I’ll be honest, this was my first thought as I read through Marie Howe’s latest book, Magdalene, in bed during a snowstorm: “Damn Marie Howe! She can even make Netflix sound poetic” (in her poem “Adaptation”). Marie Howe is magic. And in this book, her biggest magic trick is making the iconic biblical character, Mary Magdalene, both mystical and relatable, at once mythological and completely contemporary.
Marie Howe has always been good at writing about death, love, faith, and loss. Her collection What the Living Do (1999) is still a book I give to people who have recently lost a loved one, and read myself when going through challenging times. In Magdalene, she resumes her investigations of these subjects and revisits the biblical questions explored in her earlier book, The Good Thief (1988). Any girl who grew up reading the Bible or going to Sunday school grew up imagining herself as one Mary or the other—Mary Magdalene or Mary the Mother of Jesus, and since Marie Howe was named Marie—the French variation of Mary—and grew up Catholic, this may have been a particularly personal consideration for her.
This book is a collection of persona poems in the voice of Mary Magdalene, although sometimes Howe’s speaker shifts into other voices, contemporary or biblical—sometimes Mary the Mother of Jesus, or the woman caught in adultery, or herself, Marie, the poet. In some poems, like “What I Did Wrong” and “Magdalene Afterward,” the speaker seems to become an archetypal Everywoman. Poems in this book examine faith and questioning, but also encompass the quotidian details of mothering, sex—penises, even—and the complications of romantic and familial relationships—all in the voice of Mary/Marie, a hybrid of the modern poet and the biblical character.
From the first poem, there is a distinct voice, a little troubled, a little troublesome, that characterizes Howe’s created character of Mary Magdalene. In “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” one of my favorites in the book, she explains:
The first was that I was very busy.
The second—I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that.
The third—I worried…
…The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living.
The humor in this poem is finely balanced with the idea of what can “bedevil” a woman—that the demons we face can be as ordinary as busyness, as unthreatening as a lack of empathy.
Later in “What I Did Wrong,” Howe’s Mary suddenly seems to encompass a larger group of women, a kind of collective I, responsible for many sins:
Slapped the man’s face, then slapped it again,
broke the plate, broke the glass, pushed the cat
from the couch with my feet. Let the baby
cry too long, then shook him,
let the man walk, let the girl down…
At the end of the poem, her list of sins becomes a question of redemption: “…Who would / follow that young woman down the narrow hallway? / Who would call her name until she turns?”
Evoking in the poem this kind of collective Mary Magdalene is an interesting turn, an indication that the book won’t be so much about the historical, biblical character of Mary as Marie Howe’s idea of Mary, and how she relates to all women. This is made explicit in the later poem, “Magdalene Afterwards,” in which she declares:
I was hung as a witch by the people in my own town.
I was sent to the asylum at sixteen.
I was walking with my younger sister looking for firewood
when we saw the group of men approaching.
[…] I’m the woman in the black suit and heels hailing a taxi.
I’m in prayer, in meditation, I’ve shaved my head…
The book takes on the complications of relationships, of a woman both needy and ashamed of her need, of a woman’s relationship to men, and sex that’s never easy or comfortable. In “The Teacher,” Howe resists pinning down Mary Magdalene’s relationship to the Christ figure she refers to as teacher: “Was he my husband, my lover, my teacher? / One book will say one thing. Another book another.” It also encompasses the complexities of a woman trying to raise a girl in a world often hostile to women. In “The Anima Alone,” the poem ends with the mother trying to give advice to her daughter: “Don’t keep saying you’re sorry she says to the girl. / I’m sorry the girl says, I’ll try not to say it again.”
Maybe my favorite book of 2017 so far, Howe’s Magdalene is ambitious in its reach and strangely timely, as American society has swung to the right and, in the process, against the tide of equality for women. We need this book now, a reminder of the painful lessons any woman learns from a society that never fully embraces a sexually free, outspoken woman. And also, a reminder to women that our voices are never entirely solitary, never without a backup chorus of characters from mythology, religion, and history to echo our own losses, struggles, and fights.
Author photograph © Claire Holt.