Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Marie Howe and I met to talk on a sweltering afternoon in a borrowed New York City apartment. I had sort of known Marie for years. Marie had preceded me in the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia University, as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center and more recently on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. Somehow visiting with Marie in the borrowed house of two men had a rightness to it, the same kind of rightness that Marie makes in poems that so frequently demand that a woman must make a life for herself on male ground. Spending an afternoon with Marie Howe is like spending the afternoon with an old girlfriend, the conversation roaming, roomy, moving quickly toward exposure of self. Certainly her second collection of poems, What the Living Do , works this way, a startling embrace of all that is difficult in a life as an artist and a woman. It is a book that refuses equivocation. It refuses any easy paths toward love, forgiveness of death. The language of these poems, searingly spoken, refuses to hide in metaphor or victimization, carving for itself a myth that is both generous and bold.
Victoria Redel In your poem “Beth,” from your new book What the Living Do, the speaker watches her younger sister return from a late night rendezvous with a boy and is amazed by her sister’s openness to love. She speaks to this in the last line of the poem.
Marie Howe “How does she learn to love a boy like that without irony or condescension?”
VR Yes, that notion, witnessing without irony or condescension, is what I wanted to start with, because that is what What The Living Do attempts—and does superbly.
MH 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 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.
VR That intense sense of hope manifested in What The Living Do feels like an important new direction in your work. That deep hope isn’t in your first book The Good Thief, is it?
MH The Good Thief begins with a sense of retroactive dread.
VR What does that mean, retroactive dread?
MH Dread has several meanings for me: The “uh oh” kind of dread when you feel danger coming: Kierkegaard’s Dread, what you feel in the process of perceiving the Sacred; the dread of God—what Abraham felt when he was told to kill his son, what Moses felt when he noticed the burning bush. Retroactive dread was a long term personal experience. You know that feeling you have after the phone has rung and you’ve heard the bad news, that feeling you had that the phone was going to ring just before it rang? That feeling.
There’s a poem in The Good Thief where Eve explains that that is how she feels now, all the time. The Good Thief is written from that world‚ the “what if,” “uh oh,” “I always knew that would happen” world. But inside the little dread is also the big dread, wherein lies the imminent presence of God. The Hölderlin quote is in the beginning of that first book: “The danger itself fosters the rescuing power.” The Good Thief, the man crucified next to Jesus is a person who deeply compels me. As he’s hanging on the cross in great physical pain, anticipating his own death, he commits an act of justice and kindness: he defends Jesus and takes responsibility for his own sins. It’s at that exact moment, in his deepest extremity, that he is assured of paradise. Not sometime in the future, but, as Jesus says: “This day.” The danger itself fosters the rescuing power.
If The Good Thief is nosing towards realizing what has already happened, maybe What The Living Do is speaking from beyond that. The memory has been recovered and now something has happened—something in the present—my brother John dying at 28 years old. But if The Good Thief arrives at an understanding of what occurred, What The Living Do might, in some of the poems, arrive at the place just before another kind of revelation‚ joy.
VR An interesting shift in the structures between The Good Thief and What The Living Do is that you drop the voices of Biblical mythology and let actual people, the actual people of Marie Howe’s life, enter the poems. Brothers, friends, lovers, grade school kids. It is a very brave leap to include all the names. The actual people are all that is needed for a mythology.
MH I love the characters in the Old and New Testaments, they were the stories of my childhood. I was one of those girls who read The Lives of the Saints in the bathtub‚ and through those stories I tried to figure out how to live. Abraham’s decision, Noah’s task, Moses’s stutter and exasperation, all helped me feel less embarrassed to be human—as did Mary Magdalene’s passionate love, Peter’s impulsiveness, and Jesus’s anger. I’m still in love with both Martha and Mary. They’re the only two who show up in the new book—and why wouldn’t they? Martha, the active: Mary, the contemplative. The wrestling aspects of a woman writer.
In the first book, these characters and stories were a way of getting to my personal story, and a deeper truth. A way to avoid the barking dogs at the gate, or to distract the dogs. To speak outright was against the laws of my family, and to a certain extent, still against the laws that apply to women and other silenced peoples. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson said.
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. I think John already knew this. One night at the hospital, when he was in a lot of pain, I asked him how he bore it, and he said, “I take some of it from an older man, he’s my arms, and my head is a woman who’s alone.”
When I tell you this it sounds impossible, but he really did say that—it’s one of the things I wonder if I am permitted to tell, it feels so intimate. But it indicates how he transformed pain into love, so often. He was a poet. That’s what poets do.
VR I think that a sense of “is-ness” winds up being at the core of the book. One of the great things in these poems is that the objects of daily life overtake the poems. Any object counts. Your brother’s medicines, the bicycle, the raspberries, even all the names of actual people.
MH When that happens, it is more than enough. The question was how to tell the story so that the story told me another story. I had come from rooms where great events were happening with much drama but without much melodrama. I wanted to make poems that were rooms, and inside the rooms: action, dialogue, like moving photographs so transparent you don’t think about the photographer. And I knew that the story as I remembered it wouldn’t have any energy—a poem needs to have at its heart a transformation, a fire where whatever story within you is burned into something else. How could I get to this experience while using, while needing the narrative? The narrative was a rope to what happened. You can move the frame, you can juxtapose one story with another, the way the mind does—as memory does. You can leave things out. The crucial problem in the first poems of the second book was this: to whom are these poems addressed? When I came to the answer, the poems began to write themselves.
VR That’s what the poem “Late Morning” speaks to. The speaker sitting on her lover’s lap and simply being in a world where the brother has lived and died and there is still a breeze and good sustaining food.
MH During the last year of my brother’s life, he told me he was writing something, something that meant a great deal to him. He said it had two parts, or two voices—he called it “A/B” and I thought of it as a fugue, in two voices, braiding and unbraiding. He wouldn’t read it to me—”It’s still so small,” he’d say, “It’s just a little something, I’ll read it to you when it’s more complete.” He told me he wanted it to include things like the kitchen table, the water glass—the everyday. During our weekly phone calls I’d ask him about it, “How’s ‘A/B’?” He’d say. “Oh I’m still thinking about it,” or “It’s coming along,” and one day maybe three months from the end of his life, he called and said, “Marie, ‘A/B’ is now ‘A/B/C’. Another voice has been added.” But he still wouldn’t read it to me. “When it’s ready,” he said.
After John died, I asked his partner Joe about “A/B/C,” but he had never heard John speak of it. We looked through John’s papers, nothing. We never did find it. I think now that “A/B/C” was instructions. The “C” part was the essential part John thought of later, and I realized much later: an audience.
The poems were stories, but to whom were they being told? Not John, he knew most of the stuff. Not to myself—it was to you. To people I hadn’t even met yet that the poems were addressed—that third point of the triangle. The you is what’s crucial in the aesthetics of the poems. These poems want to be understood, without anyone snagging on language. The listener is essential to the speaker of the poem‚ she can’t think without the listener. But, and this is difficult to explain, imagine a room with several people in it, talking, something difficult being said, some decision being made: Do we call the ambulance, do we give him the morphine that might kill him? And during the course of the discussion two of the people in the room look at each other—that level speechless gaze that can’t be explained. I wanted the poems to be like that—the room where something important was happening that couldn’t be explained. It could only be shared.
VR That’s wonderful! Instruction from the Zen master!
MH Yes, that’s when I realized it was instruction. I was supposed to write “A/B/C.” The book is a book of voices. It is John’s voice, my voice, James’s voice, everybody is speaking in the same room as they do in life.
VR When I first heard you read these poems, I wished my students were with me so that they could hear the remarkable effect of poems made out of a real and simple language. What is startling in the poems is the elimination of metaphor.
MH Stanley Kunitz once wrote: “I dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world.” And that’s what I wanted. I wanted to take pictures without my thumb showing, without obscuring the lens. I didn’t want anyone to think I was taking the picture. I wanted them to say: Look at that. You know when you go out in the world after some time and you see. Two weeks ago on a freezing cold night, Michael Klein and I were walking out of a movie and saw a guy in a tutu and a pink wig. What else is there to say? We go, “Aren’t you freezing?” and the guy’s like, “Honey, this keeps me warm.” You don’t have to embellish the “is-ness” of it in all its complexity. It’s poignancy and delight, it’s joyfulness and sorrow, standing there in the freezing cold, passing out flyers for a drag show. What I wanted was that kind of transparency, without me in the way. And also without metaphors. I wanted it to be the language of the way ordinary people speak. I wanted it to be the kind of thing where you tell a story to someone and someone listens‚ the way you do in life. And we wouldn’t have to say, isn’t that funny? The story sufficed.
VR Yes, that is something the poems refuse to do. They refuse to give any explanations. This is something I try to do in my work—let the metaphor arise from within the object itself instead of pasting an explanation on it from the outside.
MH When John was sick and then dying, there was only being with him, sitting with him and talking, or watching him sleep, doing errands. I remember my friend, the poet Jane Kenyon writing to me at my mother’s house saying, “Time has stopped for you now.”
Anyone who has had the privilege of attending to someone who is dying knows how consuming, how rich time is, slowed to long fat minutes—periods between medications, the window shade flapping against the screen. And what’s hard to talk about is how happy I was, inside the reality of losing him‚ the time all of us want, finally it’s here, the dreamy conversations, nothing more pressing than attending to who we love, nothing more important than that he is still alive at 10 a.m., still alive at 3 a.m.
It was, as you know, awful and joyful and then he was dead, and there was no more talking with him, and that’s when real time started up again and something—grief?—took me in its mouth. I remember walking with Stanley Kunitz and saying: “Stanley, something has me in its mouth and is chewing.” And he said, “Yes, and you must wait to see who you are when it’s done with you.” He gave me a great permission.
I had a fellowship at the Bunting Institute that year‚ a year off from teaching‚ and all I could do was go to my office there, secretly smoke, and write John is dead, John is dead, smoke, write John is still dead, smoke. But with Stanley’s help, I rested in my bewilderment—the world after all, was changing inside me, and I read books, and walked around, and six months after John died, I began writing—in part because I had to give a reading there in the spring, and I had to read something, but it was a gentle deadline, and just what I needed.
I was supposed to be writing about Mary Magdalene—that was my project at the Bunting. But no more slant now. No more personas. Something had happened in time, in the actual world, and that world wanted into the poems. With noises and time passing inside the poems. Conversation that took place in time.
VR They have a real sense of suddenness, of a natural moment. That illusion of the immediate seems important to the poems.
MH I write them over and over again. And then I speak them into a tape recorder, and listen. And speak them into a tape recorder, and listen, again. Because I want them to have that feeling of speech, I want them to feel that natural, but also to have that inevitable feel of great stories, real stories. The key in the book was point of view. I knew that I had to present the material very simply, but a poem, as we know, isn’t just what happened, it never is. It has to have a “we” in it in some way. And I couldn’t find the “we.”
I started to write a poem about John getting a shot in his eye—he’d been afraid of needles all his life, and of being blind. I started to write, “You got a needle stuck in your eye.” Well, duh, why would I tell him what happened to him on a weekly basis. I worked for weeks and weeks and weeks, and then finally I understood that I was talking to you — you, an audience that I hadn’t met yet. And then, I was able to explain that all his life my brother was afraid of going blind, and I’ll show you, give you some examples so you understand.
The book began to get framed around that phrase, “so you understand.” We tell each other stories to help each other live. That’s why I read poetry. I read poetry to stay alive. That’s why I went to poetry in the first place, that’s why I stay with it, that’s why I’ll never leave it. Because poetry alone carries the truth of “is-ness.” Nothing about John’s life was sentimental. There was never an ounce of it, ever. So that was not something I was worried about, because I knew if I told it true it would not be sentimental. John used to say: Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. He was 90 pounds, he was going to be dead in three days, and he held my hand and said: Maria, this is not a tragedy.
VR That elevates the authority in the poems. It does not waste itself out waving arms and saying: Look at me, how I have suffered and how my brother suffered.
MH They’re love poems, they’re not grief poems.
VR That is certainly true as the speaker assembles, if that’s the right word for it, what she dares to make in a life. Certainly, that’s what comes through in the poem, “The New Life.” There is a frontal acceptance of a life with its implicit happiness and argument and longing‚ all being of the same piece. I think this relates to how you work with time in the poems. When you speak, it is as if all the moments past and present are active at once. You are with the lover and in the hospital room. There is a forward movement of linear time, but there is, simultaneously, the possibility of all moments.
MH I think time is a lie. John used to say to me, “Maria, it’s not linear, it’s circular.” I think I know what he meant. What the Christians call “The Fullness of Time.” It feels truer to me. That sense that time past and time future are present in now and always have been.
The poems I love most, and learn from are the poems that are written from that place: Rilke, Hopkins, Herbert, Jane Kenyon’s poems, Brenda Hillman, Jean Valentine—but there are so many.
It’s been eight years since The Good Thief was published, and for some time I felt ashamed that it was taking me so long to finish, to write the second book. Now I know that whatever had me in its mouth has its own time and terms. Poetry has its own terms. I think of Stanley Kunitz, and what I think of as his most clear and truthful work at ninety, Distillations.
VR And it happens again and again as the speaker works her way through her past to live more fully in her present. The dead in the poem, “My Dead Friends,” answering your question about how to proceed, by saying, “whatever leads to more joy.”
MH The fullness of time is a truth. Every gesture happens within that fullness. When my brother died, I remember saying to him, “What will I ever do without you?” And he said, “Maria, you have so many of my words in your head, I’ll always be with you.” And I thought, was he preparing me to write about him after he was dead? Or is it all that same moment? I can’t tell anymore. Rilke has a great line about angels walking through the dead and the living and they can’t really tell the difference between the two.
VR How much permission did you need to give yourself to write this book?
MH There’s always permission. I’m terrified to put pen to paper. I was terrified I was exploiting John or offending him in some way.
VR Or to reenter the world of family and childhood?
MH Yes, I realized when I wrote about John, I had to write about gender. I was interested in what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man. It’s crucial. We were in our family, all together, nine kids. Four boys, five girls. I was the oldest girl, the little mom. And the poem, “The Game,” is like an actual game where we would go down into the basement and we could be a man or a woman, we could be anybody. The rest of the time, gender roles were severely drawn in my family by my parents and among the kids—and then when you throw in a couple of gay people things get even more confused—and interesting.
VR I think you do an important job of entering into a girl’s sexuality, trying to understand what it is to be a girl.
MH In this culture, our mothers don’t tell us about their first sexual experience, they don’t tell us about their marriage, their lives, their sexual life in marriage, they don’t tell us anything. My mother told us nothing, and not only did she say nothing, but we knew that there was suffering in that part of her life. Well, my own father’s sexuality was boundariless, and frightening. So, I’ve been really aware lately, at 46 years old, that I still need my sisters and my friends to teach me and help me figure out how to be a “girl.”
VR So much of our time as girls and women is spent trying to figure out what is allowed‚ by men and by other women as well. What is not talked about and what is talked about. How we can have an authentic sexuality.
MH In learning how to be a girl in this culture, we are learning how to be objects.
MH So in the poems, I was trying to find places in my young life where I was actually the subject, and I found it was in practicing how to kiss, which I did with other girls. I got to be a boy-girl and a girl-girl—I got to kiss the girl and kiss the boy. I loved that.
VR Well, even in the poem, the situation is one of danger and threat.
MH The poem “Sixth Grade”—you mean where the neighborhood boys tie us up?
VR Yeah, and you try to get out of it by being the tough girl.
MH Well, I tried to be the boy-girl, but in the poem that doesn’t work. She has to become the girl-girl for him to listen to her. That kind of negotiation still happens in daily life at work, in love, walking down the street. I’m sure men go through this too, but I’m much more interested in women trying be the subject of their own lives. I’ve spent so much of my life being the woman‚ trying to act out what they watched, trying to do that.
VR I recently went to a meeting organized by Planned Parenthood on the subject of talking with children about sex. What struck me was how frightened the women were about discussing with their children real sexual behavior, or about having a sexual body. I saw how fraught with fear women were about their own knowledge, comfort, pleasure they had with their bodies.
MH It was wonderful to go back and try and remember the way it felt to be a girl. In order to write about what it means to be a woman in love with a man, I had to go back and find that girl who is still in the attic.
VR Well, you have a lot of sexy poems in the last section.
MH Good. (laughter)
VR The poem, “Late Morning”—true in its complexity‚ as true as a whole lovemaking episode—though no lovemaking actually occurs in the poem.
MH Eros and Thanatos. What I was interested in was a woman moving through a world that has become eroticized. So there is this feeling‚ sitting on someone’s lap in your nightgown, that is all that is happening—that there is the sense of it being truly erotic, of being completely alive and not being dead.
VR Could you talk a little bit more about your process in writing these poems? You were taking on a new way of writing, did you have to actively, consciously shed old habits?
MH When I wrote “What the Living Do,” I’d been trying to write a poem for days and days and days. I had to learn another way of writing. I wanted to write something that didn’t sound like a poem anymore, that seemed almost like consciousness, fragments of thought. With “What The Living Do,” by my being alive, John stayed in in me. I imagine women are like this when they’re pregnant. We begin to contain those who we love, we carry them inside us. I carry my brother John now and the poet Jane Kenyon, and Billy Forlenza, and if I die, they go. So I live, they live. And it’s no burden. I wanted the poems to be intimate. I wanted it to be me talking to someone who really needed them—the way you need someone to listen as you are talking so that you can both come to understand something together. Like our whole talk today. I couldn’t say what I am saying unless there is someone there listening. An audience is crucial to this book and I am so grateful to them, whoever they are. They are the ones who helped me write this book. There is no doubt about that in my mind and I want people to know this.
VR I think of you, Marie, as a poet engaged with other poets. You have always nurtured and participated in conversation and friendship with other poets. That community seems essential to the notion of your audience.
MH Throughout the time when John was sick, and after he died, I was living in Cambridge, within a community of poets who sustained me: Lucie Brock-Broido, Steven Cramer, Stuart Dischell, Tom Sleigh, Askold Melnyczuk—for a while Michael Ryan was there—and these friends and writers listened to the new work and were such a great help to me. That community sustained me throughout my entire time in Cambridge. And other poets, who I was reading, or yet to meet: Mark Doty, Jean Valentine, Michael Klein, Brenda Hillman. Jane Cooper and Jane Kenyon, who in their poems, helped me a great deal. Jane Kenyon allowed me to write smaller and quieter, to trust the depth of a single moment in time. Jane Cooper’s poems, especially in her latest book, Green Notebook Winter Road, encouraged me to write the poems about childhood, to return to those mysteries. And Brenda Hillman, whose work is so different from mine‚ her poems mean so much to me—they are the under voice, the mind shuttling over experience‚ the poem being the process of consciousness itself. Later, as I moved into writing about gender, and boys and girls, and into the third section, the poet Tony Hoagland.
Through all these years though, my friends Georgia Heard and Tony Hoagland have been essential to me. Georgia gently insisted for months that I show her what I had—a gentle bully she was. “Show me the papers you have at home,” she’d say, until finally I slipped them all into a folder and sent them to her when she was traveling. And Tony Hoagland, who is my great poetry friend, also gently insisted, when I wouldn’t show the work I’d been doing to anyone. He’d ask, during every phone call: “Won’t you send whatever is on your living room floor to me so I can take a look?” His own work means a great deal to me. His poems, which are fierce, funny, heartbreaking machines of lyricism, move me so much‚ and my conversations with him have been the company my soul got to keep throughout these last few years.
Victoria Redel is the author of a collection of stories, When the Road Bottoms Out (Knopf) and a collection of poems, Already the Word (Kent State University Press). She currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and The New School.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.