Painted pastel silhouettes of children playing in a blanket fortress, against a black background
Miki Lowe

The Game

A poem by Marie Howe, published in The Atlantic in 1996

Childhood is a fruitful source of inspiration for artists, but some return to it more than others. The poet Marie Howe is one of them. She grew up in a large Catholic family, the oldest of nine siblings and one of 100 first cousins; she said in 2017 that family is “where everything happens.” If the image that comes to mind is a hectic and happy, Cheaper by the Dozen–type household, you should read her poems: The vignettes she paints can be dark. Several family members struggled with alcoholism, which wrought violence and chaos. And in 1989, her brother Johnny died of AIDS-related complications at age 28.

In the same 2017 interview, Howe said that shared trauma—and alcoholism, in particular—eventually pulled her family apart. “As much as you want to be all in the same room, the nature of that illness fragments any unifying understanding,” she said. In her poem “The Game,” she revisits a moment before her family splintered, when her brothers and sisters created their own imaginary world. They could be whoever they wanted to be: All nine of them were together, none lost, and time was in their control. It’s a sweet memory, and a foreboding one. The game is so oddly specific, in the way that kids’ inventions often are, that it almost feels like the siblings could stay insulated in it forever. But outside their basement town, the clock works differently. Their world is still frozen in time—in the pages of this magazine—yet the real children are no longer in it.

A pdf of the original page, with the poem and a painted illustration of a blanket fortress on top

You can zoom in on the page here.