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.

End of 2011 Reading Survey

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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:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht.
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

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.

Survey courtesy of Literary Musings.

How about you? Any memorable books that fit into your year of reading survey?

What the living do

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What the Living Do
By Marie Howe

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.