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.
/ / / / / / / / / / / / / /
Since we were just talking about her, here’s a great thing from Marie Howe.
Kathryn, Jeff, and their pups Sadie and Scout are coming to stay with us for the weekend! Here’s to hoping for lots of good time outdoors with the dogs and many enlightening conversations! Hope you all have peaceful, autumn-transitional weekends.
Grace asked me for recommendations of poems to memorize and recite for class. I started throwing out suggestions—Elizabeth Bishop! Maxine Kumin! Auden! Everything by Robert Hass and Marie Howe, OMG, Marie Howe!—and I realized: Wow, I do really love poetry. I never thought I did. I always thought poetry eluded my intellect; poems never presented themselves to me in that bold, friendly way like novels did. Poems hid behind veils and shadows; poems could be capricious, malicious. I have never believed that I ever “got” poetry, and I have certainly never believed that I could ever write it (that much has not changed).
Being married to a poet makes you realize how very difficult writing is, and how very miraculous it is when everything comes out well. Poetry is a different animal to me, often alien and shy, but I respect it. I imagine I will always be reading poems, remaining continually and happily mystified by them. I will always love them in the way that you love a humpback whale, because it is so far from being you.
“I have been standing all my life in the/direct path of a battery of signals”
I memorized and recited various poems in my career as an English major, but the one I most remember is “Planetarium,” by Adrienne Rich. It was a difficult, dizzying experience. I mispronounced “Tycho” and only guessed at “Uranusborg.” And those middling couplets were so hard to remember, but that last, fast stanza—it was a delight to proclaim; it made my little sophomore body feel strong, unconquerable, distinct.
We like to talk about the things that “our children” will do, things that we sort of did as children but that we want to elevate to a virtue, to distinguish our offspring from the mundane, materialistic masses. Our children will never watch TV. Our children will play outside every day. Our children will not be pacified with iPhones and iPads. Our children will play with sticks and string. Our children will study Asian languages from birth. All of these things will surely fall by the wayside when and if we actually have babies, but one thing is for sure: Our children WILL memorize poems.
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.
Best book I read in 2011: Can’t tell you yet. Will be revealed when I do my Top 10 Books I Read in 2011 countdown in a few weeks…
Most disappointing book I read in 2011? The worst book I read was easily Night Fall, but “disappointing” implies that I was expecting it to be good, which doesn’t apply to De Mille (I knew it was going to be garbage). The most disappointing book I read in 2011 was either The Surrendered, by Chang-rae Lee, or The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht. I had such high expectations for both of them. The Surrendered ended up being strangely dull, with a string of totally useless deaths, and The Tiger’s Wife was neither compelling nor whole. Both had bright moments, but neither were excellent.
Most surprising book of 2011? What the Living Do, poems by Marie Howe. Outrageously beautiful and heartbreaking. Also The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, which was upsetting and shocking and mind-bending. But great.
Book I recommended to people most in 2011? Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer’s narrative of the history of memory and how he went on to become the U.S. Memory Champion after a year of training. Our minds are more powerful than we think.
Best series I discovered in 2011? Dog training books by Patricia McConnell? Probably? Does that count?
Favorite new authors I discovered in 2011? Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Marie Howe.
Most thrilling, un-put-down-able book in 2011? Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.
Book I most anticipated in 2011? Maybe The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides? But I still haven’t read it yet. I’m in position no. 1 out of 113 holds at the library, so I’m getting there! Finally.
Favorite cover of a book you read in 2011?
Here’s a few I liked:
Most memorable character in 2011? Ruth from Housekeeping or Patty Berglund from Freedom.
Book that had the greatest impact on me in 2011?Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
Book I can’t believe I waited until 2011 to finally read?The Divine Comedy (Dante) or Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh).
Book I read in 2011 that I’d be most likely to re-read in 2012? Housekeeping, or the poems of Marie Howe and Maxine Kumin.