Book Review: Readings

This lovely, clearheaded collection should serve, for first-time readers, as a fine introduction to visiting professor and poet Marie Howe


The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: Poems

by Marie Howe
W.W. Norton, 96 pp., $23.95

Whether you love poetry or don't know what to make of it, we're fortunate to have an esteemed poet like Marie Howe living in our midst, even if her stay here in Austin is only temporary – she's currently a visiting professor at the University of Texas' Michener Center for Writers. It's also a stroke of good timing that Howe has just published a new book of poems, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, a lovely, clearheaded collection of work that should serve, for first-time readers, as a fine introduction to a poet who has only published three books of poems in a span of 20 years. This temperance on the publishing front is not for lack of talent: Her first collection, The Good Thief (1987), was selected by Margaret Atwood for the National Poetry Series. And Publishers Weekly named her second book, What the Living Do (1997), one of the five best books of poetry published that year. Clearly, there is something refreshing about a successful, contemporary poet who doesn't have a new book on the shelves every time you turn around. After all, isn't good poetry supposed to leave us hungering for more?

That's certainly the case with many of the poems in Howe's latest collection. Howe's genius lies in her ability to describe mundane errands, such as a quick trip to the store, through the pained eyes of someone who's having an off year. As such, "The Star Market" offers a striking study in discomfort among the vulnerable: "The feeble, the lame, I could hardly look at them:/shuffling through the aisles, they smelled of decay, as if The Star Market/had declared a day off for the able-bodied, and I had wandered in/with the rest of them: sour milk, bad meat:/looking for cereal and spring water."

By contrast, Howe can recount bitter memories in a voice as soothing as a warm bath. In "Non-violence," she paints a portrait of a household being rattled awake by a drunken father, commanding the children to clean the kitchen: "We'd stumble down to the/counters and the dishwasher, blinking in our pajamas, dimwitted from/sleep and embarrassed to look at each other."

Lest you think all of Howe's work borders on melancholy, a good number of her poems are simple celebrations of the everyday. Reading this collection, one senses that Howe, more than many poets of today, truly respects her reader. That's something worth celebrating.

Marie Howe will read at BookPeople on Friday, April 4, at 7pm.

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