In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem "From Nowhere" by Marie Howe.

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Poetry to the Brim - Episode 2: “From Nowhere” by Marie Howe
In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem “From Nowhere” by Marie Howe.

Transcript

Hello everyone. You're listening to "Poetry to the Brim," where we explore the fullness of things through poetry.

So at the outset, I want to express my appreciation for all the support I received after the first episode. It really means a lot to me. Also, I'd like to remind the listeners of the show that if you'd like to receive emails to the full transcript of each episode, you can subscribe to the podcast website at podcast.poetrytothebrim.com. Many listeners have found that having the transcript, especially the text of the poem, is helpful to imbibe and feel the poem fully.

Today, I'll be reading the poem "From Nowhere" by Marie Howe. This one is taken from her first collection, The Good Thief, published in 1988.

--

“From Nowhere” by Marie Howe

I think the sea is a useless teacher, pitching and falling
no matter the weather, when our lives are rather lakes

unlocking in a constant and bewildering spring. Listen,
a day comes, when you say what all winter

I’ve been meaning to ask, and a crack booms and echoes
where ice had seemed solid, scattering ducks

and scaring us half to death. In Vermont, you dreamed
from the crown of a hill and across a ravine

you saw lights so familiar they might have been ours
shining back from the future.

And waking, you walked there, to the real place,
and when you saw only trees, came back bleak

with a foreknowledge we have both come to believe in.
But this morning, a kind day has descended, from nowhere,

and making coffee in the usual way, measuring grounds
with the wooden spoon, I remembered,

this is how things happen, cup by cup, familiar gesture
after gesture, what else can we know of safety

or of fruitfulness? We walk with mincing steps within
a thaw as slow as February, wading through currents

that surprise us with their sudden warmth. Remember,
last week you woke still whistling for a bird

that had miraculously escaped its cage, and look, today,
a swallow has come to settle behind this rented rain gutter,

gripping a twig twice his size in his beak, staggering
under its weight, so delicately, so precariously it seems

from here, holding all he knows of hope in his mouth.

--

So the first thing I noticed in this poem were the long rangy lines, which is characteristic of a lot of Marie Howe's work. Many of her poems like this one have long couplets that extend across the width of the page. This poem consists of seven sentences that each seem to unravel from stanza to stanza with detail.

The poem starts with a metaphor of life as a lake "unlocking in a constant and bewildering spring," and the rest of the poem reveals the speaker's experiences that seem to validate this. "Constant" and "bewildering" are two keywords: just as we make coffee "cup by cup," life proceeds. Despite such constancies and perhaps seeming banalities, some things (if we pay attention to them) might bewilder us, as ice cracks out of the blue or February surprises with its "sudden warmth."

Ultimately, our quality of life is contingent on what we pay attention to. If we move without the expansive attention the speaker seems to have in the poem, we will think of life like a sea, "pitching and falling, no matter the weather." This sea metaphor Howe uses, is a sea that does not care for or understand the weather or essential nature that gives rise to its waves.

The poet wants us to think about "bewilderment" as a feeling or mode of being that permits "kind day[s]" to descend, as it does for the speaker. By "bewilderment," I think Marie means open-minded surprise or having a disposition of curiosity to what occurs or to what might occur—not a terrifying fear locked up with expectations and thus a resistance to what occurs. We see this fear and resistance in the lines about Vermont where the speaker talks about imagining a future, only to realize the reality that transpires are "trees" without the "lights" of satisfied expectations. Expectations beget comparisons, and comparisons can beget the "bleak" loss of hope.

In the last sentence of the poem, we see the contrast again, between life as a lake "unlocking in a constant and bewildering spring" and life as a sea "rising and falling no matter the weather."

I'll read it.

"Remember, / last week you woke still whistling for a bird / that had miraculously escaped its cage, and look, today, / a swallow has come to settle behind this rented rain gutter, / gripping a twig twice his size in his beak, staggering / under its weight, so delicately, so precariously it seems / from here, holding all he knows of hope in his mouth."

In these lines, whistling for a bird that escaped is a metaphor for desiring and expecting the past to become present. On the other hand, the swallow is a metaphor for living in the present, with whatever faith or hope one can muster. The speaker and of course the poet, and us perhaps as readers, could only share in noticing the swallow in the present and what it manages to do, if we are not impossibly trying to whistle what's past into the present.

Ok, so that's enough interpretation. There are so many good things in this poem: her clarity, control of syntax, emotion, and metaphors. Even Marie's kindness is totally on display here. And if you will, the poem's and Marie's kindness seem to come from nowhere, themselves like "lakes / unlocking in a constant and bewildering spring."

--

“From Nowhere” by Marie Howe

I think the sea is a useless teacher, pitching and falling
no matter the weather, when our lives are rather lakes

unlocking in a constant and bewildering spring. Listen,
a day comes, when you say what all winter

I’ve been meaning to ask, and a crack booms and echoes
where ice had seemed solid, scattering ducks

and scaring us half to death. In Vermont, you dreamed
from the crown of a hill and across a ravine

you saw lights so familiar they might have been ours
shining back from the future.

And waking, you walked there, to the real place,
and when you saw only trees, came back bleak

with a foreknowledge we have both come to believe in.
But this morning, a kind day has descended, from nowhere,

and making coffee in the usual way, measuring grounds
with the wooden spoon, I remembered,

this is how things happen, cup by cup, familiar gesture
after gesture, what else can we know of safety

or of fruitfulness? We walk with mincing steps within
a thaw as slow as February, wading through currents

that surprise us with their sudden warmth. Remember,
last week you woke still whistling for a bird

that had miraculously escaped its cage, and look, today,
a swallow has come to settle behind this rented rain gutter,

gripping a twig twice his size in his beak, staggering
under its weight, so delicately, so precariously it seems

from here, holding all he knows of hope in his mouth.

--

Thanks for listening to Poetry to the Brim. You can find a full transcript of the show on the show website at podcast.poetrytothebrim.com. There, you can also subscribe to stay up to date by email for when I release a new episode, and find ways to support the show.

Also, I'd love to hear any thoughts or suggestions you might have about the show. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@acyanlight) or Instagram (@acyanlight), or email me at acyanlight@gmail.com.

Thanks again! Until next time.