In this video segment from Poetry Everywhere, Marie Howe reads her poem, "The Gate," from her collection What the Living Do. Written after her brother died, the poem explores themes of death and birth, loss and redemption.
Read "The Gate" at the Poetry Foundation.
Marie Howe's poem "The Gate" focuses on a relationship between two siblings: a brother who has died (he is "done at twenty-eight") and a sister who meditates on his legacy to her. The poem begins mysteriously: "I had no idea that the gate I would step through/ to finally enter this world/ would be the space my brother's body made." The gate has been opened. One sibling has cleared the way for another. The transition should be easy, as the verb "step" suggests. (She does not fight or push her way through.) But the speaker's admitted naiveté and the presence of the word "finally"—a split infinitive that puts distance between the speaker and this world—makes you wonder how long this journey will take and what "entering this world" might mean for her.
In the second section of the poem, the speaker explores how she and her brother were connected. She says, he was "a little taller than me: a young man/ but grown, himself by then." They seem close. The colon here creates symmetry within the line and brings the speaker ("me") and her brother (the "young man") together. But this punctuation also introduces the fact that her brother, at the age of twenty-eight, has "folded every sheet,/ rinsed every glass he would." Those mundane chores take on new, and possibly painful, meaning now that the brother is "done" doing them. Perhaps that's why she lingers over the "cold/ and running water," as though she were noticing it for the first time.
In the third part of the poem—a brief scene with dialogue—the brother tries to pass on his legacy. His sister recalls his words: "This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me." He is giving her a glimpse of the future— the phrase "used to" suggests they've had this conversation before—but she fails to grasp or doesn't want to acknowledge what "This" means. When he holds up her cheese and mustard sandwich and repeats "This," she still seems baffled. And when he "sort of" looks around their house and stresses "This" a third time, the poem ends. Their dialogue is spare, and its diction is utterly commonplace. But with each "This" the brother's gift grows, until it encompasses what the first stanza called "this world." In the opening, it is clear that the speaker recognizes the gaping loss in her life, but at the time of this conversation she doesn't realize that the gate her brother made with his absence is a portal to birth (their common womb), death, and—most importantly—understanding. It takes his death, his absence, for her to understand his presence.
Read a biography of the poet Maire Howe at the Poetry Foundation.
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