Sacred Daily Lives


The words are no less fitting now than when this piece was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic.


I’ve always felt an affinity for Marie Howe because we are both late bloomers when it comes to writing poetry: Howe worked as a newspaper reporter and an English teacher before she devoted any serious attention to writing poetry when she was in her 30s, and I didn’t start writing until my early 40’s.

Howe is best-known book of poems, What the Living Do was published at the height of the AIDS epidemic. And the title poem is a haunting letter to her brother Johnny who died from an AIDS-related disease. Her poem makes the details of our daily lives sacred, and is just as powerful now as we share the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Marie Howe was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2018.

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 speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

From What the Living Do, copyright © 1998 by Marie Howe.

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