Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: What the Living Do (#3)

What the Living Do.

#3: WHAT THE LIVING DO, Marie Howe.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great books. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I also don’t have any links for you today, so here’s this instead. This book of poems is way better than any links I could dredge up anyway…

This is the first time in my reading history that one of my favorite books from the past year was a book of poetry. Blame it on my brilliant husband, who introduced me to the incandescent and life-altering poet Marie Howe.

I hesitate to even write a review of this collection of poems, because my words will undoubtedly fail me. I don’t have the right things to say about how deeply these poems affected me, but I will try.

Howe published What the Living Do in 1998. In many ways, it figures as an elegy for her beloved brother John, who died of AIDS complications in 1989. In several poems, John is her comforter and hero, amid a ghastly childhood in a large Catholic family. In subtle, terrifying lines, Howe reveals that she was repeatedly raped by her father as a child. Between her powerless mother, who does nothing to stop her husband’s attacks against their daughter, and her abusive and frankly evil father, Howe only has John to turn to. “The Attic” is the utterly gut-wrenching poem of sorrow and devotion that recounts her brother’s offer of simultaneously brave and inactive protection.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so heartbreaking.

But Howe never paints herself as a victim. She does not take pity on herself and she does not ask you to, either. These are strong, honest poems about the difficulties of everyday life and the horrors of our own memories. These poems are freely and breathlessly genuine in their accounts of daily living. The title poem is one that I’ve included here before, and it’s worth the weight of its lines in gold. These lines from “Watching Television” were so humbling to me, to think about the silly and yet heavy things we do to each other in relationships:

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

We argued about one thing, but really it 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.

Howe writes without flowery words or obscure allusions. She is not trying to hide anything from you, to keep you guessing, as so many other poets do. She writes about miscommunication and dogs, about dropping a bag of groceries, about finding your face in the mirror. It’s our daily bread. It is life, gently and thoroughly rendered. And you will see it differently after having read this book.

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