Breaking a Window on the World: The Poetry of Marie Howe

Dante DiStefano Click to

ddistefano-266Dante DiStefano is a Ph. D. candidate at Binghamton University.  His poems have appeared recently in Brilliant Corners, The Grove Review, Nimrod and elsewhere.  He was the First Place Winner of the 2012 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, given by the Poetry Center in Paterson, N.J.

In a murderous time/ the heart breaks and breaks/ and lives by breaking.
—Stanley Kunitz (from “The Testing Tree”)

…We were still men,/ but maimed.  Another kind of hurt lodged/ where happiness had smoldered, another kind/ of ruin, and summer came.
—Marie Howe (from “The Wise Men”)

Marie Howe’s three books The Good Thief (1988), What the Living Do (1998), and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (2008) provide a convincing argument for the durability and timeliness of lyric narrative poetry.  Her poetry meditatively witnesses the self as it unfolds in time, but amounts to more than mere spiritual autobiography. Howe’s poetry transubstantiates strands of confessional detail, personal biography, and the detritus of everyday existence into a greater narrative of what it feels like to be alive.   Marie Howe’s poetry charts the same territory as the poetry of her mentor, Stanley Kunitz. In a 1968 interview with David Lupher, Stanley Kunitz remarked, “All poetry is born of love, and the moment one doesn’t have love enough for the world, or love enough for others—at that point one is dead as a poet.”  But love for Howe, as for Kunitz, remains circumscribed by the danger that comes from living in a murderous time.  As Howe elaborated in a 1997 interview in BOMB magazine:

It takes so much courage to love, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s always been difficult, but in this age and in this culture – capitalism doesn’t want love, it wants us to buy and eat a culture that spends its money on defense systems – where so many of our communities are lonely and false, shattered and dangerous, and children’s hearts are broken very early. Remember when the Surgeon General said the most pressing medical problem in American culture was addiction? Is addiction thwarted love giving up the hope of human connection? The fierce, real, clear energy of actual love, intentional defenselessness, the “unromantic daily love” of changing a grown man’s diapers, or moving someone’s car on street cleaning day so she can sleep – this daily love keeps many of us alive. To act in this world, without irony or condescension, as the younger sister does, seems to me an act of great courage. The long journey from the head to the heart.

Marie Howe’s three books betray an allegiance to this notion of “unromantic daily love” even as they act in this world without irony or condescension.  This fidelity to the unvarnished, simple, acts of love, devotion, and kindness separates Marie Howe’s work from the work of most of her contemporaries. Ultimately, Howe’s poetry abides as a poetry of action because it moves us through the recognizable kingdom of ordinary time, through various biblical and literary mythologies, to an apprehension of what we, the living, do.

In looking at Howe’s three books, the first impulse is to chart her growth and change as a poet, moving from the Biblical and fairytale persona poems of The Good Thief, through the personal poems of her second collection, into the masterfully balanced poems of her third collection.  However, Howe’s work in these collections has no beginning, middle, or end; there is no neat spiritual arc to trace.  Although each collection is self-contained, all of the poems are in dialogue with each other in a way that is particular to her work and, perhaps, unprecedented among collections of poetry.   Of course, there are shifts in personal perception as Howe describes in explaining the impact of her brother’s death on her view of the world:

After John died, the world became very clear – as if a window had broken – the world     itself became very dear. It was the place John had lived, and as long as I still walked     around I could catch glimpses of him. But more than that, when John died I felt as if I     had finally entered the larger community of humans. Now I knew unbearable grief, and     I was like other people in this world who had known this. I began to understand that     everything I knew and loved would pass away, and I would pass away. I would die like     my brother had died, and the world, the actual “is-ness” of it became and remains very     precious to me – the wind, running water, voices.

Nevertheless, the perspective of looking through a broken window on a clear, and dear, and dangerous, but lovely, landscape ran throughout The Good Thief; in “From Nowhere,” for example, the speaker says:

But this morning, a kind day has descended, from nowhere,

and making coffee in the usual way, measuring grounds
with the wooden spoon, I remembered,

this is how things happen, cup by cup, familiar gesture
after gesture, what else can we know of safety

or of fruitfulness?

In these lines, the dearness of the most ordinary and mindless of everyday activities is neither diluted, nor obscured.  These lines would be just as at home in Howe’s later collections because they are animated by a reverence for the small details of life that when carefully attended to constitute the “unromantic daily love” synonymous with faith.

Søren Kierkegaard maintained that faith is a process of infinite becoming.   Howe’s faith is a faith divested of dogma, wherein love becomes the still center.  The spirituality ghosting through her poems is a reverence for the commonplace.   Howe’s reverence for the imperfect allows her to map the long journey from the head to the heart.  This is a journey that is private and public, solitary and communal; it includes an ongoing conversation with the stuttering Moses, with the passionate Mary Magdalene, with her dead brother, with her living family, with the poets, such as Kunitz, who preceded her, and with the readers who admire her work. The crusty dishes are still piling up for the plumber who has not been called and in the domain of the routine, Howe’s poems nudge the humdrum, without irony or condescension, toward a sisterly embrace of all that is holy, right here.  Howe uncovers the way the sacred inhabits the habitual and in this uncovering there is a breaking, like Kunitz’s heart that breaks and breaks and lives by breaking. The idea of living by breaking forms the core of Howe’s poetry. Howe’s representations of daily life, her appropriation and reinterpretation of Christian myths, and her poetry’s depictions of femininity provide a means for examining the complicated ways her poetry breaks a window on the world and holds forth the precious “is-ness” of trees, running water, and voices, despite, and because of, our mortality.

Howe’s poetry lives in the liminal space between the mundane tasks that make up our days and the knowledge that the routines that bind us to life are also bound to death.  In an interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, Howe articulated one of her poetry’s central concerns this way:

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

So everybody we know is going to die and many of us will attend our beloved friends and family. So what each friend who has died has told me is, it’s going to happen to you too. You know, here I go, bye, you know? And every time that happens, it’s a new experience that I feel like I’ve been privileged to be near or close to the door when they’ve gone.

All three of Marie Howe’s books occupy this space “near or close to the door” from which the loved one leaves.  Her poems bear witness to the great mystery that is at the center of our lives.  As Mary says of this mystery in a poem from The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: “…I saw it./ It was a thing and spirit both: the real/ world: evident, invisible.”  In this poem, the mystic vision “bled out, breathed up and mingled” with the invisible world evident in “bush and cow and dust and well.” The painfully ordinary things of this world are the real substance of the spiritual world.  The world beyond the world is everywhere present and here, if only apprehended in sight’s periphery; of course, all great poetry allows its readers a slant glance, an insight into envisioning’s blurred edges. Howe’s poetry, then, is spiritual in the way that Whitman’s poetry is spiritual; Whitman’s spirituality, grandly communal as Howe’s is, begins, as Lewis Hyde points out, in the knowledge: “I know that my body shall decay.”  From this knowledge comes an invocation of the broad blessing of all that surrounds us so complexly and confusedly, but so gracefully: family, friends, chores, work, the joy that can be derived from organizing a recycling bin or taking your dog for a walk on a windy day in autumn.

Tony Hoagland has noted that Marie Howe can be regarded as a contemporary American spiritual poet because of her familiarity with states of grace and the priority with which she invests the pursuit of those states.  Hoagland notes the precarious position that a poet who engages any type of spirituality through her poetry puts herself in, but argues passionately for reading Howe critically as a spiritual poet. Hoagland says:

In a time when “directness” is unfashionable, they take the risk of addressing matters of     faith. In their respective ways, their attention is resolutely intent on making contact with Being. Moreover, their American individualities are influenced by religious traditions of striking distinctness.

Hoagland’s essay notes that Howe’s poetic deeply internalizes Catholic Christian myth; the essay convincingly begins to elaborate Howe’s conversion of Catholic symbol and myth into the idiomatic understructure of her second and third books.  However, Hoagland’s study of Howe’s work dwells primarily on the patriarchal underpinnings of the tradition, exploring the archetypes of the sacrificial son/bother, explaining the image of Christ in the poem “The Snow Storm,” and examining patterns of epiphany brought on by exile or loss, which more often than not imply Moses, or God the Father.  These elements are indeed important to understanding Marie Howe as a poet, but it is her examination of what it is to be a girl, a daughter, a sister, a lover, a wife, a mother, and a woman in America for the past sixty two years that links her three collections most closely together and that allows for her unique contemplation of the metaphysical in a way that transcends gender, politics, ideology, or creed.

In Marie Howe’s three books of poetry, female figures exit, follow, enter, and speak, or almost speak, to the divine, even as the important details of the everyday divert their attention; on the cusp of communion, on the verge of an urgent talk with an absent God, they are called away by “…the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage” they need to buy for a trip.  In these female figures, who know the wisdom of the mystics and yet who flee this wisdom, caught in the detritus and drift of a consumer culture, Howe reimagines the Christian archetypes of  femininity and reinterprets them in a way that allows her readers to ask existential questions as old as Eve’s dilemma.  In The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, a book dedicated to her daughter, Grace Yi-Nan Howe, and to her late mother, Jane Crowley Howe, the section “Poems from the Life of Mary” provide a fulcrum for the collection and are closely in dialogue with the poems that explore notions of femininity in her earlier collections.  Unlike, but in conversation with, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Life of Mary” poems, Howe’s poems focus on the mother of God before the Immaculate Conception.  Howe’s poem ends with the Annunciation, the third poem in Rilke’s cycle.  In Howe’s poem the Annunciation is described as “a tilting within myself.”  Howe’s Mary continues:

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.

Mary is rearticulated as much more than theotokos, Christ-Bearer; she is not merely a vessel for the divine. She is no one and she is “so specifically” herself. Mary’s ability to receive love and to be a mother to the divine does not erase her specificity as a woman, as a person who endures life, who endures being in such uncertainties. Howe’s Mary would be no less at home in the Star Market, among the feeble shuffling through the aisles and the lame smelling of decay, than she would be under the light of the Bethlehem star, among those slouching wise men and singing angels.

Everywhere in Howe’s work, the poet presents women and girls buffeted by the boring, struggling with the extraordinary, trying to speak to the sacred, but given no easy recourse to epiphany.  Howe herself was the oldest sister in a family of nine children. She became a mother at the age of fifty-two when she adopted her daughter. As she told Terry Gross:

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 mother is merged with us in the oldest girl of a big family…

In Howe’s work, the roles of mother and daughter often overlap and elide; biblical women are re-envisioned, or reinterpreted, as vocal, active, thoughtful, and fraught with contradictions. Two poems from What the Living Do provide examples.  In “Memorial,” a poem about the death of a friend, Howe rewrites Martha, the woman from the Gospel of Luke, whom Jesus chastised for complaining that she had to do all the work while her sister, Mary, sat talking with him.  Howe writes:

Jesus said, Mary chose the better part, to Martha, who was complaining about
her sister not helping. She never helped.

But I love that woman slamming around the kitchen. She’s made food enough
For more than a dozen people, and no one’s even the least bit hungry—

She’s scraping the plates into a stack to carry to the table and now she sets them
down heavily with a huff. Jesus is speaking in a quiet voice.

He’s a kind man, Martha is thinking; he doesn’t mean any harm, but if I don’t do it,
it won’t get done.

Howe humanizes Martha in the retelling at a moment in the poem when the speaker is expressing frustration over not being in charge of her friend’s cremated remains.  Howe’s kinship with Martha is a kinship we all share, caught as we are, even in the face of death, with the struggle to scrape the plates, or hold the urn, to make some noise from the distant kitchen and be heard, even as everything seems to be slipping through our fingers like ash. Martha behaves as both weary wise caretaker and attention seeking brat; she fulfills the role of beleaguered mother and complaining daughter.  More importantly, the internal struggle she enacts is the story of a soul in search of spiritual fulfillment, railing against itself and others as it dutifully labors to perform its daily tasks.

Similarly, the poem “The Girl” elaborates on this spiritual struggle.  Howe’s short poem reads:

So close to the end of my childbearing life
without children

—if I could remember a day when I was utterly a girl
and not yet a woman—

but I don’t think there was a day like that for me.

When I look at the girl I was, dripping in her bathing suit,
or riding her bike, pumping hard down the newly paved street,

she wears a furtive look—
and even if I could go back in time to her as me, the age I am now

she would never come into my arms
without believing that I wanted something.

The permanent sense of dis-ease is painful in this poem. Certainly this poem is in dialogue with the poem, “The Boy,” which begins this collection.  “The Boy” ends with the lines: “I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he was,/ calling and calling his name.” Notably, however, in “The Girl” the female figure is not following a brother, or a father, or a lover.  Here, the girl is solitary, and although “she wears a furtive look,” she retains the agency of disbelief.  For Howe, spiritual witness involves looking at the irreconcilable fragments of the self, weaving together all the contradictorily coarse and fine threads of biography, listening to the cacophony of all the Marthas banging pots in the kitchen while the Lord waits in the living room.

This sense of being in a world of uncertainties and contradiction, always on the verge of some great mystery, constantly courted by grief and loss, that informs What the Living Do and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, also deeply informed Howe’s first book, The Good Thief.  The first poem of The Good Thief inaugurates the discussion of what it means to be a woman, or a spiritual being, today. In “Part of Eve’s Discussion,” the speaker opens up a dialogue with Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and all the mothers, daughters, girls, wives, lovers, and women who populate Howe’s body of work. Howe’s prose poem begins the conversation:

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

The biblical fall is reenergized by modern details; all of existence becomes the moment before the car begins to spin on bad ice.  Before and during overlap, the bird decides not to eat from your hand and flies, but it doesn’t; everything falls to stillness, what is.  By rendering the fall contemporaneous, Howe suggests that falling IS like having faith, is something that’s constantly occurring; if both doubt and faith are processes of infinite becoming, then maybe all we have are the stories like the one she tells to her daughter in “The Spell:” “…I dropped you off, I taught my class/ I ate a tuna fish sandwich, wrote emails, returned phone calls, talked with students/ and then I came to pick you up.”   Those stories are acts of kindness, and as her daughter knows, there are stories behind stories, subtexts that only become clear through other acts of love.

Eve’s discussion is a discussion of how to live in a world where the old hierarchies of family and religion have flattened out.  In an uncollected poem, published in the American Poetry Review, Howe’s concerns as a spiritual poet are summarized in a deep re-imagining of Mary Magdalene, a figure who, in this poem gathers the varied strains of complaint and praise levied by the female figures in all of Howe’s work.  The poem in its entirety follows:

Magdalene-The Seven Devils

Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven devils had been cast out
-Luke 8:2

The first was that I was very busy.
The second – I was different from you: whatever happened to you could
not happen to me, not like that.

The third – I worried.
The fourth – envy, disguised as compassion.
The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid,
The aphid disgusted me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The mosquito too – its face. And the ant – its bifurcated body.

Ok the first was that I was so busy.
The second that I might make the wrong choice,
because I had decided to take that plane that day,
that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early
and, I shouldn’t have wanted that.
The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street
the house would blow up.
The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer
of skin lightly thrown over the whole thing.

The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living

The sixth – if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I
touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had
to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.

The seventh – I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that
was alive and I couldn’t stand it,

I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word – cheesecloth –
to breathe through that would trap it – whatever was inside everyone else that
entered me when I breathed in

No. That was the first one.

The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this happened?
How had our lives gotten like this?

The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it – distinct, separate
from me in a bowl or on a plate.

Ok. The first was that. I could never get to the end of the list.

The second was that the laundry was never finally done.

The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they did.
And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them then what was love?
Someone using you as a co-ordinate to situate himself on earth.

The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong
to anyone.

Historians would assume my sin was sexual.

The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.

The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was feeling.

The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying.
The sound she made – the gurgling sound – so loud we had to speak louder
to hear each other over it.

And that I couldn’t stop hearing it – years later –
grocery shopping, crossing the street –

Not the sound – it was her body’s hunger, finally evident.
What our mother had hidden all her life.

For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots,
the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew underneath.

The underneath – That was the first devil. It was always with me.
And that I didn’t think you – if I told you – would understand any of this –

This poem, quite arguably, Howe’s finest, charts the demonic predicament many Americans find themselves in today; the possessed today are the dispossessed, for whom genuine connection, “unromantic daily love,” and the bonds of community have been broken by self-involvement and fear.

In “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” Howe, the speaker, and Mary Magdalene, all overlap to form one woman adrift in a spiritual malaise.  Although the seven devils have been driven out, they are repeatedly invoked in order to be rearticulated and exorcised anew.  All of the devils are devils of the ego, devils who feed on a lack of compassion, devils confined by self-made barricades erected against understanding others.  The first devil is busyness.  The second devil is lack of empathy.  The third devil worry, the fourth, envy, the fifth, disgust for the living, the sixth, obsessive self-involvement, and the seventh, lack of appreciation for the grace that keeps us alive.  After line upon line of incantation, the image of the speaker’s mother dying brings the poem to a halt.  Howe, then, concludes with the revelation:

For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots,
the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew underneath.
The underneath – That was the first devil. It was always with me.
And that I didn’t think you – if I told you – would understand any of this –

These lines are as much a commentary on Howe’s work as a whole as they are a summary indictment of all that keeps us from each other, from genuine expressions of affection and love.

Howe has spent three collections of poetry bearing witness to the spiritual pitfalls of being in a world from which we will all soon depart; she has exalted the mundane as a space within which the blessed might reside.  These lines call attention to the danger that such spaces also contain. Here, Magdalene suggests, that if we are too caught up with the busyness from which we build our lives, if we invest too much sacredness in the transitory that catches us by the collar, if we honor our dead to the exclusion of those living we love, then we are still possessed and the demons will not be driven out so easily again.  The underneath is always with us.  Our sin as possessed people is not sexual, or moral, it is the sin of being unfaithful to ourselves by being too attentive to ourselves; by neglecting others, we turn our backs on the sacred.

These are particularly poignant thoughts when we think about the uses of poetry today.  So much of what is written is about the uniqueness of a poem’s story or the flashy surface and sound of the words.  So much is obsessive compulsive in its verbal pyrotechnics.  So much of it uses others to situate the self like so many coordinates on Google maps.  So much of it has the weight and probity of a YouTube clip.  So much of contemporary American poetry is irony uttered through a mask, confessional draining through a sieve, the visage of beauty covered with cheesecloth.  Marie Howe’s work raises a healing hand; she privileges plain song and helps us, as she helps herself, to understand what a graceful and grateful thing it is to break and break and live by breaking, even in a murderous time. The Good Thief begins with a quote from Hölderlin: “The danger itself fosters the rescuing power.” Howe’s poetry shows us the dangers inherent in our busy lives and, in doing so, provides a glimpse of the rescuing power.  In this way, it is a spiritual poetry, a poetry that reminds its readers what it is to love truly, with an “unromantic daily love,” the things and people of this world, in this kingdom of ordinary time.

Works Cited
“Poet Marie Howe Reflects On The ‘Living’ After Loss.” (Interview)(Broadcast transcript)(Audio file) National Public Radio. Fresh Air, April 13, 2012.
“Soul Radio.” Tony Hoagland. The American Poetry Review. Philadelphia: Jul/Aug 2011. Vol. 40, Iss. 4;  pg. 31-35.
“Magdalene-The Seven Devils.” Marie Howe. The American Poetry Review. Philadelphia: Jul/Aug 2011. Vol. 40, Iss. 4;  pg. 48.
Howe, Marie. The Good Thief. Persea Books (New York: 1988).
Howe, Marie. The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. W.W. Norton and Company (New York: 2008).
Howe, Marie. What the Living Do. W.W. Norton and Company (New York: 1998).
Howe, Marie and Victoria Redel. “Marie Howe” BOMB, No. 61 (Fall, 1997).
Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Vintage (New York, 1983).
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling and Repetition. Princeton University Press (New Jersey: 1983).
Kunitz, Stanley. The Collected Poems. W.W. Norton & Company (New York: 2000).
Kunitz, Stanley. Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz. Ed. Stanley Moss. The Sheep Meadow Press (New York: 1993).


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