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.