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Marie Howe's "What the Silence Says"
Thoughts on waiting and unknowing.
What the Silence Says
I know you think you already know but— Wait Longer than that. even longer than that.
from Magdalene (W.W. Norton, 2017)
This poem is perhaps not emblematic at face value of the scope and breadth of many of Marie Howe’s poems, which are poems that often stun me with their deep awareness of the ordinary and the complexity of the self. Howe’s poems are poems that, as Marilynne Robinson writes, remind me of the “self-awareness…[that] people used to call the soul.”
Consider the first two stanzas of Howe’s poem, “Hurry”:
We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store and the gas station and the green market and Hurry up honey, I say, hurry, as she runs along two or three steps behind me her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down. Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave? To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown? Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her, Honey I'm sorry I keep saying Hurry— you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.
This is a poem that is just as much about ordinary life as it is about the soul. The blue jacket unzipped and also the grave. The way light is both something you switch on in a room and also something that exists, endlessly and stunningly, inside another person. And you. And you, too.
The questions that form the heart of the poem above are questions of complex attention — questions that second-guess an action in real time, that wonder toward the impossibility of an answer. And if it is true, as the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche wrote, that “attention is the natural prayer of the soul,” then these questions are proof of the existence of a soul beating and living and wondering within this poem.
(Also, as an aside, that Malebranche line is absolutely bonkers in a beautiful way. Throw that up on your wall. I’ll throw it up on mine.)
Today’s poem, though it might not seem so at first, enlarges itself into something beyond its seeming-simplicity. There is something beautiful about the way Howe plays with space and punctuation and even time itself. I think of this poem as an instruction manual for wondering towards the soul.
Start with the first line:
I know you think you already know but—
The resistance to the comma before but, the momentum of the line that runs and runs until it pauses at the em-dash and lingers. There is something beautiful about that — the enacting of anxiety, the manifesting of a kind of speeding-up before the slowing-down.
And then these final three lines:
Wait Longer than that. even longer than that.
Pay attention to the punctuation here. Notice how the first two lines form their own sentence: Wait / Longer than that. And yet, with the line break and the massive blank space, the poem enacts the pause of waiting. It could be read as wait longer than that or wait…longer than that. It could be read as so much. But what I love about the way that Howe resists the period is that the poem then contains a sort of double-meaning. It could be read as declarative or instructive. It could be enacting the long pause of waiting or assuming that you will not wait long enough on your first try. It could be all of this and then some.
But then, no matter how you read those two lines, the final line — even longer than that — reminds you that that first pause will never be enough, that you should and must sit a little longer in your unknowing. And that uncapitalized first word — even — feels so familiar and casual, as if you could pull this line out of this poem and truly carry it from place to place as a reminder. Even now. Even now. And even now.
So yes, though today’s poem reads simply at first, it is actually a delicate act of craft — an intentional assortment of attention, a guidebook for the soul.
Though they feel different in scope, I find this poem in conversation with another short poem from Howe’s Magdalene — “Calvary”:
Someone hanging clothes on a line between buildings, someone shaking out a rug from an open window might have heard hammering, one or two blocks away and thought little or nothing of it.
This poem does similar work to today’s poem, but in a different direction — or maybe from a different direction. It takes the story of Christ’s crucifixion and then — following the advice of today’s poem, waiting a little longer, paying a different angle of attention — it makes us wonder about the background of the story, of ordinary lives in the midst of ordinary things. And there’s a great sadness in that, isn’t there? Of the smallness of life, of the crucifixion — regardless of what or how you believe — becoming a hammering in the distance? A pin drop on a hardwood floor. A boat’s motor running in a river you cannot see. This reminds me, as so much does, of Auden:
About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
Perhaps all of history is simply what we choose to pay attention to, and what we choose to say that we know. Would that we could pay attention differently, and more ordinarily. Would that we could say we know a little less. Would that we could wait. What would happen then?
Lately I’ve been wondering about these questions because they take conscious work to stay within. So much of modern life gestures toward knowing, and all that the valuation of knowing implies — the ease of an easy answer, the constant belief in solutions, the hubris in thinking that the problems of our moment are not problems that have been wrestled with and gestured toward in the thoughts of elders or those long-since gone. But it takes patience to go back. Also awareness. Also humility.
It’s funny. I was reading Howe’s seminal poem “What the Living Do” for probably the hundredth time, and paused — as I almost always do — after reading the final few stanzas:
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.
This poem is so full of life and detail in a way that maybe makes you wonder how the author of such a poem also wrote a poem like today’s. I’m struck, in looking at these lines, by Howe’s writing — we want more and more and then more of it, the litany of objects, the blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat. There is, just as in “Hurry,” a touching and pained awareness of nearly every aspect of what exists between each patient, constant tick of the clock’s second hand. But, looking at today’s poem, well, it’s the same poem…isn’t it? No, I know, it’s not. But it makes sense to me that, later in Howe’s career as a poet, she might write a poem like today’s, a poem that distills the moment in the poem above — when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass — and transcribe it into something that reads: Wait / Longer than that. / even longer than that.
It is as if the speaker Howe’s poem today is talking to the speaker in Howe’s poem “What the Living Do,” to the speaker in “Hurry.” It’s as if the speaker in Howe’s poem today is reaching back into their life, to those ordinary moments that are rushed and hurried and painful and anxious, to those days shot through with the worry that is the result of a harsh kind of certainty, the kind of certainty that brings with it the idea that there is no other way a life could go than however it is going at that moment — it’s as if the speaker in Howe’s poem today is reaching back to those moments and gently reminding that past self to pause, to catch a glimpse of herself in the window, to wait, to be gentle, to say I am living.
In Anna Badkhen’s new collection of essays, Bright Unbearable Reality, she writes:
There is something exquisite about not being able to wrap my mind around things…I think we need to practice it more often, the unknowing.
Later, she writes:
How tiny we are, and how unfathomable the world.
The truth is that I need reminders like today’s poem’s and like Badkhen’s lines above all the time. I need to be reminded to pause, to remember that I am small, to remember that it is okay to wait, to say I don’t know, to dwell in the unknowing more than I allow myself to. I need to be reminded — even though I feel aware of such reminders constantly — because the moment I finish writing this little essay, I will move back into the world, and I will almost certainly lose some aspect of my attention, or get caught up in some sort of hurry. I will forget myself. I will forget how gentle it can be to say that I am small, to say that I exist within the great scope of something that is larger than I am, and not entirely mine — in fact, is hardly mine at all.
This morning I went for a long run along the coast of Gloucester, where I am with my fiancé’s family. It was a beautiful morning — this bright blue sky and a light that caught the tips of the little waves atop the water and shimmered and glittered before melting into the ocean. And it was windy. So windy. These twenty, thirty mile an hour gusts that blistered my face and made me feel like I was running backwards. Years ago, when I was younger, I hated running on windy days. I hated that I couldn’t see what was causing me trouble, that it was this invisible force I couldn’t talk to and couldn’t ignore. I preferred hills to wind, would rather have run a never-ending hill than deal with wind in my face for miles at a time. But things have changed. I cherish long runs now because I can do them again, because, a year and a half ago, before and after my surgery, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to. And so today, with the ocean on one side of me and the wind this relentless and blistery thing in my face, I couldn’t help but smile. Sometimes, struck by a forceful gust, I’d let out a little cheer. Just a tiny yelp.
At a certain point in my life, or a perpetually ongoing one, I realized that it is okay to try to love the wind. To love it for the reasons it is frustrating — that it is invisible, and that it makes me feel smaller than I am. To love it for what today’s poem reminds me about: the long wait, the even longer one, and even longer still. While I was running today, I thought about that wind coming off the ocean. It was the same wind as the wind that touched the cheek of a stranger — someone I’ll never meet. But it touched them as it touched me, and it made them feel something. Me too. Yes, me too. Maybe that’s why I was smiling, why I was yelping like a little dog. Because I was reminded that I was living. And that I shared in my living with you. Yes, you. Because it is the same wind, and the same light. I find myself speechless about this sometimes. I’d like to be speechless about it more often. To wait in that speechlessness. To practice it more often, that unknowing. To let the wind touch my face, to learn not fight it. To learn, maybe, to love it.
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