On my long drive home this past weekend, I listened on and off, between mountain ranges shrouded in fog, to an interview on NPR with New York’s Poet Laureate, Marie Howe. It turns out April is Poetry month and this was a repeat of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air program from last year. Somehow I knew she was a kindred spirit. Howe grew up in a large Irish Catholic family, and attended the Convent of the Sacred of the Heart. As my BFF Lee from the Berkshires likes to say, we went to different schools together.
“Poetry holds the knowledge that we are alive and that we know we’re going to die,” says Howe. “The most mysterious aspect of being alive might be that — and poetry knows that.”
Howe has written 3 books of poetry: What the Living Do, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and The Good Thief. She talked about teaching poetry, about describing the way water looks in a glass that has filtered sunlight streaming through it. About getting her students to bring their focus into the world of everyday things without using metaphor. Saving metaphor for much later, like a gift left under the Christmas tree. Yes, I realize I didn’t wait.
Howe’s father was an alcoholic, which she states as if this is the most common thing for a family, which of course it is. How many fathers in the 50s functioned fine enough by day, only to return home to drink and brutalize their family? There is, “A sense of retroactive dread…so many of us are afflicted with addictions,” she says. One of her brothers, Johnny, died of AIDs in the late 80s, and she memorialized him with this poem:
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.
Johnny, who ran away from his father but found his own demons, finally found AA and used to tell her that, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice.” She loved him dearly and said sometimes he would just stand in the middle of her kitchen and say, “This is it.” And she would say, “What?” He would just raise his arms, look around with a smile, and say, “This.” I was reminded of my brother Michael, who died last year. Every time I would see him, he would smile and tell me, “This is the good life.”
The Flapper would read poems aloud to my brothers and sisters from an old anthology, “101 Famous Poems.” First written in 1929, I remember its well worn blue binding, and managed to find a revised edition from 1958. Shirley, Brian, Kay, Michael, and Jimmy heard about the sea, and a cautionary tale about a spider and a fly while doing household chores. Poetry was the music that accompanied everyday life while the Flapper could only sit and read, her legs broken in so many places. As Marie Howe said, art allows the heart to break open.