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What the Living Do: Poems

4.32  ·  Rating details ·  3,791 ratings  ·  258 reviews
Informed by the death of a beloved brother, here are the stories of childhood, its thicket of sex and sorrow and joy, boys and girls growing into men and women, stories of a brother who in his dying could teach how to be most alive. What the Living Do reflects "a new form of confessional poetry, one shared to some degree by other women poets such as Sharon Olds and Jane Ke ...more
Paperback, 91 pages
Published April 17th 1999 by W. W. Norton (first published 1997)
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 ·  3,791 ratings  ·  258 reviews

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Dec 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I didn’t read these poems. I experienced them. It was like meeting someone and knowing, instinctively knowing, they understand. Howe’s words took me by the hand and were so affecting they went straight to my heart. She takes you in so many directions. You come to a crossroad and she gently suggests sideways options. I could read and go to either side and find a route that served me. I might meander along or force myself to take the direct route. Most importantly, any move felt right instinctivel ...more
Mar 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I just read Howe's latest book, Magdalene, where it slowly dawned on me that her endings are not of the standard "wow-'em-with-a-twist-or-sudden-truth" variety ordinarily associated with successful poetry, but of the sotto voce type. Soft-spoken. Simply there. To the point where the reader is leaning in a bit, as if to better understand its softness.

Anyone I mentioned Marie Howe to mentioned back this earlier book, one that has "Living" in the title but chronicles the death of her brother to the
Mar 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
Marie Howe's second book is an immensely moving book about the death of her brother by AIDS. It is plain-spoken, narrative, intense. Instead of giving a review, I'm going to paste in one of Howe's poems and an excerpt from an interview with her that really gets at the heart of the book.

The Boy

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 ov
Jan 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2019, poetry
I cherish these poems. Howe makes love and loss specific, real, unadorned, ordinary, and beautiful.

So many gems in here: "What the Living Do," my favorite poem, alongside "How Some of It Happened," "The Last Time,""The Grave," "One of the Last Days," "Watching Television,""Separation," "Prayer," "The Kiss," "Memorial," "My Dead Friends," "Buddy."

Other excellent ones: "The Attic," "The Copper Beach," "The Girl," "For Three Days," "Just Now," "A Certain Light," "Pain," "The Gate," "More."

Peter Kerry Powers
Aug 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
"What the Living Do" manages to give me an unsentimental but still deeply felt picture of the pain of living beyond loss. The immediate occasion for these poems is the death of several friends and family members over what seems, in the context of this books at least, a relatively short period of time. The real focus, however, is not so much on the dying--the psychic and physical pain of disease, the fear of a passage elsewhere--as it is on the poet herself, or at least her personae. These are no ...more
Oct 16, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Reread this today on the subway and had to fight back tears; this book is as powerful as it was when I first read it so many years ago.
Original review from October 2009:
Oh I got this from the library, but my, I really need to get a copy for myself. Ivy, Tom and I saw her read at Poets House weeks ago and I loved the title poem so much, I requested this collection from the library. I had no idea she'd written "Practicing"--a poem Laura Rice read to us in Merion many years ago--and while, at firs
Twila Newey
Jul 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
I took my boys to the public pool yesterday and finished WHAT THE LIVING DO, BY MARIE HOWE. I need to write a poem entitled "crying at the public pool". This is a gorgeous collection as a whole. It goes to the darkest places that grief and aloneness take the human heart and still comes up for breath, reaches for the light. I highly recommend it. Go out and buy it today. #twilareads2017


Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
Mar 22, 2009 rated it liked it
This isn't the kind of poetry I usually read -- Howe's work is heavier on narrative and lighter on logodaedaly than my usual fare -- but I liked it. Howe's imagination seems to operate on a bigger scale than many poets: her individual images/metaphors/phrasings/word-choices may not always be the freshest produce on the market, but the grand arcs of the story she tells across the course of these fifty interlinked poems are richly imagined. I especially admire the brave way in which she confronts ...more
Mar 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
In Ms. Howe’s second collection of poems, she continues to mine the minutiae of daily life to create deep ruminations on mortality and the struggle to find joy amidst the difficulties of human relationships with the living, the dying, and the dead. The poems move through four narratives: recollections from a childhood wrought with sexual abuse and other difficulties associated with gender identity, the death of a gay brother, the death of a female friend with cancer, and a tumultuous love affai ...more
Feb 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
This collection of poetry is largely an elegy to the author's brother who died of AIDS. This poem....which I first read in Will Schwalbe's BOOKS FOR simply poignant.


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 st
Aug 26, 2013 rated it really liked it

Poems of unsayable grief and the study of the minutes and breaths surrounding a death. The doing that is left and the getting on.

It is bleak reading with enough truth and generosity to redress the hurt.


The Gate

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world

would be the space my brother's body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man

but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,

rinsed every glass he would ever rins
Mar 13, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Blankish Verse Lovers
I read this book of poems in the Elliot Bay Book Store and it stayed in mind for months until finally, I returned to that same store and bought it. The poems are melancholy and plain. Just tiny stories about life with people who are dead or dying and I find them very pure and worth remembering. They should put poems like THESE on Metro buses. Now that would change the world.
Jul 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This extraordinary book of poems should have won the Pulitzer Prize and the NBCC Award. No one knows how to look at things that hard to look at with such clear eyes as Marie Howe.
Craig Werner
Mar 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Very few works of literature deal as unflinchingly with the experience of loss and grief--in this case the death of Howe's brother--with Howe's lyrical power. She mixes poems about her brother's illness and death with a second set dealing with a family background involving alcoholism and abuse. It would have been easy for her poems to have slipped into what James Baldwin, writing about stories of African American youth, called "the usual bleak childhood fantasy," but she doesn't. She's survived, ...more
Mira Joseph
Aug 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Mira by: Daniel
My dad died in June. After, I felt so guilty every time I laughed at a joke or enjoyed a movie or stopped thinking about my grief for even a moment. How could I ever be joyful again when someone I loved was dead? A wise quote online helped me- my love does not lie in the pain of my grief. And the titular poem of this collection. Now, every time I find happiness, I respond to the corresponding guilt with Marie Howe's wisdom: I am living. I remember you. Death and mundane happinesses don't go to ...more
Sep 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: people who think they like poetry but aren't sodl yet. Illusionists & word acrobats
I devoured this book and after it was over, I had the sharp metallic taste for poetry on my tongue, it never went away. Howe opened my mind to wordplay that wasn't too playful, that conscripted a message but somehow came across as unremarkable and stunning. Teh one time I saw her speak, her hair was enormous, she was late and all I could think of was how like the moon she is. ...more
Caleb Ingegneri
Feb 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Omg How(e)!?
Sep 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
A haunting collection of poems about the enduring claim of childhood memories and the fierce attachment of siblings from an unhappy home. The poems highlight the texture and details of everyday life--rinsing dishes, walking through snow, hearing birds. Vignettes of joy and sorrow and sharp observation.
Oct 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book was recently recommended to me by a dear friend. As the subject matter was relevant to my current state of mind in some ways, I bought it immediately and devoured it in a few hours. I know I'll be returning to many of these poems over the years. These were breathtaking and beautiful. ...more
Dec 04, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, women-writers
Harrowing, important and beautiful poems.
Oct 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
what a wonderfully heartbreaking collection
Rachel Davies
Aug 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
have never felt this moved by poetry
Apr 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
This book has been on my wish list so long that I don’t remember why. My guess is that it was based on the recommendation of Goodreads poet friends’ reviews OR on the title poem, which feels more relevant than ever during our pandemic.

Here are a few excerpts from “What the Living Do.” She is speaking to her dead brother in the poem. After mentioning a backed up drain she hasn’t gotten fixed, opening windows because the heat is too hot and she can’t turn it off, and dropping a bag of groceries in
Apr 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
i had read the titular poem of this years earlier by way of my friend with very good taste, amanda. poetry collections can daunt me because of institutions, capitalism, and fearing i won't read it all. this december, i was in a used bookstore with a friend i don't speak to anymore and came across the collection. i opened it to the poem "practicing." it perfectly articulated sexiness and deep loss in equal turn, without one cancelling the other out. also, it was pretty gay. i read it out loud. i ...more
Dec 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry, adult
Mmmm this was a fast read, and a sad one, but it touches on so many themes related to the simple fact that "what the living do" is live. Usually nothing fancy or exorbitant. The living live. I feel like this collection provided some catharsis for Howe, which adds a level of empathy that I valued. ...more
This book made me cry buckets when I read it circa the year 2000. Recently, I got it from the library and read it again. It still makes me cry, but fewer buckets now. Maybe just one bucket.

I don't like most poetry. I like many of these.
Kari Yergin
Apr 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars. A beautiful book. Not the type of poetry that usually grabs me, but little by little, as I began to understand the narrative, she crept right under my skin and I couldn't stop reading. It's the everyday-ness of her specific stories of loss and love that is so relatable. My favorites, at least on first reading, are:
How Some of It Happened
The Last Time
Without Music
The Kiss
My Dead Friends
The New Life
What the Living Do
Alexandra Chubachi
Jun 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Beautiful. Honest. Heartbreaking. Had to savor these slowly.
Jul 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
There are few things I enjoy more than "discovering" a new poet.

The truly good books are fewer and farther between than I'd like.

This one? Worth every penny I spent on it.
And I'll be getting another of hers soon.

I think that says it all... ;-)

Dr. Nub
Jennifer Gandin
Feb 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Each poem in this book amazed and destroyed me, without fail. I had to take it in small doses. It was worth it.
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Born in Rochester, New York, Marie Howe attended Sacred Heart Convent School and the University of Windsor. She received an MFA from Columbia University, where she studied with Stanley Kunitz, whom she refers to as “my true teacher.”

Howe has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia, and NYU. She co-edited (with Michael Klein) the essay anthology In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing fr

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“I am living. I remember you.” 37 likes

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.
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