An illustration of a sink, Drano, and a pile of dishes against a cream-colored background
Miki Lowe

What the Living Do

A poem by Marie Howe, published in The Atlantic in 1994

Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” begins with an address to her brother: The kitchen sink has been clogged for days, she writes. The Drano won’t work ... it’s winter again … the heat’s on too high.

The poem might seem at first like a list of complaints, but it’s a list of gratitudes. Most readers won’t know that Howe’s younger brother John died of AIDS-related complications in 1989. John is the one to whom she reports these seemingly meaningless details, of the sky and the groceries and the spilled coffee. These are the details that Howe is left with, and that her brother can’t experience anymore. This is why she is “gripped by a cherishing” when she catches a glimpse of her reflection, hair blowing in the wind.

It’s also a proclamation of tenderness for humanity. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.