March 6, 2008


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The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, Marie Howe, (W. W. Norton, 2008, 68 pages)
By Dan Szczesny

New York writer Marie Howe is not prolific. Her first two collections are landmarks in ethereal poetry, simple flash points of dealing with everyday living. Which is what makes the release of The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, her first new collection in a decade, so anticipated.

Howe returns to the well of her first two books — simple observational poetry with not-so-hidden deeper reflection underneath — but the new collection fails to live up to the expectations of what we know this poet can do.

There are moments of great power in Howe’s new book. In “The Star Market,” Howe returns to a favorite theme, the discovery of the sacred within the secular, as the narrator finds herself studying a feeble old man and thinking that he should have the hem of Jesus’ garment to touch to heal him.

Howe’s ability to weave stories through simple observation lends the collection its strength; the “lead-colored man” at the market, the “screeching and banging” of garbage trucks in “Prayer” or the fact that the narrator’s “golden hair is actually gray” in “What We Would Give Up.”

The second half of the collection, though, slips as Howe pens a series of reflective poems about motherhood and her own childhood. Here, Howe seems to be phoning it in, using character types, which might be true but are just tiring. There must be some poet out there whose father treated them well, but Howe apparently is not one of them. In “Non-violence” the narrator’s drunken father forces the children to clean the basement in the middle of the night. In “The Massacre” the narrator looks at her own sleeping child and wonders what terrible violence she could commit to protect her. These are common themes, and Howe needs to find a more interesting approach to them. Otherwise, the poetry of The Kingdom of Ordinary Time just becomes ordinary. B-