Analysis of "What the Living Do" by Marie Howe
What the Living Do is a poem Marie Howe created in remembrance of her younger brother Johnny, who died of AIDS complications. It concentrates on the everyday, mundane things we humans do to stay alive, as part of living.
Whilst acknowledging that the fabric of daily life is made up of the minutiae, the narrator (the poet) doesn't forget her brother's life - the more she lives the stronger the memory. This is it, that yearning for more life.
'After John died, the world became very clear – as if a window had broken – the world itself became very dear. It was the place John had lived, and as long as I still walked around I could catch glimpses of him. But more than that, when John died I felt as if I had finally entered the larger community of humans. Now I knew unbearable grief, and I was like other people in this world who had known this.'
Marie Howe's poetry is often a search for the spiritual within the secular. It is strong on narrative, the lines packed full of content, the language plain, the deeper message eventually appearing on the surface of ordinary life.
What the Living Do was first published in 1998 in a book of the same title. Reading this poem is to be welcomed into the functioning world and then immersed in the myriad things that are happening to the speaker. Connections back to her brother.
Out of this busy, multi-faceted existence comes a kind of consolation. She knows her brother is no longer in the living world but it takes her own reflection to remind her that she is physically still here, getting on with life, albeit drastically altered.
What the Living Do
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.
What the Living Do is written in plain language, to reflect the ordinariness of day to day routine life, yet the sentiments behind the meaning of the words could hardly be more of a contrast. The speaker has lost her younger brother, he has died, and the everyday has become anything but.
In the kitchen, on the pavement, in a video store window, life is juxtaposed with death. Everyone has to face it someday, everyone has to get on with being who they are despite the demise of a close one. Things change, yet other things, routines and mundane activities, carry on. The outside world doesn't ever stop.
But the passing of Johnny has affected the speaker. She must be grieving. The sink has been neglected for days, which otherwise would have been fixed. Plates are not washed—the home is a mess. Johnny and his sister spoke about this, perhaps when he was in hospital, maybe at some special time in their common past.
To be alive means doing simple stuff: shopping, parking, having a coffee, noticing small things..hurrying. Being alive is about wanting more, yearning for it, yearning for abundant life, time in which to live abundantly.
We who are alive have to cherish the thought of living—the speaker is inspired, in awe of the basic fact that she exists as a living being—hair and face and all. It's only through being alive that she can appreciate and cherish the life of her dead brother.
What the Living Do is a free verse poem of 8 stanzas, 31 lines in total. Seven of the stanzas are quatrains made up of alternating long and shorter lines. The final stanza has three lines, the long-short pattern maintained to the end.
This form gives the poem an unusual look on the page; a little bit formal, working hard to achieve a balance.
This poem has a conversational feel to it, the narrative seemingly straight out of the mouth of the speaker who is telling her brother (the deceased) all the latest news on the domestic front. A most mundane opening indeed, what with blocked sinks, smells and dirty dishes.
Whilst the form is traditional, the style is casual. The speaker could well be on the phone to her brother, save that the conversation is one way.
The narrative is packed with life's details and frustrations. You can picture the speaker talking to herself, talking to a photograph of Johnny, almost desperate to get something out, to get past the detritus of the menial and onto the profound.
The speaker is mostly matter-of-fact, telling it as it is, but this roll call of the everyday is also reflective in parts. Her brother has passed on and little things keep reminding her of him, what he said, what he thought.
It is a kind of lament this poem, an attempt to put into perspective the absence of her younger sibling. Only through life can he be reached, his passing felt and acknowledged.