• Stanzas: Marie Howe

    Sarah Ghazal Ali


    Marie Howe’s Magdalene is a book populated by Marys and Jesuses, both biblical and contemporary. At the heart of the collection sits the spare, single-stanza (perhaps sans-stanza?) poem “Calvary”:

    Someone hanging clothes on a line between buildings,
    someone shaking out a rug from an open window
    might have heard hammering, one or two blocks away 
    and thought little or nothing of it.

    Here is a poem that embodies the very essence of stanza (Italian for room) by startling you into its spatial awareness. Here are people—“someone hanging clothes . . . ,” “someone shaking out a rug . . . ”—in windowed rooms, in buildings, carrying out the ordinary tasks of their lives while on a nearby hill, Jesus is crucified. 

    The title sets us up to expect a familiar story, that of the crucifixion, but the poem, in just four even lines, defies any expectations of an overt display of grief, suffering, or overwhelm. Instead, our attention is redirected and ultimately positioned just “one or two blocks away” from the actual site of Calvary. Howe instructs us to look, but look differently, gaze askew. To listen, but hear as if from a distance. And how brilliant that distance in the third line for the way it makes “hammering” mundane, for its defamiliarization of that most grotesquely familiar death. The verbals in this poem—“hanging,” “shaking,” “hammering”—are ominous and alive when isolated. But it is the surrounding, cushioning language that, by muffling them, sharpens our senses and jolts us into new insight. 

    The worlds, old and new, compressed into “hammering:” A neighbor fixing his deck. A loud construction site. A man being nailed to a cross. It brings to mind a line from Mary Szybist: “What should be remembered, what imagined?” So much hinges up the word might that begins the third line of Howe’s poem. Every tale relies on its telling, and a poem’s power is in its ability to make you sit up and pay attention. How small even a spectacle can become when foregrounded by the daily drone of life carrying on elsewhere. Howe, in four simple lines, devastates and returns us to that great truth spoken by Simone Weil: absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

    "Calvary" reprinted from Magdalene: Poems by Marie Howe. Copyright © 2017 by Marie Howe. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Sarah Ghazal Ali is the author of Theophanies (Alice James Books 2024) and a Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University. She currently serves as editor for Palette Poetry and associate editor for West Branch. 

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