Marie Howe’s reading of her poem, “The Gate,” opens a portal into her poetry.
She has said that “Poetry, to me, is the story of the soul on earth, here and now. What it’s like to be alive, here and now.” It’s clear in “The Gate” that her brother is calling her back to the here and now in the form of a cheese and mustard sandwich. No doubt, facing his own mortality at such a young age, “done at twenty-eight,” as she writes, he knows he has
folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
He knows a day will come when we won’t be here to feel cold water wash over our hands as we rinse a glass, that even this simple pleasure is allowed us only a limited number of times. And so, even that moment of sensual contact with the things of the world deserves our attention. “This is what you have been waiting for,” he says, not some imagined goal, not some abstract notion of happiness or fulfillment, but the immediate world, the present moment, the gift of being alive here and now to enjoy a sandwich.
Howe’s poems contain more than the story of the soul on earth. Like her brother’s lesson, they focus intently on calling us back to the here and now. These are poems whose language has been assiduously scoured for any sign of pretense or literary affectation. Nor is there any pretense, as in “The Gate,” that this is an endlessly joyous, pain–free experience. The gate left by her brother’s vanished body is the portal that brings her to a new awareness of the world, but that is an irreplaceable loss, and the mourning for that loss is central to the poem.
Howe knows every present moment is lived by people who carry memory and loss, whose capacity to be alive in the present is often exhausted by the burdens of the past. Early in her career she said, “A lot of my writing has been trying to move into those silent places to what I can’t remember, to what I am told I shouldn’t remember.” Through three collections of poems, she has reminded us that to be alive in the here and now requires we be present, whether that’s with simply joys, sorrow, loss, whatever memories we carry, the beloved who is vanishing, or a simple sandwich.
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