reviewed by Jennifer Michael Hecht
Magdalene is Marie Howe’s fourth book of poems, What the Living Do being the book for which she is most well known. There are several key characters in Howe’s work: child, teacher, and father. In this book the central events are the revelation of love after adopting a daughter later in life and a teacher’s deep presence (though thronged with other disciples). There are great progressions of thought through Howe’s poems through the years. In What the Living Do the first poem ends with: “I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he was, / calling and calling his name.” In the new book a poem asks, “Who would / follow that young woman down the narrow hallway? / Who would call her name until she turns?” The poem “The Affliction” is a powerful tour of disassociation, brilliant in the way of Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” Repetitions of themes merge big metaphysical thinking with moments of physicality, as she describes leaning against the dishwasher to make it work. This poet has been through the looking glass, where language fails, and now what she trusts is a gaze met in mutual awe. These are poems about perception, about waking from various trances, about finding moments of communion. Howe is often direct and piercing, like in the revelatory little poem “Magdalene: The Woman Taken in Adultery” (also in conversation with the opening poem of her first book) and here almost in its entirety: “…You know how it is when your speeding car spins on the ice at night / and you think here it is?… When you begin to slip down the steep and icy steps? / Now imagine someone is about to push you, someone you know / and then they don’t.”
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2017.