The Sixth Annual Alumni Poetry Reading Series occurred in Dodge 501 on Wednesday afternoon.

On Wednesday at 7:15 pm, Dodge 501 was jam-packed with students and professors, excited for the second installment of the Sixth Annual Alumni Poetry Reading Series. The readers were Marie Howe ’83 and Vijay Seshadri ’88; sadly, I could only attend the first half of the reading, as I was called away at 8 pm. The Alumni Reading Series invites notable alumni of the School of the Arts to read to an audience largely composed of current students; past guests have included Campbell McGrath and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.

After an introduction by Timothy Donnelly, a professor in the school of the Arts, Marie Howe was introduced by a current student at the School of the Arts, who talked about sharing Marie Howe poems on her Instagram story and receiving an enthusiastic response. She described Howe as “a poet of small earthly details” who writes intensely about “this and it.” This was a thread that would surface as Howe read her poems.

Marie Howe has written four books of poetry: Magdalene: Poems (2017), The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (2009), What The Living Do (1997), and The Good Thief (1988). She has been honored by the National Foundation for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and she received an MFA from the Columbia School of the Arts in 1983.

Howe took the podium and, after a brief intermission of technical difficulties, started off by reading a poem that she wrote when she was a student at the School of the Arts. The poem, “Part of Eve’s Discussion,” reflected Howe’s interest in capturing and describing ephemeral moments: “It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand,” it began.

Next, she read “Practicing,” which she described as a poem that she tried to write for 20 years before realizing that it was actually an incremental song. The poem, from her book What The Living Do, is a love letter to “the girls I kissed in seventh grade,” in which Howe laments the silence that shrouds the romantic and sexual activities that young girls do with each other and disguise under the name of “practicing.” Howe’s reading voice is melodic and persuasive, and the poem did indeed feel something like a song, lending extra punch to powerful moments such as. “We grew up and hardly mentioned who the first kiss really was.”

Howe’s 1997 book What The Living Do was greatly shaped by the death of her brother, John, who passed away from AIDS in 1989. She read two poems about him from that collection, “The Gate” and the title poem. “The Gate” begins: “I had no idea that the gate I would step through / to finally enter this world / would be the space my brother’s body made.” The poem concludes in describing her brother’s appreciation of “this,” again conjuring an ephemeral space that only those who have access to wonder and sentiment can appreciate. “What The Living Do,” perhaps Howe’s most famous poem, is a poignant celebration of the mundanities of daily life when it contains memories of a lost loved one. Howe shared a little bit of the backstory behind the closing line “I am living. I remember you,” revealing that her close writing friend Lucy suggested that that be the ending, rather than the longer and more complex ending Howe had originally had. “It’s essential to have such friends,” Howe said, smiling.

Next, she read two poems from her latest poetry collection, Magdalene: Poems. She read “Magdalene and the Seven Devils,” a reference to the seven devils that were “cast out” of Magdalene in the gospel according to Luke. The opening line, “The first was that I was very busy,” garnered laughs from the audience. She then read “Singularity,” a poem after Stephen Hawking, lamenting the climate crisis and all that’s been lost since the beginning of time. It was interesting to get this incredibly brief overview of her work in chronological order and observe how her poetic themes have shifted while the core of her work––an interest in the before and after of loss––remains stable.

Finally, Howe read a poem that was recently published in the New Yorker: “The Letter, 1968.” Again a meditation on a modern loss––the loss of letter-writing as a popular medium––this poem, Howe’s most recent, served as the perfect summary to the evening’s reading. Overall, it was a poignant, meditative, and yet somehow jubilant event, like Howe’s poetry itself.

marie howe via Columbia