Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Marie Howe's Poems: You Must Remember "This"

"The Gate," read aloud on Krista Tippett's radio program On Being, was the gateway for me to Marie Howe's poetry.  Howe first explained that the poem was one of many in her collection What the Living Do about her much younger brother John, who died of AIDs in 1987. She began, "I had no idea that the gate I would step through / to finally enter this world / would be the space my brother's body made."  Around thirty seconds later, I felt I knew the young man, and the wisdom that his sister captured succinctly in a word: not "the" world, but "this" one, the only one we've got, the one we usually pass by with our minds on our objectives or screens.

This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I'd say, What?

And he'd say, This --           ("The Gate," WTLD 58)

Then she read something newly minted, "Magdalene - The Seven Devils," a naming of the seven devils that Jesus cast out of Mary Magdalene (Mk 16.9) as if it had happened today:  "The first was that I was very busy."  Other demons include,  "I was worried," and, "envy, disguised as compassion."  But, she goes on tangents and has to start over: "Ok the first was that I was so busy."  The more Howe's Mary Magdalene coiled back, the more tightly wound up in the poem I was, nodding and laughing at feelings I owned. I went online and bought three collections: What the Living Do, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, and Magdalene.

Though Howe uses characters and terms from her Catholic upbringing, orthodoxy is not her concern. It's that attentiveness learned from the brother John, or from an unnamed Jesus figure in the Magdalene poems or poems about Mary in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. The phrase "ordinary time," as she explained to Krista Tippett, is the church's name for the numbered or "ordinal" Sundays between Pentecost and Advent, the time in the church year devoted not to the miraculous incarnation of Jesus, but to what we, the living, do with it.  She develops the theme in Magdalene, as the title character learns how to look at someone else as a separate person (24; 26; 43).  By the end of that collection, she's learning the same lesson from appreciating her adopted daughter.

On another NPR show, Fresh Air, host Terry Gross had Howe read "What the Living Do." First, Howe explained that she gave up on a poem and just wrote a letter to her late brother - and discovered it was a poem. The poem affected me much more after I'd heard that explanation.  What the living do is the daily rituals of "ordinary" days, paying attention, being grateful:  "This is it. / Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold.  What you called that yearning" (WTLD, 89).

Howe discussed the idea of "ritual" with Krista Tippett.  "The Gate" mentions that her brother, dying on his bed, had already rinsed every glass. Howe agreed when Tippett said, "It strikes me that these rituals of ordinary time themselves are a little bit like poetry, these condensed, kind of economical little packets of beauty and grace that carry so much more forward than, than is obvious."  Howe told how she assigns her poetry students two - line observations without comment, without metaphor.  They complain how hard it is to do; but after weeks doing it, when she assigns metaphor, they want to stick with observation.

Howe tells of having difficulty writing certain poems until it struck her that they were praise poems. "Practicing" is a loving memory of her seventh grade girl friends practicing kisses (WTLD 23); "My Mother's Body" folds the body's healthy child-bearing past with its end, with thankfulness (Kingdom of Ordinary Time 45).  

Many of her poems portray boys or men in ways I've not seen in other works. What the Living Do sets the theme with "The Boy," about a brother's heroic stand against the father's bullying.  The males in "Sixth Grade" enact a proto-gang-rape.  As her brothers join neighborhood boys to build "The Fort" in a vacant lot, she watches at a distance,

                           ...a village of boys
who had a house to clean, women
in magazines, cigarettes and soda and
the strange self-contained voices they used
to speak to each other with...    (18)
fascinated by "what they had made without us."  Her father appears in all three books, swaying from drink, lumbering up the stairs to her attic bedroom, promising, "I'll break you" (Magdalene 30, 58); she writes gratefully of a brother who comforted her.  Later collections include poems of frank and funny carnal desire, including a synecdochic catalogue of men she has known by the peculiarities of their anatomy ("On Men, Their Bodies"Magdalene 22). There's the "he" identified with Jesus; and John, and John's beloved.  Whether enthralled or repelled, Howe gives this reader a sense I've not had before of how strange masculinity is to someone from the other side.

I expect to return to these collections again, for wisdom and a fondness for the people they describe, as I return to those by Richard Blanco, Linda Pastan, Todd Boss, and to Donald Hall's"The Night of the Day."  [See my page Poetry and Secular Psalms]

Interview with Krista Tippett On Beinghttps://onbeing.org/programs/marie-howe-the-poetry-of-ordinary-time/

Interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=306528499

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