How do we pay attention? How do we attend to what is right in front of us, whether it be a loved one who is dying, a homeless person, the cashier in the local food store, or simply slamming the car door shut? What motivates us to take care of others? How do we separate ourselves from the “other”? These are some of the questions that New York’s poet laureate, Marie Howe, holds in mind as she writes her poetry.
Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison, Zen Buddhist teachers and the founders of New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (NYZCCC), are friends with Marie Howe and she is a guest teacher in the NYZCCC’s Foundations in Buddhist Contemplative Care Training program. On a bright winter Sunday in March, Chodo and Koshin spent the morning with Marie Howe and her daughter, Inan, in New York City. Over bagels, cream cheese, and tomatoes, they spoke with Howe about poetry, caregiving, and paying attention.
Robert Chodo Campbell: What was your experience of caregiving?
Marie Howe: Oh, it was a joy. The days and weeks with my brother Johnny were some of the happiest times in my life. It was one of the few times in my life where I didn’t feel like I wanted to be anywhere else. I’m a restless person and I got to be with him for hours and hours and hours. Finally, we could just be together. And I got to read while he slept and look at his face and get him ice water and talk and tell stories. And just the way the hours would pass was so sweet.
I took care of him growing up, but then he became my spiritual advisor when he was in his twenties. And it feels like in any friendship, there’s that mirroring back and forth of your deepest truths—and our souls were connected from a very early time. He got very sick. And at one point he was lying there in bed and he said, “You know, Marie, my worst nightmare was that I would be lying here dying, and you’d be feeding me one of those stupid milkshakes. And now it’s happening, and I’m so glad you’re here.” I loved it.
RCC: Who took care of you after he died?
MH: Almost nobody. Nobody in my family knew how to take care of themselves after John died. We went insane. The day after John died, my sister Anne, who was a woman of action, decided we should tear apart my mother’s house and refurbish it so she could sell it. And people were pulling up linoleum floors and stuff for days. But my sister-in-law—“Toots” we used to call her, we call her “our outlaw”—I went to her house that night, and she listened to me when I told her the stories, because I just needed to talk, talk, and talk. And she listened to me.
Koshin Paley Ellison: How did Johnny’s dying influence your poetry and life? Your voice changed after your first book.
MH: Everything changed when John died. And being with John when he was alive in those hours and days in his room with the green, flapping shade. Sitting by Johnny and just talking in those ways for those hours and all the particulars: the glass, the sandwich, the shade, the bedclothes, the cat, the summer heat outside pressing against the windows, the coolness in the air, the dim room. The peacefulness. The sounds of kids on bikes outside. For once there was nothing else going on but that. That’s the freedom of it, right? What’s more important? Nothing. So you’re actually living in time again. After Johnny died I couldn’t write at all. And I was so lucky at that time: I received a fellowship to the Bunting Institute right down the street from me in Cambridge, at Radcliffe. So I just had to go down the street to an office and I could write all day. But I couldn’t write, and I just would sit there. And I would write, “Still dead.” Then, “Still dead.” But I had a reading in the spring and that was enough of a deadline. So in early winter I began to write those poems about John.
KPE: It is such a crucial time, and having the time and space to grieve is such a big deal.
MH: That was really a big deal. I was given this place to be without any expectations really. And everything changed so that the particulars of life—this white dish, the shadow of the bottle on it—everything mattered so much more to me. And I saw what happened in these spaces. You can never even say what happened, because what happened is rarely said, but it occurs among the glasses with water and lemon in them. And so you can’t say what happened but you can talk about the glasses or the lemon. And that something is in between all that.
KPE: It’s like the Japanese esthetic word of ma. It’s so wonderful. The space between you, Chodo, and me.
MH: This is the space I love more than anything. And this became very important, but there’s no way to describe that, except to describe “you and me.” And there’s the space. I make my students write 10 observations a week—really simple. Like, this morning I saw. . . , this morning I saw. . . , this morning I saw. . . —and they hate it. They always say, “This morning I saw ten lucky people.” And I say, “No. You didn’t see ten lucky people. What did you see?” And then they try to find something spectacular to see. And I say, “No.” It’s just, “What did you see?” “I saw the white towel crumpled on the blue tiles of the bathroom.” That’s all. No big deal. And then, finally, they begin to do it. It takes weeks. And then the white towels pour in and the blue tiles on the bathroom, and it’s so thrilling. It’s like, “Ding-a-ling, da-ding!” And some people never really take to it. But I insist on it. What you saw. What you heard. Just the facts, ma’am. The world begins to clank in the room, drop and fall, and clutter it up, and it’s so thrilling.
KPE: Because it clanks and falls?
MH: Yes! It does. It’s like, “Did you see it? Did you see it?” Everybody goes “Whoa!”
KPE: And is that part of the poem “The Gate”—how you walked into a new world?
MH: Yes. I finally entered this world. The coming into the world of time, life, death, and the flapping green shade against the window. My heart broke. The great thing, as everybody knows who lives through what you think you can’t live through, is you turn around and there are millions and millions of other people there—the billions of people who have lived through unendurable loss. And you look around and you go, “Hi, everybody!” and there they are. And you join the world. And I was glad to join that world.
If someone had said, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” I would say, “It would be if John died.” And John died. He was the person I felt linked me to the world and loved me as I am. And I loved him unconditionally. And then he was gone. And everybody knows this sooner or later. Sometimes you lose a child or your mother. The thing you think you can’t live through happens. Then there are those billions of people—and I was just so glad to belong to their group. “Oh, I didn’t know this. All these people have known this.” And now I know what they have known, and I now know that I didn’t know.
RCC: Being a part of the world is so essential, and it is the heart of spiritual practice. The stories from the Bible are so alive in all your work. Can you speak about that a bit?
MH: Growing up, they were deep stories to me. They are the archetypical stories that help me live. Everybody’s there. Because Easter’s coming, Inan and I were just talking about when Jesus went to the garden the night before he was arrested and asked his friends to stay awake with him. And they all fall asleep. That’s me: I fall asleep. Just stay awake.
KPE: Where would you say your contemplative practice lives in your life?
MH: I’ve been meditating 20 minutes in the mornings. But otherwise, it’s poetry. My life is very external. I teach. I’m a mother. So my life is about service to others. But to be at my desk in my studio on the third floor is to be in interiority, which is, I think, a place that’s almost becoming obsolete in our culture—the interior world, and to be in reverie. And it’s difficult to maintain that discipline, because like anything if you don’t do it, the threshold becomes painful to reenter.
RCC: How old were you when you became a mother?
MH: A hundred. Like those ladies in the Bible. I was a hundred years old. I was Sarah. I was Abraham’s Sarah. I was just telling my students this story, because there’s this gorgeous poem by D. H. Lawrence, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.” He says, essentially: Not me, not me, but the wind that blows through me. Bring it on. Bring it on. I will be a good well-head. I will blur no whisper, spoil no expression. I will be firm like a chisel. I’ll do it, I’ll do it.
And then all of a sudden, “What is the knocking?” he writes. “What is the knocking at the door in the night? It is somebody wants to do us harm.” In other words, the things you ask for begin to happen in the poem. They are the same angels that come to Abraham and Sarah, and say, “The unthinkable’s gonna happen. The impossible’s gonna happen.” And Sarah laughs. The angel just says, “You laughed.” I love that moment. Sarah says, “No, I didn’t.” And he goes, “Yes, you did.” And Sarah’s laugh is one of the great laughs in all of history. It’s the laugh that really thinks she knows better.
KPE: And your care and attention must have taken a huge shift when you became a mother—what you paid attention to and how you took care of another. How did that affect your writing?
MH: Oh, yeah, writing was gone for a long time. I wrote a little poem at the end of The Kingdom of Ordinary Time called “Mary (Reprise),” where she has a finger in a book, and she looks up and she thinks she’s gonna be the same person. And she goes back to her place, but she’s not. And no more reverie. So in a long time, there wasn’t a rich interiority in my life, and I think that’s the thing that is very challenging about being a mother of a small child. I love Inan like I love no one else in the whole world, but that was hard, to not have interiority. I was just completely in the service of someone else.
RCC: It’s actually like meditation practice—so many people wish for it to be easy and wonderful.
MH: And it never is.
KPE: One of the ways that we try to encourage our Zen students is always to experience ourselves as fresh—like what you’re saying about the dish or being with this piece of paper with that shadow on it, like in this moment.
MH: Much of my life, until I was about 45, I wanted to keep everything the same. I was trying to control things. I grew up with violence and alcoholism in my house, as well as everything else that was there that was wonderful, so there was a lot of trauma. It was just a human thing, too, to want to kind of keep everything the same, and nothing stays. So this notion of living in that kind of radical acceptance that nothing stays and you can’t achieve something. There’s no there. There’s no place except the next moment, and that’s going to be different from this one, and it’s constantly different, and there’s such a difference. This is the single most important change in my life, from wanting to keep everything the same and wanting to keep myself the same for so many years to not knowing what I’m going to hear next or say next or what’s going to happen next and being more and more comfortable with that. What teaches us this? In meditation, of course, one sees that; one watches all that stuff, and then one goes and comes back and one goes and comes back and goes, comes back, goes, and you see that’s the traffic.
The great thing about meditation—and writing poetry, too—is that something can rise and it can be interesting but you don’t have to identify with it. Keats said, Shakespeare’s the greatest poet because he could be everybody. He was a king, he was a clown, he was a thief, he was a murderer, he was a woman, he was a fool, he was a drunk, he was a this. He was everybody. He could be so somebody, he didn’t have to be anybody anymore. He could just imagine everybody, and that seems to me the most blissful state, where there’s no judgment. You can be anything and you can see into everything; you can see it, and you can feel for Macbeth. You can feel his agony. That could be me, and I could go there. I could go there, absolutely. There’s never going to be something I can’t understand in myself that someone else could do, without having to do anything about it.
KPE: You’ve been a guest teacher in our Foundations Training [New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 9-month program that trains caregivers to integrate contemplative practices into caregiving] for the last several years, and we were wondering what your thoughts are about what poetry offers those who are serving others. What has poetry done for you in difficult times?
MH: Poetry’s saved my life, period. Poetry can hold the unsayable. Poetry holds all the complexity of human life. I love being with people in contemplative care training. These people are so awake to life and death; my God, those rooms are holy to me; holy to me. What a remarkable group of people who are so awake to the real truth of being alive. So to me, that’s what art and poetry are: trying to be awake and to be with a room of awake people who are committed to being awake, and who are being attentive without necessarily acting. I remember when you were first talking about this, and I would ask, “What do people do?” and you said, “Well, we just sit in a room and we’re there. Someone wants to talk, they can talk, and if someone wants to be silent we do that.” Now I realize it’s the most important thing we can give to each other ever: quiet attention. And so to be still, it’s like being in prayer. It’s a radical act to meditate.
KPE: Tell us about your poem “Magdalene—The Seven Devils” [on next page] and what it has to do with attention.
MH: I love her. I’ve been trying to write a poem in the voice of Mary Magdalene for 35 years. She strikes me as the feminine, which is suffering so for being so abased. I read to a group of people, and I asked, “Has anyone here ever been possessed by a devil?” and nobody raised their hands. I said, “Really? Are you sure?” These demons she’s possessed by are what so many of us are possessed by. Mary Magdalene was a subject of her own life; she was a woman who was unidentified with a husband, she was a woman who was an autonomous human who was friends with Jesus, but she was first just herself. That’s how we meet her.
RCC: I love that part in your poem. Isn’t the first of the devils I was very busy.
MH: That’s how devils had their hands in there. I’m so busy; I’m so busy; it’s crazy. I’m so busy; aren’t you busy? How’d it get like this? This is the way we all talk to each other, isn’t it? And when did this happen? And who forced us into this? It’s the same thing with all of our machines. Well, they’ve taken over; it’s over. It never happens the way you think. You think they’re going to come by big robots! That’s not what happens. They’re like, “Look into my face,” and we’re just okay. That’s what we do all day. The machines run our lives, and we are too busy. That was supposed to not happen like that; we’re supposed to have more time because of the machines.
KPE: Any last words you’d like to share?
MH: I suffer like the rest of you! It’s very difficult to pay attention in this world. We’re trying to have low technology Sundays. We’re trying to reestablish the Sabbath. That’s what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to cook instead and do crafts. We are establishing one day that goes back to being sacred, and it’s slow, but we’re trying to become aware. Just awareness. Accept how difficult life is, and then slowly take the action.
Liked the interview? Watch Marie Howe read her poems at Tricycle and NYZCCC’s first poetry night in May.
Magdalene—The Seven Devils
“Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven devils had been cast out” Luke 8:2.
The first was that I was very busy.
The second—I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that.
The third—I worried.
The fourth—envy, disguised as compassion.
The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid,
The aphid disgusted me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The mosquito too—its face. And the ant—its bifurcated body.
Ok the first was that I was so busy.
The second that I might make the wrong choice,
because I had decided to take that plane that day,
that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early and, I shouldn’t have wanted that.
The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street
the house would blow up.
The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer
of skin lightly thrown over the whole thing.
The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living
The sixth—if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.
The seventh—I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that
was alive and I couldn’t stand it,
I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word—cheese cloth—
to breath through that would trap it—whatever was inside everyone else that
entered me when I breathed in
No. That was the first one.
The second was that I was so busy. I had no time.
How had this happened?
How had our lives gotten like this?
The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it—distinct, separate
from me in a bowl or on a plate.
Ok. The first was that I could never get to the end of the list.
The second was that the laundry was never finally done.
The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they did.
And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them then what was love?
The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong
The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.
The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was feeling.
The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying.
The sound she made—her mouth wrenched to the right and cupped open
So as to take in as much air—the gurgling sound—so loud we had to speak louder to hear each other over it.
And that I couldn’t stop hearing it—years later—
grocery shopping, crossing the street—
No, not the sound—it was her body’s hunger
finally evident.—what our mother had hidden all her life.
For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots,
the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew underneath.
The underneath—that was the first devil. It was always with me.
And that I didn’t think you—if I told you—would understand any of this—
Standing next to my old friend I sense that his soldiers have retreated.
And mine? They’re resting their guns on their shoulders
talking quietly. I’m hungry, one says.
Cheeseburger, says another,
and they all decide to go and find some dinner.
But the next day, negotiating the too narrow aisles of
The Health and Harmony Food Store—when I say, Excuse me,
to the woman and her cart of organic chicken and green grapes
she pulls the cart not quite far back enough for me to pass,
and a small mob in me begins picking up the fruit to throw.
So many kingdoms,
and in each kingdom, so many people: the disinherited son, the corrupt counselor,
the courtesan, the fool. And so many gods—arguing among themselves,
over toast, through the lunch salad
and on into the long hours of the mild spring afternoon—I’m the god.
No, I’m the god. No, I’m the god.
I can hardly hear myself over their muttering.
How can I discipline my army? They’re exhausted and want more money.
How can I disarm when my enemy seems so intent?
What the Living Do
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
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.
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