on The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, poems by Marie Howe (Norton)
Born in 1950, Marie Howe started writing poetry when she was thirty. In 1983 she earned an MFA from Columbia University, and in 1987 Persea Books published The Good Thief, her first book. The intensities of strapped-in emotion, signatures of her work over time, were already evident in those early poems, animated by the discovery that the materials of her life could inspire sure speech.
HOW MANY TIMES
No matter how many times I try I can’t stop my father
from walking into my sister’s room
and I can’t see any better, leaning from here to look
in his eyes. It’s dark in the hall
and everyone’s sleeping. This is the past
where everything is perfect already and nothing changes,
where the water glass falls to the bathroom floor
and bounces once before breaking.
Nothing. Not the small sound my sister makes, turning
over, not the thump of the dog’s tail
when he opens one eye to see him stumbling back to bed
still drunk, a little bewildered.
This is exactly as I knew it would be.
And if I whisper her name, hissing a warning,
I’ve been doing that for years now, and still the dog
startles and growls until he sees
it’s our father, and still the door opens, and she
makes that small oh turning over.
This poem displays the speaker’s adept rendering of memory, even while its conceit says she would rather not remember the story at all. Generally, there’s much avid invention in The Good Thief, narratives spun out of hypothetical situations, personae and parables, the younger poet’s playfulness with “what if’s?” Her directness of statement and sense of urgency were established in these poems, even though the work often seemed constructed rather than spoken, and too insistent on its sensitivities.
Eleven years later, Norton published Howe’s vivid second book, What the Living Do. It continues to astonish me. The mode of address is direct, sometimes mordant or grave, truly eloquent. The superfluous effects of the first book give way to a voice more conscious of itself yet more free to speak clearly. Where the first poems, so lively with newly found writerly confidence, demand submission, the poems of What the Living Do offer reflection. They speak to something both within and beyond the language. Memory and the mind that manages it are both under scrutiny. This collection of personal narratives includes poems that reflect on childhood like “Buying the Baby” and “Practicing,” and poems about her brother’s death by AIDS.
In the dream I had when he came back not sick
but whole, and wearing his winter coat,
he looked at me as though he couldn’t speak, as if
there were a law against it, a membrane he couldn’t break.
His silence was what he could not
not do, like our breathing in this world, like our living,
as we do, in time.
And I told him: I’m reading all this Buddhist stuff,
and listen, we don’t die when we die. Death is an event,
a threshold we pass though. We go on and on
and into light forever.
And he looked down, and then back up at me. It was the look we’d pass
across the kitchen when Dad was drunk again and dangerous,
the level look that wants to tell you something,
in a crowded room, something important, and can’t.
“In the Movies,” dispassionate and provocative, begins “When a man rapes a woman because he’s a soldier and his army’s won / there’s always somebody else holding her down, another man, // so the men do it together, or one after the other, / in the way my brothers shot hoops on the driveway with their friends // while we girls watched.” The flatness here, the lack of wonder, give us an opportunity to kindle our own wonder during the run-time of the poem. In the years between her first two books, Marie Howe not only dramatically matured, but dispensed with a voice whose energetic distinctiveness was a shelter, and found a voice tempered by death that sought refuge not in itself but in its art.
Now The Kingdom of Ordinary Time has arrived, ten years after its predecessor. The first poems tell us this is a book of its time, more than a further unfolding of memory. Howe ushers in “the Coming of Ordinary Time” in the italicized “Prologue”: People generally worshiped where their parents had worshipped -- / The men who’d hijacked their airplanes prayed where the dead pilots had been sitting, / and the passengers prayed from their seats / -- so many songs went up and out into the thinning air …” (In the Roman Catholic church, "Ordinary time" is a season in the liturgical calendar, beginning on the first Sunday after January 1 and continuing until Ash Wednesday. The word "ordinary" means ordinal or numbered, not plain or common.) Rather than inspire exceptionalism, tragedy arrives here in familiar packaging one never quite gets used to. This looming strangeness seeps into the speaker throughout, a vocal shift allowing Howe to drift away from the more personal story-telling of her previous work. The actual carries the scent of the metaphysical and morphs into parable – but with a fluent eeriness that contrasts with the workshop myths of her earlier poems. In the book’s initial pieces, the speaker is displaced by the times (“I couldn’t tell one song from another, / which bird said what or to whom or for what reason” in “The World”), but is also, as Adam Phillips says of Frederick Seidel, “complicit with all our moral equivocations”:
THE STAR MARKET
The people Jesus loved were shopping at The Star Market yesterday.
An old lead-colored man standing next to me at the checkout
breathed so heavily I had to step back a few steps.
Even after his bags were packed he still stood, breathing hard and
hawking into his hand. The feeble, the lame, I could hardly look at them:
shuffling through the aisles, they smelled of decay, as if The Star Market
had declared a day off for the able-bodied, and I had wandered in
with the rest of them: sour milk, bad meat:
looking for cereal and spring water.
Jesus must have been a saint, I said to myself, looking for my lost car
in the parking lot later, stumbling among the people who would have
been lowered into rooms by ropes, who would have crept
out of caves or crawled from the corners of public baths on their hands
and knees begging for Mercy.
If I touch only the hem of his garment, one woman thought, I will be healed.
Could I bear the look on his face when he wheels around?
The poems of the previous book, on memories and deathbed vigils, evoked a presence intent on underlining her own reactive sensibilities. The new poems want finally to be freed of this impulse, which was more or less spelled out in a poem called “The Girl” in What the Living Do:
So close to the end of my childbearing life
if I could remember a day when I was utterly a girl
and not yet a woman –
but I don’t think there was a day like that for me.
When I look at the girl I was, dripping in her bathing suit,
or riding her bike, pumping hard down the newly paved street,
She wears a furtive look –
and even if I could go back in time to her as me, the age I am now
she would never come into my arms
without believing that I wanted something.
It’s a moving poem – but the furtive look is worn by the speaker, wanting something from those memories, some content that would give her a means toward feeling experience – and feeling experienced. The poet is pumping hard in that second book, but the poems aren’t effortful.
Howe is attempting something quite different in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. Jesus walks among the cripples, and all the gods become antagonistic and disrupt human life. In "Government": "And all the gods. In each kingdom -- constantly arguing among themselves / -- over toast, through the lunch salad, and on into / the long hours of the mild spring afternoon -- I'm the god, No I'm the god, No / I'm the god." In “Reading Ovid,” she describes the poet as “A guy who knows how to tell a story about people who / really don’t believe in the Golden Rule.” In turn, Howe's diction becomes jocular in some spots. The sources of disappointment in the first two books – lovelessness, death, cruelty, isolation, the feckless lapses of language – now go global. But Ovid never had to deal with The Golden Rule, insofar as he wouldn't be dominated by a single abstraction of human behavior. Howe makes a perpetual transit between the cold world and the warm confusions of her own heart. There’s the gratuitous violence of a poem like “Would You Rather,” and then the rather limp language for the dire yearnings of “Prayer” (“The mystics say you are as close as my own breath / Why do I flee from you?”). In between, there’s the confrontation with her own limited response to the questions she poses. “What We would Give Up,” a prose poem, begins, “One morning in Orlando, Florida, I asked a group of college students – what would we be willing to give up to equalize the wealth in the world” (and thus achieve a Golden Rule). It ends, “Would I give up the telephone? Would I give up water? Would I give up make up? Hmm. Would I give up dying my hair? That was a hard one. If I stopped dying my hair everyone would know that my long golden hair is actually gray, and my long American youth would be over, and I don’t know if I could lived with that.” In this way, of course, she brings youth and blondness to a dim conclusion.
The Kingdom of Ordinary Time gets stronger as it enters its second half. The five poems in the middle section, “Poems From the Life of Mary,” remind us that Howe has always groped for the metaphysical and the spiritual, limited by language and a tragic knowledge of the body and the habits of humans.
ONCE OR TWICE OR THREE TIMES, I SAW SOMETHING
Once or twice or three times, I saw something
rise from the dust in the yard, like the soul
of the dust, or from the field, the soul-body
of the field – rise and hover like a veil in the sun
billowing – as if I could see the wind itself.
I thought I did it – squinting – but I didn’t.
As if the edges of things blurred – so what was in
bled out, breathed up and mingled: bush and cow
and dust and well: breathed a field I walked through
waist high, as through high grass or water, my fingers
swirling through it – or it through me. I saw it.
It was thing and spirit both: the real
world: evident, invisible.
In the next poem, “How You Can’t Move Moonlight,” the final lines read, “And the man who’s just broken the neck / of his child? He’s standing by the window / moonlight shining on his face and throat.” The extremes are jarring, as they are designed to be. Howe ventures (but perhaps not really that far) beyond narrative in this book, but she's a natural narrative poet, and the graphic extremes -- from murder to Jesus -- have more effect when she integrates them into singular poems. Nevertheless, it's her desperate desire to find some other form of utterance and line that moves me -- or some form of speech, other than the sheer personal narrative, that would gather in the extremes.
In On Eloquence, Denis Donoghue says "some writers have a gift for certain styles, flourishes, biases of language: the something to be said seems to come later, and is chosen because it enables the particular style to be fulfilled. If a writer has a gift for the jeremiad, he or she is unlikely to write tender passages of love." Some forms don't allow us to use the styles that anchor our speech. Some writers are hard-wired to exploit containment more than expansion. Perhaps Howe would like to write more expansively -- to be a speculative voice in a "kingdom," or to offer fragments that suggest something huge beyond themselves -- but every poem in this book points back to a limited, doubting persona. Donoghue also maintains that a writer may find more success "consulting his gifts rather than the public conditions on which they might be employed." Howe clearly has her eye on "public conditions," employing a bitter tone here, an overwhelmed distraction there in response to those conditions. And she seems to have consulted the gifts of others. Yet the thrusts, voices, mythy public parables, personal stories, and invocations achieve a credible if shaky whole. The Kingdom of Ordinary Time is a many-sided enterprise, and the insistence on fighting its own stylistic passion for integration (in form, in spirit) is its pathos.
“Limbo” reintroduces the quality of “ordinary time,” beginning “We saw something once. And then it was over. / And time started up again as if it had never stopped.” The “something” could be a premonition of some mystical essence, or a witnessed horror. These are our times. In “Non-Violence,” the father who cannot be stopped from appearing in her poems shows up again, now set in context with the worldly violence that has preceded this poem. Howe still tells a riveting story, as she does here, but her book points to a larger, transpersonal grief.
Hers may be an ordinary time, typical with outrage and reprieve-like peace, but there is no ordinary life portrayed in Howe’s work. Life ranges beyond benign control.
We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up, honey, I say, hurry hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me,
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down
as she likes them.
Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her
Honey, I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry –
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.
And Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.
Howe tests the edges of personal narrative in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, a book of various departures and angles, patiently wrought over ten years. The interest is found not only in her stories, where one looked before. It’s also found in the poet’s grappling and arguing with her native style, the insistence that language reveal its modest abilities to wrestle experience into suggestions beyond personal narrative.
[Published March 10, 2008, 96 pp., $23.95 hardback]