Marie Howe is one of my favorite poets. Unfortunately, she only publishes a book every ten years--literally. 2008 is one of those years, and here is a poem from her just published collection, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.
Some nights, long after we'd gone to sleep, our drunk father would wake us all up and order us to clean the kitchen. We'd stumble down to the counters and the dishwasher, blinking in our pajamas, dimwitted from sleep and embarrassed to look at each other. Let's do this quickly, someone would say, and then it will be over. And we'd get started--one wiping the counters, one sweeping, one washing pans, one drying, one stuffing the overflowing garbage into bags.
Sometimes that was it. We'd be back in our beds within the hour. Some nights, when we were done cleaning the kitchen, he'd say, Now clean the basement. We'd look at each other--was resistance worth the trouble tonight?--and without another word, head down the basement stairs.
One of those basement nights--was it one or two o'clock?--in a spirit of rising determination, we decided to sing. What did we sing? Some old Christmas carols? Did the boys sing too? It seems that all 8 of us did--picking up the broken toys, pulling the little school desks into rows again. Our father stood at the top of the basement stairs holding out his arms like Moses, saying to our mother--Listen to them singing. See? They're happy. They want to do it.
Sometimes, after we'd cleaned the kitchen and the basement, he'd say, Now clean the garage. And one of us would finally say, It's a school night Dad--and our spiritual victory, so carefully wrought and contained, would shatter--his fist would come down--we'd argue and scatter, and he'd rage around until he tired of it.
The night went on and on. One night when he woke us all up, I asked the kids to sit down in a circle at the foot of the front stairs. We're just going to say No--if we're like Martin Luther King--if we all say no together, we'll win. Don't argue. Don't talk. Just hold hands.
Was I seventeen? Sixteen? My brother was a year older--tougher I thought, able to endure much. And when our father slapped the belt against the wall he didn't flinch. But when our father pulled one of the little girls to her feet--It's ok, she said, it's ok--I can take it--he was already walking towards the kitchen, kicking the back hall door open and the circle broke--the rest of us, one after the other, slowly getting up.
Justice before love, I'd say years later. What I meant was justice was love. That's what I thought then. What did I know? I would have sat there a long time, no matter what our father had done.
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