"A nearly unendurable joy"
by Keith Taylor
From the January, 2007 issue
Marie Howe's second collection of poems, What the Living Do, has a unique place in contemporary letters. It is a widely read book that appeals to many different kinds of readers, often those who don't read much contemporary poetry, if any at all. And often her readers are a bit puzzled about exactly what has moved them so much.
Although Howe came to the art comparatively late she didn't start working seriously on her poems until she was around thirty she arrived with a level of experience that enriched her work. Since many of the poems in What the Living Do recount personal narratives of childhood abuse and later losses in particular, the death of the poet's brother from AIDS and the death of her good friend, the poet (originally from Ann Arbor) Jane Kenyon it is easy for some readers to associate Howe with the Confessional Poets, particularly with the obsessive self-absorption of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath.
But Marie Howe is decidedly not that kind of poet. Although she has a good ear that is attuned to the moment and has allowed her to absorb the best of the fashions of this moment, something else shapes these poems, something that can't be taught or learned. Margaret Atwood wrote about Howe's first collection, The Good Thief, that her readers "occasionally [feel] that cool wind at the back of the neck that makes you think there's one more person in the room than there actually is." That is a lovely way of describing the captivating feel of Marie Howe's poems. These are visionary, even ecstatic and religious poems from a poet who occasionally senses things beyond the realm where most of us spend most of our time. We recognize that realm when we see it, even if we can't describe it.
Here's an example of what I mean from "Memorial," a poem near the end of What the Living Do. The poem
describes the illness and death of another young man, Billy:
| and something began to move through the room, |
as if energy were
rising, like thickening air,
as if spirit were pleasure
pushing through the room, through
even our faces,
a molecular, invisible . . .
If this was Billy
he was so vast
the way one field leads onto another,
vast to have been contained
all that time, in that body,
a nearly unendurable joy
a steady outpouring for over an hour
so that when the men came back from dinner they found
Billy dead in the sheets
and the three of us almost drunkenly smiling.
That seems to me to be an exact presentation of moments I have had watching my loved ones die a moment that mixes grief with something else I haven't been able to define. This poet helps me understand it.
Marie Howe reads from her poetry at a campus location TBA on Monday, January 22.
[Review published January 2007]
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