"A deeply beautiful book, with the fierce galloping pace of a great novel."—Liz Rosenberg Boston Globe
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 Kenyon. Unlike the earlier confessional poetry of Plath, Lowell, Sexton et al., Howe's writing is not so much a moan or a shriek as a song. It is a genuinely feminine form . . . a poetry of intimacy, witness, honesty, and relation" (Boston Globe).
The tentative transformation of agonizing, slow-motion loss into redemption is Howe's signal achievement in this wrenching second collection. Lyrical rhythms and flat, colloquial speech rub up against a not-quite-mock Old Testament rhetoric of the individual's moral imperative ("the compassionate fist of God opened and crushed her with gratitude and shame"), as Howe uncovers new potential for the personal poem. A brother, immobilized and dying of AIDS, becomes the center of the poet's obsessive consciousness, which ranges over a Catholic-school childhood punctuated by abuse at home, and everyday struggles for fulfillment as a middle-class adult woman. While more accessible than the poems of The Good Thief, which was a National Poetry Series winner for 1987, these 48 poems spread among three sections are just as rigorously crafted in their long, open lines of taut, precise language. "Memorial" typifies the book in its Whitman-like inclusion of multiple voices and candid depictions of sexual bodies and bodies in pain. The "I" of the collection can also be engagingly wry while disclosing a fallible self ("All those dogs barking in my dreams! And now, they know me and don't bark"), but it is her pauses over near photographic images, as in the close of "Reunion," that provide solace: "The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be/ slows to silence,// and the room steps back and stands there--/ the white cotton curtains hanging still." Stanley Kunitz, one of Howe's influences, has called her a religious poet, and this book demonstrates her power as a metaphysician for the coming century of fractured faith.