Maxine Kumin

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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.

Halfway

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...

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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.

Up Country

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 fades.” Henry often cannot remember the names of those he loves, yet the poet recognizes that he “goes on loving them out of place.” She is saddened by the separation of the body and the soul and notes his awareness of how loose his connection to life is becoming. At any moment, his soul could slip out of his body, lightly and without warning, like the helium-filled balloon that floated from his grasp when he was a child.

Kumin titles a section of The Retrieval System “Body and Soul,” and in one poem from this section, “Body and Soul: A Meditation,” ponders the soul’s physical location. In this poem, she is humorously regretful:

Body, Old Paint, Old Partner,I ought to have paid closerattention when Miss Bloombergshepherded the entire fifth gradeinto the Walk-Through Woman.

Though she remembers walking through the various chambers of the heart, she does not remember seeing the woman’s soul, “that miner’s canary flitting/ around the open spaces.” She envisions the body’s interior as a pinball machine in which the “little ball-bearing soul” rolls about, reversing direction as it clicks against various bones.

Kumin explores more serious regrets in this volume, confronting losses very specific and real. She refers to them explicitly in “Address to the Angels.” These losses include the suicide of Sexton, her father’s fatal heart attack, and her daughter’s move to Europe. She thinks that if she could go back in time she could prevent these bad occurrences: “I am wanting part of my life back/ so I can do it over./ So I can do it better.”

In “How It Is,” she wishes again that she could go back in time, this time so she could prevent Sexton’s suicide; she thinks of the last day of Sexton’s life, “how I would unwind it, paste/ it together in a different collage,/ back from the death car idling in the garage.”

Several poems in this volume, which is dedicated to Kumin’s daughters, concern the separation of parents and adult children, and particularly the separation of mothers and daughters. “Changing the Children” suggests the painfulness of adolescence and the distance it creates between parents and children. This distance is temporary, but by the time it closes, the relationship has changed: “Eventually we get them back./ Now they are grown up./ They are much like ourselves.”

In “Seeing the Bones,” Kumin mourns her separation from her world-traveling daughter: “now you’re off to Africa/ or Everest, daughter of the file drawer,/ citizen of no return.” Again Kumin wishes to return to an earlier time: “Working backward I reconstruct/ you. Send me your baby teeth, some new/ nail parings.” However, in “The Envelope,” Kumin, although fearful of her own death, looks forward—to the near-immortality that her daughters will give her: “we, borne onward by our daughters, ride/ in the Envelope of Almost-Infinity.”

Sometimes Kumin questions the possibility of surviving all these losses. In “July, Against Hunger,” near the end of the book, she exclaims: “There are limits, my God, to what I can heft/ in this heat!”

Nurture

Assuming a voice more political than personal in her tenth volume, Nurture, Kumin frets about the condition of the environment and the actual physical survival of animals. In “Thoughts on Saving the Manatee,” she questions the possibility of the manatee’s survival, for “experts agree that no matter/ how tenderly tamed by philanthropy/ [their] survival is chancy.” The poem ends with a possible solution and a call to action reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”:

Let’s revert to the Catch of the Dayand serve up the last few as steak marinara.Let’s stop pretending we need themmore than they need us.

In this volume, and especially in the animal poems, Kumin displays a recurring concern for mothers and children. In “Thoughts on Saving the Manatee,” she notes that the manatee in her area are “mostly cows and their calves.” Quite a different scenario is presented in “Catchment,” in which the speaker watches a female leopard pounce on a newborn antelope. Here the speaker faces a dilemma and wonders which animal she should root for—the helpless baby antelope or “the big cat, in whose camouflaged lair/ three helpless youngsters wait/ so starved for meat.”

In the title poem, “Nurture,” Kumin states her motherly interest directly: “I suffer, the critic proclaims,/ from an overabundance of maternal genes.” Touched by a televised report of the surrogate parenting of a baby kangaroo, she is willing to open her heart and home to such an orphan—or to a human orphan, however wild: “it is safe to assume,/ given my fireside inked with paw prints,/ there would have been room.” Considering the language she and the orphaned creature would share, Kumin constructs a list of forms of communication, alternating human and animal forms:

Think of the language we two, same and not-same,might have constructed from sign,scratch, grimace, grunt, vowel:Laughter our first noun, and our long verb, howl.

Kumin again reflects on the language shared by animals and humans in “Sleeping with Animals.” Keeping watch through the night over a mare ready to give birth, she finds herself and the mare in communion through “a wordless yet perfect/ language of touch and tremor.” What they are saying to each other has to do with origins, “the wet cave we all/ once burst from gasping, naked or furred,/ into our separate species.” As she meditates on the wonder of birth, Kumin considers her time with the mare well spent: “Together we wait for this still-clenched burden.”

“Surprises,” a “tribal poem,” suggests a connection between Kumin and orphaned animals. Here, the poet, who is celebrating the success of her California peppers after fifteen years of failure, remembers how, when her mother’s thriving roses finally caused the dilapidated trellis to collapse under their weight, “she mourned the dirtied blossoms more, I thought,// than if they’d been her children.” While her mother “pulled on/ goatskin gloves to deal with her arrangements/ in chamberpots, pitchers, and a silver urn,” Kumin was left to watch, “orphan at the bakeshop window.”

Kumin moves forward to present time in “We Stood There Singing,” which tells of a drive in Switzerland with her daughter and infant grandson. Kumin connects the grandson to the “wild child” in “Nurture” by using the verb “howled,” again emphasizing the similarity between humans and animals. Kumin’s grandson reappears in “A Game of Monopoly in Chavannes.” Thinking of him, she contemplates the passing of her own generation: “Our sole inheritor, he has taken us over// with his oceanic wants, his several passports.” This grandson will someday replace her, will learn how to make his way through life, how to invest himself, but Kumin is not yet ready to leave. Mourning the deaths of her uncles in “Grappling in the Central Blue” makes her determined to hold on to life:

Let us eat of the inland oyster.Let its fragrance intoxicate usinto almost believingthat staying on is possibleagain this year inbenevolent blue October.

Some of Kumin’s most beautiful poems, such as “Magellan Street, 1974,” are about her daughter. Although she is again ruminating on the separation of mother and daughter, she is not sad but hopeful. She stands in her daughter’s kitchen, bright with potted herbs, and is able to envision how the younger woman’s life “will open, will burst from/ the maze in its walled-in garden/ and streak toward the horizon.”

Connecting the Dots

Connecting the Dots appeared in 1996 and clearly reflects its times: “After the Cleansing of Bosnia” continues Kumin’s poetic ruminations on her daughter, connecting her work in the trouble spots of the world—Haiti, Bangkok, and Bosnia—with the cruelty, and yet the beauty, of nature. Even in the midst of cruelty, “the hostile soldiers throw/ back/ bewildered babies that have dropped/ from the arms of exhausted women.” However, the knowledge that the cruelty of humans is part of the general cruelty of nature is revealed as a “false comfort” in the dream that concludes the poem, in which Kumin and her daughter see a barn owl eat a mouse.

The title poem of the collection, “Connecting the Dots,” reflects on the passage of time and the role reversals it brings, as children begin to regard their parents with the same care for their well-being and the same belief that they cannot be trusted to care for themselves with which the parents formerly regarded the child:

We’re assayed kindlyto see if we’restill competentto keep house, mindthe calendarconnect the dots.

The children “still love us/ who overtake us” and yet they sound “the way/ we did, or like/ to think we did.” The passage of time in the larger sense—the transition from one generation to the next—is echoed on a smaller scale by the seasonal cycle that marks the return of the children to check on their parents for “a week at Christmas/ ten days in August,” while the parents “mind the calendar” in the time-honored country pursuits of “stack-/ ing wood for winter/ turning compost.” The children live by the urban calendar of summer vacations in the country and Christmas holidays, while the parents abide by the routines of nature, the decomposition of mulch for the garden and the burning of dead wood to heat the chilly winter.

The Long Marriage

In Inside the Halo and Beyond, Kumin wrote, in prose, of her recovery from a serious horse-riding accident that left her paralyzed with little hope of recovery. She managed to regain almost 95 percent of her movement, but the accident reverberates in the poems of The Long Marriage:

The fact is, no conjecture can resolvewhy I survived this broken neckknown in the trade as the hangman’s fracture,this punctured lung, eleven broken ribs,a bruised liver, and more.

The image of hangman’s fracture recurs in one of the most moving poems in the collection, “Oblivion,” listing the “old details” seared into the memories of those who have found the bodies of suicides—“the tongue/ a blue plum forced between his lips/ when he hanged himself in her closet”—as well as the sense of inexplicable survival.

for us it is never overwho raced to the scene, cut the noose,pulled the bathtub plug on pink water,broke windows, turned off the gas,rode in the ambulance, only minutes laterto take the body blow of bad news.We are trapped in the plot, every one.Left behind, there is no oblivion.

The near-rhymes of over/water/later and noose/gas/news coupled with the perfect rhythm of the lines echo the sense of disjunction felt by the discoverers—can this really be happening? They are capped by the brutal descent into the reality of the situation in the alliterative “body blow of bad news.” The final two lines slip back into the expected correlation of meter and rhyme, only to emphasize the finality of survival: “trapped in the plot” written by a dead loved one.

Jack, and Other New Poems

In Jack, and Other New Poems, Kumin continues writing of the simplicity of life and the reality of death, offering almost unbiased commentary on the actions the living take once a loved one dies. The procedures for burying her beloved dog (“The Apparition”) and the family horse (“Broody”) are just that, procedures rather than sacred rituals. No hyperbole is applied to the burial steps taken for her lifelong companion, the dog who had taken her dead husband’s place, sleeping in the bed and protecting the near-empty home. No overblown emotions enter the process of dragging the dead horse from its stall with heavy chains. The imagery is relegated to what are nearly just the facts of an event: the tasks of laying chicken wire, then earth, then heavy boulders over a euthanized dog in the broken soil or the struggle of using chains to haul a thirty-five-year-old broodmare to a burial site that the workmen grouse is frozen solid and tough to dig up.

However, amid a kind of everyday wisdom and acceptance of death, the narrative voice is not without feeling. The implicit grieving comes in the daughter’s dream when her deceased father calls on the phone in “The Sunday Phone Call.” The longing comes in waves of imagined risings to let the dog-ghost in, as he “. . . barks his familiar bark/ at the scribble-scratched back door” in “The Apparition.” In “The Brothers” and “Magda of Hospice House,” empathy, sympathy, and regret inevitably creep into the voices of the narrators, who, whether sister or caretaker of the terminally ill or old, share the respectful sentiment of objective observers of ineluctable death with the relatives, the extended family members, and even the poetess, quietly emotionally invested to some extent. As in “Summer Meditation,” there exists an homage to death, dying, and losing and loss, as the speaker announces: “I want to sing/ of death unbruised.” The human heart is the sticking place for the poems, but in Kumin’s hands, it is a heart that responds to the relentlessness of death without carping on the burden and instead reports with reverence what actions humans take once death has occurred.

To consistently deliver a tone of objectivity, Kumin does not limit the scope to natural events as experienced on a New England farm. Instead, she expands her collection to include the natural human component as it functions in the prison convict, the historical figure, the feminist, the celebrity, the Auschwitz survivor, the homeless human and animal, and the victim of past and present war. She often does this by way of allusion and by insinuating humanity, human physicality, and the human sensibility as the objective correlative, again binding the pieces in the collection. Throughout Jack, and Other New Poems, whether conjuring a ghost or invoking a reference, Kumin speaks as a feminist, animal activist, and humanist. However, by incorporating the voices and thoughts of those outside her sphere and by investigating the experiences close to death and dead, she avoids self-centeredness and brings all back home with her, sharing with her readers the tendencies, the trends, and the tests of life.

Still to Mow

Still to Mow offers a juxtaposing of self with the world of selves in which the speaker must exist. The “I,” whether in first or third person, is typically the solitary performer engaging in everyday tasks on the farm and in the garden, at the same time contemplating the gross injustices going on outside her immediate environment. Just as often this “I” speaks out against those ills of which she must be conscious. In “Mulching,” as she kneels to innocuously “spread sodden newspapers between broccolis,/ corn sprouts, cabbages and four kinds of beans,” she finds herself “prostrate before old suicide bombings, starvation, AIDS, earthquakes, the unforeseen tsunami. . . .” In “Please Pay Attention as the Ethics Have Changed,” the speaker editorializes from an unnamed place on the special-treatment activities of the politicians turned hunters, turned savages: The vice president of the United States gets the skies stocked with game birds; the military police get a pardon for their torture of Afghani prisoners of war. In “Extraordinary Rendition,” as the speaker reports how the beech and oak tree leaves turn at home, the world reports the hypocrisies of abuse.

Kumin makes her statement by contrast, by positioning the authorial voice in the quietest of settings and inside an “unquiet spirit,” and by calling out the human condition, an atrocious, hypocritical, even criminal mind-set that forcefully elicits intellectual outrage. Throughout Still to Mow, Kumin’s suggestion of such evil doings translates to just so much manure; while the personal gardening makes use of this generative element, little else in the way of response is useful or effective. The pope can do no more than to consistently deliver his messages on the “value of human suffering”; the beech leaves can only dry and “curl undefended . . . ,” as they “have no stake in the outcome.” Likewise, while the speakers of less political poems in the collection will on occasion rise up in strength against the wrongs, the mentally and spiritually burdened “I” is usually left to rely on the poetess to—at least on paper—rebel. For as Kumin suggests, it has been written, “Art redeems us from time.” The poem is, she suggests, the last and only rescue.

The title Still to Mow captures the collection’s overriding themes not only of loss—of kindness, of sensitivity, of sensibility—but also of looking forward with weary concern for that which is yet to make similar painful demands on the human spirit. Taken from a comment by author John Gardner, that “When you look back there’s lots of bales in the field, but ahead it’s all still to mow,” the title works its way through four sections of poems outlining the human condition in progress and in regress. In couplets and tercets, in quatrains and villanelles, Kumin explores what is still missing, still to be conquered or done. The tone is not always one of outrage or regret, as poems such as “Ascending” climb sedulously off the page in a kind of hopeful, safe promise; yet the collection points more to the metaphor of what humans and the human collective have yet to master and may never master. Even and especially the closing piece, “Death, Etc.,” returns the reader to the self having lived a whole life with death, to physical beings in a group trying to hold still for the family photo, to humans in a culture of atrocity and death still “stumbling, afraid of the dark,/ of the cold, and of the great overwhelming/ loneliness of being last.”

As a body of work, however, Kumin’s poetry returns to the endlessly positive, celebrating the sensuousness of physical existence, the naturalness of movement and time. Solitary and social, personal and public, her poetry is a testament of affirmation within the context of painful losses.

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Kumin, Maxine