Poetry Porch: Poetics


The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. ISBN 9780393041996 $23.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Ellen Davis

In The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, her third collection, Marie Howe is interested in the intersection between the sacred and the secular. Her use of the phrase “Ordinary Time” is both religious and quotidian. Isn’t this the definition of complexity, to hold more than one meaning at once? Throughout the three sections, Howe considers dialogues between self and soul. She finds the mysterious in the most mundane experiences. In the first section, Howe introduces themes that will occur later: religion, philosophy, cultural matters, family. The second section, “Poems from the Life of Mary,” which was published as a chapbook by the Center for Book Arts in New York City, looks at Mary’s story from a contemporary perspective. The third section, which I find the most moving, contains poems about the speaker’s deceased mother and young daughter. The early poems give examples of transformation and mystery that prepare the reader for the mysteries and blessings between people that occur in this more autobiographical material.

In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the term Ordinary Time refers to Sundays that are not holy feast days. The Ecclesiastical “Ordinary” is the part of the Mass that does not change from day to day. Howe mixes these definitions with the literal meaning of ordinary, the commonly encountered and unexceptional. In the preface poem, she defines the coming of Ordinary Time as follows:

    The rules, once again, applied
    One loaf = one loaf. One fish = one fish.
    The so-called Kings were dead.

By rules, of course, she means the rules of natural world where loaves and fish will not be multiplied to feed the thousands and death is final. In the next lines, Howe brings the poem into a more banal setting by saying, “And the woman who had been healed grew tired of telling her story,/ and sometimes asked her daughter to tell it.” This is a moving, powerful preparation for what is to follow in the collection.

Howe maintains a consistent narrative approach when she introduces religious iconography into these poems. A woman imagines how Christ might react if he visited a local market, where “shuffling through the aisles, [the people] smelled of decay, as if The Star Market //had declared a day off for the able-bodied. . . .” Remembering his emphasis on caring for the poor and destitute, the speaker declares, “Jesus must have been a saint. . . .” In the concluding couplet, the narrator mixes a line from the bible with an image of Christ’s humanity, “If I touch only the hem of his garment, … I will be healed./ Could I bear the look on his face when he wheels around?” (“The Star Market”). In imagining how Jesus might react to the decay of humanity, the touch of an inquisitive woman, the demands of the divine, Howe creates a vivid narration that holds the reader’s attention with its combination of old and new.

The idea of transformation as a change from the ordinary to extraordinary appears throughout the first section of Howe’s book. A woman imagines taking cues from the Greeks and Romans and expressing her anger by telling her husband that the hamburger he is eating was once his truck (“Reading Ovid”). Another poem describes an array of physical deaths, from the way an anaconda on The Nature Channel makes his jaws change shape, or “unhinge and widen,” as it consumes a gazelle, horns and all, to the way deaths by shooting stop the movements of a mother and both her children within yards of each other (“Would You Rather”). The speaker in “Limbo” asks fundamental questions about change and identity, “Do I have an I?” and “What is the difference between a self and a soul?” Jesus’ transformation from spirit back into body is addressed in a narration that might have occurred after Christ was resurrected and was preparing to meet with the apostles. He re-enters his body with difficulty:

    Two of the fingers on his right hand
    had been broken

    so when he poured back into that hand it surprised
    him—it hurt him at first.

    And the whole body was too small.
These examples of transformation are presented in details of ordinary life, as if Howe is intent on demystifyng the biblical miracles yet is, nevertheless, still enchanted by the narrative elements in them. In “Prayer,” the speaker confronts the divine, asking, “The mystics say you are as close as my own breath./ Why do I flee from you?” Howe has taken the act of prayer, which often occurs in a setting of complete control and formality, and places it in the midst of a busy day full of quotidian sounds and distractions, making it a private and spontaneous act. In the second section, “Poems from the Life of Mary,” Howe gives this well-known and often simplified woman a haunting, spirited voice in a sequence of poems. We see Mary through her senses and visions without reliance on historical autobiographical material. In the first poem, Mary meditates on the moon as a series of heavenly bodies:
                                              And I thought of all the moons
    floating in the wells and rivers, spilling
    over rocks where the water broke: moons
    in the sheep water, the chicken water,
    Or here or there an oar bent it, or a woman
    spread out her skirt and let it pool there—
    the light I mean, not the moon in a circle, not
    the moon itself, but the light that fell from it.
                              (“Sometimes the Moon Sat in the Well at Night”)
A mystical sensibility is at work in the mutability of these images, especially in these last few lines, in which the light is something more than what it seems. In the next poem, Mary takes up the dichotomy between self and soul in which concrete things exhibit their spiritual dimensions. Speaking of the high grass, the water, and the rising dust as the soul-body of the field, she remarks,
    It was thing and spirit both: the real
    world: evident, invisible.
                                (“Once or Twice or Three Times, I Saw Something”)
These poems are preparation for Mary’s transformation, her visitation from the angelic being, or the experience, or the revelation, which makes her aware that her life will never be the same. Here is the final poem of the sequence in its entirety:

    Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel it
    I know it is—and that if once it hailed me
    it ever does—

    And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
    not as towards a place, but it was a tilting
    within myself,

    as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where
    it isn’t—I was blinded like that—and swam
    in what shone at me

    only able to endure it by being no one and so
    specifically myself I thought I’d die
    from being loved like that.
The “tilting/ within myself” is an especially beautiful way of talking about the annunciation, as is the reference to death in the last stanza. It calls forth the experience of the mystics, of every woman who has faced the reality that she will give birth to a child, and of the realization of those who have felt the enormity of love and its transforming powers. In these poems, Howe has made Mary an exceptional woman outside the demands of holy feast days. In a sense, she has given Mary back to us. As is the case throughout The Kingdom of Ordinary Time—as, in fact, is the case with all of her work—Howe includes characteristic long lines and haunting imagery in the third section. These are poems about her mother’s death, her charming and outspoken daughter, her often abusive father, her lovers. These poems are strongly worded and among the most accessible. Howe describes the death of her mother in physical details that combine imagery of decay and precious sacraments:
    Under her toenails we discovered a forest—mushrooms stacked
                  like white china plates.
    And when she was dead
                  we pulled the roses off the stems and scattered them over the sheet.
                             (“In the Course of the Last Three Days”)
It is a meaningful coincidence that the “three days” in the poem’s title recalls the three days of Easter. Stanley Kunitz said about Howe’s first book, The Good Thief, “In essence she is a religious poet, that rarity among writers of her generation.” In her use of religious references and imagery, Howe is not strident nor dogmatic. Her description, tone, and imagery present the corporeal and the spiritual as part of the same world.

Howe has explored the abuse of her father in her earlier work, and he is here too, a dark inscrutable figure. However, the poems about her daughter, very bright and full of character, seem stronger. In a very different voice, the speaker asks her daughter to hurry up after a long day of errands. Then she reflects, “Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?/ To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?” (“Hurry”). The last few lines convey all the engagement and delight and resignation of motherhood. In another poem, the speaker attempts to tell her daughter the full story of her day in which she learned about the death of a good friend, the painter Elise Asher. She begins with the facts: “Elise is dead and the world feels weary and brokenhearted.” The daughter keeps asking for “the whole thing Mom.” Finally, the speaker expresses her grief as an embodiment of a crested wave,

    Elise is dead, and all the frozen tears are mine of course
    and if that wave broke it might wash my life clear,
                  and I might begin again from now and from here.
                              (“The Spell”)
She looks at her daughter in the rearview mirror to see how the young girl has absorbed this explanation. “She was looking sideways, out the window, to the right/ —where they say the unlived life is” (“The Spell”). In those simple words “the unlived life,” Howe presents a full portrait of the child looking into the unknown and all that is ahead of her. She has found another way to join past and present, body and spirit, the dead and the living, in a scene from an ordinary life. These poems are capacious, original, and beautiful. They should be read for years to come.