Deep Image and “What the Living Do”: An Encounter with Marie Howe’s Poetry

by Elisabeth Weiss

~ Marie Howe will be one of the featured poets at this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

I first encountered Marie Howe’s work with the poem “What the Living Do.” Because of this poem, I immediately became her fan and knew whoever she was, Howe had what it took to make me feel “gripped with a cherishing.” Marie Howe writes deliberately and slowly. Her language is exact. Words in her poems gather like a coat around us.

“What the Living Do” is addressed to a “you”:

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

( lines 1-6)

The poem is accessible and relatable, to use one of my students’ favorite words. It hits home and embraces where we have all been, confronting the small failures of the every day– the spilled coffee, the clogged sink, the ripped grocery bags:

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 (lines 13-19)

The objects of the living become touchstones to the infinite as the reader is moved from Cambridge sidewalks to a world within the world. The poem masterfully turns to where the loss of the “you” is magnified. We note the passing of time through the “letters”, “calls”, and “kisses” of human connection. The speaker desires “more and more” of it, knowing full well that without loss there is no “cherishing.” The poem concludes with a glimpse of how we love the world despite the way it undoes us. The last image is a reflection in a window. Like a Fresnel lens, it captures oblique light from another source, thus allowing it to be visible over great distances:

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

I am living, I remember you. (lines 24-30)

This is deep image poetry at its finest, the same poetry I cut my teeth on. It’s narrative. It focuses on allowing concrete images and experiences to generate poetic meaning. The poet Robert Bly said in an interview:

Let‘s imagine a poem as if it were an animal. When animals run, they have considerable flowing rhythms. Also they have bodies. An image is simply a body where psychic energy is free to move around.

It wasn’t until a few summers ago that I finally had the chance to meet and study with Marie Howe at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Though she cut a commanding presence with her long, dazzling hair preceding her, it was the intensity and generosity with which she listened to every student’s every word that impressed me. Our class worked in synergy, no doubt because of Marie’s teaching expertise. We finished and rewrote each other’s poems all week. It was otherworldly. In all of my 42 years of attending and teaching writing workshops I never quite experienced anything like it. “Look at the unlit part of the story” she told us “not just the part that everyone remembers.”

When I think of Marie Howe’s poetry, I think back to “What the Living Do” and recall the daring of a certain red fox who appeared and disappeared each day and night as he prowled the grounds of The Fine Arts Works Center. His bushy, proud tail found its way into all of our poems that week.  I often wonder what guided him as he glided closer to our human circles, further than any wild animal we imagined might.


Elisabeth Weiss was born in Staten Island, New York. She has a BA from Hamilton College and an MFA from The University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She’s worked in children’s book publishing in New York and taught poetry in preschools, prisons, and nursing homes and as well as to the intellectually disabled. She presently teaches writing and literature at Salem State University in Salem and North Shore Community College in Lynn, Massachusetts. She is a docent at the Lee Mansion in Marblehead and is a volunteer for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Her poems have appeared in London’s Poetry Review, Porch, Crazyhorse, Ibbetson Street Review, the Birmingham Poetry Review, the Paterson Literary Review, and Muddy River Poetry Review.

Her chapbook, The Caretaker’s Lament, was published last year by Finishing Line Press.