The Attic

by Marie Howe

Praise to my older brother, the seventeen-year-old boy, who lives
in the attic with me an exiled prince grown hard in his confinement,

bitter, bent to his evening task building the imaginary building
on the drawing board they’d given him in school. His tools gleam

under the desk lamp. He is as hard as the pencil he holds,
drawing the line straight along the ruler.

Tower prince, young king, praise to the boy
who has willed his blood to cool and his heart to slow. He’s building

a structure with so many doors its finally quiet,
so that when our father climbs heavily up the attic stairs, he doesn’t

at first hear him pass down the narrow hall. My brother is rebuilding
the foundation. He lifts the clear plastic of one page

to look more closely at the plumbing,
–he barely hears the springs of my bed when my father sits down–

he’s imagining where the boiler might go, because
where it is now isn’t working. Not until I’ve slammed the door behind

the man stumbling down the stairs again
does my brother look up from where he’s working. I know it hurts him

to rise, to knock on my door and come in. And when he draws his skinny arm
around my shaking shoulders,

I don’t know if he knows he’s building a world where I can one day
love a man–he sits there without saying anything.

Praise him.
I know he can hardly bear to touch me.


From What the Living Do, W.W. Norton & Company

What the poet says about this poem: The Attic was the last poem written for What the Living Do and when it was done I knew the book was finished. It came from looking at what had become an old story and then walking around that story to see another side of it. When I walked around the other side of that old story — what came of that walking was a song of praise. It was a great relief and deeply transformative. It taught me to turn around and to see what I have been missing by staring in one direction. More about Marie Howe

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