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Marie Howe's Poetry

All by Marie Howe, 2016 Featured Poet

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.

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.

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.

The Last Time

The last time we had dinner together in a restraurant with white table clothes, he leaned forward

and took my two hands in his and said, I'm going to die soon. I want you to know that.

And I said, I think I do know. And he said, what surprises me is that you don't.

And I said, I do. And he said, What? And I said, Know that you're going to die.

And he said, No, I mean know that you are.

The Promise

In the dream I had when he came back not sick but whole, and wearing his winter coat,

he looked at me as though he couldn't speak, as if there were a law against it, a membrane he couldn't break

His silence was what he could not not do, like our breathing in this world, like our living.

As we do, in time. And I told him: I'm reading all this Buddhist stuff,

and listen, we don't die when we die. Death is an event, a threshold we pass through. We go on and on

and into light forever. And he looked down, and then back up at me. It was the look we'd pass

across the table when Dad was drunk again and dangerous, the level look that wants to tell you something,

in a crowded room, something important, and can't

How Some of It Happened

My brother was afraid, even as a boy, of going blind—so deeply that he would turn the dinner knives away from, looking at him,

he said, as they lay on the kitchen table. He would throw a sweatshirt over those knobs that lock the car door

from the inside, and once, he dismantled a chandelier in the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping.

We found the pile of sharp shining crystals in the upstairs hall. So you understand, it was terrible

when they clamped his one eye open and put the needle in through his cheek and up into his eye from underneath

and left it there for a full minute before they drew it slowly out once a week for many weeks. He learned to, lean into it,

to settle down he said, and still the eye went dead, ulcerated, breaking up green in his head, as the other eye, still blue

and wide open, looked and looked at the clock.

My brother promised me he wouldn't die after our father died. He shook my hand on a train going home one Christmas and gave me five years,

as clearly as he promised he'd be home for breakfast when I watched him walk into that New York City autumn night. By nine, I promise,

and he was—he did come back. And five years later he promised five years more. So much for the brave pride of premonition,

the worry that won't let it happen. You know, he said, I always knew I would die young. And then I got sober

and I thought, OK, I'm not. I'm going to see thirty and live to be an old man. And now it turns out that I am going to die. Isn't that funny?

--One day it happens: what you have feared all your life, the unendurably specific, the exact thing. No matter what you say or do.

This is what my brother said: Here, sit closer to the bed so I can see you.

How Many Times

No matter how many times I try I can't stop my father from walking into my sister's room

and I can't see any better, leaning from here to look in his eyes. It's dark in the hall

and everyone's sleeping. This is the past where everything is perfect already and nothing changes,

where the water glass falls to the bathroom floor and bounces once before breaking.

Nothing. Not the small sound my sister makes, turning over, not the thump of the dog's tail

when he opens one eye to see him stumbling back to bed still drunk, a little bewildered.

This is exactly as I knew it would be. And if I whisper her name, hissing a warning,

I've been doing that for years now, and still the dog startles and growls until he sees

it's our father, and still the door opens, and she makes that small oh turning over.

What the Angels Left

At first, the scissors seemed perfectly harmless. They lay on the kitchen table in the blue light.

Then I began to notice them all over the house, at night in the pantry, or filling up bowls in the cellar

where there should have been apples. They appeared under rugs, lumpy places where one would usually settle before the fire,

or suddenly shining in the sink at the bottom of soupy water. Once, I found a pair in the garden, stuck in turned dirt

among the new bulbs, and one night, under my pillow, I felt something like a cool long tooth and pulled them out

to lie next to me in the dark. Soon after that I began to collect them, filling boxes, old shopping bags,

every suitcase I owned. I grew slightly uncomfortable when company came. What if someone noticed them

when looking for forks or replacing dried dishes? I longed to throw them out, but how could I get rid of something

that felt oddly like grace? It occured to me finally that I was meant to use them, and I resisted a growing compulsion

to cut my hair, although in moments of great distraction, I thought it was my eyes they wanted, or my soft belly

--exhausted, in winter, I laid them out on the lawn. The snow fell quite as usual, without any apparent hesitation

or discomfort. In spring, as expected, they were gone. In their place, a slight metallic smell, and the dear muddy earth.


Someone or something is leaning close to me now trying to tell me the one true story of my life:

one note, low as a bass drum, beaten over and over:

It’s beginning summer, and the man I love has forgotten my smell

the cries I made when he touched me, and my laughter when he picked me up

and carried me, still laughing, and laid me down, among the scattered daffodils on the dining room table.

And Jane is dead,

and I want to go where she went,

where my brother went,

and whoever it is that whispered to me

when I was a child in my father’s bed is come back now: and I can’t stop hearing

This is the way it is,

the way it always was and will be—

beaten over and over—panicking in street comers, or crouched in the back of taxicabs,

afraid I’ll cry out in jammed traffic, and no one will know me or know where to bring me

There it is, I almost remember,

another story:

It runs along this one like a brook beside a train. The sparrow knows it, the grass rises with it.

The wind moves through the highest tree branches without seeming to hurt them.

Tell me. Who was I when I used to call your name?

Watching Television

I didn't want to look at the huge white egg the mother spider dragged along behind her, attached to her abdomen, held off the ground,

bigger than her own head- and inside it: hundreds of baby spiders feeding off the nest,

and in what seemed like the next minute, spinning their own webs quickly and crazily,

bumping into each other's and breaking them, then mending and moving over, and soon they got it right:

each in his or her own circle and running around it. And then they slept,

each in the center of a glistening thing: a red dot in ether.

Last night the moon was as big as a house at the end of the street, a white frame house, and rising,

and I thought of a room it was shining in, right then, a room I might live in and can't imagine yet.

And this morning, I thought of a place on the ocean where no one is, no boat, no fish jumping,

just sunlight gleaming on the water, humps of water that hardly break.

I have argued bitterly with the man I love, and for two days we haven't spoken.

We argued about one thing, but it really was another. I keep finding myself standing by the front windows looking out at the street

and the walk that leads to the front door of this building, white, unbroken by footprints.

Anything I've ever tried to keep by force I've lost.

The Gate

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. He was a little taller than me: a young man

but grown, himself by then, done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,

rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold and running water.

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

And he'd say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich. And I'd say, What?

And he'd say, This, sort of looking around.


We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store and the gas station and the green market and Hurry up honey, I say, hurry hurry, as she runs along two or three steps behind me her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave? To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?

Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her, Honey I'm sorry I keep saying Hurry— you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.

And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says, hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.


He had taken the right pills the night before. We had counted them out

from the egg carton where they were numbered so there’d be no mistake. He had taken the morphine and the prednisone and the amitriptyline

and Florinef and vancomycin and Halcion too quickly and had thrown up in the bowl Joe had brought to the bed—a thin string

of blue spit—then waited a few minutes, to calm himself, before he took them all again. And had slept through the night

and the morning and was still sleeping at noon—or not sleeping. He was breathing maybe twice a minute, and we couldn’t wake him,

we couldn’t wake him until we shook him hard calling, John wake up now John wake up—Who is the president?

And he couldn’t answer. His doctor told us we’d have to keep him up for hours.

He was all bones and skin, no tissue to absorb the medicine. He couldn’t walk unless two people held him.

And we made him talk about the movie: What was the best moment in On the Waterfront? What was the music in Gone with the Wind?

And for seven hours he answered, if only to please us, mumbling I like the morphine, sinking, rising, sleeping, rousing,

then only in pain again—but wakened. So wakened that late that night in one of those still blue moments

that were a kind of paradise, he finally opened his eyes wide, and the room filled with a certain kind of light we thought we’d never see again.

Look at you two, he said. And we did. And Joe said, Look at you. And John said, How do I look?

And Joe said, Handsome.

The Moment

Oh, the coming-out-of-nowhere moment

when, nothing


no what-have-I-to-do-today-list

maybe half a moment

the rush of traffic stops.

The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be

slows to silence.

the white cotton curtains hanging still.


So now it has our complete attention, and we are made whole. We take it into our hands like a rope, grateful and tethered, freed from waiting for it to happen. It is here, precisely as we imagined.

If the man has died, if the child’s illness has taken a sudden turn, if the house has burned in the middle of the night and in winter, there is at least a kind of stopping that will pass for peace.

Now when we speak it is with a great seriousness, and when we touch it is with our own fingers, and when we listen it is with our big eyes that have looked at a thing and have not blinked.

There is no longer any reason to distrust us. When it leaves it will leave like summer, and we will remember it as a break in something that had seemed as unrelenting as coming rain and we will be sorry to see it go.


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 others’ mouths

how to move our tongues to make somebody moan. 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.

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. We kissed each other’s throats.

We sucked each others’ breasts, and we left marks, and never spoke of it upstairs outdoors, in daylight, not once. We did it, and it was

practicing, and slept, sprawled so our legs still locked or crossed, a hand still lost in someone’s hair … and we grew up and hardly mentioned who

the first kiss really was — a girl like us, still sticky with the moisturizer we’d shared in the bathroom. 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


Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel it I know it is—and that if once it hailed me it ever does— And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction not as towards a place, but it was a tilting within myself, as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where it isn’t—I was blinded like that—and swam in what shone at me only able to endure it by being no one and so specifically myself I thought I’d die from being loved like that.

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