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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
and listen, we don’t die when we die. Death is
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
the level look that wants to tell you something,
in a crowded room, something important,
How Some of It Happened
My brother was aftraid, 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
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
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
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
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:
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,
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.
Who was I when I used to call your name?
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.
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
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.
Oh, the coming-out-of-nowhere moment
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
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.