Poet Marie Howe On 'What The Living Do' After Loss "Poetry holds the knowledge that we are alive and that we know we're going to die," poet Marie Howe tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. One of Howe's most famous poems, "What the Living Do," was recently included in The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry.
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Poet Marie Howe On 'What The Living Do' After Loss

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Poet Marie Howe On 'What The Living Do' After Loss

Poet Marie Howe On 'What The Living Do' After Loss

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TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A couple of weeks ago, our book interview producer, Sam Bregger(ph), showed me the new Penguin anthology of 20th-century American poetry. He told me it includes one of his favorite poems, by a poet I'd never heard of, named Marie Howe.

So I read it and agreed this is really good. Sam went on to tell me that Howe had been one of his teachers at Tufts, and although he didn't know her well, he spoke very highly of her. So I read a couple of her books and was particularly moved by how she wrote about the deaths of her mother and of her younger brother.

Here's how her writing was described by the late Stanley Kunitz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former poet laureate who was also Howe's teacher and friend: Her long, deep-breathing lines address mysteries of flesh and spirit in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.

Marie Howe teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Marie Howe, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I thought the best way to start would be with the poem that's anthologized in the new Penguin anthology, and it's about having a new comprehension of life and of being alive after your brother died.

He died of AIDS-related causes in 1989. Do I have that right?

MARIE HOWE: Yes, I think I was '89. I was just wondering, Terry, this morning, is it '88 or '89. But I think it was '89.

GROSS: So would you read that poem for us?

HOWE: Sure. The poem is a letter, actually, written to John that I started to write when I was struggling with writing poems all day, and I decided to just quit that and write John a letter, "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.

GROSS: That's Marie Howe, reading her poem "What the Living Do." That's such a beautiful poem. So I get the sense from this poem that your brother's death gave you just like a new comprehension of what it means to be alive.

HOWE: Well, yes, eventually. As we all know, first, you know, you just think, you know, John - I come from a very large family, Terry. There were nine children in my family, and I love all my brothers and sisters, and we were close growing up. But John and I were very close, and he was, I don't know, a kind of - he was my editor and spiritual teacher.

And you know, we were 11 years apart, but - he was much younger than me, but when he died, it was a terrible loss to all of us. So first it's that. You know, as you know, as everybody knows, you think, you know, my life has changed, so really I don't know how to live it anymore.

And then, you know, you find a way.

GROSS: Was he the first person who was your contemporary to die, the first contemporary you were very close to?

HOWE: You know, I had a friend when I was in high school, my first boy friend, you know, not a sweetheart, a friend, Bob Brandemeyer(ph). And he dropped dead two weeks before all of us were about to go to college. It turned out he had leukemia, but nobody knew. He didn't know. And that was – that was the first death.

But John was a whole other matter. You know, John, I talked to John, I don't know, five times a week on the phone. We wrote letters back and forth. We were in a constant conversation.

GROSS: You called him your spiritual advisor, and you said that he used to say pain - I think it was in one of your poems, pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. That sounds so wise and yet so impossible. For me, suffering always feels, like, completely out of my control.


GROSS: You know, I can't make it stop.

HOWE: Well, it's an AA thing too. You know, John was in AA. He got sober at 23. But when someone's lying there, and they're 90 pounds, and they're blind in one eye, and they have neuropathy, and they can't walk, and they say pain is inevitable, and suffering is a choice, then it's quite a different matter.

Johnny said this right until the last day he died. He looked up at me and said: This is not a tragedy, Marie. I am a happy man. You know, actually after that, he said when I'm asked if I could love, I can answer yes.

GROSS: Do you think he really believed that, or was he saying that for your sake, that he was a happy man?

HOWE: I think he really believed it. He shone. He was luminous. You know, I think that he wouldn't say something like that for my sake (technical difficulties)...

GROSS: You know, there's a poem about your brother that really, another poem that really stands out in my mind, and it's about his lifelong fear of blindness.

HOWE: Oh, yes, yes.

GROSS: I mean so much so that you describe having disassembled one of the crystal chandeliers in the house because it looked like shards, you know, it just looked scary. And then he had to undergo this procedure when he had HIV, getting a needle in his eye.

HOWE: Yeah, how some of it happened. And that, you know, was interesting because this was a turning poem in the book for me, writing it, because I had to understand who I was writing to. And I wrote - tried to write this poem, you know, 50 times, and I started off telling - writing it to John, you know.

And, you know, and I started to say, you know, you are so afraid of going blind, and then you had this needle in your eye. And I heard John, you know, going, well, you know, yeah, I know. You know, you don't have to tell me. And then I slowly realized that it was to you and to the other, anybody who would listen. It was to people I hadn't met yet, who I wanted to speak.

So there was this moment when the poem says, so you understand it was terrible. And that whole thing kind of wheeled around, and I realized: Oh, these are poems directly to other people, you know? But yes, the fear, the fear that - John's fear that he would go blind and my fear that John would die both came true, as many of our fears do.

GROSS: Yeah, I'll just read the end of the poem. You know, the poem is about his worst fear coming true. Like, he goes blind in one eye, plus he has a needle put through it, like every week or something.

HOWE: Yes.

GROSS: Then you write: One day it happens, what you have feared all your life, the unendurably specific, the exact thing, no matter what you say or do.

HOWE: And this is what my brother said: Here, sit closer to the bed so I can see you.

GROSS: Just be in the moment. So there's another poem I want you to read, and this is a poem about your childhood. It's called "The Boy." And why don't you, before you read it, introduce it for us.

HOWE: Well, when I got writing - when I started to write about my brother John, I began thinking about gender. John was a gay man, living and dying at a time when this was still a fraught issue in our culture.

GROSS: And probably in your family, which is Catholic.

HOWE: Not so much in my family by that time, no. I mean, there was a few bumps but not much, actually. My mother - my father had died, and my mother - and all of us just adored John. We just wanted him to be healthy, you know. So it wasn't that big of a deal, oddly. We were Catholic lefties, Terry. That's an important distinction.

GROSS: Okay.


HOWE: We were the left Catholics. We had the guitar masses at home and went into the ghettos and painted people's houses whether they liked it or not, you know.


HOWE: And we, you know, we marched on Washington. So we were the Dan Berrigan Catholics. But this boy, I want to make clear at this moment in time, is not my brother John. It's another brother. I have four brothers and four sisters. And this was an older brother, the only person older than me in our family. Shall I read it?

GROSS: Yes, please.

HOWE: "The Boy." My older brother is walking down the sidewalk into the suburban summer night, white T-shirt, blue jeans, to the field at the end of the street. Hangers Hideout, the boys called it, an undeveloped plot, a pit overgrown with weeds, some old furniture thrown down there, and some metal hangers clinking in the trees like wind chimes.

He's running away from home because our father wants to cut his hair. And in two more days our father will convince me to go to him - you know where he is - and talk to him: No reprisals. He promised. A small parade of kids in feet pajamas will accompany me, their voices like the first peepers in spring.

And my brother will walk ahead of us home, and my father will shave his head bald, and my brother will not speak to anyone the next month, not a word, not pass the milk, nothing.

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.

GROSS: So even though it was a lefty family as you describe it, you feel like the girls and the boys in your family were brought up differently?

HOWE: Oh sure. Oh my gosh, yes, in that way, yes. We served the boys dinner, we cleared their plates. You know, I think the boys had two jobs: empty the garbage and shovel the walks. It was a very gendered world back in the '50s when I was growing up.

GROSS: So there are nine children in your family, and you were the oldest girl. Were you the assistant mother?

HOWE: Uh-huh. Yes, I was. Let me say it out loud: Yes, I was. Every oldest girl of a big Irish Catholic family is the assistant mother, and instantly. I mean, by the time I was four years old, I think there were four of us.

GROSS: Did that make you want to be a mother or not?

HOWE: No, I became a mother in my old age. I never - I didn't have the dream of having children that so many people I knew growing up did, until I was about 48 years old.

GROSS: Wow, that is pretty late.

HOWE: Very, very late. I wanted to be an artist. You know, I wanted to write. I wanted to become free. I wanted to be a guy, you know, for the first - my 20s and 30s, before I realized what that meant. I mean, I wanted to have a life, you know, a cultural, artistic life.

But then I - I adopted my daughter when I was 52 years old, and you know, of course it's illuminated my life, her presence in it, and the joy I feel every single day in being her mother has been an astonishment to me.

GROSS: My guest is poet Marie Howe. The title poem of her collection, "What the Living Do," is in the new Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Marie Howe. She's a poet who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, and one of her poems is in the new Penguin anthology of 20thcentury American poetry. So there's another poem I want you to read called "Practicing," and this is about, like, very early glimmers of sexuality and what that's like.

HOWE: Yeah, this poem took me 20 years to write.

GROSS: Really? Why'd it take so long?

HOWE: Well, I couldn't find the form. You know, I tried and tried and tried to write about this, and also it was, you know, a little - kind of embarrassing, a little scary. But I really wanted to write about it. I felt the necessity to write about it deep in my soul.

And finally one day I realized, oh, it's a poem of praise. It's a praise song, you know. And then it found its shape. "Practicing."

I want to write a love poem for the girls I kissed in seventh grade, a song for what we did on the floor in the basement of somebody's parents' house, a hymn for what we didn't say but thought: That feels good or I like that, when we learned how to open each other's mouths, how to move our tongues to make somebody moan.

We called it practicing, and one was the boy, and we paired off - maybe six or eight girls - and turned out the lights and kissed and kissed until we were stoned on kisses, and lifted our nightgowns or let the straps drop, and now you be the boy.

Concrete floor, sleeping bag or couch, playroom, game room, train room, laundry. Linda's basement was like a boat with booths and portholes instead of windows. Gloria's father had a bar downstairs with stools that spun, plush carpeting.

We kissed each other's throats, and we left marks, and never spoke of it upstairs, outdoors, in daylight, not once. We did it, and it was practicing, and we grew up and hardly mentioned who the first kiss really was - a girl like us, still sticky with moisturizer we had shared in the bathroom.

I want to write a song for that thick silence in the dark, and the first pure thrill of unreluctant desire, just before we made ourselves stop.

GROSS: I think that's such a beautiful poem, and reading it I kept thinking: Is this a poem about a girl who is gay and, you know, practicing (unintelligible) a way of being intimate with other girls? Or is this about a girl who's really practicing for the kind of heterosexual desire that she can't really, you know, heterosexual relationship that she can't really have yet because she's in seventh grade.

HOWE: Yeah, well, I think every single one of those girls, all of us grew up to marry.

GROSS: Was that - I just realized that's such an intimate question to ask.

HOWE: No, it's okay. I mean, I think it's - there's a lot of fluidity in sexuality that we don't acknowledge, and especially in those ages. You know, perhaps, perhaps always, there's a kind of fluidity that this book is also aware of. My brother John had girlfriends all through high school and college, you know. I don't know that one has to always decide.

But certainly this practicing was practicing, but it also becomes something, you know, in itself, which was kind of thrilling and freaky, you know. I have to tell you one thing: This came out in a magazine, and I went home to my hometown for Christmas, and I went over to see one of my dear old friends, a grown woman with grown sons, and the magazine was on her coffee table, and we never mentioned the poem.

GROSS: Do you think she was uncomfortable about it?

HOWE: Apparently we both were. I didn't mention it either.

GROSS: Was she one of the girls in the poem?

HOWE: Yes.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

HOWE: Now we were, you know, we were 45, you know.

GROSS: Right. Well, you know, you're in such a swoon in the poem, and you say you tried to write it for 20 years, and you were able to write it when you realized it was a song of praise. What shape was the poem taking before you realized it was a song of praise?

HOWE: I think I was trying to tell a narrative or trying to tell a story or trying to explain something. I don't know. I couldn't, you know, every poem holds the unspeakable inside it, the unsayable, you know, not unspeakable as in taboo but the unsayable, the thing that you can't really say because it's too complicated, it's too complex for us.

Every poem has that silence deep in the center of it, and so I kept going, I kept trying to - I couldn't find a way to hold that silence, you know, until finally I realized, oh, it's a song, it's a love song, and inside that love song is all that silence, all those questions that you can't answer. One of them you asked me, do you know what I mean, but you can't really answer.

GROSS: My guest is poet Marie Howe. She'll be back in the second half of the show. The title poem from her collection "What the Living Do" is in the new Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Marie Howe. Her poem "What the Living Do," the title poem of her 2008 book, is in the new Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry. Her other collections are "The Good Thief," and "The Kingdom of Ordinary Time." Both titles are biblical references.

My impression reading your poems is that when you were young, and I think still today, that you took the Bible pretty seriously as, if not, if nothing else as great stories and literature. I mean I know that you're still writing poems about Mary Magdalene, which is a project that you started when you started writing poems about your brother.

HOWE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So when you were young, can you give us a sense of what Bible stories and what stories of the saints meant to you?


HOWE: Well, it was the literature of my life. We went to Sunday mass and when we came home we had a big brunch every Sunday. And my mother would ask us what the Gospel was and what the Epistle was, and if we didn't know we had to walk back to church and go to mass again. I love the Gospels and I loved the stories of the what we call the Old Testament or the Torah. They were the mythology of my life growing up. Everybody, from Adam and Eve to Noah, you know, Jonah and the whale, the Apostles, Jesus himself, all those characters were like Shakespeare to me. They were the world. They were the whole field of human characterization and possibility. And all of them wanted to know what is the nature of reality. They all wanted to know that. I did too.

GROSS: So you know, in reading about the saints(ph) , one of the things you are reading about is probably like self control.


HOWE: Maybe it was not really self control but self interrogation...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOWE: ...you know. I mean to grow up Catholic is to grow up and believe in the soul, you know, believing that the self, the essential self, is not necessarily one's personality, you know, or how one looks or if one is on the cheerleading squad, or whatever. So that there is this sort of sense of the eternal within one, and that - whether the eternal is in the (unintelligible) moment of the present or, you know, in some other way we might experience time. So it wasn't so much self control as a way of thinking about the moral life, I guess, in a very early way, and also thinking about a life of choices and direction and, you know, what are you going to love.

GROSS: So you're thinking about these things and meanwhile, from your poems, it sounds like your father was a little out of control - that he drank too much, that he was, you know, kind of abusive to the children.

HOWE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So...

HOWE: Well, there are - sorry. Go ahead.

GROSS: I was just wondering what it was like to be living with the father who didn't really represent some of the, you know, morality and spirituality that you were so immersed in in your reading.

HOWE: Well, the great thing about art is that it's not finished, and that any human being, so many of us are afflicted with addictions, with problems living. Many people have to share my story, it's nothing new. But, of course, my father was many, many, many things. He was an alcoholic man who tried very hard to get sober throughout his life and couldn't. It was a hard thing to do in the '50s and '60s. But he was also charming and funny and very kind and wise, so it's complicated, you know. And I think that to grow up with an addict is a particular, something does happen to your view of the world. I mean you have to find a way to live with the unexpected turns that can happen in any moment. And then that way the world does become a very unpredictable and dangerous place. And so that I think is in the poems. You know, there's a sense of a kind of retroactive dread, like something, something, something might happen any minute. And anyone who lives with an addict knows what that's like. But people who live with, all sorts of people know what that's like as well. So I don't want to concentrate on that part of my father. I feel that...


HOWE: ...one day I'd like to write an essay about him and celebrate a lot of the great things about him too. And everybody I knew was an alcoholic growing up. I mean my aunts, my uncles, my mother. You know, there were a lot of, lot of people who were afflicted by that illness.

GROSS: The next poem I want you to read is called "Prayer." And it's in the collection that's titled "The Kingdom of Ordinary Time." So the first thing I want you to do is talk about what ordinary time means.

HOWE: It's a beautiful expression, isn't it? When I was growing up, again, in church with the missal in my hand, there was always this period of time that was coming, coming, coming. And it always said the coming of ordinary time, the coming of ordinary time. And then the first Sunday of ordinary time, second Sunday of ordinary time. I loved this swath of time in the church calendar. I realized later that it was the parts of the year that were not high holy seasons, not Advent, not Lent, but the swath of time that happened in between those highlighted areas of the year where most of us, of course, live, you know, or nothing apparently miraculous is happening. So therefore, "The Kingdom of Ordinary Time." This poem/prayer is really about trying to sit still.

GROSS: I love this poem. Why don't you read it.

HOWE: "Prayer." Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important calls for my attention - the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage I need to buy for the trip. Even now I can hardly sit here among the falling piles of paper and clothing, the garbage trucks outside already screeching and banging. The mystics say you are as close as my own breath. Why do I flee from you? My days and nights pour through me like complaints and become a story I forgot to tell. Help me. Even as I write these words, I am planning to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.


GROSS: I love the ending of that. Even as I write these words I'm planning to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.


GROSS: So the poem is addressed to you. Who is the you that you are speaking to?

HOWE: I guess it would be whoever one prays to, you know, the higher power, the you. I don't know that I believe in a you anymore, but when I wrote this I did. You know, that conversation one's having with the eternal, with the higher self, whatever you want to call it.

GROSS: The poem is so much about like the noise and distractions of life that prevent you...


HOWE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...from sitting still to focus on whatever that thing is that calms and nourishes you, whether it's a belief in God or meditation or just sitting still, or whatever, that there's just...

HOWE: Mm-hmm.


GROSS: ...you always want to do it and there's not the time. You don't make the time.

HOWE: It's kooky. I know. And this, why we resist that kind of peaceful joy, I do not know, but there it is.

GROSS: So do you feel still in that state of seeking that peaceful joy and rising from the chair at the same time?

HOWE: Constantly. It's an affliction. It's constant. It's terrible.

GROSS: My guest is Marie Howe. Her collections of poetry include "What the Living Do" and "The Kingdom of Ordinary Time." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is poet Marie Howe. The title poem from her book "What the Living Do" is in the new Penguin Anthology of the 20th Century American Poetry. So Stanley Kunitz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was also a poet laureate, was you mentor. And he described you as being very much of our time, yet still in touch with the sacred. What does the sacred mean to you? Does that mean believing in God or something else?

HOWE: Gosh. Let's just ask the audience.


HOWE: These are big questions. More and more I feel that the sacred is right now, you and me, whatever is happening. I don't know what Stanley meant. I remember reading that quote and being stunned by it. I was still kind of embarrassed about that aspect of my writing and myself. But I think "The Kingdom of Ordinary Time," this last book, is trying to enter that question - what is the sacred? What is the self? What is the soul? What are we doing here?

GROSS: We started with a poem about your brother's death...

HOWE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and carrying on with life after that. There's a poem about your mother dying that I'd like you to read, and it's called "My Mother's Body."


HOWE: Yeah.

GROSS: Introduce it for us before you read it.

HOWE: My mother gave birth to nine of us and she had two miscarriages, so she was pregnant 11 times. And as we've said earlier, many of us daughters have trouble separating from our mothers, especially if our mother is merged with us in the oldest girl of a big family, often has that syndrome going on. So for me, when my mother was dying, after she died I was thinking a lot about her actual body and her and me, her and I, she and I, her and me, the two of us, so...

GROSS: And the poem kind of alternates between her and you, between her body and yours.

HOWE: Yeah. Or that it's actually her - a lot of her body, but it's thinking about her body when I was in it.

GROSS: Right. When she was carrying you.

HOWE: Yeah. When she was carrying me, when she was carrying me and then also when she - my mother was very sick the last few years of her life - going to dialysis three times a week, very, very uncomfortable. And to think of her as a young woman of 24 carrying me and then as an older woman, really her body was just wrecked and it's part of what was happening here as well.

"My Mother's Body." Bless my mother's body, the first song of her beating heart and her breathing; her voice, which I could dimly hear, grew louder. From inside her body I heard almost every word she said. Within that girl I drove to the store and back, her feet pressing pedals of the blue car, her voice, first gate to the cold sunny mornings, rain, moonlight, snowfall, dogs. Her kidneys failed, the womb where I once lived is gone. Her young astonished body pushed me down that long corridor, and my body hurt her, I know that - 24 years old. I'm old enough to be that girl's mother, to smooth her hair, to look into her exultant frightened eyes, her bedsheets stained with chocolate, her heart in constant failure. It's a girl, someone must have said. She must have kissed me with her mouth, first grief, first air, and soon I was drinking her, first food, I was eating my mother slumped in her wheelchair, one of my brothers pushing it, across the snowy lawn, her eyes fixed, her face averted. Bless this body she made, my long legs, her long arms and fingers, our voice in my throat speaking to you know.

GROSS: Had you always thought about, like, you know, the pain of childbirth that your mother probably had delivering you, or - your just like physical connection to her - the fact that she carried you. I mean did you think about that a lot until she was dying?

HOWE: No, I never thought of it until she was dying. I never thought of it. She was pregnant all the time. She was always pregnant with some other baby.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOWE: And never - I never imagined myself as her baby. She was always pregnant. She was always standing in our backyard by that swimming pool with a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, in a bathing suit pregnant, talking to her other sisters, all pregnant, all with lipstick on, all with bathing suits on, and then she would turn to the pool and yell, you know, one more time and you're out to one of the kids and then turn back to her sisters.


HOWE: She was just sort of, you know, a glamorous pregnant woman.


HOWE: There were so many mothers. You know, Terry, I'm sure you have many, many mothers, and your mother too, so many mothers. But no, I hadn't thought about it really until later. And then, you know, the fullness of time. I mean time and eternity are a constant - so many poems occur at the intersection of time and eternity and the fullness of time.

GROSS: So there's one more poem I want you to read, and it's called "My Dead Friends." And again, you might want to introduce it for us.

HOWE: Well, my friend Billy is in this poem. And Billy is one - a dear and wonderful friend who died of AIDS as well, so he shows up in "What the Living Do" as well.

GROSS: Okay.

HOWE: "My Dead Friend." I have begun - but I want to say, sorry. I want to back up. Not just Billy, by this time in one's life one has a lot of friends who have died, so I think of many of them. Lucy Greely(ph) , Billy Forlenza(ph) , John Howe(ph) , John Tannery(ph) . "My Dead Friends." I have begun, when I'm weary and can't decide an answer to a bewildering question, to ask my dead friends for their opinion and the answer is often immediate and clear. Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child in my middle age? They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling - whatever leads to joy, they always answer, to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy's ashes were; it's green in there, a green vase, and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says yes. Billy's already gone through the frightening door, whatever he says I'll do.

Did it take you a long time to come up with that word, the frightening door...



No. I mean I have seen many of my friends go through the frightening door. And there's something about being there - I was there when Billy died, watching that happened – that feels so, well, intimate and reassuring. And you know how it is, like when I was a kid, I'm trying to dive off the high board in the swimming pool, you know? Your friends would say, here, I'll do it first. Come after me, you know? And it felt like – sometimes life feels like standing on the board, you know? And some people have gone first. It took me a really long time to dive off that high board.


HOWE: I think it took me about an hour and a half. And I have to say, it was my father was treading water below it all the time.

GROSS: So found watching friends die to be in its own way reassuring.

HOWE: Well, it's what happens, isn't it, Terry? I mean the great, again, I keep going back to poetry itself. Poetry holds the knowledge that we are alive and that we know we're going to die. The most mysterious aspect of being alive might be that, and poetry knows that. So everybody we know is going to die and many of us will attend our beloved friends and family. So what each friend who has died has told me is, it's going to happen to you too. You know, here I go, bye, you know? And every time that happens, it's a new experience that I feel like I've been privileged to be near or close to the door when they've gone.

GROSS: Marie Howe, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and for reading some of your poems.

HOWE: Terry, it's been a great pleasure to talk with you.

GROSS: The title poem from Marie Howe's book "What the Living Do" is in the new Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. You can read that poem and two other Marie Howe poems on our website, freshair.npr.org. Howe teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. This is FRESH AIR.

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