Richard’s Sept. 24th Poetry Retreat – Duncan – Among Other Showings the Show Don’t Tell of Marie Howe!

American poet Marie Howe

Magdalene: The Woman Taken in Adultery

           Teacher, they said to Jesus, The Law of Moses says to stone her. What do you
            say? –John 8:5

You know how it is when your speeding car spins on the ice at night

and you think here it is?

When the deer spring across the headlights?

When you begin to slip down the steep and icy steps?

Now imagine someone is going to push you, someone you know

and they don’t.

Marie Howe from Magdalene, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017

Back in the Spring I wrote a blog post on Marie Howe and her latest book Magdalene. Since then Marie and her book have had high profile coverage on the NPR radio program On Being and through a feature review in APR (The American Poetry Review) by her friend and fellow poet Spencer Reece, another favorite poet of mine. And in August, APR awarded Marie one of the two Jerome J. Shestack Prizes  for the finest groups of poems (Magdalene & Other Poems) published in the previous year of the magazine. For the On Being interview with Marie Howe and Krista Tippett please click here.

In my addictions recovery work I have been using a number of Marie’s Magdalene poems including four of the ten poems that won the Shestack prize. Talk about capturing the isness of addiction and of her most months of recovery.  These poems have helped many addicts I have worked with to feel they are not alone.  Tell tale gasps tell me the poems have struck home.

Today, for this post, I used as epigraph her poem: Magdalene: The Woman Taken in Adultery,  which is one of a number of poems in her new book based on stories in the Christian New Testament. What a stunning example of showing not telling which was the theme for today’s three-hour retreat organized by Chris Beryl (thanks Chris) for me in Duncan, here on Vancouver Island. We had a group of nine poets who, using I remember as a prompt, came up with one I remember memory and wrote a show don’t tell poem! I was privileged to hear the resulting poems.

Howe’s poem which I used as a prime example in my handout, is an exemplary show don’t tell poem. How Howe did it: get into the heart of a woman in a two thousand year old story. Show by images how she must have felt with the antagonistic crowd around her wanting her to be stoned to death for adultery. All the near death experiences I too have encountered, how those memories come alive in me, and then this corker which ups the feeling ante immeasurably:

Now imagine someone is going to push you, someone you know

and they don’t.

The sledge-hammer simplicity of this and so many of Howe’s poems. In their conversational, almost casual tone, they can create a kind of poetic whiplash once the meaning hits home. Spencer Reece in his review of her book in APR calls it a gospel ( as a priest he doesn’t use such a word lightly) of a new reality (or is new knowledge better?) for women not to destroy themselves, no – but triumph, abide, challenge, rise, expand, sing. It’s a masterpiece.

Reece quotes Howe when she describes the key speaker in the book, Magdalene, labelled as a prostitute by the Roman Catholic church but far more important that label false or not she is a sympathetic and courageous biblical figure of immense complexity and compassion, a devoted follower of Jesus:

She bears the full weight of the duality all women bear: she is the object and she struggles to become the subject. She is perceived as a symbol and she struggles to become treat to herself. How can a woman be sensual and spiritual. How can she recover when she is has been wounded by violence? How can she find herself in a world of men?

I hope some day APR will make the Reece article available on line. It isnot just a review of a book but a meditation on the nature of poetry itself that brings into the discussion iconic poetic figures, Frank O’Hara and Sylvia Plath, two writers Reece can hear inside Howe’s words. But I am so glad you can hear Howe’s interview on On Being and read the transcript. Here is a brief excerpt from that interview:

Well, poetry holds — it’s like a — you can hold what can’t be said. It can’t be paraphrased. It can’t be translated. The great poetry I love holds the mystery of on being alive. It holds it in a kind of basket of words that feels inevitable. There’s great, great, great prose, gorgeous prose. You and I could probably quote some right now. Poetry has a kind of trancelike quality still. It has the quality of a spell still…  And… this is what we all need to walk around with, a handful of counter spells. And, and poetry, when you think of its roots, is that.

Ms. Tippett: Making magic with words.

Ms. Howe: Absolutely. I mean, maybe the first poem was a lullaby a woman sang to her child, the incantatory, “Everything is OK, everything is OK, everything is OK. I’m here, go to sleep.” Or we prayed for rain, or we thanked the Gods for the corn, or we sang to the deer we were going to catch. But it’s interrelational. It’s incantatory. It feels as its roots can never wholly be pulled out from sacred ground.



  1. Posted October 3, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Do you know I am getting your newsletter?
    How was your retreat?
    We should talk soon!

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    You mean my blog posts! Hurray. Thinking of you today. We must talk. When?

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