Rochester, New York, July 1989
Early summer evenings, the city kids would ride their bikes down his street
no-handed, leaning back in their seats, and bump over the curb
of the empty Red Cross parking lot next door where Joe’s car was parked, and
John’s white Honda, broken and unregistered…everything blooming,
that darkening in the trees before the sky goes dark: the sweetness of the lilacs
and the grass smell…
And the sound on the front porch steps was wooden and hollow,
and up the narrow stairway stuffy and dim, and the upper door maybe a little
open—and in the hall and left into his room: someone might be sitting there
reading, or sometimes only him, sleeping,
or lying awake, his face turned toward the door,
and he would raise a hand….
And the woman who lived below them played the piano. She was a teacher, and
sometimes we’d hear that stumbling repetition people make when they’re
learning a new song, and sometimes she’d play alone—she’d left a note
in his mailbox saying she would play softly for him. And those evenings,
when the sky was sunless but not yet dark, and the birdsong grew loud in the trees,
just after supper, when the kids wheeled by silently
or quietly talking from their bikes, when the daylilies closed up
alongside the house,
music would sometimes drift up through the floorboards,
and he might doze or wake a little or sleep,
and whoever was with him might lean back in the chair beside the bed
and not know it was Chopin,
but something soft and pretty—maybe not even hear it,
not really, until it stopped
—the way you know a scent from a flowering tree once you’ve passed it.
Marie Howe is the author of The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (W.W. Norton, 2008), What the Living Do (W.W. Norton, 1997), and The Good Thief (Persea, 1988), selected by Margaret Atwood as winner of the National Poetry Series. With Michael Klein, she co-edited a book of essays, In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic (Persea, 1994). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, AGNI, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, and The Partisan Review, among others. Stanley Kunitz selected Marie for a Lavan Younger Poets Prize from the American Academy of Poets. She has been a fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College and a recipient of NEA and Guggenheim fellowships. Marie teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia, and New York University. She was the 2012-2014 Poet Laureate of New York State.
This poem appeared in What the Living Do (W.W. Norton, 1997).