Poet Marie Howe On 'What The Living Do' After Loss

Apr 25, 2014
Originally published on April 25, 2014 12:54 pm

This is an excerpt from a longer interview that was originally broadcast on Oct. 19, 2011.

A few years after her younger brother John died from AIDS-related complications in 1989, poet Marie Howe wrote him a poem in the form of a letter. Called "What the Living Do," the poem is an elegiac description of loss, and of living beyond loss.

"When he died, it was a terrible loss to all of us," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "As you know, as everybody knows, you think, 'My life is changed so utterly I don't know how to live it anymore.' And then you find a way."

Howe's poem "What the Living Do" was anthologized in The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry. Howe discusses several of her poems, which deal with topics such as loss, love, spirituality, gender, sexuality and intimacy.

"Poetry holds the knowledge that we are alive and that we know we're going to die," says Howe. "The most mysterious aspect of being alive might be that — and poetry knows that."

Howe is the author of What the Living Do, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and The Good Thief. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia and New York University.


Excerpt: 'The Kingdom Of Ordinary Time'

After the Movie

My friend Michael and I are walking home arguing about the movie.
He says that he believes a person can love someone
and still be able to murder that person.

I say, No, that's not love. That's attachment.
Michael says, No, that's love. You can love someone, then come to a day

when you're forced to think "it's him or me"
think "me" and kill him.

I say, Then it's not love anymore.
Michael says, It was love up to then though.

I say, Maybe we mean different things by the same word.
Michael says, Humans are complicated: love can exist even in the
murderous heart.

I say that what he might mean by love is desire.
Love is not a feeling, I say. And Michael says, Then what is it?

We're walking along West 16th Street — a clear unclouded night — and I hear my voice
repeating what I used to say to my husband: Love is action, I used to say
to him.

Simone Weil says that when you really love you are able to look at
someone you want to eat and not eat them.

Janis Joplin says, take another little piece of my heart now baby.

Meister Eckhart says that as long as we love images we are doomed to
live in purgatory.

Michael and I stand on the corner of 6th Avenue saying goodnight.
I can't drink enough of the tangerine spritzer I've just bought —

again and again I bring the cold can to my mouth and suck the stuff from
the hole the flip top made.

What are you doing tomorrow? Michael says.
But what I think he's saying is "You are too strict. You are
a nun."

Then I think, Do I love Michael enough to allow him to think these things
of me even if he's not thinking them?

Above Manhattan, the moon wanes, and the sky turns clearer and colder.
Although the days, after the solstice, have started to lengthen,

we both know the winter has only begun.

From The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe. Copyright 2008 by Marie Howe. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co. Inc.


Excerpt: '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.
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.

Just Now

My brother opens his eyes when he hears the door click
open downstairs and Joe's steps walking up past the meowing cat

and the second click of the upstairs door, and then he lifts
his face so that Joe can kiss him. Joe has brought armfuls

of broken magnolia branches in full blossom, and he putters
in the kitchen looking for a big jar to put them in and finds it.

And now they tower in the living room, white and sweet, where
John can see them if he leans out from his bed which

he can't do just now, and now Joe is cleaning. What a mess
you've left me, he says, and John is smiling, almost asleep again.

From What the Living Do by Marie Howe. Copyright 1998 by Marie Howe. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. April is National Poetry Month, and we're going to celebrate the occasion by listening back to some of our favorite poetry interviews. Let's start with Terry's interview with Marie Howe, who is now the poet laureate of New York state. This was first broadcast in 2011.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

A couple of weeks ago, our book interview producer, Sam Bregger(ph), showed me the new Penguin anthology of 20th-century American poetry. He told me it includes one of his favorite poems, by a poet I'd never heard of, named Marie Howe.

So I read it and agreed this is really good. Sam went on to tell me that Howe had been one of his teachers at Tufts, and although he didn't know her well, he spoke very highly of her. So I read a couple of her books and was particularly moved by how she wrote about the deaths of her mother and of her younger brother.

Here's how her writing was described by the late Stanley Kunitz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former poet laureate who was also Howe's teacher and friend: Her long, deep-breathing lines address mysteries of flesh and spirit in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.

Marie Howe, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I thought the best way to start would be with the poem that's anthologized in the new Penguin anthology, and it's about having a new comprehension of life and of being alive after your brother died. He died of AIDS-related causes in 1989. Do I have that right?

MARIE HOWE: Yes, I think I was '89. I was just wondering, Terry, this morning, is it '88 or '89. But I think it was '89.

GROSS: So would you read that poem for us?

HOWE: Sure. The poem is a letter, actually, written to John that I started to write when I was struggling with writing poems all day, and I decided to just quit that and write John a letter, "What the Living Do."

(Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

(Readgin) 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.

(Reading) 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.

GROSS: That's Marie Howe, reading her poem "What the Living Do." That's such a beautiful poem. So I get the sense from this poem that your brother's death gave you just like a new comprehension of what it means to be alive.

HOWE: Well, yes, eventually.

GROSS: Right, yeah

HOWE: As we all know, first, you know, you just think, you know, John - I come from a very large family, Terry. There were nine children in my family, and I love all my brothers and sisters, and we were close growing up. But John and I were very close, and he was, I don't know, a kind of - he was my editor and spiritual teacher.

And John, I talked to John, I don't know, five times a week on the phone. We wrote letters back and forth. We were in a constant conversation. You know, we were 11 years apart, but - he was much younger than me, but when he died, it was a terrible loss to all of us.

So first it's that. You know, as you know, as everybody knows, you think my life has changed, so really I don't know how to live it anymore. And then, you know, you find a way.

GROSS: You called him your spiritual advisor, and you said that he used to say pain - I think it was in one of your poems, pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. That sounds so wise and yet so impossible. For me, suffering always feels, like, completely out of my control.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, I can't make it stop.

HOWE: Well, it's an AA thing, too. You know, John was in AA. He got sober at 23. But when someone's lying there, and they're 90 pounds, and they're blind in one eye, and they have neuropathy, and they can't walk, and they say pain is inevitable, and suffering is a choice, then it's quite a different matter.

Johnny said this right until the last day he died. He looked up at me and said: This is not a tragedy, Marie. I am a happy man. You know, actually after that, he said when I'm asked if I could love, I can answer yes.

GROSS: Do you think he really believed that, or was he saying that for your sake, that he was a happy man?

HOWE: He wouldn't - I think he really believed it. He shone. He was luminous. You know, I think that he wouldn't say something like that for my sake. We were too honest with each other.

GROSS: There's another poem I want you to read, and this is a poem about you're your childhood. It's called "The Boy." And why don't you, before you read it, introduce it for us.

HOWE: Well, when I got writing - when I started to write about my brother John, I began thinking about gender. John was a gay man, living and dying at a time when this was still a fraught issue in our culture.

GROSS: And probably in your family, which is Catholic.

HOWE: Not so much in my family by that time, no. I mean, there was a few bumps but not much, actually. My mother - my father had died, and my mother - and all of us just adored John. We just wanted him to be healthy, you know. So it wasn't that big of a deal, oddly. We were Catholic lefties, Terry. That's an important distinction.

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWE: We were the left Catholics. We had the guitar masses at home and went into the ghettos and painted people's houses whether they liked it or not, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWE: And we, you know, we marched on Washington. We were the Dan Berrigan Catholics. But this boy, I want to make clear at this moment in time, is not my brother John. It's another brother. I have four brothers and four sisters. And this was an older brother, the only person older than me in our family. Shall I read it?

GROSS: Yes, please.

HOWE: "The Boy." (Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

GROSS: So even though it was a lefty family as you describe it, you feel like the girls and the boys in your family were brought up differently?

HOWE: Oh sure. Oh my gosh, yes, in that way, yes. We served the boys dinner, we cleared their plates. You know, I think the boys had two jobs: empty the garbage and shovel the walks. It was a very gendered world back in the '50s when I was growing up.

GROSS: So there's another poem I want you to read calling "Practicing," and this is about, like, very early glimmers of sexuality and what that's like.

HOWE: Yeah, this poem took me 20 years to write.

GROSS: Really? Why'd it take so long?

HOWE: Well, I couldn't find the form. You know, I tried and tried and tried to write about this, and also it was, you know, a little - kind of embarrassing, a little scary. And finally one day I realized, oh, it's a poem of praise. It's a praise song, you know. And then it found its shape. "Practicing."

(Reading) I want to write a love poem for the girls I kissed in seventh grade, a song for what we did on the floor in the basement of somebody's parents' house, a hymn for what we didn't say but thought: That feels good or I like that, when we learned how to open each other's mouths, how to move our tongues to make somebody moan.

(Reading) We called it practicing, and one was the boy, and we paired off - maybe six or eight girls - and turned out the lights and kissed and kissed until we were stoned on kisses and lifted our nightgowns or let the straps drop, and now you be the boy.

(Reading) Concrete floor, sleeping bag or couch, playroom, game room, train room, laundry. Linda's basement was like a boat with booths and portholes instead of windows. Gloria's father had a bar downstairs with stools that spun, plush carpeting.

(Reading) We kissed each other's throats, and we left marks, and never spoke of it upstairs, outdoors, in daylight, not once. We did it, and it was practicing, and we grew up and hardly mentioned who the first kiss really was - a girl like us, still sticky with moisturizer we had shared in the bathroom.

(Reading) I want to write a song for that thick silence in the dark, and the first pure thrill of unreluctant desire, just before we made ourselves stop.

GROSS: I think that's such a beautiful poem, and reading it I kept thinking: Is this a poem about a girl who is gay and, you know, practicing, in quotes, is a way of being intimate with other girls? Or is this about a girl who's really practicing for the kind of heterosexual desire that she can't really - you know, heterosexual relationship that she can't really have yet because she's in seventh grade.

HOWE: Yeah, well, I think every single one of those girls, all of us grew up to marry.

GROSS: Was that - I just realized that's such an intimate question to ask.

HOWE: No, it's okay. I mean, I think it's - there's a lot of fluidity in sexuality that we don't acknowledge, and especially in those ages. You know, perhaps, perhaps always, there's a kind of fluidity that this book is also aware of. My brother John had girlfriends all through high school and college, you know. I don't know that one has to always decide.

But certainly this practicing was practicing, but it also becomes something, you know, in itself, which was kind of thrilling and freaky, you know. I have to tell you one thing: This came out in a magazine, and I went home to my hometown for Christmas, and I went over to see one of my dear old friends, a grown woman with grown sons, and the magazine was on her coffee table, and we never mentioned the poem.

GROSS: Do you think she was uncomfortable about it?

HOWE: Apparently we both were. I didn't mention it either.

GROSS: Was she one of the girls in the poem?

HOWE: Yes.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

HOWE: Now we were, you know, we were 45, you know.

GROSS: Right. Well, you know, you're in such a swoon in the poem, and you say you tried to write it for 20 years, and you were able to write it when you realized it was a song of praise. What shape was the poem taking before you realized it was a song of praise?

HOWE: I think I was trying to tell a narrative or trying to tell a story or trying to explain something. I don't know. I couldn't, you know, every poem holds the unspeakable inside it, the unsayable, you know, not unspeakable as in taboo but the unsayable, the thing that you can't really say because it's too complicated, it's too complex for us.

BIANCULLI: Poet Marie Howe, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Marie Howe, the poet laureate of New York state.

GROSS: We started with a poem about your brother's death and carrying on with life after that. There's a poem about your mother dying that I'd like you to read, and it's called "My Mother's Body."

HOWE: Yeah.

GROSS: Introduce it for us before you read it.

HOWE: My mother gave birth to nine of us, and she had two miscarriages, so she was pregnant 11 times. And as we've said earlier, many of us daughters have trouble separating from our mothers, especially if our mothers merge with us, and the oldest girl of a big family often has that syndrome going on. So for me, when my mother was dying, after she died I was thinking a lot about her actual body and her and me, her and I, she and I, her and me, the two of us, so...

GROSS: And the poem kind of alternates between her and you, between her body and yours.

HOWE: Yeah. Or that it's actually her - a lot of her body, but it's thinking about her body when I was in it.

GROSS: Right. When she was carrying you.

HOWE: Yeah, when she was carrying me, when she was carrying me and then also when she - my mother was very sick the last few years of her life - going to dialysis three times a week, very, very uncomfortable. And to think of her as a young woman of 24 carrying me and then as an older woman, really her body was just wrecked and it's part of what was happening here as well.

GROSS: "My Mother's Body." (Reading) Bless my mother's body, the first song of her beating heart and her breathing; her voice, which I could dimly hear, grew louder. From inside her body I heard almost every word she said. Within that girl I drove to the store and back, her feet pressing pedals of the blue car, her voice, first gate to the cold sunny mornings, rain, moonlight, snowfall, dogs.

HOWE: (Reading) Her kidneys failed, the womb where I once lived is gone. Her young astonished body pushed me down that long corridor, and my body hurt her, I know that - 24 years old. I'm old enough to be that girl's mother, to smooth her hair, to look into her exultant frightened eyes, her bed sheets stained with chocolate, her heart in constant failure.

(Reading) It's a girl, someone must have said. She must have kissed me with her mouth, first grief, first air, and soon I was drinking her, first food, I was eating my mother slumped in her wheelchair, one of my brothers pushing it, across the snowy lawn, her eyes fixed, her face averted. Bless this body she made, my long legs, her long arms and fingers, our voice in my throat speaking to you know.

GROSS: Had you always thought about, like, you know, the pain of childbirth that your mother probably had delivering you, or about your just like physical connection to her - the fact that she carried you. I mean did you think about that a lot until she was dying?

HOWE: No, I never thought of it until she was dying. I never thought of it. She was pregnant all the time. She was always pregnant with some other baby.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOWE: And never - I never imagined myself as her baby. She was always pregnant. She was always standing in our backyard by that swimming pool with a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, in a bathing suit pregnant, talking to her other sisters, all pregnant, all with lipstick on, all with bathing suits on, and then she would turn to the pool and yell, you know, one more time and you're out to one of the kids and then turn back to her sisters.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWE: She was just sort of, you know, a glamorous pregnant woman.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWE: There were so many mothers. You know, Terry, I'm sure you have many, many mothers, and your mother too, so many mothers. But no, I hadn't thought about it really until later. And then, you know, the fullness of time. I mean time and eternity are a constant - so many poems occur at the intersection of time and eternity and the fullness of time.

GROSS: Marie Howe, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and for reading some of your poems.

HOWE: Terry, it's been a great pleasure to talk with you.

BIANCULLI: Marie Howe, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. Marie Howe is the poet laureate of New York state. The title poem from Howe's collection, "What the Living Do," is in the Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. Marie Howe teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence, NYU and Columbia University. She'll be appearing at the MTA Poetry In Motion Spring Fest, held tomorrow at Grand Central Station in New York. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.