Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of. It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless: I am living. I remember you.
I read this poem yesterday, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
I don’t know if a poem has ever explained so well the contradiction between “that yearning”–that part of you that wants and wants and wants–and reality. That yearning is always there: “We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want / whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.” I don’t think that part of you ever dies, because it’s what propels you forward. But that’s not “what the living do.” What the living do is leave crusty dishes and forget or refuse to call the plumber, drop a bag of groceries on the street and watch the bag break, spill coffee down their sleeves. What the living do is live imperfect lives, each day.
“This is what the living do.”
The speaker addresses this poem to Johnny, who did the opposite. He stopped parking the car and slamming the car door shut in the cold; he stopped living. The speaker says this is “What you finally gave up.” He gave up all of the small, meaningless tasks we have to do every day.
But he also gave up on the small moments of clarity we sometimes have. The speaker says: “But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, / say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep / for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless: / I am living. I remember you.”
The speaker continues on despite her hurt and loss and longing, and she finds “a cherishing so deep” for the reality of her chapped life. Because, “This is it.” This is life. What the living must do is what the speaker finally does: she finds a way to appreciate her life. She doesn’t give up.