When “Address to the Angels” first appeared in Maxine Kumin’s book The Retrieval System (1978), she had been mourning the loss of Anne Sexton, a fellow poet and personal friend, for four years. The title poem in this book refers to her metaphorical notion that one can “retrieve” lost loved ones through the expressions and behavior of their animals—in Kumin’s case, her dog has the “brown eyes of [her] father,” now dead, her goat “blats in the tiny voice” of an old piano teacher, also dead, and a boy she once loved “keeps coming back” as a yearling colt. “Address to the Angels” continues the sentiment of “The Retrieval System,” for it, too, is about personal loss and the role of animals in helping humans come to terms with it. It is also about the role of “angels” who purportedly “circulate among us” to keep humans from being alone when facing tragic events. This is not a religious poem, yet it is not wholly unreligious either. While it may reveal a cynical view on how much comfort angels really offer, it also reflects a persistence to carry on in spite of doubt and insists that each person needs individual resolve to overcome grief.
While The Retrieval System is a readily available title, “Address to the Angels” also appears in Kumin’s volume of selected works, Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, published in 1982.
The first three lines of “Address to the Angels” set the scene in which the speaker envisions the events of the poem. As with many poems, the real action takes place within the mind of the narrator while he or she is physically somewhere else. Here, the speaker describes being in an airplane, “Taking off at sunset,” when the ascension of the plane makes the sun appear to be pulled up with it and “pin[ned] . . . over the rim” of the earth.
In these lines, Kumin offers a contradiction to the metaphor proposed in the first three lines. This time, the speaker questions whether the airplane, instead of pulling up the sun, seems more to “push down” the horizon as one may use a nail file to edge down a “loose cuticle.”
At the beginning of these lines, the speaker reveals her state of mind while she is traveling by plane. She is “up here grieving, tallying / [her] losses,” and, although she is not specific at this point, later in the poem she discloses the identities of those “losses.” For now, her mind wanders to a creation myth, possibly a take-off on a Native- American legend that contends the world rests on the back of a giant sea turtle, though here Kumin’s creature is a “giant fish” that is curled into a ring shape—with its tail in its mouth—making a suitable surface to hold a “flat” earth. In this myth, “sinners” meet their fate on Judgment Day when they all fall “overboard into the black gulf.” At first, it seems odd for the speaker’s thoughts to take such an abrupt turn from the loss of loved ones to creation lore, but she offers a reason in the next three lines.
Here, the speaker still considers the ways of the past, lamenting the times before airplanes and automobiles when humans “walked distances / or went by horse.” Perhaps the most critical suggestion she makes here is that “we . . . knew our places / on the planet,” implying that in the modern world people are less secure in their relationship with nature, possibly even less sure of the purpose of life.
In these lines, Kumin introduces her dubious subjects, “angels,” whom she calls “God’s secret agents.” Whether she intends this as irreverent sarcasm or innocent humor is not clear, but the quirky nod to world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham suggests a wry—though not bitter—wit. What Graham has “assured” the speaker of is that God has sent angels to “circulate among” humans, letting them know that their lives on earth are not all there is, that there are celestial beings watching out for them. If the speaker is indeed “assured,” it is not clear at this point in the poem.
Throughout the remainder of the second stanza, Kumin paints a less-than-admirable picture of angels going about their daily “twenty-four-hour duty,” portraying them more as clumsy, unhelpful onlookers than heaven-sent protectors of humanity. They “flutter” about the speaker and the “house and barn / blundering into the cobwebs” like characters in a slapstick comedy. But Kumin also suggests a less humorous side to angels, as they only look on while “pots boil over” and “the cat torture[s] / a chipmunk.”
The scenario that rounds out this stanza poses a conundrum of sorts regarding the speaker’s real opinion on the role of angels in her life—or, at least, on her property. Like the over-boiling pot and the forsaken chipmunk, the pony’s situation is a dire, possibly deadly one as he is forced to hang by his caught halter from a tree branch all afternoon. Once again, the angels are seen as useless bystanders unwilling to intervene in the horse’s...
(The entire section is 1565 words.)