Having lost two brothers to AIDS, this poem hits home in a deep and meaningful way. Also, since we are in the middle of a pandemic, it seems appropriate to share. I discovered Marie Howe through the Billy Collins Master Class on Poetry at Masterclass.com. He had Marie join him for several sessions and, in one, she read this poem. I think it’s ironic that her brother was named John just as my oldest brother was. Of course, this makes me think of my older brother Jim as well. May they, and all who have recently died, rest in peace.
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.
From What the Living Do, copyright © 1998 by Marie Howe. Used by permission of W. W. Norton. All rights reserved.