Marie Howe’s Magdalene: the Voice, the Mystery, the Language
I’d been excited to see Marie Howe was releasing something new since I saw a blurb for the
collection a few months back– she’s a striking lyrical talent, and she’s also got that one book a
decade mystique, like Donna Tartt or (until the end of his career) the late Jack Gilbert. There’s
something stirring about these artists– it’s always an event when they release something new.
And the praise for Magdalene has been justifiably lavish. The collection feels like the apotheosis
of the poetic vision she’s been creating since her 1988 debut, The Good Thief. It’s a lean but
capacious testament to desire, faith, and the limits of personal identity’s efficacy; it’s erotic, and
devotional, and lonely, and comforting. Marie Howe’s poetry has been all of these things in her
first three books; Magdalene brings them together into a careful whole. It’s also a compulsive
read; the collection forms a thematic chronicle, which Howe seamlessly weaves through her
identification with the biblical character Mary Magdalene. The drive to read and read and read
until the whole book is finished is compulsive, because, without crafting an explicit narrative,
there’s a story– all held in sway by the figure of Mary Magdalene.
It’s not so surprising that the collection is narrated vis-à-vis the veneer of a voice– all poetry,
after all, takes place somewhere between lived and imagined experiences. Words aren’t the
things they represent and even the most confessional poems take place in words composing a
voice. Poems are always mediated experiences. But the question behind Magdalene nonetheless
persists– why particularly Mary Magdalene? I read curiously throughout, but Howe offers a hint
early in the collection, in a poem titled “How the Story Started,” writing,
I was driven toward desire by desire.
believing that the fulfillment of that desire was an end.
There was no end.
Mary Magdalene, famed for having seven devils cast from her by Jesus, associated throughout
legend as the wife of Jesus, the woman who found him after the resurrection, is a woman famous
for her desire, a desire of complications and ostensible contradictions, a desire both human and
divinized. And Howe slips into this role to step into the prism of all the associations Mary
Magdalene brings– but recognizes right away that the endlessness of this chain of connotations.
In embracing this persona, she’s allowing it to permeate her voice and to inhabit the speaker, the
“I” talking to us in the poems, but she’s also acknowledging how immediately any voice extends
far beyond itself and its ideas of itself.
I was moved and transported throughout Magdalene both by the remarkable breadth of
experiences Howe presents and by how deeply she communes with poetry itself. The poem is a
crossroads: inside its bounds, we survey all our disparate paths and potentialities and ultimately,
pause and expand our life while we read. We’re allowed, inside poetry, to suspend our ordinary
relationship with spacetime and move fluidly between eras, between people, and between
different aspects of ourselves. In Magdalene, Howe’s created a vivid world in language where
we, the readers, journey into perception after perception through the dual voice of Marie
Howe-as-Mary Magdalene and Mary Magdalene-as-Marie-Howe.