In Living Memory: A Look at Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do”

Paper written for a college class, Fall Quarter 2004

Last winter, my grandfather died of colon cancer. I’d lost other relatives before, but never anyone so close as my grandfather. * Before he passed, I flew to Indiana to see him one last time. I only saw my grandfather, the man I remembered and loved so much, for sixty seconds. We exchanged pleasantries and I told him I loved him. He smiled at me for one last time and then the pain came back. I never saw my grandfather again, even though his body went on living for another twelve hours. Shortly after my grandfather died, I decided to go back to college. In my first quarter of college, our instructors assigned a book of poetry by Marie Howe called, What the Living Do. The book is a narrative story of a woman’s life and her relationship with her older brother, who died of AIDS. Over the course of the story, the woman learns to accept her pain as a part of her life. In it, not only did I find Howe’s moving words and soulful dissertations on many things, but I also found myself and a way to cope with my own pain because she so graciously shared her own. In Howe’s book, the speaker bares her soul to show us that we can best cope with our grief by remembering those who have gone and appreciating the things we learned from them while they were alive.

In “The Fort,” the speaker remembers a lesson she learned from her brother when they were children, that there is pride to be found in making something yourself (18-19). As the poem opens, we see the speaker sitting off by herself, watching in fascination as her brother builds a fort underground. She sees her brother in this place, “standing outside it / like a chief: bare-chested, weary / from labor, proud, dignified / and talking to us as if we could never / understand a thing” (lines 14-16). Her brother’s attitude toward the speaker and her friends tells us about the pride he has in having built this thing, and of her desire to have a place inside it. He is so proud, that the speaker’s brother and his friends won’t let her or her friends in. In fact, the boys are so enthralled by their creation that, “For those weeks, the boys didn’t chase us. / They busied themselves with patching / the fort and sweeping the dirt outside / the entrance” (lines 21-24.) This lack of interest in chasing them around the neighborhood is fascinating to the narrator. It’s so fascinating, that the speaker and her friends find themselves drawn to the fort: “And we approached the clearing where / their fort was like deer in winter / hungry for any small thing – what / they had made without us” (lines 29-32). She and her friends find themselves staring inside the fort, trying to glean some new information about what those boys could be doing inside. This attempt to understand what is going on inside the fort is pivotal to the poem. In the last line of the poem, we see that the speaker finds that understanding: “We wanted to watch them live there” (line 33). In answering her own question about why she was standing outside staring at the fort, we see that the speaker has learned from her brother that the sense of accomplishment found in making something for yourself is very rewarding.

By remembering her brother’s strength and the role he played in guiding her life, the speaker in Howe’s poem, “The Attic” learns how precious he is to her (28-29). In the poem, we meet the speaker and her brother, who has no choice but to listen while her father walks into her room and rapes her. But rather than be angry with him for failing to stop her father, she appreciates his efforts, saying, “Tower prince, young king, praise to the boy / who has willed his blood to cool and his heart to slow” (lines 7-8). The presence of mind it must take to remain in his chair and not move, knowing what is happening a few feet away from his door is admirable in the speaker’s eye. Her brother finds things to distract himself from the horror that he knows is taking place. He busies himself with a blueprint of a house he’s working on and stays away until the moment that he hears his sister’s door slam behind his father as he leaves the room. The speaker is amazed at the strength her brother displays as he finally knocks on her door: “I know it hurts him / to rise, to knock on my door and come in. And when he draws his / skinny arm // around my shaking shoulders” (lines 18-20). She knows it hurts him to admit that he’s allowing his father to take sexual advantage of his sister under his scrutiny. As the speaker sits there in her brother’s arms, she awakens to an idea, “I don’t know if he knows he’s building a world where I can one day / love a man” (lines 22-23). The thought that he’s loving her in this moment, and that men can be tender, is a side of men that she’s never seen from her father. She holds this image of the good in men tight to her heart to give her just a little bit of her brother’s strength. Edward Hirsch, a poetry critic, found this idea in Howe’s poetry as well: “I find the feeling of what we need to cherish in ordinary life beautifully expressed in the […] poem” (Hirsch). The need to cherish something so ordinary, as physical affection, highlights the memories of the speaker’s brother. This lesson she learned from her brother shows us how much the speaker’s brother meant to her and how much she appreciated him.

Like “The Fort” and “The Attic,” the speaker learns one last thing from her brother’s life and death in the poem “What the Living Do”; grief is something that never goes away (89-90). The speaker starts off the poem by speaking to her dead brother about the current state of affairs in her life: “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” (lines 1-4). The imagery here of the clogged drain and the “crusty dishes” shows us that the speaker is in so much pain that it’s hard for her to cope with her every day life. As she contemplates her day to day chores, she is reminded of her brother and thinks about what the living do, “This is it. / Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called / that yearning. // What you finally gave up” (lines 20-23). The mundane chores that permeate her days and nights remind her of all the things that her brother will never do again. As the speaker continues to ponder on all of the things that the living want and expect out of life, she comes to a realization; “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” (lines 30-34). This thought, that she is going on, remembering her brother in her heart, and that she loves being alive puts the whole circumstance in perspective for her. In order to go on living beyond grief, we must accept it. Grief becomes a part of us over time and is something that we can learn to appreciate about ourselves.

Howe’s book, What the Living Do, contains verse of such strength that it enables us to cope with our own pain. It teaches us that by remembering the lessons we have learned from the lives of others, their passing is easier to accept. If we remember those lessons, their lives and the time we spent with them are not wasted. Her poetry had a powerful influence on how I finally resolved my internal conflicts over my grandfather’s death. I miss him and sometimes I still cry for him, but after having read her poetry I realize that my grandfather doesn’t need my tears anymore. What he needs is to be a part of my memories and a part of who I am. This is something that no one can ever take away from me, not even in death. My grandfather will remain alive and well in the memories of those who loved him. Just like the speaker in Howe’s poem, I am living and I remember.

Works Cited

Hirsch, Edward. “Poet’s Choice” The Washington Post 4 August 2002. T12.

Proquest Direct. UMI. Spokane Falls Community College Library, Spokane WA. 1. Nov. 2004.

Howe, Marie. What the Living Do. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.