I knew nothing about Marie Howe until I heard her read a new sequence of her poems at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, in August 1992. The sequence was about her brother John’s illness and death. Though it’s never mentioned directly in the text, a listener/reader gradually comes to understand that the brother’s illness is AIDS. I believed then, and I believe now, that that poetry sequence is among the most important works of art to have emerged from the AIDS Epidemic in the US from 1987 through 1997. In 1992, the year I heard Ms. Howe’s reading, approximately 30,000 Americans died of AIDS.
Gravitas is the word I’d use to describe both the poems Ms. Howe read and the voice in which she read them. Later in the conference, I asked her if any of those poems might be available to NER, and if so, would she please send them to me. They were, and she did. A quarter of a century later, I’m especially proud to have requested these poems from Ms. Howe and to have had “A Certain Light,” “How Some of It Happened,” and “Just Now” appear in the pages of NER. In 1997, the whole sequence was published as part of the middle section of her superb collection What the Living Do.
The poems are descriptive, down-to-earth, and passionate to convey the truth of John, his life, and his illness. They’re among the most tender and powerful compositions I’ve ever read. They’re personal, plainspoken, and transcendently ordinary. Without preaching or speechifying, they’re deeply spiritual and politically electrifying. They are miraculously austere. I’ve read that whole middle Section of What the Living Do aloud with my writing classes maybe a hundred times. I’ve never read anything like them.
David Huddle served as Acting Editor of the New England Review from 1993 to 1995 and as Contributing Editor in 1988. He taught for thirty-eight years at the University of Vermont and has continued to teach at the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English in Ripton, Vermont, and the Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington. He has published numerous books of fiction and poetry, including, most recently, the poetry collection Blacksnake at the Family Reunion (LSU, 2012) and the novels Nothing Can Make Me Do This (Tupelo Press, 2012) and The Faulkes Chronicle (Tupelo Press, 2014).