Howe's new poetry collection shines with the heightened clarity that often accompanies great loss. The language is conversational, but it's a conversation that keeps going after the mind is tired, with startling insights, hints of danger, and uncharacteristic wit. In "Reading Ovid," for example, the classical poet becomes "a guy who knows how to tell a story about people who/ really don't believe in the Golden Rule," leading the speaker/wife "to fantasize saying to the man I married, 'You know/ that hamburger you just/ gobbled down with relish and mustard? It was your truck.'/ If only to watch understanding take his face/ like the swan-god took the girl." Howe's remarkable poems help us to grasp the nature of narrative itself, as a ritual offering and a way to stop time, or at least to try. In one called "Why the Novel Is Necessary but Sometimes Hard To Read," the speaker describes a common reading experience: "you have to learn the names--you have to suffer not knowing anything about anyone/ and slowly come to understand who each of them is, or who each of them imagines themselves to be." Highly recommended for university and public libraries.--Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA[Page 74]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Reviewed by Brenda Shaughnessy
Marie Howe's books of poetry materialize once a decade and are big news and cause for celebration. Both of her previous collections moved me to tears and have continued to move me. Reading her third is like finally having a very long thirst quenched.
Howe's debut, The Good Thief , contains a poem, "Part of Eve's Discussion," which remains one of the most breathtaking out-of-body experiences in contemporary poetry: "...when it occurs to you/ your car could spin/.../ it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only/ all the time." When I teach poetry classes, this is what I start with: it makes young poets want to write.
Then there are the rapt, anguished poems about all-too-corporeal experiences in What the Living Do , which struggles to reckon with a beloved brother's death from AIDS as well as a rough-and-tumble childhood. Howe finds the flash point of illumination in the chaos of grief and murky memory. This book has become a classic text in coping with life, love and loss. How do we save each other, or how do we watch helplessly? How can we live with our memories or with losing them, or each other?
Howe is the rare poet who offers answers to these questions.
This third book unites and develops all the strength and beauty of the previous two. Metaphysical aspects of Thief find advanced life forms in mind-benders like "Limbo" ("Do I have an I?/ One says to another... ") and "Easter." a brilliant short poem about reanimation ("And the whole body was too small. Imagine/ the sky trying to fit into a tunnel carved into a hill"). The earthbound qualities of Living also find new form here: political, indeed global concerns are posited with signature clarity, expressing, through simple observation and empathy, the hope for more humane systems.
A cycle of heartbreaking poems about motherhood, called "Life of Mary," looks back on the speaker's own dead mother, while other poems look straight into the moment, joyfully, reverently and always with a pause for reflection and amazement, with her daughter.
Howe is a careful and soulful alchemist. She makes metaphor matter and material metaphysical. She becomes magic with her transforming perspective that is part mother, part muscle, part music, part mind. This book has the amazing thing that Howe always seems to pull off: the miracle. "I saw it./ It was the thing and spirit both: the real/ world: evident, invisible." (Mar.)
Brenda Shaughnessy is the author of Interior with Sudden Joy (FSG, 1999) and the forthcoming Human Dark with Sugar (Copper Canyon, 2008), which won the 2007 James Laughlin Award. She is poetry editor of Tin House magazine.[Page 155]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.