The poetry of Maxine Kumin is concerned with loss (particularly through death or separation) and surviving such loss. Equally at home with natural and domestic images, Kumin organizes most of her poems into groups of pastoral or tribal poems. These groupings allow her to explore relationships found in nature and also relationships within extended human families. These pastoral and tribal poems connect through Kumin’s recurring emphasis on the seasonal patterns of nature and the regenerative cycles of familial generations.
Kumin prefers to write in traditional forms (as opposed to free verse) and often employs exacting syllable counts, set rhyme and stanza patterns, and alliteration. She develops many of her poems with catalogs or extends them through simile, though in her later work simile appears less frequently. Her work has also changed, moving from a very personal, private voice to one that is more public.
Images of the body abound in Kumin’s poetry: skin, bone, knees, ribs, and thighs. Swimming recurs as a metaphor with associated water imagery, especially in her first volume, Halfway. This first book also shows a concern for the instructor-student relationship and sometimes, as in the opening poem, “Junior Life Saving,” explores this relationship within the context of water.
The poem expresses concern with loss by drowning and the desire to prevent such loss. It begins with physical details, describing the young students, an “isosceles of knees,” as they sit cross-legged and pick at their peeling sunburns. The lake assumes human powers; as the children enter the water to role-play the drowning victim and the rescuer, the lake seems to be smiling, “turned sudden to a foe.” The speaker of the poem, who is aware of danger, gives instructions: “Class, I say, this is/ the front head release.” Important is what the instructor, almost in a parental role, does not or cannot say: “Class, I say (and want/ to say, children, my dears,/ I too know how to be afraid).” Instead, the instructor remains firm and practical: “I tell you what I know:/ go down to save.”
The swimmer in “400-Meter Free Style” is again practical. Utilizing “thrift,” he employs no movement that is not needed. This poem emphasizes images of the body, including references to the functionally clean movement of feet, muscle, wrist, heel, mouth, lungs, and heart. Furthermore, the typography of the poem suggests the movement of a swimmer’s laps.
Both “High Dive: A Variant” and “The Lesson” suggest that mastery through practice can empower. The key word in “High Dive” (a sestina) is, in fact, “masterful”: “Practice has made this come out right” so that “at peak” the male diver is “a schooled swan, arched and masterful.” Although “The Lesson” (set in a natural body of water rather than a pool) approaches the theme more subtly, it announces itself flatly: “Eleven. Your hour of danger.” The speaker-instructor continues to address the students, showing them how to do the sidestroke. Her directives are intertwined with observations of natural life in the water:
it is the top leg goes forwardforming the blade of the scissors,wherefore the cattails unseaminggo rattletatat in the marshes,seeding the smallest of moments,all of us braver by inches.
The instructions seem themselves to cut through the poem and the water as if this concrete knowledge somehow lessens the danger of the lake. With the proper instruction, the swimmers learn to move through the water as if to do so were natural: “Up out and together we glide.”
Kumin again explores the instructor-student relationship in “The Young Instructor in a Winter Landscape.” The setting for this poem is a university campus rather than a body of water, but the poem begins with a reference to physical movements, reflecting on the fact that many college campuses are built on hills, so that teachers and students going to and from classes must exert themselves physically. The poem speaks of physical work and mental work as complementary: “Hills are warm work in icy weather:/ something the mind/ can chew on.” It ends with a reference to the similarity between the instructor and his students and alludes to the passage of time in which they will replace him: “on that all-climbing hill of Sisyphus/ he sees it has begun to snow/ and all the faces facing him are his.”
“Poem for My Son” and “The Journey: For Jane at Thirteen” are precursors of many poems in subsequent volumes on the separation of mothers and children. Separation in “Poem for My Son” is emotionally difficult; the mother remembers the oxygen tent that saved her son just after his birth and cannot force herself now to “unfasten from the boy.” She knows that he will “wash away/ to war or love or luck,/ prodigious king, a stranger.” It is a separation that she cannot make of her own will, yet by the end of the poem, she yields to the pull of life. “My pulse knit in your wrist/ expands. Go now and spend it.”
Relinquishment of the daughter in “The Journey: For Jane at Thirteen” is not only difficult but also perilous: “It is a dangerous time./ The water rocks away under the timber.” Luckily, the daughter carries with her, in her purse, magical objects that will protect her, “pale lipstick, half a dozen lotions,” and she bears history and mythology texts and wears pennies in her shoes. Ultimately, though, her own self-confidence is most powerful: “You lean down your confident head./ We exchange kisses; I call your name/ and wave you off as the bridge goes under.”
The last poem in the volume, “For Anne at Passover,” is the first of many poems dedicated to Kumin’s friend Anne Sexton. The speaker of this poem, again an instructor, ironically addresses Socrates (rather than Sexton) when she states that “one student says you sinned the sin of pride./ Another consecrates your suicide.” This poem alludes to ironies within the women’s backgrounds—Sexton’s Catholicism and Kumin’s Judaism—yet it ends on a note of faith in love and the return of spring:
we pray and eat tonight in greening weather.Time swells the buds. A sharper rain begins;we are all babes who suck at love together.
Kumin’s poems celebrating love and spring (or summer) are among her most eloquent. Her rhythms soften. For example, in the conclusion of “We Are,” from her fourth volume, Up Country, she employs enjambment rather than her usual end-stopped lines, allowing her sentences to flow over line and stanza breaks:
Even knowingthat none of us can catch up with himselfwe are making a runfor it. Love, we are making a run.
Images of survival are lush and ripe; in “Five Small Deaths in May,” for example, the speaker makes plans to bury a much-loved dog “under the milkweed bloom/ where in July the monarchs come/ as spotted as he, as rampant, as enduring.” In “Watering Trough,” water suggests richness and plenty. A footed Victorian bathtub has been set outside as a trough for farm animals, and the speaker invites “all longnecked browsers” to partake of its “green water for sipping/ that muzzles may enter thoughtful/ and rise dripping.”
Kumin uses the image of water similarly in “Morning Swim,” one of her most successful poems. Here water serves as nourishment:
My bones drank water; water fellthrough all my doors. I was the wellthat fed the lake that met my seain which I sang Abide with Me.
The speaker of the poem attains this state of immersion “in chilly solitude,” and the act of swimming is not actually physical but a movement within the speaker’s imagination: “Into my empty head there come/ a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom/ I set out, oily and nude.”
The amenities of solitude appear again in Kumin’s series of hermit poems. Like Kumin’s love poems, several poems in this series are quite sensuous. The sequence opens with “The Hermit Wakes to Bird Sounds”: “He startles awake. His eyes are full of white light./ In a minute the sun will ooze into the sky.” Kumin’s description of night in “The Hermit Has a Visitor” is similar but more richly fertile than her reference to “night fog thick as terry cloth” in “Morning Swim”: “Night is a honeycomb./ Night is the fur on a blue plum.” For Kumin, blue is a color of ripeness. In “The Hermit Picks Berries,” she describes the ripening of blueberries by noting their transformation in color, from “wax white” to “the green of small bruises” to “the red of bad welts”: “Now they are true blue.”
Kumin is even more sensual in “August 9th,” but here she extols the deeper colors of black and purple. The poem revolves around the picking of dewberries, each berry “a black bulge fattening/ under its leaf blanket.” The speaker experiences these berries in a purely physical manner, without spiritual overtones, because God is not present:
in fact I amalone in the pasture,bending among deerfliesand the droppings of porcupines.I am stripped to the waist.The sun licks my back.
But, ironically, the speaker, who seems very close to the hermit persona, uses plurals throughout the poem. It ends in exuberant command: “pinch!/ pull!/ purple your fingers!”
The Retrieval System
Although Kumin’s sixth volume, The Retrieval System, is quite different from Up Country in subject matter and tone, one of its poems, “Extrapolations from Henry Manley’s Pie Plant” recaptures some of the earlier volume’s lushness. The poem opens with a description of Henry’s rhubarb: “The stalks are thick as cudgels, red/ as valentines.”
In contrast to Up Country, The Retrieval System is structured thematically. In this book, Kumin confronts middle age and the loss of parents, children, and her friend Sexton. In “Extrapolations from Henry Manley’s Pie Plant” (one of a series of poems centered on Kumin’s country neighbor), she reflects on the choices she has made: “I look at my middling self and recognize/ this life is but one of a number of possible lives.” She considers some of these possible lives, then describes the one she has chosen: “Instead, mornings I commence with the sun,/ tend my animals, root in the garden/ and pass time with Henry.” She does not regret this choice, because it has enabled her to live where the “goldfinches explode/ from the meadow.”
In “Henry Manley, Living Alone, Keeps Time,” the last and most successful poem of the series, Kumin considers the effects of aging: “Sundowning,/ the doctor calls it, the way/ he loses words when the light...
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