What the Living Do

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The traditions of the elegy include not only a statement of the mourner’s grief at the death of the subject but also, usually, a documentation of that grief with an account of the past relationship between the subject and speaker. Moreover, elegies of the past usually concluded by offering some sort of consolation from which the survivors might take heart. Although the late twentieth century challenged many of poetry’s traditional forms, the essential elements of the elegy remain perceptible in Marie Howe’s volume What the Living Do, a collection of poems that memorializes her brother John, who died at age twenty-eight, and that also marks the deaths of other people important to the poet. The mode of these poems, however, has much in common with the work of contemporary poets such as Sharon Olds; Howe’s voice is personal and colloquial, and her descriptions of her relationships with the people to whom this book is dedicated are often detailed and frank. However, her purposes are those that have always been associated with the elegy—to find meaning in the suffering and deaths of loved ones and to find a means by which the survivors can somehow redeem their losses.

Poems in the first section of the volume record events from the speaker’s childhood; her brother figures in these poems, but he is not their main focus. A central theme of this section concerns the sexuality of children. “Sixth Grade,” for example, relates how a gang of neighborhood twelve-year-olds harasses the speaker and a friend one summer. As the bullying increases, so does its sexual suggestion. Only the speaker’s direct appeal to a friend of her brother defuses the violence that seems imminent. In “Practicing,” the poet records the long sessions of “practice” kissing she shares with other seventh-grade girls as they prepare for the real kisses they will soon share with boys.

This section also portrays conflicts between the speaker’s father and the family’s children. The book’s first poem, “The Boy,” relates how the speaker’s older brother runs away from home to prevent his father from cutting his hair. He runs to a nearby vacant-lot hangout, and, after a few days, the speaker is sent to coax him home with the promise that there will be no reprisals. When the brother returns, the father shaves his head; the brother refuses to speak for the next month. This poem makes a sort of epigraph for this section of the book. It concludes:

What happened in our house taught my brothers how to leave, how to walk
down a sidewalk without looking back.

I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he was,

calling and calling his name.

The most painful revelation of this section concerns the speaker’s sexual abuse by her father. “The Mother” portrays a passive woman who cannot defend her daughter against the abuse she knows is going on. Only the older brother offers to help her. He sits like “an exiled prince grown hard in his confinement” in his attic bedroom, designing dream buildings for a drafting class and listening while their father enters the speaker’s bedroom across the hall. When the father leaves, he goes to his sister and sits with his arm around her: “I don’t know if he knows he’s building a world where I can one day/ love a man.”

The next section begins to detail John’s decline and death, beginning with “For Three Days.” The title refers to the three days in which the speaker has tried to think of another word for “gratitude,” the gratitude she feels at her brother’s escape from a death that seemed almost certain as the family gathered around him in the intensive care unit. At the same time, Howe notes, guiltily, that she had already begun to imagine him dead and to plan what she would write about him. The poem ends with a reference to Jesus’ raising of the dead Lazarus. When Lazarus’s sister saw him alive, Howe says, she was “crushed . . . with gratitude and shame.” (Howe uses a similar biblical reference to Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha toward the end of this collection in “Memorial,” a poem about the death of a friend.)

Howe’s editing of In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic (1995, edited with Michael Klein) suggests that her brother John was dying of AIDS; the character Joe, who appears in this section, may have been John’s lover. The focus of this section, however, is on the slow-motion process of death rather than on its clinical details or the politics of its cause, and the details will seem familiar to anyone who has watched the gradual decline of a loved one. The process is painfully slow and painfully inevitable. Meanwhile, life goes on outside the sickroom in all its heedless beauty....

(The entire section is 1973 words.)