Maxine Kumin Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 4,770 words.)