Lifesaving Lines: What the Living Do, by Marie Howe

Two great lines for the price of one (it is Christmas, after all) this week, from Marie Howe’s extraordinary poem ‘What the Living Do’ from her equally (and still) astonishing collection of the same name.

It is a poem winter, the season we are now triumphantly (for some) living in. It is a poem of ‘crusty dishes’, a ‘clogged’ ‘kitchen sink’, smelly drains and no sign of a plumber to rescue the situation. As the speaker says, this is the ‘everyday’, that she and her now deceased brother, the book’s protagonist, have spoken of, a line we receive with no extra contextual information, other than that it happened in the past.

I have had similar conversations with the near-to-dying myself. They are simultaneously difficult and utterly ordinary: the ‘everyday’ will keep breaking through the verbiage of the things you want to say and somehow never get round to. I try to see them as a gift.

The poem is also one of sky, ‘a deep, headstrong blue’ and ‘sunlight pour[ing] through / the open living-room windows’, an image of winter at its most benign. The relief is only temporary, however. We soon learn that the heating is on ‘too high […] and I can’t turn it off’. It’s not long before we are back in the world of dropped ‘groceries’ and and spilled coffee. The ‘everyday’ annoyances that make up most of where most of us live.

Finally, we get to ‘that yearning’ that is at the poem’s core (‘We want the spring to come and the winter to pass’), followed quickly by a ‘cherishing so deep […] that I’m speechless’. It is winter again. But we (I mean, I) want it to leave, now, preferably. Endless domestic details conspire to overwhelm. We are overcome with grief, or reminded of it. But then something miraculous happens. The speaker comes to, as it were, in a sudden moment of clarity that recalls the mindfulness practice of bringing oneself back to the present moment by saying who one is, where one is and what one is doing: ‘I am living. I remember you.’ I need to hold on to that this week, this winter, this Christmas. Fifteen years ago, I did not die. But, sometimes, I persuade myself that I did. Or my mind does. But I am living. I am living. I remember her.


  1. Many thanks for this. Read and re-read What the Living Do — I felt exactly that, so many times, and had these very thoughts, on those little annoyances, the endlessness of the domestic, the mundane, the spilled coffee, that make up life. What you say about the last lines of the poem, about the miraculous that happens, a sudden clarity of “I am living” and ” I remember you” — this entanglement of life and grief — is beautiful. But for me, it felt more as a wish, than as an actual realization. Possibly because the truth regarding the stubbornness of the world around us, so beautifully articulated throughout the poem — IS, so often, life. And if we could indeed find that moment of meaning in ” I am living. I remember you”, then the rest of it, of life, would be immediately charged with meaning. And could no longer be ‘what the living do’.

    Liked by 1 person

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