What the Living Do Essay - Critical Essays

What the Living Do

In WHAT THE LIVING DO, Marie Howe explores the emotional impact of incest and death on a woman from childhood to adulthood.

In the first section, Howe illustrates the tests that the young girl, Marie, experiences. “Sixth Grade” shows her brothers tying Marie and a friend to the garage door and torturing them with a dried deer’s leg. “Practicing” is the girls, first explorations of romance, kissing each other in the basement to get ready for the real thing. And in “The Mother,” readers see the father, drunk and abusive, forcing himself on the girl. In all, readers feel the girl’s detachment as she tries to stay outside of the pain.

Then readers share the pain as Marie, now a woman, watches her brother, John, die of AIDS. “A Certain Light” gives a glimpse of those small moments of the appreciation of life within the context of death. In “Rochester, New York, July 1989,” the piano teacher downstairs promises to play softly for the patient. And in “The Gate” and “One of the Last Days,” Marie and John experience the immediacy of life and the negation of love as death draws near.

In the third section, Marie watches her husband leave her, her sister die of cancer, and another friend die of AIDS. In “The New Life,” her husband has come back and she understands the immediacy of everyday things. And in “What the Living Do,” and “Buddy,” she celebrates the transitory vividness of life, and the “yearning” we experience while we are living.

Although the magnitude of death is almost overwhelming, and the structure of the poetry is loose, the poems present a vivid picture of the pain and uncertainty faced when death approaches, and the absolute importance of appreciating life while it is lived.

Sources for Further Study

Commercial Appeal. November 16, 1997, p. G3.

Library Journal. CXXII, October 15, 1997, p. 65.

Ploughshares. XXIII, Winter, 1997, p. 221.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, October 27, 1997, p. 71.