel,” and it strikes me that a volume of poems with a bit of a narrative might work for people who are most familiar with fiction.
The poems don’t really set out to tell stories, but they are clustered around events in the speaker’s life, so that we get a series of moments or scenes that have shaped the speaker in some profound way. The subject matter of the poems is often harsh; the speaker describes abuse she experienced as a child, the death of her brother and the deaths of two other friends, and her rocky relationship with her husband, or at least some rocky moments in their relationship. This list of topics might make you think the poetry is confessional in the tradition of Anne Sexton, and while I admire Sexton, I’m not sure I would have liked the book if that were true. But the feeling of Howe’s book is different — there’s a calmness to the voice, a clarity and simplicity that I found appealing. Even when she describes terrible events, it’s not anger that comes through; rather it’s something like an urgency to describe as clearly as possible, a desire to understand.
I find myself wanting simply to give you a couple of the poems, so instead of trying to describe them further, that’s what I’ll do. Here are two I liked that stand on their own reasonably well:
“The Copper Beach”
Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,
with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where
I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone.
One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell
darkening the sidewalk.
Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches,
I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy,
watching it happen without it happening to me.
“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.