What the Living Do

My favorite book of poetry is probably Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” Last semester, I had the privilege of studying the book as part of my poetry writing workshop. “What the Living Do” was first published in 1998, towards the end of the AIDS epidemic. The first half of the book of poems is focused largely on Marie’s childhood and her experiences growing up in an abusive family, while the second half focuses on her brother’s struggle against AIDS and his eventual death. The themes of love and loss play a role in almost all of her poems.

Marie writes in very long lines, often paired into couplets. The combination of her long lines and the progressive arrangement of her poems makes “What the Living Do” read almost like  prose. It would probably be a good cross-over book for someone who enjoys novels but has difficulties with poetry. Marie usually writes in the first person, and sometimes uses irony, dark humor, or sarcasm to keep her poems from becoming too depressing. She always tackles issues head-on, and is brutally honest about herself and others. I especially like her honesty in the poem “The Memorial,” about a memorial service for a dead friend: “I didn’t think: This is Billy’s bones and flesh… I thought: Michael is taking charge when Billy said I was in charge of the ashes.” Isn’t that just how we humans are?

“What the Living Do” is full of emotion, and was difficult for me to read without crying. I was especially stunned and saddened by the last line of the poem “One of the Last Days,” which recounts a conversation between Marie and her dying brother. Marie tells her brother how much she loves him, as much as he loves his partner, and he sits up in bed and smiles quietly and says “Maybe you’d better start looking for somebody else.”

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