Conviction and Humility in Marking Time, Memories and Morality:
The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe

I couldn’t tell one song from another,
which bird said what or to whom or for what reason.

— “The World,” p. 14

The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

The Kingdom of Ordinary Time
BY Marie Howe
(W.W. Norton, 2009)

While reading the intelligent and provocative poems in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe, it is easy to forget that this is only her third collection in more than twenty years. Her first book, The Good Thief (1988), chosen by Margaret Atwood for the National Poetry Series, employed Biblical and mythical references that resulted in poems described by Stanley Kunitz as “in touch with the sacred.” Ten years later, Howe’s next collection, What the Living Do, was a moving elegy to her brother who had just died of an AIDS-related illness, and was filled with remembrances of shared childhood, their growing into adulthood, his illness, his death, and the flush of memories that followed. With her latest collection, the poet veers away from the ultra-personal narrative, and returns to broader metaphors that encompass issues of our day, giving us opportunities to examine our own lives in the context of her beautiful and moving language, as she does in “The Star Market.” Here a shopping excursion results in a spiritual reading of the homeless, while revealing also the inevitable irritation of an unavoidable aspect of urban life, her words illuminating the tug of empathy and repulsion many of us experience everyday:

The people Jesus loved were shopping at The Star Market yesterday
An old lead-colored man standing next to me at the checkout
breathed so heavily I had to step back a few steps.

Even after his bags were packed he still stood, breathing hard and
hawking into his hand. The feeble, the lame, I could hardly look at them:
shuffling through the aisles, they smelled of decay, as if The Star Market

had declared a day off for the able-bodied, and I had wandered in
with the rest of them: sour milk, bad meat:
looking for cereal and spring water.

—”The Star Market,” p. 15

Annoyance is conveyed here but tempered with a hint of shame and guilt confessed as well, and then more: think how trivial and shallow the poet’s shopping for “cereal and spring water” seems in the context of such poverty and sadness. Howe’s delicate choice of these two items initially elicits thoughts of sterile boxed cereal and expensive bottled water of the present day, but upon reconsideration we are reminded of the staff of life, the very basis of survival, both in the time of Jesus and today, for the poet and for her less fortunate fellow shoppers.

In this and many other poems here, Howe uses similar everyday experiences — shopping, running errands, arguing about a movie with a friend, the swatting of a fly — as a kind of ethical framework or lesson for living well, and often at her own expense, as she sees the contradictions of her actions versus her thoughts:

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up, honey, I say, hurry, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?

— “Hurry,” p. 62

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