Personal Story

Review of Marie Howe’s Magdalene (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017)
by Cyril Wong

Confessional poetry or self-revelatory verse that draws from the private or the autobiographical usually gets vilified for being exactly that: the personal-made-public. Reasons for the hostility can range from timeless conservatism regarding rigid boundaries between artistic expression and mere anecdote, cultural reservations about airing one’s “dirty laundry,” to a deluded and oppressive perspective about how a more externalised or impersonal poetry lends itself to greater universality (as if it is still secretly hoped for that every reader should be required to read any given poem in more or less the same way – how positively North Korean). Furthermore, God forbid that versification should devolve from being “high art” to serving as therapy, although cathartic outpouring can lead to mutual, even meaningful, commiseration between poetic speaker and reader. Criticisms aside, poetry that is confessional will always find its audience, readers eager to feel less alone in their private terrors or to enter a moment of conjoined understanding regarding love and loss. Confessional poets sometimes mythologise aspects of their private lives, subverting age-old narratives and overlapping them with one’s internal struggles. In Marie Howe’s latest collection, Magdalene, a private life of desire, mourning, depression and parental love is aligned with the imagined struggles of Mary Magdalene, a Jewish prostitute and follower of Jesus Christ.

Howe refrains, however, from re-writing the story of Magdalene completely here. Instead, ambiguity becomes the sustained strategy for ensuring that the reader is never fully certain who is speaking at any given time (except when clues of a contemporary existence are supplied) so that he or she is immediately confronted by poignant similarities between poetic speaker and biblical figure. What both women long for becomes all-important, or at least rendered far more crucial than differences in the particulars of a life. This strategy is a risky move, as some readers (like me) could feel that the figure of Magdalene should have been further developed in her own right, so that she is not only a magnifying glass for one’s personal life. I had hoped that Magdalene would develop a surprising mind of her own, one that reaches different conclusions towards the end of the book from the poetic speaker’s own insights. Ultimately, and as Howe has revealed in an interview, the evocation of characters like Magdalene is “a way of getting to (her) personal story.” In any case, this is a minor (and possibly distracting) limitation to an otherwise moving series of revelations about one woman’s journey from the sorrows of loss and desire to a more fulfilling acceptance (and maybe even appreciation) of that sorrow.

At the start, the central poetic speaker introduces herself by equating Magdalene’s devils (which Jesus famously exorcised) with a set of psychological failings weighing down upon her own life: one devil is being “busy”; another is the sense that “the dead seemed more alive…than the living”; yet another is summed up in her confession, “I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong to anyone” (“Magdalene – The Seven Devils”). Besides the inability to mourn her dead properly, the poet’s confessed affliction is her resistance to change, to the possibility of moving on from grief and self-pity. For the speaker, self-pity is centred on an unshakeable terror regarding the abjection of desire, as exemplified by the uncontrollable sound her mother made before she passed away: “…her body’s hunger / finally evident”.

In another poem – aptly titled “The Affliction” – Howe dramatises her depression in a way that also reveals a painful wish to be free of it, so as to re-enter meaningful relationships in the future. While standing outside of herself and looking into her own life like a traumatised spectre, the speaker sees an “old friend” named “John”, whom I assume to be her late brother who died from AIDS-complications as recounted in Howe’s previous work. “Seeing” John reveals Howe’s agonised attachment to the past. In “The Affliction”, however, John gives the speaker entry into a different place: “…suddenly I was in: and I saw him …but what he said mattered only a little. / We met – in our mutual gaze – in between / a third place I’d not yet been”. This “third place” could be the afterlife, where one reunites with the dead, but it may also be a new place of transcendence in which one carries on regardless of loss. Since the dead remain part of us even when they are no longer around, they are not truly lost to us. When Magdalene, the mythologised version of Howe, mirrors this inability to move on from self-pity too, I find the moment repetitive: “I liked Hell… The worst had happened… nothing worse could come. / Then nothing did, and no one” (“Magdalene: The Addict”).

The poet also speaks through Magdalene to talk about sex and desire. For example, in one italicised section – meant, perhaps, to denote the act of speaking deep inside oneself – the persona observes, “when any of those men entered my body…he might have been trying to touch something other than himself”. In an earlier poem, “On Men, Their Bodies”, Howe talks about sex but also shows a capacity for humour in her description of an unrelenting litany of penises: “One was a mouse… a drunk… slept inside me, comfortably at home”. Lighthearted or otherwise, there is an admirable need to move through as well as beyond the ardours of desire, analysing it to its limits in order to get at something more numinous. Unfortunately, I had also hoped for Howe to offer a more balanced depiction of Magdalene as being more than just that stereotypical trope: the prostitute-made-good or once-hypersexualised female. After all, in some historical accounts, Magdalene was not a prostitute at all but a wealthy businesswoman who had been reimagined as a sex-worker so as not to threaten the men in Christ’s exclusive coterie – a distortion resulting from the patriarchal spirit of her time and even centuries afterwards.

Clearly, Howe has little feminist misgivings about how Magdalene is portrayed here; and in envisioning a way for Magdalene or Howe to transcend the desire-ridden and grief-stricken self, it is predictably through an idealised male icon. In “Magdalene on Gethsemane,” Magdalene watches Jesus Christ the night before he is crucified and is made privy to the knowledge that in his traumatised moment of prescience, “what he imagined was not his torture… he saw the others the countless in his name / raped, burned, lynched… gutted and raped again”. Jesus is, once again, the symbol of perfect empathy and selfless compassion, free of the darker emotions Howe battles with when encountering death and physical suffering in her own life. There is only one fleeting moment in the book when Howe reminds the reader that all we have to draw from when recalling Mary Magdalene are subjective stories; in “The Teacher,” as Howe gazes at a loved one, she asks via Magdalene again, “Was he my husband, my lover, my teacher? / One book will say one thing. Another book another”. Even here, Magdalene is presented in relation to a man – we do not see Magdalene as simply herself or on her own terms as a central character in the larger narrative of Christianity.

What rescues Howe’s book from being discomfitingly male-centred in this way, however, is the discovery of purpose and joy through her adopted daughter. In what is, to me, the most memorable poem in the collection, “The Girl at 3”, Howe recounts the way in which her child fell “in love with the letter M” by misreading the letter “N” on a letter board. The arbitrariness of naming and language is evoked throughout the poem. It is invoked more directly when Howe links the act of reading to the creation of selfhood after viewing a painting of the Annunciation, in which Jesus’ mother “looked up from her book to listen to the angel” before she ascends into heaven. The similarity of the names of Mary the mother, Mary Magdalene, and Marie Howe hints playfully at a gradual shedding of one’s attachment to the rigidity of self-formations. The poem has some of my favourite lines in the book: “Where is that angel? In the room? / Within the room her reading has made within her?” When her daughter shouts “M” excitedly, it is “in the way she shouts Home!” But it isn’t “M” at all, but “N”; reading can be an arbitrary experience. Through her daughter, the poet rejoices in remembering that language or the very act of reading can be an isolating prison, especially when we use words to create “an edge that separates us from the world we long for.” Parenthood is helping Howe to abandon the mental suffering caused by restrictive language and claustrophobic self-definition. Then “the world we long for” becomes a signifier for the very existence we inhabit now, but seen anew without the limiting filter of language.

Howe’s collection, however, does not draw towards a conclusion of inward freedom or untrammeled joy. In a later poem, “October”, Howe recounts how while watching her daughter walk to school, “(the) old sorrow blows in… Yes, I’ll die, so will everyone, so has everyone…for a moment, the sorrow ceased, and I saw that it hadn’t been sorrow after all, but loneliness, and for a few moments, it was gone”. The poet remains always on the brink of leaving her mental suffering behind, in a way that most of us readers can sympathise and perhaps identify with. Howe’s book leaves us with a Zen-sounding moment of almost tragic non-transcendence, told again through Magdalene’s perspective, after the Crucifixion and maybe even after the Resurrection, when life no longer seems miraculous and loss is still a source of distress:

     Somebody left   Bones   Ash

     Whatever flooded into the world when
     He died    that  then
     the moonlit path over the un-walkable water


Cyril Wong is a poet, fictionist and critic from Singapore. His last book was The Lover’s Inventory (Math Paper Press, 2015).