What the Living Do

Friday, May 9th, 2014

This is another of my favorite poems, “What the Living Do.” Marie Howe wrote it after the death of her brother John from AIDS. It captures the experience of the one who is left behind, the everydayness of life, the small moments, the yearning, the slog. And the cherishing.

What the Living Do
Marie Howe

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.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

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.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.

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 speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

April 1994

You can hear Marie Howe read the poem and talk about her brother and the rest of her large “Catholic lefty” family in her 2011 interview with Terri Gross. She reads the poem towards the beginning of the interview:

Mary-Catherine Harrison, Ph.D.

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