Marie Howe : What The Living Do

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Marie Howe: What the Living Do
In What the Living Do, Marie Howe finds trauma and suffering rooted from an abusive childhood and the loss of her many loved ones. We follow young Marie Howe from 1950’s New York to womanhood and her journey with identity, sexuality, family dynamic, and the death of her beloved brother John in this elegiac collection. The first section explores an adolescent Marie Howe and her role as the oldest girl of a large Irish Catholic family. As the assistant mother, she complies with the strict gender roles of this era, despite brief moments of “boyish” superiority. We further explore themes of gender awareness and identity in addition to sexuality in the poem “Practicing” which opens:
I want to write a love
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It’s apparent how much Howe adored and loved her brother in “The Attic”; she calls him the “exiled grown prince” and encourages us to “Praise him”. Yet, this poem does present a key theme of immense emotional pain appropriate for an elegy, whether it be the speaker or her loved ones. She addresses this from the perspective of John:
I don’t know if he knows he’s building a world where I can one day love a man—he sits there without saying anything. Praise him.
I know he can hardly bear to touch me. The portrayal of suffering is especially strong in these couplets, with John’s silence speaking volumes; Howe poetically uses prolonged pause in these lines to emphasize this silence and melancholy. This poem is much more abstract than Howe’s other works in this collection in which there is something very artistic about the language and imagery in “The Attic”; the reader is literally placed within the drawing board where John is building an imaginary world for his sister, one “where I (Howe) can one day love a man” and “with so many doors it’s finally quiet, / so that when our father climbs heavily up the attic stairs, he doesn’t / at first hear him”. This poem among others suggest a quite dysfunctional relationship with their father, a chronic alcoholic— “his fingers trembled like a girl’s” just days sober (from “Two or Three Times”).
The lines “he barely hears the springs of my bed / when my
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