Poem of the Week, by Marie Howe

991DA27A-58E0-41E4-87E6-9CA5515E0597Last week I was weeding my garden on a steambath afternoon when clouds tiered overhead, the air turned greenish, and a breeze sprang up. There’s a tall pine tree in my tiny front yard, with limbs that sweep down to earth, and when the first drops splatted down, I stepped inside them to watch the storm.

As a child I built a platform in the giant maple tree by the side of the road, accessible by a rope no one but me could climb. I used to stay up there for hours, reading and thinking in the crook of the tree. At one point I carved my initials into the biggest limb   –   A   R   M.   Over time, a decade or two, the tree puffed itself around the wound and healed itself. 

Trees talk to one another through their roots. Trees of the same species will share water and food. All trees in a forest are interconnected. They shelter one another, the way the tree in my front yard shelters me. 


The Copper Beech, by Marie Howe

Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,

with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where

I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone.

One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell
darkening the sidewalk.

Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches,
I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy,

watching it happen without it happening to me.




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Poem of the Week, by Marie Howe

The summer after college graduation, my sister and I headed to a Colorado ski town for the summer. We lived and worked in a hotel with a bunch of other temporary people, among them a guy named Jerry and his buddies. They were gay men, bright and blunt and full of hilarious advice. In my memory Jerry is always in a bathrobe, smoking and ironing shirt after shirt at the permanently set up ironing board in his room. The hotel felt like a giant dorm, doors ajar, constant conversation. We laughed all the time.

Six months later, I had moved far away to Boston. A strange disease was just beginning to take hold, a killer disease that seemed to affect only gay men. Rumors were that it was transmitted by sex. I remember unfunny jokes by unfunny straight people. I remember vast uneasiness among my gay friends. I remember feeling terrified for them.

Flash forward many years to now, when there is good treatment but still no cure for the strange disease. Some of my friends have lived with the virus for close to forty years. Others have died. Sometimes Jerry flashes into my mind, and I wonder about him and the others who lived in our long-ago hotel. The first time I read this poem by Marie Howe, whose brother died of AIDS, I memorized it. I don’t know why I think of Jerry when I recite it to myself, but I do. Jerry, are you out there, still ironing your shirts, still making everyone around you laugh? 


My Dead Friends, by Marie Howe

​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.



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Poem of the Week, by Marie Howe

See that old photo to the right? I found it yesterday in a scrapbook filled with random high school mementoes. The girl with the beautiful smile playing the violin used to be one of my closest friendsIMG_7430. She lived in a small bright green ranch house right across the street from the middle school, which meant that all she had to do was walk out her front door, cross Route 365 –the main street of the town– and there she was, at school. Unlike me, sitting on that accursed bus, groaning and lurching its way around endless curve after endless curve, down from the foothills, 45 minutes or more to school.

In my memory she is always smiling. She had silky dark brown hair, parted in the middle, falling over her shoulders. Her nose was sharp and red and a bit hooked, and her eyes, in my memory, are blue, blue, blue. And the smile. A big, merry smile that showed off her high cheekbones. I can picture her in the yearly school class photo. She would have been in the back row, with me, because when we were kids she was tall, too. She would have been smiling that big happy smile.

In middle school the two of us used to escape at lunch and walk across the street to the bright green ranch house. She lived there with her older brothers and her older sisters and her mother, who was, I’m pretty sure, a teacher down in Utica. Her father had died when she was a baby.

Her sisters and brothers were in high school, unimaginably older and cool. They were hippies. She and I were too young, we missed out on that. But often, when we walked into that little house with her, they and their friends would be there. Lying on the old couch, sitting on chairs, laughing and talking and wrestling and making offhand comments and jokes about things like sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Had I been alone I would have been stunned and cowed and half-paralyzed by their coolness, their easy laughter. But I wasn’t alone. I was with her.

Why did she like me? In retrospect I was quiet and reserved and an observer and not much fun back then, although maybe I’m not the best judge of that. But one reason she liked me is easy: she liked nearly everyone. She had a huge and generous heart. She was also unafraid of things that I was afraid of, like saying out loud that which scared me, hurt me, made me angry. She was honest about things. She saw life clearly, and stating the obvious didn’t scare her.

The boy I had a crush on used to ask if he could have a punch off my lunch ticket.

“Sure,” I used to say.

“I’ll pay you back,” he used to say.

I would watch him run across the grass, back into the school. She and I would be nearly to Route 365 now, ready to zip across and into the safety of that little green house.

“He won’t, you know,” she observed. “He won’t pay you back. And you’ll give it to him tomorrow if he asks.”

I looked at her. She looked at me and smiled. She was wise. She was honest. She stated things the way they were. And she was unjudging. Into her house the two of us would go, breaking the school rule, although in retrospect it’s hard to imagine that any number of teachers didn’t see us zipping across that street every day and mentally shrug.

The cool older siblings and their cool older friends might be lounging about. She would greet them all, smiling, and then the two of us would go into the tiny dark kitchen and pour enormous glasses of milk. Stir in the Quik with tall-handled spoons. Dig the knife into the big jar of peanut butter and spread giant swaths of it on slices of Wonder bread.

We would sit eating and drinking while I tried to overhear the conversations in the other room, trying to get some sense of what life could be like, were I cooler and older and wore tight bell bottoms and peasant shirts. She was one of the few friends I kept in touch with after high school. She stayed there, in the tiny town, population 300. She went to college, sure, but she never wanted to leave the town. Me? I left at 18 and never went back other than to visit my family. Not that I didn’t, and don’t, love it there, love the way I grew up. But staying there never felt like an option. For her, there was no other.

“I love it here,” she said. “I want to live here my whole life.”

She got a degree in gerontology and worked with old people. She loved them too. People on the fringes, people unnoticed, people quiet and shy, she saw them. She noticed them.

Twice that I know of, because she told me, men asked her to marry them.

“I said no,” she said. Smiling that big bright smile.

I asked her why. She shrugged.

“Didn’t feel right,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m happy just the way I am.”

She was Catholic and that, too, was something she loved. Hers was a happy Catholicism, a big bright generous religion whose God was always with her.

Everyone in the town knew her. At the drugstore, at the one tiny bar, at the church, in the one tiny grocery store, at the bank. She was one of those rarest of creatures, a human being completely comfortable in her own skin.

She’s been gone almost twenty years now, but I think of her most every day. When she appears in my mind, it’s always in winter. She’s always brushing up against me, wearing a bright blue nylon parka. That dark hair, those blue blue eyes, that grin. On the rare occasions when I drink chocolate milk, I make a mental toast to her. When I write my annual check to the food bank in that little town, I fill in the “in honor of” box in her name. If she were still here, she’d no doubt be running the place. I wish I could go home and see her again. Walk into that bright green house and have a peanut butter sandwich. I’d go to the bar with her, let her introduce me around. 

When I think of her, I also think of this poem by Marie Howe, one of my all-time favorites. Whatever leads to joy, they always answer, to more life and less worry.


My Dead Friends, by Marie Howe

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.


​For more information on Marie Howe, please ​click here.

Poem of the Week, by Marie Howe

– Marie Howe

Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel it
I know it is—and that if once it hailed me
it ever does—
And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as towards a place, but it was a tilting
within myself,
as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where
it isn’t—I was blinded like that—and swam
in what shone at me
only able to endure it by being no one and so
specifically myself I thought I’d die
from being loved like that.

​For more information on Marie Howe, please click here: http://www.mariehowe.com/​

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Poem of the Week, by Marie Howe

What the Living Do
– Marie Howe

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


I am living, I remember you.

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Poem of the Week, by Marie Howe

The Boy
– Marie Howe

My older brother is walking down the sidewalk into the suburban summer:
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
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.

For more information about Marie Howe, please click here.

Prompted by a line from a poem by Wyn Cooper

“The stars have fallen onto the sheets, fallen down to sleep with me.”

Lines from poems scroll continuously through me. Beginning at dawn, when I wake up, and throughout the day, lines from poems come to me, recite themselves silently in my head, in my voice, like song refrains spoken not sung.

Without poetry I would be a lost person. Remembered lines and fragments calm the wildness of my heart, absorb it into their own wildness and wilderness, translate it into words, corral the inner chaos and make it bearable.

Without poetry I might have to set fire to myself, to make the fire go away. Bless you, you poems, you tiny mantras placing slender arms around the day: I care. I want you.

Which is itself a fragment from a poem. Like all the below, which have been through-threading themselves throughout my mind ever since I woke up today.

* * *


I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. What I do know is  how to pay attention, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be  idle and blessed.  . .

Whatever leads to joy, they always say, to more life, and less worry.

It is difficult not to love the world, but possible.

The life I didn’t lead took place in Italy.

But one man loved the pilgrim soul  in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face.

Come up to me, love, out of the river, or I will come down to you.

Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

Today would be your birthday, and I send my love to you across the bridgeable divide.

Sometimes it is necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness.

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

Last night as I  was sleeping I dreamt – oh marvelous illusion – that I had a beehive here inside my heart. And the golden bees were making white combs and sweet honey from my old failures.

At night we consoled ourselves
By discussing the meaning of homesickness.
But there was no home to go home to.
There was no getting around the ocean.
We had to go on finding out the story
by pushing into it —

The sea was no longer a metaphor.
The book was no longer a book.
That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.

I am not done with my changes.