The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

Marie Howe’s conversational and intimate poems address the daily and the divine.

By Averill Curdy
Poetry Media Services

The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, by Marie Howe. W. W. Norton. $23.95

The “kingdom of ordinary time,” as it is mapped in Marie Howe’s third book of poems, is comprised of what might be considered several provinces. First, and most obviously, there is the spiritual, where ordinary time signifies the absence of the miraculous and the divine, when “One loaf = one loaf. One fish = one fish,” as Howe writes in “Prologue,” and “the so-called Kings were dead.” The uses of attention, which was compared to prayer by Simone Weil, to dignify the quotidian, even the squalid, has long been a project of American poetry. But the kingdom of ordinary time can also be understood personally, even politically, as a point in which certain illusions, whether personal or historical, must be left behind and the individual (or nation) abandon its notions of itself as somehow extraordinary, pure, its ideals uncompromised. Howe, in a poem titled “What We Would Give Up,” asks a group of college students in Florida, “What would we be willing to give up to equalize the wealth in the world?” and tries to answer for herself a few stanzas later:

Would I give up the telephone? Would I give up hot water?
Would I give up makeup? Would I give up dyeing my hair?
That was a hard one. If I stopped dyeing my hair everyone
would know that my golden hair is actually gray, and my
long
American youth would be over—and then what?

As can be heard in the discursive tone and seen in the long prose lines above, one of the things that many of Howe’s poems seem willing to give up is any traditional idea of the lyric that includes concision, or that subjects the poem’s materials to pressure, particularly that of silence. The tone of the poems in the first and third sections of the book reminds me of Frank O’Hara, resolutely anti-poetic in their chattiness and apparently artless transparency of statement, while quintessentially urban in their inclusiveness. Like O’Hara, like Whitman, Howe welcomes the highs and lows of modern city life into her poems. One word for this is democratic; another is distractible, as Howe acknowledges in “Prayer,” one of my favorites in the collection:

Every day I want to speak with you. And every day
something more important
calls for my attention—the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage

I need to buy for the trip.
Even now I can hardly sit here

among the falling piles of paper and clothing, the garbage trucks outside
already screeching and banging.

The mystics say you are as close as my own breath.
Why do I flee from you?

My days and nights pour through me like complaints
and become a story I forgot to tell.

Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.

The risk of Howe’s method, of course, is that some poems can feel like mere transcriptions—yadayadayada. But the rewards are intimacy and the kind of tonal variety one feels when talking to the greatest of friends, whose conversation can embrace the election, the prose of Elizabeth Bowen, a short history of photography, and a summer afternoon’s quest for the perfect sandal.

The tone and strategies of the poems change and deepen in the book’s middle section, a short sequence called Poems from the Life of Mary. The Mary poems are contemporary unrhymed sonnets, which make use of the form’s compression, movement, and shape on the page. And the sonnet as a kind of theatre seems the appropriate vehicle for poems in which Mary speaks from the center—as the center—of the Christian drama. Her body in several ways represents a window between ordinary time and sacred time: first she’s a girl, a seeker in the world; then she’s the mother of Christ. Her womb is divinely full, then it’s mortally empty.

Howe’s first name, Marie, is a cognate of Mary, and it’s not difficult to see how the figure of Mary reaches towards Howe’s experience of motherhood as well as her experience as a daughter, writing of her own mother’s death. It is the variousness of Howe’s book—conversational, worldly, human, vulnerable—that enables her to write about the more difficult issues of faith or injustice which also concern her. The very distractions that often get in the way can force room for the sudden swerves and calms of attention to more urgent matters, as the final poem of the book, “Mary (Reprise),” suggests. The last image readers are left with is that of Mary as she is often painted in Annunciations: an angel appears, distracting her from her reading, a finger keeping her place in her book, but also, “keeping the place of who she was when she looked up.”

The poems of 2007 NEA Grant recipient Averill Curdy have been published widely, including in Pushcart Prizes 2007. This article first appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Marie Howe, and her poetry, at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.

© 2009 by Averill Curdy. All rights reserved.

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~ by ericedits on April 30, 2009.

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