Maxine Kumin

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William Dickey (essay date 1961)

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SOURCE: "Revelations and Homilies," in Poetry, Vol. XCIX, No. 2, November, 1961, pp. 124-29.

[Dickey was an American educator and poet who served as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, 1966-1968. In the following review of Halfway, he comments that "Kumin is more successful in personal poems than in those which attempt public stances."]

[Maxine Kumin] defines her intention and accomplishment in a few lines from "The Moment Clearly":

Write, saying this much clearly:
Nearly all, this is nearly all,
The small sounds of growing, the impress
Of unarrested time, raising
The prized moment.

The realizations [of Halfway] are small, but they become important by reason of the care and precision with which they are expressed. Picking up her book and looking at the first poem, one might suppose that the images were going to be arbitrary. "Isosceles of knees" the poem starts, but it goes on "my boys and girls sit / cross-legged in blue July / and finger the peel / of their sun-killed skin". The images return always to a strict visual accuracy; behind the startling word lies its solid justification. Consider Miss Kumin on bats: "until the terrible mouse with wings / notched like bread knives came skittering / down the chimney next to my bed". Or on travelling northward after a spring funeral in the south: "Homeward, the spendthrift streams pursed their mouths, / the trees unfleshed, the ground locked up its ruts, / and farther, death belonged / in this place. Weeks late, the rotten ice went out."

Miss Kumin is more successful in personal poems than in those which attempt public stances, as do "Eleventh Century Doors," and "For Anne at Passover." She is wiser, too, when she avoids complex formal exercises; maybe all sestinas now have a slight lab-specimen smell. At her worst she can be trivially humorous, but she is seldom at her worst, and her humor can also show a grim sardonic force. I would be happy to have this book if only for "Fräulein Reads Instructive Rhymes"; I am happier yet to have it for "The Lunar Probe."

Long before morning they waked me to say
the moon was undone; had blown out, sky high,
swelled fat as a fat pig's bladder, fit
to burst, and then the underside had split.

I had been dreaming this dream seven nights
before it bore fruit (there is nothing so sweet
to a prophet as forethought come true). They had meant
merely to prick when… good-bye, good intent!

Dozing, I saw the sea stopper its flux,
dogs freeze in mid-howl, women wind up their clocks,
lunatics everywhere sane as their keepers.

I have not dreamed since in this nation of sleepers.


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Maxine Kumin 1925–

(Full name Maxine Winokur Kumin) American poet, novelist, short fiction writer, essayist, and author of children's books.

Kumin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose verse often portrays the simple workings of day-to-day life at her Warner, New Hampshire, farm. Animals, children, the seasons, and neighbors are recurring subjects. Often classified as a transcendentalist, Kumin probes the human relationship to nature and celebrates the redemptive qual ities of the natural world. Her writing has been compared to that of her late close friend, Anne Sexton, and in some aspects to the work of Sylvia Plath. Like Sexton, Kumin writes personal poems that focus on the inner lives of her characters. Unlike Sexton or Plath, however, she does not dwell on despair; thus, she is known for her survival poems.

Biographical Information

Kumin was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Radcliffe College in 1946 and 1948 respectively, and married Victor Kumin...

(This entire section contains 847 words.)

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in 1946. While awaiting the birth of her third child, she began to write children's stories. Her writing interests evolved to include poetry, novels, short fiction, and essays. She found encouragement for her writing at the Boston Center for Adult Education, where she met and befriended poet Anne Sexton. Kumin and Sexton's friendship was important to both women's poetry. The former possessed a technical ability honed from study; the latter wrote with a raw voice that was brilliantly fresh. They phoned each other daily, often writing a poem after ending the phone call. Each call was another session in their own continual workshopping. In fact, Sexton titled Kumin'sUp Country: Poems of New England, and Kumin titled Sexton's Transformations. Kumin has received the most acclaim for her poetry, winning the Lowell Mason Palmer Award in 1960, a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1966, and ultimately, the Pulitzer Prize for Up Country in 1973. Since 1958, she has served many distinguished posts as teacher, lecturer, and visiting fellow or artist; she was a consultant to the Library of Congress from 1981 to 1982. She continues to live on her farm in New Hampshire, tending to her horses and gardens.

Major Works

Halfway, her first collection of verse, was published in 1961 when Kumin was thirty-six and deals with topics she

has explored throughout her career: religious and cultural identity; the tenuousness of human life; loss or the threat of loss; and the human in relation to nature. Lessons learned in girlhood are always present in Kumin's work. The poet also searches for order in her poetry; she stated in an interview with Martha George Meek that "… there is an order to be discovered—that's very often true in the natural world—but there is also an order that a human can impose on the chaos of his emotions and the chaos of events. That's what writing poetry is all about." Highly personal material, another hallmark of Kumin's work, comes to life in The Privilege. The ties and separations inherent in families, especially "the privilege" of being a member of a family, are explored. In some of the poems of Up Country Kumin adopts the persona of a male hermit to particularize the universal solitude of man in nature. She continues in this vein with House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate. This volume's title, which originated from a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, reflects Kumin's style of naming things in nature that are often overlooked. For her fastidious naming Kumin has been compared to Henry David Thoreau. Another volume that exhibits thoughtful naming is The Retrieval System, which was written as a memorial to Anne Sexton, who killed herself in 1974. Like The Retrieval System, The Long Approach and Looking for Luck reflect Kumin's experience of aging as well as her steadfast hope for chance encounters with the beneficence of all living things. Some of Kumin's pastoral themes in Nurture shift into the political realm: the earth and its inhabitants should be "nurtured," not endangered.

Critical Reception

Kumin's poetry has generally been favorably reviewed since her first book of verse appeared. Critics have noted that the poet's best poems in The Privilege are those that evoke her own childhood. In a review of Up Country in the 1973 Spring-Summer issue of Parnassus, Ralph J. Mills quoted John Ciardi: "[Kumin] teaches me, by example, to use my own éyes. When she looks at something I have seen, she makes me see it better. When she looks at something I do not know, I therefore trust her." Similarly, The Long Approach has been praised for Kumin's customary success in depicting the details of New England life. However, some of the poems in that volume and in Nurture have been criticized for venturing programmatically into social issues, an arena considered by some too large for Kumin's private voice. It is at such times that many critics feel she slips into blatant metaphor and prosaic lines of summation. But poet and reviewer Diane Wakoski defended Kumin as "best at… [m]aking images, wonderful images, that turn into big metaphors. Playing with dualities, and manipulating everyday language so that it works with complexity of idea and pattern."

Dabney Stuart (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: "Weights and Measures," in Shenandoah, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter, 1966, pp. 91-102.

[Stuart is an American educator and poet, and has served as poetry editor and eventually editor-in-chief of Shenandoah since 1976. Below, he admires Kumin's control of her subject matter, the domain of childhood, in The Privilege.]

[T]he title of Mrs. Kumin's collection, The Privilege, [is taken] from one of Joseph Conrad's letters. The passage she cites closes, "One must drag the ball and chain of one's selfhood to the end. It is the price one pays for the devilish and divine privilege of thought."

For Mrs. Kumin, as the Conrad quote implies, the privilege is also a burden, and the poems in her book have an amazing internal balance of both these evaluations of consciousness. Balance and control are central achievements of her poetry, won by an unflinching attempt to "bear out hope to the edge of pain."

It is impossible to communicate by commentary the world these poems make. It is a big world, a world of the self and the self's connections to things which help create it—parents, childhood, class, religion, war, space, love, domesticity. It is filled with dread and terror as well as expectancy, humor and praise. It is a world whose minutest details are observed with precision, whose smallest inhabitants are treated with purpose. Perhaps it is enough to say that The Privilege fulfills art's humblest and most difficult intention—to create a world within whose limitations a compelling and intelligent identity can realize itself. Specifically, the terms of Mrs. Kumin's world include, among others, the convent and the pawnshop, which become emblematic of Christianity and Judaism, two forces which were important in her childhood; and the cyclic experience of being a child and having children, from which comes a perspective on the loss of one's own parents and friends.

Though taking them out of context necessarily dissipates their effect, I want to quote a few passages to illustrate, finally, the kind of formal control Mrs. Kumin exercises upon these raw materials, emphasizing rather than destroying their force. One learns the power of a stallion more by trying to guide him than by letting him run free.

From "Prothalamion," in which a tennis game is used figuratively in the direction the title suggests:

We improve each other, quickening so by noon
That the white game moves itself, the universe
contracted to the edge of the dividing line
you toe against, limbering for your service,
arm up, swiping the sun time after time,
and the square I live in, measured out with lime.

The first two stanzas of "This Praying Fool":

A prayer for a bad time
ought, pro forma,
to have God in it—
a name, an apostrophe, Someone
for hasten the day
or deliver me.Lord, Lord
for the children
who turn in a little boat in bed,
all-night sailors,
while Mother and Father
bob in the next room,
already at anchor
in the only harbor.

The penultimate stanza of "The Pawnbroker";

Firsthand I had from my father a love ingrown
tight as an oyster, and returned it

as secretly. From him firsthand
the grace of work, the sweat of it, the bone-
tired unfolding down from stress.
I was the bearer he paid up on demand
with one small pearl of selfhood. Portionless,
I am oystering still to earn it.

Feet in the mud, Lady, fingers prying that tight, grinding secret, keep on. Keep on.

Principal Works

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Halfway 1961

The Privilege 1965

The Nightmare Factory 1970

Up Country: Poems of New England 1972

House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate 1975

The Retrieval System 1978

Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief: New and Selected Poems 1982

Closing the Ring: Selected Poems 1984

The Long Approach 1985

Nurture 1989

Looking for Luck 1992

Connecting the Dots 1996

Other Major Works

Sebastian and the Dragon (juvenilia) 1960

Follow the Fall (juvenilia) 1961

Spring Things (juvenilia) 1961

A Summer Story (juvenilia) 1961

A Winter Friend (juvenilia) 1961

Mittens in May (juvenilia) 1962

No One Writes a Letter to the Snail (juvenilia) 1962

Archibald the Traveling Poodle (juvenilia) 1963

Eggs of Things [with Anne Sexton] (juvenilia) 1963

The Beach Before Breakfast (juvenilia) 1964

More Eggs of Things [with Anne Sexton] (juvenilia) 1964

Speedy Deigs Downside Up (juvenilia) 1964

Through Dooms of Love (novel) 1965; published in England as A Daughter and Her Loves 1965

Paul Bunyan (juvenilia) 1966

Faraway Farm (juvenilia) 1967

The Passions of Uxport (novel) 1968

The Wonderful Babies of 1809 and Other Years (juvenilia) 1968

When Grandmother Was Young (juvenilia) 1969

When Mother Was Young (juvenilia) 1970

The Abduction (novel) 1971

Joey and the Birthday Present [with Anne Sexton] (juvenilia) 1971

When Great-Grandmother Was Young (juvenilia) 1971

The Designated Heir (novel) 1974

The Wizard's Tears [with Anne Sexton] (juvenilia) 1975

What Color Is Caesar? (juvenilia) 1978

To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living (essays) 1980

Why Can't We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings? (short fiction) 1982

The Microscope (juvenilia) 1984

In Deep: Country Essays (essays) 1987

Women, Animals, and Vegetables (essays and short stories) 1994

Robert Wallace (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: "Down from the Forked Hill Unsullied," in Poetry, Vol. CVIII, No. 2, May, 1966, pp. 121-24.

[Wallace is an American educator and poet. In the following excerpt, he lauds The Privilege for its direct language.]

Maxine Kumin's new poems [in The Privilege] are superb. She hardly makes a mistake. Her language always catches the world into the poem, is deliciously prosy, direct, surprising—"fog thick as terry cloth"—as are her strategies, which permit beginning a poem:

The symbol inside this poem is my father's feet
which, after fifty years of standing behind
the counter waiting on trade,
were tender and smooth and lay on the ironed sheet,
a study of white on white, like a dandy's shirt.

Childhood and now, the halves of her world mirror equally a vision of the isolation and enchantment of selfhood: in the remembered games, streets, convent school, legless man "who came / inside a little cart, inchmeal, / flatirons on his hands, downhill"; in the adult lovers, "oyster killers who live in a world / of sundown and gin and shellfish", and cannot afford to count their "own small gift of bones"; in fighting for sleep "by lying down" ("but the Walden of my mind / fills up with berry pickers"); in the gin for a lady dining on the past at the Ritz:

It is much darker than that.

She has come to the Ritz
with dirty toes.
Nothing she knows is dinner talk.
Mother presses the buzzer.
Father blesses the bread and pinches up salt.
No one may cry at the table.

In "Quarry, Pigeon Cove," "a makeshift amphibian", "breathing out silver ball bearings", she dives into the city that "waited, / hung upside down in the quarry" and

might have swum down looking
soundlessly into nothing,
down stairways and alleys of nothing
until the city took notice
and made me its citizen,
except that life stirred overhead.
I looked up. A dog walked over me.

A dog was swimming and splashing.
Air eggs nested in his fur.

Joyce Carol Oates (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: "One for Life, One for Death," in The New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1972, pp. 7, 14.

[Oates is a prolific American educator, author, and critic. In the review below, she compares Up Country to Sylvia Plath's Winter Trees, remarking on the similarities and differences between the poets' writings and concluding that "one book affirms life; the other affirms death."]

Read together, these two excellent books cause us to ask ourselves one of the riddles of life: Why is the experience of one human being so vastly different from that of another? Why, in two sensitive, intelligent, gifted women poets should the energies of art be so differently employed? Where one discovers in nature a "presence" of "something else that went before" (Kumin in "The Presence"), the other discovers a helpless "blue dissolve" and shadows "chanting, but easing nothing" (Plath in "Winter Trees"). Where one does not shy away from "populating symptoms" or from the stunning horrors of a physical world gone into error, the other acquiesces to the symptoms, the horrors, "the shriek in the bath, / The cloak of holes" (Plath, "Purdah")—and seems perversely to honor them, to insist upon them, to refuse to make any judgment that might transpose the mysteries of nature into an adult, human art.

Maxine Kumin's book acknowledges its debt to Thoreau, though in my opinion Kumin's poetry gives us a sharpedged, unflinching and occasionally nightmarish subjectivity exasperatingly absent in Thoreau. The most valuable, because most powerful, statements of the transcendental experience are those rooted firmly in existence, however private or eccentric. We are ready to believe Miss Kumin's energetic praises of nature, her insistence upon her own place in it—"we teem, we overgrow… we are making a run for it"—because we have suffered along with her the contraction of the universe to a child's nighttime horror of bats, her occasional despair, her speculations upon forms of mortality in an old burying ground. When, in the book's final poem, she states firmly that "We have our own constants" and "To be reasonable is to let go," we are fully prepared to believe her. The experience of Up Country's 42 poems is dramatic and visionary, but above all convincing.

The setting is rural New England, but the imagination is boundless. Miss Kumin gets into the mind of a hermit whose dog has been sprayed by a skunk ("Skunk is the mother bed, the ripe taste / of carrion, the green kiss"), she amuses us with an old handbook of "simples" (home remedies for ailments), she dramatizes mud ("An army / of lips works in its own ocean"), she effortlessly condemns the eating of meat, she takes us through a distinctively feminine / female experience of temporary loss, in which we hear not Anne Sexton's voice so much as the common, universal woman's voice that Sexton so powerfully dramatizes in her own way. Any group of poems that deal with nature is more or less committed to the honoring of cycles, the birth / death / birth wheel, the phenomenon of creatures giving way to creatures, "the pond's stillness… pocked with life" ("Creatures"); yet no poem really repeats another's theme, and it is a formidable feat for Miss Kumin to have attempted such a variety of points of view, none of them strained or artificial.

A typical success is "Turning To," in which love forces the poet to think of Death "in these connections" and to imagine herself and her lover as frogs. They must die, presumably, but "Meanwhile / let us cast one shadow / in air or water"… "Let us turn to, until / the giant flashlight / comes down on us / and we are rammed home on the corkscrew gig / one at a time /and lugged off belly to belly." Up Country demonstrates beautifully how the transcendental vision is really the vision of imaginative existential life, available to anyone who seeks it….

Both Sylvia Plath and Maxine Kumin would passionately affirm Thoreau's declaration "Be it life or death, we crave only reality." And both have investigated thoroughly the relationships between the self and the otherness of both an external environment and an interior, bewildering depthless world of the psyche. Yet one book affirms life; the other affirms death. We are ultimately mysterious to ourselves, as much as we are to one another. But perhaps we may say, hopefully, audaciously, that the "winter trees" of our experience make up one part—but only one part—of the "up country" of our time.

Further Reading

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Gearhart, Jean B. "Courage to Survive—Maxine Kumin." Pembroke Magazine, No. 20 (1988): 272-75.

A brief overview of Kumin's life and work.

Gould, Jean. "Anne Sexton-Maxine Kumin." In Modern American Women Poets, pp. 151-75. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984.

Relates Kumin's career and life only by way of her friendship with Anne Sexton.

Victor Howes (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: A review of Up Country, in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 65, No. 79, February 28, 1973, p. 9.

[In the following review, Howes praises the "country ways" of Up Country.]

Maxine Kumin is a poet attuned to country ways. She is heir to a tradition of pastoral poetry that reaches back through Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy all the way to its rural beginnings in Theocritus. Nature poetry, she comes to tell us, is alive and well and sinking its taproots in New Hampshire soil.

Whether she writes of a woodlot in winter, tadpoles hatching in the spring, of berrypicking or a night visit from a mosquito, she brings to her page what Wordsworth called "the harvest of a quiet eye." Her eye is on the object—the tininess of "the shrew's children, twenty to a teaspoonful;" the near invisibility of minnows—"a see-through army in the shallows / as still as grains in a rice bowl"; the ambiguity of strange markings left in new snow. What made the marks?

It could have been a raccoon
lugging a knapsack,
it could have been a porcupine
carrying a tennis racket,
it could have been something
as supple as a red fox
dragging the squawk and sputter
of a crippled woodcock.

Up Country is the fourth book of poems by this Boston-based poet and novelist. Neither surreal nor shrill, neither tragic nor transcending, Mrs. Kumin's poems sing with the music of the middle voice, sing of reality beheld with imagination, sing the world made meaningful by the perceptions of the beholder. Up Country is good news for all listeners to whippoorwills, inspectors of beaver dams, connoisseurs of the hazel nut and the honey mushroom.


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George, Diana Hume. "Itinerary of an Obsession: Maxine Kumin's Poems to Anne Sexton." In Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton, pp. 243-266. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1988.

Examines five of Kumin's poems to illustrate that after Anne Sexton's death, Kumin adopted some of the strengths of Sexton's poetic voice.

Kumin, Maxine. To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living, pp. 68-155. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1979.

A compilation by Kumin containing personal interviews, essays, and lectures about poetry.


George, Diana Hume. "Kumin on Kumin and Sexton: An Interview." Poesis 6, No. 2 (1985): 1-18.

Kumin comments on her lifestyle before discussing her former relationship with Anne Sexton and its influence on both poets' writing.

Additional coverage of Kumin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Authors in the News, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4 (rev. ed.); Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 8; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 21; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 13, 28; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5; Major 20th-century Writers; and Something about the Author, Vol. 12.

Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: A review of Up Country, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1973, pp. 211-24.

[Mills is an American poet who has written several critical studies on contemporary poets. In the following excerpt, he congratulates Kumin for her "marvelously etched, intricately textured pictures" of New England in Up Country.]

Maxine Kumin is like [Denise Levertov,] a poet of the trained eye and the exact word, though without the visionary proclivities and the desire for new sonic and organic forms which Denise Levertov seeks. The poems of Up Country are selected from several sources, including previous books of Mrs. Kumin's, and compose a series of marvelously etched, intricately textured pictures of different aspects of New England life and countryside that fewer and fewer Americans know. The central location for these poems is a farm in southern New Hampshire where, one gathers, Mrs. Kumin and her family live part of each year; thus the poet's presence is that of a sympathetic inhabitant who also possesses a wider acquaintance with the world. Yet Mrs. Kumin, as is obvious from the first page on, has plunged like [Theodore] Roethke or [Robert] Frost, Edmund Blunden or Jon Silkin into the details of nature and rural living without stinting herself. We discover a capacity for seeing that places this poet in a direct line from the greenhouse poems of Roethke. I think the "Garden Master," as [John] Berryman called him, would surely approve the poem "Mud":

You would think that the little birches
would die of that brown mouth sucking
and sucking their root ends.
The rain runs yellow.
The mother pumps in, pumps in
more than she can swallow.
All of her pockmarks spill over.
The least footfall

brings up rich swill.

The streams grow sick with their tidbits.
The trout turn up their long bellies.
The slugs come alive. An army
of lips works in its own ocean.
The boulders gape to deliver themselves.
Stones will be born of that effort.

Meanwhile the mother is sucking.
Pods will startle apart,
pellets be seized with a fever
and as the dark gruel thickens,
life will stick up a finger.

Whatever poetic company she keeps in such poems, Mrs. Kumin is no imitator but very clearly her own writer (and a distinctive novelist too). In these poems she steeps her self—sometimes adopting the figure of "the Hermit" to intensify the feeling of solitary humanity in the midst of nature—in the actualities of soil, pond, trees, beans, local topography, animal tracks in the snow, an ancient bathtub used for a watering trough, the gravestones of an old cemetery, the variety of insects frequenting a pond, the hundred-and-sixty-year-old markings in an attic, a handbook of simples, and so forth. As John Ciardi says of her accuracy with respect to the reality her poems render: "She teaches me, by example, to use my own eyes. When she looks at something I have seen, she makes me see it better. When she looks at something I do not know, I therefore trust her." That is high praise and also traditional praise. Many a younger poet at the present time should perhaps be compelled to earn it. The liberating changes which occurred in American poetry from the late 1950's into the 1970's have been of great value, but we are in danger of their being simply taken on by a newer generation which turns them into trite literary mechanisms, flicked on and off like light switches, and possibly losing touch altogether with the concreteness of the external world. How many of our legions of youthful poets can command both free and formal manners with the expertness of James Wright or Philip Levine?

Mrs. Kumin's writing stands as a masterful example of the middle style; her rhythmic sense, her ear and diction are above criticism. Of her kind, she is quite simply an excellent poet: one who looks, who names and who makes—all with astonishing and enviable craftsmanship. Like MacLeish, Eberhart and Denise Levertov, she labors her share of "the fields of imagination." I close with the moving declarations of her poem "We Are," in the hope that it will provide a beginning for many new readers of her work:

Love, we are a small pond.
In us yellow frogs take the sun.
Their legs hang down. Their thighs open
like the legs of the littlest children.
On our skin waterbugs suggest incision
but leave no marks of their strokes.
Touching is like that. And what touches evokes.

Just here the blackest berries fatten
over the pond of our being.
It is a rich month for putting up weeds.
They jut like the jaws of Hapsburg kings.
Tomorrow they will drop their blood
as the milkweed bursts its cotton
leaving dry thorns and tight seeds.

Meanwhile even knowing
that time comes down to shut the door
—headstrong, righteous, time hard at the bone
with ice and one thing more—
we teem, we overgrow. The shelf
is tropic still. Even knowing
that none of us can catch up with himself

we are making a run
for it. Love, we are making a run.

Maxine Kumin with Anne Sexton and Elaine Showalter and Carol Smith (interview date 1974)

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SOURCE: In a conversation on April 15, 1974, in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 4, 1976, pp. 115-36.

[In the following interview with Showalter and Smith, Kumin and poet Anne Sexton discuss their twenty-year-old friendship and its influence on their poetry.]

Max and I
Two immoderate sisters,
Two immoderate writers,
Two burdeners,
Made a pact,
To beat death down with a stick.
To take over.
Anne Sexton, "The Death Baby"

This conversation between four women is about the friendship of Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, a friendship which began in the late 1950s, when they studied together in a poetry workshop in Boston led by John Holmes. Because they had young children, and were often unable to get out of the house, they developed a process of "workshopping" poems on the telephone, supplying for each other both detailed criticism and warm support. Both women won Pulitzer Prizes for books of poems. Anne Sexton in 1967 for Live or Die, and Maxine Kumin in 1973 for Up Country: Poems of New England. Their poetic styles are completely different; Kumin's poetry is exact, formal, intensely crafted, while Sexton wrote dramatically about breakdown and death. On October 5, 1974, Anne Sexton killed herself at her home in Weston, Massachusetts….

Was John Holmes a difficult person for a woman to work with?
John Holmes didn't approve of a thing about me. He hated my poetry. I remember, even after Maxine had left, and I was still with Holmes, there was a new girl who came in. And he kept saying, oh, let us see new poems, new poems. We need them. And here I was giving him things that were later anthologized forever. I mean, really good poems.
Didn't Holmes write comic verse as well, himself? And think you should move in the direction of comic verse, Maxine?
No, no, she started with comic verse.
I had already graduated from comic verse, Carol. I had started by writing light verse; that's how I became a poet. I started writing light verse for the slicks when I got pregnant with Danny, for a year.
Maxine, it was two or three years, it was no one year.
Wait a minute—he's now twenty-one. So it was twenty-one years ago. And I made a pact with myself that if I didn't sell anything by the time this child was born, I would chuck all my creative discontents. And in about my eighth month I started really landing with little four-liners, there, here and everywhere. Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan, and so on. Then someone told me about John Holmes's class at the Center and in great fear and trembling I went and met Anne. We did that thing at the Center for a year and then we broke off and started a workshop of our own.
It was at least two years.
And who was in the second workshop?
It consisted of Sexton, Kumin, George Starbuck, Sam Albert, and John Holmes. And for a little while, Ted Weiss.
He was there for a while. And do you remember? the night we laughed so hard we were screaming, over women's girdles? I mean, we were hysterical. Ted Weiss was in Boston, and John wanted to bring him into the class, and he was nice. I'll never forget how we laughed. He just got us all onto women's girdles. I mean, in its own way it is a bit vulgar, and yet to me it isn't really vulgar at all. It's beauty, it's the girdle that's corrupting her. It was funny. But—I have to point this out, and you must too—John found me evil.
But I think it should also be said, that the reason for John's reaction, we guess, is that his first wife had been mentally ill, and had killed herself.
But I was writing about this subject. He kept saying, no no, too personal, or you musn't, or anything. Everything he said about my poems was bad, almost altogether. And yet, from the beginning, from the class, from him, I learned. And from Maxine. I must say Maxine, my best teacher—although for a while I was copying Maxine's flaws. I don't know how, I didn't know they were hers, although now I can see they were someone else's, an inversion here, or a noun. I got over that. I remember, I didn't know her very well. I wrote "Music Swims Back to Me." I was playing a record, a 45, and I was leaning over my husband who was building a hi-fi set. I was climbing over him, in the kitchen, because I wrote in the dining room—I didn't really have a place to write, I wrote on a cardtable—to put on the 45 again. It's necessary to heat that song, because the song was taking me back to the mental institution where it constantly played. It was a very early poem, and I had broken all my ideas of what a poem should be, and I go to Maxine—very formal—we don't know each other very well. We hadn't started writing together yet. And I said, could you—? We sat together in the living room, stiffly on the couch. Sunday. It was a Sunday. And I said, is this a poem? And she said, yes.
Well, I get points for knowing it. I don't know how I knew it.
She knew. She knew. She responded. I had done this crazy thing, written this poem. Always Maxine responded to my poetry. Not John, but Maxine, although in spite of herself. Because it was hard for her.
Yes, it was hard. Here was my Christian academic daddy saying, stay away from her. She's bad for you.
Did he actually say that?
He would write letters saying, she's evil. He did, he said, be careful of her.
Oh, yes, he would write me letters. He was my patron; he got me a job at Tufts.
And for me, he was my daddy, but he was the daddy who was saying, you are no good.
And the fantastic thing is that it did not come between us. Of course, John then died terribly, terribly. He was told that his aches and pains were mental, that he needed a psychiatrist; meanwhile he had throat cancer and it had metastasized. Had totally invaded his chest and shoulders. I remember him talking about a shawl, a cape of pain. And he started drinking again. It was awful, awful.
It was awful. I remember calling his wife, Doris, and saying, what is it, what is it? He's not going to die, is he? And she said, well, it's funny, it's like psychiatry. What could she say?
Who's that?
She was a very good foil for John, because she's very warm, very outgoing, and she supplied a lot of things that John didn't. He was really quite reserved. I thought of him as very New England.
I remember one night Sam and me going to John's. It was sleeting out, but we make it. And he's on his way out—and he's so happy we were going out. I think maybe that moment he forgave me a little.
I was then teaching at Tufts, but we all read at Tufts, in the David Steinman series.
I never did. No, he wasn't going to ask me.
We used to go to parties at John's after all those readings—after John Crowe Ransom, and after Robert Frost. Frost said, don't sit there mumbling in the shadows, come up here closer. By then he was very deaf. And I was so awed.
Was it out of that early relationship that you both began to work together?
Yes, because we had to listen.
Because we had to listen to John Holmes read the poems—copies were not provided—and then we worked together on the telephone.
In our own workshop later we made copies. But then we worked on the phone. And sometimes my kids would be climbing all over me, and I'd say, shh! poem! Maxine! And I'd block my ear, and I could hear it. I could grasp the whole thing, and say change this, change that.
Did you see it?
Later. Maybe the following week, if we could get together, if one of us had a sitter.
She means did we see it in our minds. No, no, I just knew. I could tell the poem, and I could tell what she wanted to do. We still do it.
You don't have to anymore. This was just because you couldn't get out of the house?
Yes, because our kids were too small.
Yes. We did eventually do this wicked thing. We put in a second line, because our husbands complained that we were always on the phone.
We used to talk for two hours sometimes.
When was it that you put in the phone? Was it before or after the Radcliffe Institute?
Probably just then, because we both probably felt flush, and important.
And you would talk about each other's poems, workshop each other's poems?
Yes, and also talk about our emotions and our feelings and what the day was like, what was going on.
When you heard each other's poems, you said before you could enter the consciousness of the other person.
Well, you see, we never tried to make the other sound like ourselves. We always saw in the other's voice, I'm sure of it.
We started with a recognition for and a respect for that separate identity. I would never meddle with what Anne is doing. I might be able to help her find a more effective way to do what she's doing.
Did you ever find your own writing began to shade into the other person?
No, no, we're different.
You can tell we're completely different.
Yes, but was there ever a period when there was a struggle?
No, there was never a struggle. It was natural, it wasn't hard.
It seems to be so normal. It wasn't ever an issue.
There was never any struggle. Don't you see—you enter into the voice of the poet, and you think, how to shape, how to make better, but not, how to make like me.
I think there is one conviction about the writing of a poem Anne and I share, although we may have come to it by separate routes. We both have very strong feeling about a poem ending definitively. We don't like poems that trail off. Real closure.
We both do. Oscar Williams said, anyone can write a poem, but who can end it? It's like slamming the door, And I said, you mean like having sex without orgasm? He didn't like that remark.
Do you do this exchanging with your novels as well, Maxine?
Anne reads sections. I ask a lot from her when I write prose, but not as much these days.
Is the poetry workshopping diminishing too? Do you do this less, need this less, than you used to?
No, not as long as we're writing.
I think the difference is that perhaps this year I haven't been writing as much.
I haven't been writing as much either; I've been having an upsetting time.
I think the intensity is the same, but the frequency has changed.
But just the other day Maxine said, well, that's a therapeutic poem, and I said, for god's sake, forget that. I want to make it a real poem. Then I forced her into helping me make it a real poem, instead of just a kind of therapy for myself. But I remember once a long time ago a poem called "Cripples and Other Stories." I showed it to my psychoanalyst—it was half done—and I threw it in the wastebasket. Very unusual because I usually put them away forever. But this was in the wastebasket. I said, would you by any chance be interested in what's in the wastebasket? And she said, wait a minute, Anne. You could make a real poem out of that. And you know how different that is from Maxine's voice.
I happen to really love that poem.
Really? I hate it. Although it's good. It reads well. But we're different temperatures, Maxine and I. I have to be warmer. We can't even be in the same room.
I'm always taking my clothes off and Anne is putting on coats and sweaters.
But you must remember it's not just a poetic relationship. It's been a great bond of friendship, growing, I suppose developing deeper and deeper. I mean, if one of us is sick, the other is right there. We tell each other everything that's going on. I tell her a dream to remember it, almost. Used to—I haven't been lately. We've both been so busy this year, we've kind of drifted apart, but it's because—
When you talk about a poem, do you talk about ideas or techniques?
Usually we don't start without a draft.
Well—I remember you talking to me about Eighteen Days Without You, helping me with the plot, the cabin. Although in the end I used none of it.
You had started though. You knew the shape.
No I didn't. I have the worksheets. First of all you had an apartment in Watertown and then I make it a cabin in Groton. Yet, she's fictionalized, helping me fictionalize the setting for the lovers. She did one thing, I did another. She started me.
It's always been this way.
Now can I tell this very personal thing, which we can cross out?
Probably not, but go ahead.
We might just be talking, and I'd say, we're just talking. Why the hell aren't we writing? And we'd get a line, a concept. I'd say, I'll call you back in twenty minutes. It is the most stimulating thing. It's a challenge. We've got this much time, and goddam it, I'm going to have something there. We hang up. In twenty-five minutes I call back. Have you got anything? She sure does. And so have I. It forces us. It's the challange of it. And with the workshop we had, we always had two poems, sometimes three.
There were certain people who need not be mentioned who always went over their allotted time span. My kids, when they would see some activity around the house would say, oh, the poets! now we'll never get any sleep! And they would fight for the privilege of sleeping over the garage, which was at the farthest remove, because the poets were so noisy. The poets came together and fought.
We'd scream and yell. Sam Albert said to Anne Hussey: There was no one who fought harder for her words in workshop than Anne Sexton and then went home and changed them. But I would fight—it was like they were taking my babies away from me. Actually I would write down who said what—like Max, no, George, this—and there were certain people I respected more. But Sam could be good at a sort of instinctive thing.
Well, we were a good group. George was icily cerebral. George would be sitting there counting the syllables. But I could point to lines that I changed because of George. We've grown in different directions. We were very open and raw and new then. We were all beginners.
I think I had my first book published then. But the one time we didn't speak about writing poems was about John. We didn't workshop, we didn't talk, we were suddenly separate.
Because your relationships with him were different?
Yes, and I suppose our love for him was different.
Grief is private.
But our grief was never private in any other way. It was just with him, because he loved you, he didn't love me, and it probably made you feel guilty. Anyway, we discussed nothing. She wrote one poem, I wrote another. Mine was called "Somewhere in Africa."
Has anything that's come out from the women's movement made you see the relationship you have in a different way?
You see, when we began, there was no women's movement. We were it.
And we didn't know it.
Because the relationship you have, and the relationship of Hallie and Sukey in The Passions of Uxport is totally new.
I want to say—that is not me in The Passions of Uxport.
But certainly it takes something from our friendship.
There are very few relationships in books that are like it. Women are generally supposed to destroy each other.
I do support Maxine, although I've been a little weaker—
Of course you do. When I was writing my first novel, Anne was in Europe on a Prix de Rome. I sent Annie air mail, what? Forty pages? Three chapters. I said, please wherever you are, drop everything, read this, get back in touch with me. I don't know what I'm doing. Am I writing a novel? And Anne read it.
I started to cry. I was with Sandy. We had just driven out of Venice and I read the three chapters from The Dooms of Love, and I cried. She could do it.
I had to do all that without her. I think though that we're always proud of ourselves that we're not dependent on the relationship. We're very autonomous people, but it is a nurturing relationship.
What difference would it have made if there had been a women's movement?
We would have felt a lot less secretive.
Yes, we would have felt legitimate.
We both have repressed, kept out of the public eye that we did this.
I mean, our husbands, we could have thrown it at them.
Why did you feel so ashamed of this mutual support?
We did. We were ashamed. We had to keep ourselves separate.
We were both struggling for identity.
Also, it's a secret, we didn't want anyone to know. But I think it's time to acknowledge it.
The separateness is evident and obvious.
You should put that in, because the people who read this might never have read us, and think we're alike. I said to Maxine, write a book called Up Country.
Yes, you did. You tell yours and I'll tell mine.
I said write those country poems. It will be a book. Have it illustrated.
By Barbara Swan. That's one of the external things that connects you, one of the few visible signs. Barbara Swan's illustrations forUp Country, Transformations, The Death Notebooks, Live or Die.
She was at the Radcliffe Institute.
We were all there in the same year. Annie wrote the first transformation, and I said, god, that's fantastic. You could do a whole book of these. And Annie said I couldn't possibly. That's the only one, I know it. Of course, by the next day she had written another one. When she was done she said, what can I call it? And I said, call it Transformations.
Right in the middle I started a novel and you said, put that novel down and finish that book of poems! And thank you.
We titled each other's books. I titled Transformations
It's a crappy title (laughing).
I love it.
And I named Up Country.
You said you knew that could be a book. When you write do the poems come separately, or in a rush as a book?
She had it in her to write masses of these country poems. I knew it.
How do you organize the poems in the books?
Well, we look at each other's things and say, do I have a book or do I not have a book? And we say, help me, help me, or this is crap.
I assumeUp Countrycame thematically. In the author's note you have to Live or Die, you say you're going to publish the poems chronologically. Were you interested in them as biography?
No, I just thought it might be vaguely interesting to someone to see what dates they were written. They were all dated in the manuscripts, you see.
How did they come together as a book?
I remember George reading it, and there was no last poem. He said, all you need is a poem saying hello. And I wrote "Live."
Funny how we both went back to George. I sent George the manuscript of my third book, and he read through it with a great deal of care.
Some of his comments were damn wrong. He said, no one can write about operations but Anne Sexton. How ridiculous. A totally different kind of operation. I encouraged her to write it.
There were a lot of nineteenth-century women writers who had partnerships like that, and critics tried to make them rivals. Charlotte Brontë once delayed the publication of a novel so it wouldn't come out at the same time as Elizabeth Gaskell's.
Of course. We have books coming out at the same time next year.
We just found out.
It's all right. Maxine used to be horrified if we came out in the same year. But we're not compared.
In a larger sense, now there's a female renaissance in poetry.
Thank God. I think the fact that women are coming out of the closet is one of the most positive things that's happened in the century. Maybe the only good thing in a fucked-up world. I see such immense changes in women's perceptions. I grew up in an era when you went to a cocktail party and measured your success by how many men spoke to you. I really identified much more with the male side, but now I have such a feeling of sisterhood. I find that wherever I go, I meet splendid women, and I'd a hell of a lot rather be with them.
You know, this is also your analysis.
Yes, and the fact that I have two grown daughters with full-blown careers, and they have raised my consciousness. It was the work that I did with the analyst that helped me get past my awful difficulties with my own mother.
She had no close women friends, but I broke the barrier, because I'm a terrible breaker of barriers.
Did you have a lot of close women friends?
But in your books you have generations of womenthe mother, the grandmother, the daughter. There aren't any women friends in it.
You do see Max, and lists of names. There are the dedications.
But then there are the blood relationships that are difficult, love you have to win back.
My mother was very destructive. The only person who was very constructive in my life was my great-aunt, and of course she went mad when I was 13. It was probably the trauma of my life that I never got over.
How did she go mad?
Read "Some Foreign Letters."
That doesn't help. Do you know the Nana Hex? Anna Who was Mad in Folly? Notice the guilt in them. But the hex is a misnomer. I had tachycardia and I thought it was just psychological.
Were you named for her?
Yes, we were namesakes. We had love songs we would sing together. She cuddled me. I was tall, but I tried to cuddle up. My mother never touched me in my life, except to examine me. So I had bad experiences. But I wondered with this that every summer there was Nana, and she would rub my back for hours. My mother said, women don't touch women like that. And I wondered why I didn't become a lebian. I kissed a boy and Nana went mad. She called me whore and everything else.
I think I'm dominating this interview.
You are, Anne.
Maxine, in The Passions of Uxport you describe the death of a child from leukemiaa death which has haunted me ever since. Do you think it's more difficult for a woman to write about the death of a child?
In all my novels there's a death. In The Abduction there's a sixteen-year-old who dies in a terrible car crash. Perhaps as a mother I have a fear of a loss of a child.
We all know that a child going is the worst suffering.
Many years ago, my brother lost a child, and I remember this terrible Spartan funeral. That's the funeral in The Passions of Uxport, when he says the Hebrew prayer for the dead.
Do you remember we were young and going to a place called the New England Poetry Club, the first year we won the prizes, first or second. We were terrified. It was our first reading. Maxine's voice was trembling so, we couldn't hear her.
I couldn't breathe.
I couldn't stand up, I was shaking so. I sat on the table.
I wonder if there was a trembling in us—the wicked mother or the wicked witch, or whatever those ladies were to us.
They were all women?
There were a few squashy old men.
There were young men too. John was there. Sam was there.
Did you have trouble with women writers of another generation? In Louise Bogan's Letters—she says about Anne? She doesn't seem to have been able to accept the subjects.
This was the problem with a great many people. Women are not supposed to have uteruses, especially in poems.
To me, there's nothing that can't be talked about in art. But I hate the way I'm anthologized in women's lib anthologies. They cull out the "hate men" poems, and leave nothing else. They show only one little aspect of me. Naturally there are times I hate men, who wouldn't? But there are times I love them. The feminists are doing themselves a disservice to show just this.
They'll get over that.
Yes, but by then, they won't be published. Therefore they've lost their chance.
When I anthologized you in my book, Women's Liberation and Literature, I chose "Abortion, " "Housewife, " and "For My Lover on Returning to His Wife. " And I like all those poems very much; I'd choose them again.
"For My Lover" is a help. It doesn't cost very much money to get "Housewife"—you can get it cheap. A strange thing—"a woman is her mother." That's how it ends. A housecleaner—washing herself down, washing the house. It was about my mother-in-law.
A woman is her mother-in-law.

Maxine Kumin with Martha George Meek (interview date 1975)

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SOURCE: An interview in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 317-27.

[In the following interview, Kumin discusses her poetry. She declares that "in the process of writing, as you marshal your arguments, as you marshal your metaphors really, as you pound and hammer the poem into shape and into form, the orderthe marvelous informing order emerges from it, and it'sI suppose, in a sense, it's in the nature of a religious experience."]

Our formal subject is poetry as a principle of order in life, when oneself and the world are otherwise chaotic. As we discuss that difficult point where the art and the life of an artist coincide, Kumin reads aloud a quotation from Faulkner as a motto for confessional writers: "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate. The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies."…

The hermit in the first eight poems ofUp Countryis so very alone. I wonder if for you, as well as for the hermit, if the tribe, the family, is the last unit in society that can be balanced between order and disorder?
Yes, I think very definitely.

It's no larger than that?

Well, it's the family and it's the larger family, by extension, of those whom you love. For me, it's certain writers I've been close to and who, in effect, speak the same language. Writers are all secret Jews; they all belong to the same tribe. We do talk a kind of language; well, we tend to talk a lot of shop talk. So there's the commonality of that. There's also the enormous commonality of the fact that to be a writer is to be a solitary. It's to be a hermit, by golly. It really is. It's to be shut off. Almost any other profession involves some sort of social intercourse with people, you know, with the world around you—medicine and law and so on. But to be a writer is to lock yourself up to do your job. So there's an awful lot of overage, and that's why I think writers like to get together and talk about how terrible it is, how lonely it is, how difficult it is.

This is a professional isolation for you, then, rather than a personal one?

I think by nature I am something of a solitary. I mean I'm capable of being perfectly sociable and amiable. But I need a lot of quiet; I need a lot of time when I'm not talking. Maybe more than other people do. I suppose what I'm saying is I don't put terribly much store by human nature. I don't think of us as infinitely perfectible as I might have twenty-five years ago. I think we're infinitely depraved, and brutish, and nasty. And this goes back to what you were saying about the family element, the saving nature of the close associations that you can feel within the family or, by extension, within the family of writers, plus a few close, tried-and-true friends.

Does your hermit repudiate modern life?

No, he doesn't repudiate it; he's just a cop-out. And it's a very selfish thing. I have this big thing about wanting to be totally self-sufficient. You know we've got this old farmhouse; I don't know what it is but I have this thing about always wanting to have the big vegetable garden we can live off of all year, and being really outside the mainstream. It's like being on an island as it is. Last summer I didn't have a car for a large part of the summer, and so, when we needed groceries, I'd go down to town on horseback. That worked out pretty well, except one day the carton of milk spilled onto the five-pound bag of flour in the knapsack, and by the time I got back on the hill, I had a knapsack full of paste. But it was sort of fun. I'd tie my horse to the V.F.W. flagpole and go to market.

Would you do it? Would you leave for good?

The affairs of the world? No, I couldn't. I wish I could. I don't know how I feel about it.

In the poem, "September 22nd," you speak of living as a "history of loss."

Yes. "I am tired of this history of loss! /… To be reasonable / is to put out the light. / To be reasonable is to let go." There's an old, old essay by Joseph Wood Krutch called "The Phantom of Certitude." It's about all the touchstones of Victorian times when there was the centrality of a belief in the one God and a kind of Calvinist faith in salvation through grace—all of those surenesses that imposed an order in which you could feel that you were growing in a tradition, in which you belonged to an ongoing tradition of the infinite perfectibility of man. I think all those certitudes have been taken from us. "To be reasonable is to let go"; it is really the only sane option that we have.

Do you find any hope for retrieving something from time? I think of "The Hermit Goes Up Attic," and "Cellar Hole in Joppa": There's "no word to keep you by."

Right, right. Except, of course, the word that the poet records. Always this sense the writer has, a kind of messianic thing: who will tell it if I do not? This is your assignment: to record it, to get it down, to save it for immortality.

Do you think that ultimately language fails us as a means of communication? I'm thinking about references in your poems to dreams, to signs, to messages, as a necessary language that is beyond words.

I have a lot of reverence for what goes on at the dream level in the unconscious—those symbolic events. I have tremendous reverence for raising it up into language, which I think is what it's all about, really. That's what poetry is all about, at any rate. Fiction is less so, because, for me at least, fiction is more a matter of invention and manipulation. Poetry is much closer to the wellspring. There's much less shaping, paradoxically, in being a poet than there is in being a writer of novels.

Frequently when you refer to dreams, it's an unbearable truth, though. It's one that's manageable possibly only through dream.

This may very well be so. Want to give me an example? Are you thinking of The Nightmare Factory?

Yes, certainly that. That this is a consideration, in fact, that the conscious mind would put aside.

The Nightmare Factory, as poems so often are, was a way of dealing with something very inchoate and very painful. I wrote it as a way of exorcizing a series of bad dreams about my recently dead father. I then had this fantasy that there is some distant Detroit-of-the-Soul where all bad dreams are created and that out of the warehouse of good, we are assigned certain recurrent nightmares that we have to—you know, it's like Conrad. He's talking about the nightmare of one's choice and having to dream it through to the very end, if you remember that; I think it's Heart of Darkness. One must descend into the abyss and dream the nightmare of one's choice and dream it through to the very end. I think that's what I was trying to say about those dreams.

If I may quote you once again, from your column in The Writer this time: "The man who writes out of an inner need is trying to order his corner of the universe; very often the meaning of an experience or an emotion becomes clear to him only in this way."

Absolutely. That I still believe, very ardently. It happens to me over and over again.

The word "order" appears again in the poem, "Stones," in which you speak of the "dark obedient order" of the natural world. Is the crucial order in life an order invented by the writer, or is it a discovered order?

I think that there is an order to be discovered—that's very often true in the natural world—but there is also an order that a human can impose on the chaos of his emotions and the chaos of events. That's what writing poetry is all about. You begin with the chaos of impressions and feelings, this aura that overtakes you, that forces you to write. And, in the process of writing, as you marshal your arguments, as you marshal your metaphors really, as you pound and hammer the poem into shape and into form, the order—the marvelous informing order emerges from it, and it's—I suppose, in a sense, it's in the nature of a religious experience. It must be the same kind of feeling of being shriven that you would have if you were a true believer and you took communion. You feel, to that degree, reborn. Well, ideally, that's what writing a poem does.

The language becomes a part of, as well as a means to, the order which is achieved. Is that it?

It's hard to pin it down. It's what you find out while you're writing. I so often begin in total chaos, not knowing what it is I'm doing, just knowing that I have this recurrent phrase, or I have this insistent rhythm, or I have this concept, that I want to fiddle around with. And it isn't until I get the poem out, that I find out what it was saying, what I wanted to say. But I don't think that as a creative artist I'm all that conscious; and that gets back to that, you know, for God sakes, Oedipus, not-to-inquire-further thing. I think it's too much part of me. I don't want to know everything, because I'm afraid it will squat on my life and mess up everything that I do unconsciously.

I'm terrified by behavioral scientists. There's a group from Harvard who really wanted to come and sit around while I wrote a poem and see whether they couldn't change the way the poem was built by certain key things they would say or do. I was absolutely horrified. I thought that was the most voyeuristic, evil, X-rated-movie, porno idea I'd ever heard of. I hold this to be sacred; it's between me and my Book of Words, which is in my head. It's my own private method, and I don't even want to know too much about it. It's almost like inquiring into the mechanism of prayer. If you're really a mystic, or a saint, or somebody who makes things happen by ardently praying them into being, you don't want to investigate exactly what particular line of your incantation works or what particular aspect of your prayer to beseech the Almighty gets through to Him; because then you might come to rely on those and they might be constantly shifting. You might be all wrong.

You say that in a way it is a religious experience to work with language, as language creates form or order for you.

Well, words are the only "holy" for me. Any God that exists for me is in the typewriter keys. The only sanctity really, for me, is the sanctity of language.

You once wrote about the necessity of being as truthful and "clear" as a natural reticence will allow, even to the point of pain.

That's Marianne Moore, originally. She was a very reticent lady. I've largely outgrown my reticence, I think. That goes back to a period in my life when I felt very voyeuristic about what I was writing, daring to deal with interpersonal relationships, old family constellations and so on. There's a line from a Sexton poem: "The writer is essentially a crook. Out of used furniture he makes a tree." I really love that because it's the other side of the natural reticence. That, after all, is what art should do: create something that's natural out of all the used-up sticks and bureaus of our lives, the detritus of our lives.

At the same time, of course, I do very much respect that natural reticence. There has to be more than reticence; there has to be some psychic distance between the situation that you're dealing with and the time that you write about it. Now, how do you achieve that psychic distance? It may just be chronological; it may just be a number of years after a death that you finally write the elegy. Or it may be that you have grown beyond certain situations.

You once said about an incident in the poem, "Mother Rosarine": "One association triggered another. Invented or real? Does it matter?" What is that particular authenticity that is crucial in any poem?

I didn't think it mattered whether it was true that I had stolen the rosary or whether I simply imagined stealing the rosary. There's often very little distinction between thought and deed in a child's mind. My perceptions of my experiences at the convent seemed real to me. Whether some of them are invented or whether they were all true, authentic events, I didn't feel mattered for the purposes of making art out of it. They're all truly felt, whether they're true or not.

The authenticity resides in the feeling from which the poem springs?


Do you tend to a particular use of form the more intimate the material, the more personal it is?

I generally choose something complex and difficult. The tougher the form the easier it is for me to handle the poem, because the form gives permission to be very gut-honest about feelings. The curious thing for me is that rhyme makes me a better poet. Invariably I feel it does. This is a mystic notion, and I'm not by any stretch a mystic, but it's almost as though I'm not capable of the level of language and metaphor that form enables me to achieve. It raises my language to heights that I wouldn't be up to on my own. When I'm writing free verse, I feel as though I am in Indiana, where it's absolutely flat and you can see the horizon 360 degrees around. You feel as though you have no eyelids, you can't blink. I lose, I have no sense of, the line. There are people who work so easily in this medium; they follow the breath rhythm and the normal pattern of speech. They feel totally at home and I feel totally bewildered. I have to be pretty comfortable about what I'm writing, to write a free-verse poem; or else not terribly deeply involved. I almost always put some sort of formal stricture on a deeply-felt poem, maybe not rhyme, but at least a stanzaic pattern.


In a formal sense it's arbitrary, but the poem finds its form early on, somewhere in the first or second stanza. And again, it's not a conscious thing. You just know the shape the poem's going to take and then you work the poem into that shape. There's that old thing the sculptor is supposed to say when he's carving a horse out of stone: he just chips away the parts that aren't horse.

Once again you're borrowing from a discovered form. You're leaning on it to help you discover itthat form—further.

Right. Right.

Would you say that, in addition to a stanzaic pattern or rhyme scheme, you tend to an understated diction, or a less "poetic " diction, when you 're dealing with intimate material?"The symbol inside this poem is my father's feet.…"

Very good example. It's the only time I ever did that, that I'm aware of. That was the hardest poem I ever wrote, as you might well imagine. I wrote it quite a long time after my father was dead. And I did use that as a defense between me and the material. It's a way of standing back from the poem and saying: I as an artist am going to tell you a little secret about this poem; I have put a symbol in it. That was a way of getting going on the poem. I don't particularly approve of it; I don't particularly admire poems that are about poetry, for example. I think that some of the worst poems in the English language are written by poets about how they make a poem. I'm usually almost immediately offended by that; but I did do it. It does begin flatly. And it simply tells the details. It's a travelogue poem to a large extent. It relies on a thickness of listing things to carry the notion. I wrote that elegy, "Pawnbroker," believe it or not, in syllables as well as rhyme. That's how terrified I was of writing it.

This thickness of detail stands for feelings that you have. For example, in "For My Son on the Highways of His Mind": that's the same kind of thing. The listing of the posters on the bedroom wall, the listing of the paraphernalia in the boy's room, are ways of speaking to the mother's feeling about the son. Without having to talk about emotion, you can use this.

You're talking about a defense between yourself and the emotion, rather than an attempt to make it seem genuine?

Well, I don't think that the attempt to make it seem genuine ever enters into it. It's not a conscious thing that happens. I don't ever say to myself, well now, in an attempt to make this seem genuine I will use the following details. I do think, on reflection, that they are a kind of defense against the expression of feeling.

Louis Simpson speaks about "the attitudes and tone of prose, in the form of verse, " as a description of the volume, Halfway. Does that seem to you right, or somehow foreign, as a description?

Well, of course, that was a first book. I have shifted a great deal, and I'm still evolving. That may be true of the poems in Halfway, but I'm not sure that it's generally true. It's funny that you bring up Simpson because the book that I'm putting together now will be called House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate. It's a direct quote from his partial autobiography, North of Jamaica, a lovely book. He says in it: "Poetry is a mixture of thoughts and objects; it is as though things are trying to express themselves through us. It may be, as a poet had said, we are here only to say house, bridge, fountain, gate." Well, that simply fascinated me, because I believe so strongly in the naming and the particularizing of things. I thought that would make a lovely title and was a little puzzled as to who the poet referred to was. Then, I was having drinks with Tony Hecht and his wife up at Bread Loaf, and I mentioned this quote; and Tony said, oh yes, of course that's from Rilke. Well, of course Tony would know because he's so marvelously erudite. So I went to the Duino Elegies and I searched and searched, and sure enough I found it. I'm going to put the German epigraph and then the quote from Simpson at the front of the book. Now, if the naming and the particularity of things is a function of prose more than it is of poetry, to that extent I suppose I do. I think that the one thing that's been consistently true about my poetry is this determination to get at that authenticity of detail.

That reminds me immediately of "The Spell," and Marianne Moore and the toads.

Do you know, when I wrote that poem I was not thinking of her "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Not consciously. That's another one of those weird collisions that I tiptoe around the edges of. You know people find that very hard to believe—that a poet can be so naive—but it's true. We are often very naive.

What particular writers are you especially fond of?

The things that I like to read are very often the journals and letters, full of despair, of other writers. There's something very comforting in that—also something very voyeuristic. I'm enormously attracted to autobiographies or biographies such as the Bell book on Virginia Woolf, which I just got—a fascinating book.

What about ties with poets writing now?

Anne Sexton was a very close, personal friend. I know that sounds odd because we're so different; our voices are so different. But I think every poet needs a poet whose judgment he respects, to try things out on. Anne and I tried things out on each other quite constantly. I think the thing that saved our relationship, which had been going on for eighteen years, was that we didn't intrude on each other. We didn't try ever to moderate or tamper with the other's voice. We were there as a sounding board to say: that's very strained, that image is wrenched, this is dreadful, it's flat, that's an awful rhyme to end on, or whatever it was we said. That was my closest contact. There are some other poets I correspond with, and exchange poems with. One, who's really a dear friend of mine, an important pal-of-my-desk, is Bill Meredith, whose work I admire very much. I think he's one of the finest teachers of poetry; he's such a sensible human being. And a good poet. That's the family, the Mafia of the writing world.

There's nothing like a Boston school?

Well, if there is one, I'm not in it, let's put it that way. I don't belong to any group. I really never did—aside from those very first few years when we did have a writers' workshop of John Holmes and George Starbuck and Anne Sexton and me, from time to time. But not since those early days.

Would you say that John Holmes was one of the first to write in the mode of the intimate?

Well, he would turn over in his grave if he'd heard you say so, because he so detested it. He abhorred it, and he abhorred and was frightened of everything that Sexton wrote. He was very opposed to our developing friendship. He thought it would be very destructive for me; and over the years we proved him wrong. I loved John. He was my Christian, academic Daddy. He really got me going, got me a job at Tufts where I was a part-time English instructor, equipped, in the eyes of the university, only to teach freshman composition to phys. ed. majors and dental technicians. That was how I began. And John did a superb job of running the workshop. He was a very good teacher. He had a way of eliciting the further detail without messing up somebody's voice. But he was very much opposed to what is now called "confessional" poetry. Anne frightened him a great deal because, I think, her hysteria and her suicidal nature reminded him of his first wife. Yet his best poems—the best poems he wrote—were the poems he wrote after we had an ongoing workshop; we were standing on our own legs, all of us, and we were pulling out of him poems more intimate than he had ever written before.

He was writing in response to you then.

We were all writing like mad in response to each other. It was divine and terrible all at once. It was a very yeasty and exciting time.

Where did confessional poetry begin?

In a very general way I think the quality of the I voice, the moi voice, that emerged out of the poetry of the Second World War, was the source that made Lowell, Snodgrass, Sexton, and so on, possible. There was a real loosening that took place in the war, maybe beginning with Shapiro, maybe beginning with Jarrell, maybe beginning God knows where, but somewhere in that group of poets whose poems came out of their experiences in the army or the navy.

What was it in the war?

That it was such a searing and such an intimate experience as well as a collective one. The best poems were the poems that particularized what was going on. I think of the Jarrell poem which has been so abused in anthologies, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." It might very well be considered an ancestor to the poems in Life Studies. It's a funny link to be making, but it made the voice possible. It was the anguished voice of the soldier, that I think of as the forebear of the anguished voice in poetry.

Even for you as a woman?

Well, I don't know for me as a woman. I didn't really begin to be able to write womanly poems until, well, my consciousness was raised by my daughters. I started to grow up at about age thirty. I had a very long childhood, and a long and delayed adolescence. I was programmed into one kind of life, which was to say: get a college degree, get married, and have a family. It was just after the war, and this was what everyone was desperately doing; the tribe was kind of the saving centrality in a world that had gone totally awry. And I came to poetry as a way of saving myself because I was so wretchedly discontented, and I felt so guilty about being discontented. It just wasn't enough to be a housewife and a mother. It didn't gratify great chunks of me. I came to poetry purely for self-gratification.

Do you feel that you and Anne Sexton have changed the face of poetry?

I think she has much more than I. She is a very original voice in American poetry. She certainly was responsible in large measure for the outpouring now of what I would call feminist verse. And I don't say "feminist" at all in a pejorative sense. She made it possible for women to write about the quality of womanhood in a way that just could not have been taken seriously twenty years ago. I don't put myself in that category; I don't know to what degree I may or may not have been an innovator. I think she has very clearly been an innovator, more so, I think, than Lowell. I think she went way beyond what he's doing.

Do you think that the confessional mode is dying out?

I don't think the confessional voice is dying out. That seems to me part of a long and honorable tradition in poetry: the voice of the I. I think we have that in every age in some degree or another.

One hears it asserted so often that with Sylvia Plath's suicide the impulse had been taken to its conclusion.

Certainly that was the logical conclusion to what Sylvia was doing, but it was, ironically, such a death by mistake.

She didn't intend to die?

I think that, as was true with Anne, there is half of the nature that wants to die, that needs to die, that needs to murder the self to get some release from the torment. But at the same time there remains the other part of that being, that wants very much to go on; and it's chancy, it's a steeplechase. Every time you try to die you're taking a risk; you might die, and then again you might be found. The impulse toward suicide is sometimes a sort of substitute punishment. Having made the attempt and then having been hauled back to life, the would-be suicide is in a way satisfied for a time. Death has been served. We've had so many poets die by their own hands. I don't know what the statistics are, poetic suicides as opposed, say, to suicides of bankers. But non-verbal people kill themselves, too. It's just that they haven't articulated their anguish ahead of time.

Do you suppose that's especially a twentieth-century impulse?

No, I don't think it's a twentieth-century impulse; it's just become more plausible with the relaxation of the hold of the church. As soon as you erode the sense of sin, the sin of dying by your own hand—you take away those certitudes we were talking about, and it gets more and more plausible to kill yourself. Like Kirillov in The Possessed, the only rational thing you can do is to kill yourself to prove there is no God.

Maxine Kumin recently indicated to me that her final comments now seemed abrupt, particularly when read in the context of Anne Sexton's suicide. She wrote: they are too "coldly rational" and angry, although anger has its part in grief. I was reminded of a comment Kumin had made during our earlier discussion of the "history of loss" in a person's life. It is this, she had said, which continually exacts what she once called in Halfway, "the effort of consent."

Margaret Burns Ferrari (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: A review of House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, in America, Vol. 134, No. 8, February 28, 1976, p. 165.

[Below, Ferrari praises House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate for its "finely crafted structures" and "powerful, personal images."]

Maxine Kumin won the Pulitzer Prize for her poems in Up Country in 1973. House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, her newest collection, will not disappoint those who enjoy solid poetry that values life despite all its pain.

Two things seem immediately important: her dedication to her personal and poetic comrade, Anne Sexton, who took her own life in 1974, and her opening quotation from Rilke: "It may be as the poet has said, we are only here to say: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate."

The dedication to Anne Sexton is particularly significant. I have read both women's works and have known each of them slightly, and I find in Kumin's latest poems a more Sexton-like directness. Though she still celebrates the positive, healing powers of nature, as she has always done in her poetry, she now confronts the macabre in her own life as well. Instead of shutting out the grotesque and unbearable pain life can bring, she faces it and incorporates it into a spirit of acceptance, however grim at times. But the horror is always understated, never dramatized or paraded for its shock value.

Her use of Rilke's quote, which seems to put a very minimal value on human life, is essential to the meaning of these poems. It is as if we were only here to cooperate with nature by naming things (that is, perhaps, by being conscious) and we might as well be content with our role.

Kumin orders the life around her by this naming, by a rhythmic participation in nature, by a reexamination of her life and family connections, of her childhood and motherhood, of time she spent alone in Kentucky and, finally, of her feeling for horses. She does this in finely crafted structures, put together as substantially as houses, bridges, fountains and gates must be. These structures are the order she has created to deal with the world.

I found the language in this collection particularly interesting because she weaves into it powerful, personal images: "In phrases lazy as marriage / running on, breaking off, beginning again / he tells me the geese are flying." There is a new colloquial earthiness in these poems: "Lately I am changing houses like sneakers and socks" and "Toads in their outsize skins / doze on stones. They line up / like old men in lumpy sweaters/ sunning themselves outside / the art museum."

The poems are often full of psychological truth, expressed in concrete imagery, as in the "History Lesson": "That a man may be free of his ghosts / He must return to them like a garden. / He must put his hands in the sweet rot / uprooting the turnips, washing them / tying them into bundles / and shouldering the whole load to market." A person must work through and accept a painful past to live, and that unsentimental attitude is, in general, the life-affirming, positive voice of Kumin's poems.

Describing her stay as poet-in-residence at a small college in Kentucky, she underlines her isolation. She feels she must be the only Jew in town "looking for matzoh in the Safeway and the A&P" and is pressured by neon billboard messages and Sears Roebuck salesmen to accept Jesus or be damned.

Finally, in the Amanda poems, she gives a hint of an explanation for the strong emotional attachment she feels to horses. In "The Horsewoman," she expresses a terrible disappointment with her father: "All this for the fantasy daddy / … when in fact the bona fide father / hunkered over his bourbon / and never went out of doors." Riding Amanda frees some thing in her: "What do I want for myself / dead center, bareback / on the intricate harp of your spine? / All that I name as mine."

The poems are not all equally strong, but there are many in this collection to delight the poetry reader. Maxine Kumin is a survival artist, and her poems are strong and honest.

Maxine Kumin with students (interview date 1977)

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SOURCE: An interview in To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry and Country Living, The University of Michigan Press, 1979, pp. 35-46.

[In the following interview conducted by high school students at Interlochen Arts Academy, Kumin answers questions about her work, in particular, her methods of writing. She also provides some advice for future writers.]

Is everyday life experience the chief influence upon your poetry?
I would say that the distillation of everyday life experiences is exactly what I am trying to particularize and order in poetry.

When you write a poem, do you set down a chunk or block of words and then pare down from that, or do you build line on line?

I set down everything I can think of, everything that flies into my head, even though it may seem terribly digressive. I try to get it all because I'm afraid that if I don't get it all down on the page, it will evanesce and blow away. I tend to get a whole chunk that looks like prose, maybe three or four pages of it. While that's going on, I can already sense that certain of those things are lines, and then the next time through, I can begin to pick out the lines. By the end of the second session with the poem, I can see the order, the stanzaic pattern, if there's going to be one, and so on. It can happen the other way, too. Once in a while a poem will start with a compelling rhythm or line or just a phrase that you can't get rid of, and the poem will come from there.

When you talk about stanza patterns, do you mean the traditional one that someone like Auden would use?

Yes. I love Auden's work, and I think I learned a tremendous amount by imitating him, by deliberately cultivating that easy conversational tone of voice in which his poems are written, and by imitating to the best of my ability that deceptively easy-looking rhymed quatrain. The shorter the number of feet in a line the harder, of course, it is to work inside it. And he did so beautifully those short lines, some of them trimeter, some of them tetrameter.

Can you hinder your own work if you make too many drafts of it or rummage through it too many times?

Yes, I think you can. It's very hard to know when to stop because, you see, a poem is not like a watercolor. If you're painting a watercolor, you either have something in twenty minutes or you tear it up because you just "muddy" it if you go back over it. But you never lose anything by revising and recasting and trying different approaches, and so the problem is likely that with too much revision, the poem doesn't get finished. And yet, in truth, I would have to say immodestly that I think I always know when a poem is finished for me. It's taken me a long time to learn that, but I don't think I will worry a poem beyond its completion.

How do you begin your poems? Do you "think" them for a while before you write them down, do you sit down and try to write them, or do you get a line and start writing to see where it goes?

I don't think them before I write them, I know, because I'm always startled and often perplexed at what is building. I tend to just sit down and let it go. I think it starts in some very inchoate place, and the whole process of writing the poem is a process of elucidation. It's an attempt to find the truth for that particular corner of the universe.

You don't think you could force it, though.

Well, I did in the olden days when I was learning, when I was a beginner poet. I am a strong believer in the exercise poem and the workshop poem as a way of learning craft. I'm also old fashioned enough to believe that it's very useful in workshop where the group dynamics are good and people are really constructive and loving with one another to write poems in common. I've worked with classes where we've written a sonnet in an hour, all of us together, to a predetermined end rhyme. Or I often use the device of group assignments where everybody has to write a dream poem or everybody has to write a descriptive poem of a person—you know, that kind of thing. And I think those things are useful. Sometimes exercise poems can turn into real true poems, and even if they don't, they've taught you something.

Have you ever given up on a poem?

Oh yes, lots of times. I have a great big box, a box that shirts used to come back from the laundry in before plastic bags were popular. That's my bone pile, and all the little snippets that failed and the aborted poems and stuff are in that. Don't ever throw those away because there'll be some wonderful phrase, maybe just two words in that box, but they're there. Going through your bone pile is often a very useful way to get started on a new poem. You can dip in there and find something that you couldn't deal with six months before. And suddenly it will right itself. That's a very mystic experience. I had once put away a poem in rhyming couplets. I think I had six or eight rhyming couplets. I had no way—no knowledge of how to complete this poem. I wrote probably forty-five wrong endings, and I put it away in the bone pile. Two years later I took it out, and I read through it. What came was like automatic writing. I just wrote the last three couplets, and there it was. It was an incredible experience. So this happens. It happens pretty frequently to a lot of poets.

How far do you think you should analyze a poem?

That's a very good question. Not quite to the point of pain. There is something known as "creeping exegesis" which is dissecting the poor poem until it wriggles around and is eventually killed. When I was young a lot of Robert Frost was killed for me in precisely that way. Almost all of Shakespeare was murdered in my high school days, and it was a long time before I could go back to him with anything other than a leaden sense of duty. Close examination of the text to understand what the poem is doing and how it works is fine because that heightens the poem, makes it much more meaningful. And then there has to be a point where the poem is something aesthetic, and you bring your own aesthetic judgment to bear on it.

In writing poems do you have a duty to yourself or to something else?

I'm really not sure. I'm not sure it's duty. I honestly think it's obsession. I mean, I don't think that I write poetry necessarily because I want to. I write it because I feel compelled. It's something I can't get away from—it's in me.

Have you ever felt that you've not been totally honest in a poem?

Well, it's hard to give an honest answer because there is a quality in poetry that I like to call poetic tact. There are some things that go unspoken. And a tremendous part of the punch of a good poem is in understatement, rather than hyperbole. Hyperbole has been so overused that it, like cliché, has lost its power to evoke feeling. If by understating, one is being not totally honest about the subject, then I guess I would have to say, yes, that I have not been totally honest in poems. But as far as telling the truth as I see it, I would have to say that I think I am always as honest as I can be.

Does your reference to I in a poem relate the character's feelings or your own personal feelings?

It can be either and it can be a little of both, because the I is the persona that the poet is hiding behind. There's an ancient and honorable tradition in poetry to use the I, or as the French call it, le moi, as a vehicle for conveying emotion or fact or whatever. Sometimes it can be very much a persona poem, and sometimes it can be quite an autobiographical poem.

Were you hiding behind the male persona in the hermit poems?

Yes. If I were writing them today, I would not employ the male persona. But when I was writing them I did not think that anyone could take a female hermit seriously, so I invented the hermit who, of course, is me. In the Amanda poems, however, that's no persona; there's nothing between me and the material.

Do you have to give yourself time between poems for something to build up?

Sometimes there's a great spate of them. Recently I was at the University of Arkansas doing a writers' workshop for a week, and I went from there to Washington for National Endowment meetings and then to read at the Folger Library. While I was in Arkansas I stayed in a dreary motel. It fronted right on a parking lot, and cars roared in and out at all hours. I was in that room quite a lot between student conferences and so on, and I started having nightmares. When I'm on the road I frequently have bad travel dreams in which everything is going wrong back at the farm. I wrote a whole poem in that motel, a poem I'm delighted with: in fact the New Yorker just bought it. I worked on it a little more after I got home because I cannot see in longhand what the poem will look like on the page. Then, while I was in Washington, I was taken to the King Tut Exhibit. It was hot and crowded, but the experience was overwhelming. I could have spent three days peering into those cases. And flying back to Boston I started another poem on the back of an airline ticket. It's called "Remembering Pearl Harbor," and it's about seeing the King Tut Exhibit on Pearl Harbor Day. Now that may seem a very tenuous connection to you; it did to me. I could not find the connective link for the longest time. I sent the poem to a young poet friend of mine, someone who was not yet born when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I asked her whether it worked for her, because I was afraid that maybe it was just a generational poem. And she explained to me what the connections were. Now, of course, I see them, but I didn't see them while I was writing it. So I suddenly got those two poems, just all very unexpectedly. I hadn't gone seeking them, and there they were.

You have talked about being worried in Fayetteville—about the farm and having these nightmares. Have your husband and your children also affected your writing?

Oh, yes, very much so. I've written a great deal about family relationships. Although the children have grown and gone, they turn up in things.

Has your early family life greatly affected your later poetry, or do you feel it affected more your earlier poetry?

I think I'd have to say it's about fifty-fifty. You never get rid of family relationships, you know. I will always have a mother. My mother is eighty-two, but I still have her and, therefore, I'm still a child—I'm still a daughter. Such things carry through the generations, I think, forever. My father, for example, has been dead for fourteen years, but he still turns up in my dreams. It's astonishing how we are never really free of these relationships, of our position in the family. We carry these with us either as a burden or a joy.

You 've spoken before about a kind of falling out with the whole religious experience. Do you think that poetry is in some way a fulfillment of some sort of spiritual need?

You really are asking me very hard questions. I don't know how to answer that. I call myself an agnostic. I do not really have any faith, any coherent religious faith, and yet the one thing in my life that I feel passionate and evangelical about is poetry. I want to contribute to its well-being and to its future. And I suppose that speaking about the way poems occur is, if you read William James, something like the quality of a religious experience for me.

Do you worry about how your readers are going to read your poems?

I try not to worry about them. I try to put that out of my head, because if you once start worrying about how readers are going to react, it's a very short step from that to worrying about how listeners are going to perceive your poems, and from there it's only a half step to trying very hard to amuse and titillate them. Then pretty soon you are just pandering to an audience, and you're no longer a poet; you're just a performer. So you have to have some convictions about the worth of what you're doing, artistically. You cannot think of it as something that you're doing for the year 1977, but instead as something you hope will outlast you.

How much do you think a reader has to take to one of your poems to get something from it?

Well, I think he has to be reasonably intelligent and reasonably educated and reasonably sympathetic. At least that's what I would like.

Should you worry if he read it differently from what you intended?

I would probably be a little sorry, but if he got something out of it, that would be good. Poetry's a very fragile art form. I think it's the most fragile of all, and I think it requires the most preparation. There are so many dunces listening to music in this world and getting little from it that it rather appalls you when you stop to think. Everybody takes his little rug and cuddles up in pairs to hear Arthur Fiedler conduct the Boston Pops. But somehow more people listen to music with less comprehension than people read poetry. In other words, people don't bother to come to poetry unless they can work it through.

Do you like giving poetry readings?

I do not really like giving readings. I don't panic about them the way I once did. I used to endure agonizing anxieties before a reading, and I know a lot of poets who still do. For some mysterious reason, which I hope will never be clear to me, the terrible terror went away, just gradually eroded over a period of years of forcing myself to do it. What I'm left with is a generalized case of the jitters before I go on. And once I'm into a reading, if the audience is receptive, I could almost say I'm enjoying it—almost. But it's not something I would choose, occupationally. I have to be honest and say I do it for money. And there are some readings—at the Folger, the YMHA in New York, or the Library of Congress—readings like that to which one simply does not say no. You go and you do it.

Do you believe that a reading adds something to poetry?

Definitely, definitely. Poetry is an oral tradition. I think it immensely enhances the person's poetry for an audience to hear it in the poet's voice. I look back on occasions when I heard poets read (and I heard every one I could get to), and I can remember hearing Robert Frost in Sever Hall at Harvard when people were sitting six deep on the windowsills—there were thousands of people in that hall. I heard Auden innumerable times. I heard John Crowe Ransom read his own poetry in his last years, and that was a fantastic experience. I can never again read a Ransom poem without hearing that marvelously rich southern voice, very controlled, used like an instrument. It gave me goose bumps. His poems gave me goose bumps to begin with, but now they're just immensely deepened. And I think I have felt that way about every poet I've heard read well. Marianne Moore read badly. She could not project her voice and she could not look at the audience, but even so it was exciting to see this great lady in her black cape and her big tricorne black hat. Some of these poets were great personages; some of them were real performers. I'm not sure I like the histrionic performances, but I like to hear the poet's breaks, where the emphasis is, where in the poet's head the interior of the line breaks, etc.

How does your poetry touch your fiction or your fiction touch your poetry?

All over the place and in many ways. I tend to steal from myself. The compass of the poem is so small and so demanding, you have to be so selective, and there are so many things that get left out that you feel cheated. So you take all those things that you couldn't really expatiate upon and they get into the fiction. If you read The Designated Heir, my new novel, you'll find probably lots and lots of points in which the text touches the poems and maybe even some recurring phrases, lifted, pirated out of poems that then I could go on with in fiction.

How much do you think a young writer should write? Should he write only as much as he feels like, or should he force himself to keep writing?

I think there's a real value to forcing. I do not think it hurts at all to write to assignment. Granted, the piece that you write for an assignment may not be as good as the piece that you wrote when you were moved to do so, but it will train something in you. Maybe it only trains your typing, but it does train something. I have heard fiction writers say that if you want to learn to write dialogue, get a volume of Hemingway's short stories, sit down at the typewriter, and copy, copy. Just type the text. Now that may sound ludicrous to you, but several things happen. In the first place, you learn how to punctuate conversation. In the second place, you begin to learn how terse and direct conversation can be on the page and how few attributives you really do need. You get out of all of those awful Tom Swifties: "he said, lovingly," "she said, languidly," "she said, contritely," etc. So you learn something about the concision and the terseness of style for which Hemingway is justifiably famous.

What advice would you give to young writers? What sort of reading should they do?

It's a good idea to get in the habit of keeping a notebook or journal, private or semiprivate. Get in the habit of jotting down states of mind or weather reports. It's habit forming and it's good. Also, I do not think anybody becomes a writer who is not a huge reader, omnivorous and wide-ranging. You have to be somebody who's turned on by reading. You have to love words, and you have to be willing to take lots of risks with words, and be willing to write really bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff. You only grow by doing, I think.

Maxine Kumin (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: "Kumin on Kumin: The Tribal Poems," in To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living, The University of Michigan Press, 1979, pp. 106-23.

[In the essay below, written in 1977, Kumin surveys her "tribal poems" or "poems of kinship and parenting" and the examines the recurrent theme of parent-child separation.]

A terrible ego, as rife among poets as roundworm in the barnyard, had caused all of us represented in this collection of essays by women writers to agree to examine critically some aspect of our own work. Some will argue that we leap to do so because we are women and only recently in the history of American letters has the woman writer been taken seriously. Since I began as a poet in the Dark Ages of the fifties with very little sense of who I was—a wife, a daughter, a mother, a college instructor, a swimmer, a horse lover, a hermit—a stewpot of conflicting emotions has given me some sympathy with that point of view.

But I suspect that the desire to be heard is purer, or more purely corrupt than that. Every poet everywhere longs to be understood, to plead his / her case before the tribunal. To explicate an image, to verify an attitude, to point out the intricacies of a rhyme scheme or stanzaic pattern is a far brighter fate than to take up a soap box in Hyde Park. And although I have not been unhappy with the epithet "pastoral" which is routinely applied to my work, although I do not deny that I write a poetry concerned with the smallest particulars in the natural world, I too have a thesis to advance.

I would like to discuss here in chronological order certain of my "tribal poems"—poems of kinship and parenting—that span two decades. Three of them are taken from Halfway, my first collection, long since out of print. They were written in the late fifties; it was not popular then to speak of the uterus or the birth canal. The Women's Movement was still unfounded. An editor of a national magazine wrote me with regret that he could not accept any more poems from me for six months or so because he had already published a woman poet the preceding month.

But what interests me about these poems now is not so much the sociology of the situation to which I was stupidly inured. I am more interested in reading the poet's opening statement of what is to be for her a recurring theme: the separation, for the sake of identity, of mother from child and child from the parental milieu, and her changing perceptions of that separation.

Indeed, I am going to speak of myself henceforth as "the poet" in hopes that the third person usage will cleanse memory and provide objectivity.

This dwelt in me who does not know me now,
Where in her labyrinth I cannot follow,
Advance to be recognized, displace her terror;
I hold my heartbeat on my lap and cannot comfort her.
Tonight she is condemned to cry out wolf
Or werewolf, and it echoes in the gulf
And no one comes to cradle cold Narcissus;
The first cell that divided separates us.

Eight lines, predominantly iambic pentameter, except for the longer fourth line which stands as the fulcrum of the poem, a poem rhyming in slant couplets. Two mythic allusions, one old English, the other classical Greek, neither of them difficult. These are the tools the poet uses to deal with strongly felt or painfully perceived material. She liked then, she likes to this day to cram hard thoughts into formal patterns, thereby rendering them malleable or at least bearable. It became her conviction over the years that form can provide a staunch skeleton on which to set the flesh and blood of feeling. Moreover, she came to believe that the exigencies of rhyme force her to a heightened level of language, especially of metaphor. A level she might not rise to on her own, so to speak. These, then, are her shibboleths.

"The first cell that divided separates us." The child must grow according to her own clock. The parent must make the effort of consent, must relinquish her offspring. If not gracefully, then a great ragged tearing will ensue.

The Journey
     for Jane at thirteen

Papers in order; your face
accurate and on guard in the cardboard house
and the difficult patois you will speak
half mastered in your jaw;
the funny make-up in your funny pocketbook—
pale lipstick, half a dozen lotions
to save your cloudless skin
in that uncertain sea
where no one charts the laws—
of course you do not belong to me
nor I to you
and everything is only true in mirrors.

I help to lock your baggage:
history book, lace collar and pink pearls
from the five-and-ten,
an expurgated text
of how the gods behaved on Mount Olympus,
and pennies in your shoes.
You lean as bland as sunshine on the rails.
Whatever's next—
the old oncoming uses

of your new troughs and swells—
is coin for trading among girls
in gym suits and geometry classes.

How can you know I traveled here,
stunned, like you, by my reflection
in forest pools;
hunted among the laurel
and whispered to by swans
in accents of my own invention?

It is a dangerous time.
The water rocks away the timber
and here is your visa stamped in red.
You lean down your confident head.
We exchange kisses; I call your name
and wave you off as the bridge goes under.

Curiously, again allusions to Greek mythology, to Narcissus, Daphne, and Leda crop up, although here they are suggested by the actual I. A. Richards text referred to in the second stanza. Again, a prevailing formal pattern with more widely spaced rhymes. This time, the separation is viewed as a metaphorical journey. The daughter is not traveling off to boarding school, as one reviewer suggested. She is undertaking the rites of passage, making the necessary crossing from the innocence of childhood to the acute self-consciousness of adolescence. In her new life she will converse with her peers in their own patois. She goes forth armoured with the correct costume and the correct appurtenances. The sea, that sad, dying, all-mothering ocean that she must cross, is seen as "uncertain"; the time is "dangerous." But the daughter goes forth confidently, her visa (the menarche) already validated. No turning back. The bridge between mother and child serves no further function and it goes under.

There seems, perhaps a common enough phenomenon, to have been less fear on the poet's part that her daughters would be able to make the transition than fear for the fate of her son. In the following poem, rhythmically imitative of Auden, the poet remembers the boy's birth and the heroic measures required in the hospital to keep him breathing. No literary allusions here. The trimeter line and the abab rhyme scheme doubled or even trebled provide the reinforcing rods. The poet still likes this antique and sentimental poem. If only she could retract that dreadful "kiss" / "this" final couplet!

Poem for My Son
Where water laps my hips
it licks your chin. You stand
on tiptoe looking up
and swivel on my hands.
We play at this and laugh,
but understand you weigh
now almost less than life
and little more than sea.
So fine a line exists
between buoyance and stone
that, catching at my wrists,
I feel love notch the bone
to think you might have gone.

To think they smacked and pumped
to squall you into being
when you swam down, lungs limp
as a new balloon, and dying.
Six years today they bent
a black tube through your chest.
The tank hissed in the tent.
I leaned against the mast
outside that sterile nest.

And now inside the sea
you bump along my arm,
learning the narrow way
you've come from that red worm.
I tell you, save your air
and let the least swell ease you.
Put down, you flail for shore.
I cannot bribe nor teach you
to know the wet will keep you.

And cannot tell myself
unfasten from the boy.
On the Atlantic shelf
I see you wash away
to war or love or luck,
prodigious king, a stranger.
Times I stepped on a crack
my mother was in danger,
and time will find the chinks
to work the same in me.
You bobbled in my flanks.
They cut you from my sea.
Now you must mind your way.

Once, after a long swim
come overhand and wheezy
across the dappled seam
of lake, I foundered, dizzy,
uncertain which was better:
to fall there and unwind
in thirty feet of water
or fight back for the land.
Life would not let me lose it.
It yanked me by the nose.
Blackfaced and thick with vomit
it thrashed me to my knees.
We only think we choose.
But say we choose. Pretend it.
My pulse knit in your wrist
expands. Go now and spend it.
The sea will take our kiss.
Now, boy, swim off for this.

Here the poet seems to insist on, rather than protest over, her separation from the boy. She speculates today that the insistence was culturally imposed. Her expectations that the boy would "wash away / to war or love or luck, / prodigious king, a stranger" seem to her now to have been the standard maternal expectations of her era and should be viewed in that historical context. Nevertheless, it is painful to be old enough to speak of her past as an era.

In this poem the sea is a buoying but treacherous mother. Learning to float in it is a terrifying experience for the small boy who so nearly drowned at birth when fluid seeped into his lungs. Amnion and ocean both sustain and imperil. The poet remembers an incident when she too nearly drowned and discovered thereby how fierce the will to live, so fierce that she concludes we operate by instinct; "we only think we choose." She ends in a rhetorical burst, urging her small son forward metaphorically to make his own way on the strength of his genetic and God-knows-what-other inheritance. It is an overblown conclusion to an otherwise decent poem.

There is another motif. It emerges with the second book, The Privilege, published in 1965. For its epigraph the poet has taken some sentences from Joseph Conrad, who wrote to his aunt: "That's how it is! One must drag the ball and chain of one's selfhood to the end. It is the price one pays for the devilish and divine privilege of thought…."

In two elegies for her father the poet comes again upon the desperate issue of autonomy, the ongoing and always paradoxical struggle for an identity separate from the parent. Now she looks back over her shoulder, as it were, at her own coming of age.

This is taken from "The Pawnbroker."

Firsthand I had from my father a love ingrown
tight as an oyster and returned it
as secretly. From him firsthand
the grace of work, the sweat of it, the bone-
tired unfolding down from stress.
I was the bearer he paid up on demand
with one small pearl of selfhood. Portionless,
I am oystering still to earn it.

Not of the House of Rothschild, my father, my creditor
lay dead while they shaved his cheeks and blacked his mustache.
My lifetime appraiser, my first prince whom death unhorsed
lay soberly dressed and barefoot to be burned.
That night, my brothers and I forced
the cap on his bottle of twenty-year-old scotch
and drank ourselves on fire beforehand
for the sacrament of closing down the hatch,
for the sacrament of easing down the ways
my thumb-licking peeler of cash on receipt of the merchandise,

possessor of miracles left unredeemed on the shelf
after thirty days,
giver and lender, no longer in hock to himself,
ruled off the balance sheet,
a man of great personal order
and small white feet.

Again, a strict rhyming pattern, a kind of enabling legislation to write the poem. It is interesting in retrospect to see the ocean once again, though obliquely, contained in the image of oyster and pearl and picked up on as a metaphor for the burial rites. In this instance, closing the lid on the father's body in the coffin is seen as the final act of battening down the hatches before setting sail. But the funeral is at the same time a beginning, a christening of a new ship for a new voyage as it is eased down the ways into the ocean.

Fortunately, the poet interjects, these illuminations of intent are not present at the time of composition.

A second elegy, "Lately, at Night," written in alternating twelve and fourteen-line stanzas in a looser rhyme scheme, deals more directly with the funeral parlor experience, the business of burial: "I am pulled up short / between those two big boys your sons, my brothers / brave as pirates putting into / a foreign port." Even in death, it seems, the father's domain can only be entered by an act of plunder. Autonomy is arrived at by piracy. And the final stanza, expressing the anguish of the separated child who is condemned to relive the dying man's last hours in her dreams, returns to the pirate ship metaphor:

lately at night as I watch your chest
to help it to breathe in
and swear it moves, and swear I hear the air
rising and falling,
even in the dream it is my own fat lungs
feeding themselves, greedy as ever.
Smother, drown or burn, Father,
Father, no more false moves, I beg you.
Back out of my nights, my dear dead
It is time. Let the pirates berth their ships,
broach casks, unload the hold, and let
the dead skin of your forehead
be a cold coin under my lips.

The poet would define these two themes—loss of the parent, relinquishment of the child—as central to her work. Once established they thrive like house plants but tend to branch off or hybridize as they grow.

By 1970, in The Nightmare Factory, the figure of the father is clearly an historical one, as in this excerpt from a poem called "The New York Times."

Sundays my father
hairs sprouting out of
the V of his pajamas
took in the sitdowns
picket lines Pinkertons
Bundists lend-lease
under his mustache.

In with the hash browns
in with the double yolked
once over lightly eggs

mouthfuls of bad news.
Nothing has changed, Poppa.
The same green suburban lawn.
The same fat life.

And the children are almost adults. The son, restless, disaffected, leaves home in a figurative sense. The mother is no longer an authority figure; she is helpless against the urgency of his craving to be gone:

Today the jailbird maple in the yard
sends down a thousand red hands in the rain.
Trussed at the upstairs window I
watch the great drenched leaves flap by
knowing that on the comely boulevard
incessant in your head you stand again
at the cloverleaf, thumb crooked outward.

Dreaming you travel light
guitar pick and guitar
bedroll sausage-tight
they take you as you are.

They take you as you are
there's nothing left behind
guitar pick and guitar
on the highways of your mind.

Even the tree has been taken prisoner. The mother too is captive, "trussed" at the window. She can only speculate about her son's future:

How it will be tomorrow is anyone's guess.
The Rand McNally opens at a nudge
to forty-eight contiguous states, easy
as a compliant girl. In Minneapolis
I see you drinking wine under a bridge.
I see you turning on in Washington, D.C.,
panhandling in New Orleans, friendless

in Kansas City in an all-night beanery
and mugged on the beach in Venice outside L.A.
They take your watch and wallet and crack your head
as carelessly as an egg. The yolk runs red.
All this I see, or say it's what I see
in leaf fall, in rain, from the top of the stairs today
while your maps, those sweet pastels, lie flat and ready.
["For My Son on the Highways of His Mind"]

They are locked into this pattern, the mother and son, he to take part in the "on the road" ethos of the sixties, she to stand by grieving in the stereotype of mothers everywhere. The refrain lines, two trimeter quatrains, echo that early poem, "Poem for My Son." Indeed, the poet had wished to write the entire poem in trimeter, but found that the expository material was so dense that she had to fall back from the lyric line into iambic pentameter, which is far better adapted to the kinds of cataloging she felt she needed to do.

In a sense, while the mother-son relationship has simplified itself, the mother-daughter one has grown more complicated. A darker outline emerges. It is no longer a matter of waving the child off into adolescence. Now the poet must deal with a necessary rivalry developing between mother and daughter, which ends, as it must, with the metaphorical dismissal and death of the mother.

Metaphor is not smaller than life. It mediates between awesome truths. It leaps up from instinctual feeling bearing forth the workable image. Thus in a sense the metaphor is truer than the actual fact.

In "Father's Song" the poet draws distinctions between the father's attitude toward the son and toward the daughters. It is a feudal poem, not one the poet would wish to save, but it points a direction:

I have not said there is the season
of tantrums when the throats of doors are cut
with cold slammings. Rooms fill with tears.
The bedclothes drown in blood
for these will be women. They will lie down
with lovers, they will cry out giving birth,
they will grow old with hard knuckles and dry necks.
Death will punish them with subtractions.
They will burn me and put me into the earth.

Although the persona is that of the male parent, the feeling tone clearly is shared with the mother.

Again, in "The Fairest One of All," which alludes to, indeed depends for its effect on the grisly outcome of this fairy tale, the premonition of her own death calls forth from the poet this concluding stanza to a love poem for her older daughter:

So far so good, my darling, my fair
first born, your hair black as ebony
your lips red as blood. But let there be
no mistaking how the dark scheme runs.
Too soon all this will befall:
Too soon the huntsman will come.
He will bring me the heart of a wild boar
and I in error will have it salted and cooked
and I in malice will eat it bit by bit
thinking it yours.

And as we both know, at the appropriate moment
I will be consumed by an inexorable fire
as you look on.

The poet is given courage to press on by Yeats, who wrote: "I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." For these are harsh judgments, that the daughters, to come of age, must psychologically overwhelm their mothers, that they must cannibalize across the generations one on another.

With the publication of House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate in 1975 the poet has, she now thinks, completed the tasks. She has let go of the large children although she returns thematically to them, evoking memory. In "The Knot" she writes, addressing an absent daughter:

It's last summer in this picture, a day on the edge
of our time zone. We are standing in the park,
our genes declare themselves, death smiles in the sun
streaking the treetops, the sky all lightstruck…
In the dark you were packed about with toys,
you were sleeping on your knees, never alone
your breathing making little o's
of trust, night smooth as soapstone
and the hump of your bottom like risen bread…

and ends, coming to terms with the separation in time as well as place:

Similarly, in a poem addressed to the foster son who still searches for his lost mother, she admonishes:

It is true that we lie down on cowflops
praying they'll turn into pillows.
It is true that our mothers explode
out of the snowballs of dreams
or speak to us down the chimney
saying our names above the wind

or scrape their legs like crickets
in the dead grass behind the toolshed
tapping a code we can't read.

That a man may be free of his ghosts
he must return to them like a garden.
He must put his hands in the sweet rot
uprooting the turnips, washing them
tying them into bundles
and shouldering the whole load to market.
["History Lesson"]

Perhaps what she has said of the young man's ghosts can also be said of her own? Hasn't this been the informing thrust of her poetry? Particularly in this book she "returns to them like a garden"; she has spread out the decade of the thirties in which she was a small child, all of its "sweet rot" exposed. Nor does it matter which details are invented, which are recorded. If everything coheres, the poem has been served. Here is the central stanza from "The Thirties Revisited," full of those warring misconceptions:

Now I am ten. Enter Mamselle,
my mother's cut-rate milliner.
She is putting her eyes out in the hall
at thirty cents an hour
tacking veils onto felt forms.
Mamselle is an artist.
She can copy the Eiffel Tower
in feathers with a rolled-up brim.
She can make pyramids out of cherries.
Mamselle wears cheese boxes on her feet.
Madame can buy and sell her.

If daughters were traded among the accessories
in the perfumed hush of Bonwit Teller's
she'd have replaced me with a pocketbook,
snapped me shut and looped me over
her Hudson seal cuff: me of the chrome-wire mouth,
the inkpot braids, one eye that looks
wrongly across at the other.
O Lady of the Chaise Longue,
O Queen of the Kimono,
I disappoint my mother.

Yet it is in this collection that the poet begins—she is a late beginner!—to come to terms with the ways in which her own mother was shaped by the social constraints of her young womanhood. "Life's Work," "Sperm," "The Deaths of the Uncles," narrative poems of some length, take up the tantalizing mythology of her mother's family:

O Grandfather, look what your seed has done!
Look what has come of those winter night gallops.
You tucking the little wife up
under the comforter that always leaked feathers.
You coming perhaps just as the trolley
derailed taking the corner at 15th Street
in a shower of sparks, and Grandmother's
corset spread out like a filleted fish
to air meanwhile on the window sill.

She will make Galsworthian figures of them all, willynilly. In "Life's Work" she contrasts her mother's rebellion against the aforementioned stern grandfather with her own efforts to break away. Her mother, denied a musical career, eloped with the man who became the poet's father. Characteristically, when faced with his daughter's ambitions, he

swore on the carrots and the boiled beef
that I would come to nothing
that I would come to grief…

the midnights of my childhood still go on
the stairs speak again under your foot
the heavy parlor door folds shut
and "Au Clair de la Lune"

puckers from the obedient keys
plain as a schoolroom clock ticking
and what I hear more clearly than Debussy's
lovesong is the dry aftersound
of your long nails clicking.

So the mother is not the villain after all? So we are victims of our dailiness, in whatever archetypal roles we are cast? As Jung tells us, there will always be the mother, the father, the miraculous child. Everything we construct arises from these primordial images, very possibly inborn in us. The poet is still doing her homework in the human psyche. The children continue to appear in virtually every new work she undertakes, sometimes viewed with acceptance, sometimes with distance. In "Changing the Children" she concludes:

Eventually we get them back.
Now they are grown up.
They are much like ourselves.
They wake mornings beyond cure,
not a virgin among them.
We are civil to one another.
We stand in the kitchen
slicing bread, drying spoons
and tuning in to the weather.

"Sunbathing on a Rooftop in Berkeley" is addressed, some fifteen years later, to the same daughter as was "The Journey." But the lines are open and adopt a more relaxed, conversational tone. Stanzas match but there is no rhyme scheme. The poet thinks her tone is no more or less assured working in this freer way. She thinks only that it befits the material, that the collision of particulars, observed and recalled, build up to and prepare for the unvarnished truth of the ending:

O summers without end, the exact truth is
we are expanding sideways as haplessly
as in the mirrors of the Fun House.
We bulge toward the separate fates that await us,
sometimes touching, as sleeves will, whether
or not a hug was intended.

O summers without end, the truth is
no matter how I love her, Death
blew up my dress that day
while she was in the egg unconsidered.

The poet wishes to make one final entry in this often awkward disquisition on herself. A recent poem, "The Envelope," grew out of a chance encounter with a phrase from Heidegger, "the fear of cessation." It was that curious Latinate usage, although very likely the Latinism was acquired in translation, that triggered trie opening line and a half. The rest of the poem was carried forth by the poet's ongoing preoccupation with the tribal notion of succession. Her preoccupation, she concedes, is ever more heavily tinged with intimations of her own mortality. Nevertheless, the poet here records her perpetual astonishment at her good fortune in having had daughters. In addition to the esthetic and emotional pleasure they provide, she feels agreeably improved on by them.

The Envelope
It is true, Martin Heidegger, as you have written,
I fear to cease, even knowing that at the hour
of my death my daughters will absorb me, even
knowing they will carry me about forever
inside them, an arrested fetus, even as I carry
the ghost of my mother under my navel, a nervy
little androgynous person, a miracle
folded in lotus position.

Like those old pear-shaped Russian dolls that open
at the middle to reveal another and another, down
to the pea-sized, irreducible minim,
may we carry our mothers forth in our bellies.
May we, borne onward by our daughters, ride
in the Envelope of Almost-Infinity,
that chain letter good for the next twenty-five
thousand days of their lives.

The womanly images persist. Just as there is an ovum in "Sunbathing…" there is the fetus within the womb here. But a peculiar transformation has taken place in the childbearing process. Now it is our mothers, as well as our children, whom we carry about with us, internalized lares and penates, as it were. The poem concludes as a prayer of sorts. Clearly, the poet's ego is speaking. She wants to outlast her time frame. She prays to be carried on.

Sybil P. Estess (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: "Past Halfway: The Retrieval System, by Maxine Kumin," in The Iowa Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall, 1979, pp. 99-109.

[Estess is an American poet and critic. In the following essay, she analyzes the ways in which Kumin faces loss in The Retrieval System.]

The Retrieval System, Maxine Kumin's sixth book of poetry, is about surviving loss. It confirms things many of us already knew about its author, a just-past-middle-age, increasingly refined, non-suicidal poet. The main value in both her life and her poetry is preservation. That which is retrieved in her system may be the simple life of fruits and vegetables or it may be something in her unconscious. But in The Retrieval System the things that most need to be recovered, savored and saved are the memories of those no longer within the poet's physical reach. This is the primary kind of loss with which Kumin, in her mid-fifties, lives.

Kumin's courage in dealing with loss is evident in the poems written about her friend Anne Sexton who died in 1974. After a lunch of tuna sandwiches and vodka at Kumin's Boston house, Sexton drove to her own garage and asphyxiated herself.

From all accounts, especially Kumin's—which she will be, as she says, "gathering up for years"—the friendship of these two women was extraordinary. Both came to writing late: Kumin at nearly thirty, pregnant with her third child, and Sexton around the same age, after her first mental breakdown. By the end of their time together they had shared much: the collaborative writing of several children's books; the pain of Sexton's ceaseless psychological strife; and their (remarkably different) poetry. In Boston, each had had a separate telephone installed for their daily, often day-long talks. Kumin remarked in a conversation with me, and later informed an interviewer, that these calls often lasted all day, beginning in the morning and continuing through temporary interruptions during which they kept each other "on the line" while each went about her routine. If either wished to resume the conversation she would whistle loudly into the receiver.

In "Address to the Angels" Kumin writes of her deep loss at Sexton's death: "Always /I think that no one / can be sadder than I am." Although such pain is absolute, Kumin's statement here is obviously exaggerated. Yet, as if to prepare for that blatant sentimentality, the poet precedes these lines with the admission that "Always it is passion that / confuses the issue." In any case, by staying with this poem, a reader locates its more crucial substance: the loneliness and anger which result from surviving middle-age and feeling left alone. The poet protests the absence of "angels, God's secret agents" who she is "assured by Billy Graham, / circulate among us to tell / the living they are not alone." Such beings might have protected her against, or at least helped her bear, so terrible a burden, but did not. Job-like, Kumin asks, "Angels, where were you when / my best friend did herself in?"

"Progress Report," another poem which deals with Kumin's grief over Sexton's death, begins with this long, sorrowful sentence:

The middle age you wouldn't wait
for now falls on me, white
as a caterpillar tent, white
as the sleetfall from apple trees
gone wild, petals that stick
in my hair like confetti
as I cut my way through clouds
of gnats and blackflies in the woods.

Kumin suggests to Sexton, now on "the other side," that "the idea of going on without you" seems so difficult that she might not be able to "carry on"

Dear friend, last night I dreamed
you held a sensitive position,
you were Life's Counselor
coming to the phone in Vaud or Bern,
some terse one-syllable place,
to tell me how to carry on.

But without Sexton's advice, Kumin does go on, seemingly because she determines, over and over, to survive:

and I woke into the summer solstice
swearing I will break
your absence into crumbs
like the stump of a punky tree
working its way down
in the world's evening
down to the forest floor.

Kumin herself has stated that she wondered whether she would be able to write at all after Sexton died. But indeed she has, even after such loss, written some of her most plaintive poems.

Philip Booth has rightly noted [in "Maxine Kumin's Survival," The American Poetry Review, Vol. 7, No. 6, 1978] how "gently the ironies reverberate within" the "seeming facticity" of many lines from this book. We witness this phenomenon where subtle enjambment creates almost shocking irony, such as in "white / as a caterpillar tent, white / as the sleetfall from apple trees / gone wild…." or in "swearing I will break / your absence into crumbs." In such ways this poet cuts her linguistic path through grief, "through clouds / of gnats and backflies in the woods."

In the fourth section, "Body and Soul," Kumin places two other poems about Sexton. In "How It Is," a month after Sexton's death Kumin is wearing a blue jacket her dead friend left, becoming, in the first strophe, her suicide friend. Hauntingly, the poem begins, "Shall I say how it is in your clothes?" Then snapshot-like lines tell the reader part of how it is:

The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you've come to visit, he's ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
deliveered up last August on Bay State Road.
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.

The poem concludes by suggesting just how intense the heat, how dry the terrain is in that lonely interior within which Kumin endures without and with Sexton:

I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.

"Gathering up," "fishing out," "leaning" are all downward motions which any solitary survivor recognizes as the person attempts to rebuild out of loss. More than this, what any poet works both with and against in order to attempt such a process is "dumbness." Kumin's metaphors transform pain into language, the essential groundwork for her ability to speak of and from Sexton's death.

Perhaps the saddest poem that Kumin writes about her recurring memories of Sexton is the complicated and chilling

"Splitting Wood at Six Above." As if she wishes unconsciously to postpone stating the grim finality of Sexton's death, it is not until the third line in the second strophe of the poem that the poet tells the reader what the real subject matter is: "You are four months dead." Until then, only the action of the title is described:

I open a tree.
In the stupefying cold
—ice on bare flesh a scald—
I seat the metal wedge
with a few left-handed swipes,
then with a change of grips
lean into the eight-pound sledge.

It's muslin overhead.
Snow falls as heavy as salt.

Finally, in the thirty-third line of the poem, Sexton is addressed:

See you tomorrow, you said.
You lied.
We're far from finished! I'm still
talking to you (last night's dream);
we'll split the phone bill.
It's expensive calling
From the other side.

"Splitting Wood at Six Above" alludes, of course, to former telephone conversations, to how dreams help or don't help Kumin work through memories, to her New England life which requires her to split wood to stay warm, and to a connection between the pain of "splitting wood" in six-degree weather and splitting a nightmare "phone bill," which costs her much. The underlying thematic question of the poem, however, is what happens to the "soul" of something after death. For Kumin, people, like wood, are another kind of matter. ("Time will do this as fair / to hickory, birch, black oak….") Yet, "Even waking it seems / logical—" she writes, to assume that Sexton's "small round / stubbornly airborne soul" ascended, and "none the worse for its trip," arrived at "the other side."

Having likened the sound of the departing souls of the dead wood she splits to a single "flap" which rises, the poet mysteriously and appropriately ends the poem with a subtle metaphor for what haunts her most about Sexton's death: "the sound of your going." "Splitting Wood.…" ends with five short, staccato lines:

It is the sound
of your going I drive
into heartwood. I stack
my quartered cuts bark down,
open yellow-face up.

The chopping rhythm of this poem suggests the hard, flint-like reality of being split apart. The poem's very creation is analogous to chopping wood, for the will to go ahead into what is cold and inhospitable is characteristic of the will to endure a New England winter, the will to survive the death of a friend, the will to metamorphose suffering into art. The language of "Splitting Wood" is cold, brittle. Only ten lies out of fifty-three do not end with a monosyllabic, accented word. A few of those words ("eyelash," "ghost-puffs," "tightrope") comprise a spondaic foot. Others either end strongly ("puppet-squeak," "combine") or show the lightest sort of falling off ("nougat," "stammer," "hammer," "calling"). Both rhythm and language retrieve the experience of losing human contact, of being alone within the icy natural world.

"Remembering Pearl Harbor at the Tutankhamen Exhibit," also from the "Body and Soul" section, contrasts modern and ancient attitudes toward death. The poet wonders how many people in line with her to see the exhibit remember what became our planet's most horrible descent into irretrievability, Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II. The poem proceeds to a denial that anything survives the thoroughness of modern destruction:

A major question that Kumin and The Retrieval System pose seems to be "Is lost life, for contemporary people, retrievable?" Her answer is a qualified "Yes": by imagination, and by metaphor, since metaphor allows imagination to emerge. The poet of the last lines of "Remembering Pearl Harbor" does not adhere to the belief in the resurrection of the body. But perhaps no American poet since Anne Bradstreet or Emily Dickinson—Kumin's New England ancestors—has been so concerned with showing that soul, or Spirit, both exists and survives the body's destruction. Stating in "Body and Soul: A Mediation" that she "ought to have paid closer / attention when Miss Bloomsberg / shepherded the entire fifth grade / into the Walk-Through Woman," the poet remembers something curious about the experience: "there was nothing about the soul." Kumin never locates the exact bodily home of psyche, yet she seems to think that souls are real:

Still unlocated, drifting,
my airmail half-ounce soul
shows up from time to time
like those old-fashioned
doctors who used to cheer
their patients in girls' boarding schools
with midnight bedside visits.

What The Retrieval System, like Kumin's other books of poems, impresses us with is that only our unconscious and imaginative lives enable our bodies to house souls. On the other hand, Kumin, unlike Bradstreet or Dickinson, cannot imagine soul or Spirit apart from body or matter. In "The Excrement Poem," Kumin writes, "I honor shit for saying: We go on." For her, the body gives evidence that Spirit is. It is the body, therefore, that she fears to lose.

In Kumin's best poems, descriptions—even descriptions of relationships—are best communicated by metaphor, the most likely system of retrieval. Not surprisingly, of the two poems to her daughters (to whom this volume is dedicated) the more poignant is the more metaphoric "Seeing the Bones." The mother receives "letters home that fall Fridays / in the box at the foot of the hill / saying the old news, keeping it neutral." She remembers:

In junior high your biology class
boiled a chicken down into its bones
four days at the simmer in my pot.
then wired joint by joint
the re-created hen
in an anatomy project
you stayed home from, sick.

Then, the real pain, the pain of loss, appears. "Thus am I afflicted, seeing the bones." The final five lines of the poem read:

Working backward I reconstruct
you. Send me your baby teeth, some new
nail parings and a hank of hair
and let me do the rest. I'll
set the pot to boil.

In "The Envelope" Kumin speaks of the pleasing affection which daughters often have for their mothers, of the lasting models which women become for their female offspring, and, most of all, of the tentative consolation which these truths afford one who ponders the irretrievability of one's mother's life, or one's own.

Like those old pear-shaped Russian dolls that open
at the middle to reveal another and another, down
to the pea-sized, irreducible minim,
may we carry our mothers forth in our bellies.
May we, borne onward by our daughters, ride
in the Envelope of Almost-Infinity,
that chain letter good for the next twenty-five
thousand days of our lives.

Even the nature poems in The Retrieval System, striking in their beauty or stirring in their forbodingness, reinforce the book's central theme: the pain of loss. In "Territory" Kumin recounts the death of the toad mangled by the power mower: "… he goes on / lopsidedly hopping until his mother runs out." "How It Goes On" concludes,

The lamb, whose time has come, goes off
in the cab of the dump truck, tied to the seat
with baling twine, durable enough
to bear her to the knife and rafter.

O Lambs! The whole wolf-world sits down to eat
and cleans its muzzle after.

Even poems which appear, at first, simply pastoral actually deal with either the acceptance of or strife against the life-death cycle that nature dramatizes. "July, Against Hunger," an evocative description of haying time on a farm, proceeds in Proustian fashion as "The smell collects, elusive, sweet," into the poet's particular recollections

of gray nights flicked with the snake tongue
of heat lightning, when the grownups sat
late on the side porch talking politics,
foreclosures, war, and Roosevelt.

The poem's second strophe deals with the irretrievable losses of middle age as well as with the confusing yet inevitable merging of past and present as one grows older:

Loneliness fills me like a pitcher.
The old deaths dribble out….
Meanwhile, a new life kicks in the mare.
Meanwhile, the poised sky opens on rain.
The time on either side of now stands fast
glinting like jagged window glass.

The poem's final sentences are defiant—as if to strike back at the mental and spiritual hunger of this July:

There are limits, my God, to what I can heft
in this heat! Clearly, the Great Rat waits,
who comes all winter to gnaw on iron
or wood, and tears the last flesh from the bone.

But if "July, Against Hunger" protests loss, the final poems in the book are beautiful representations of what it means to accept how the natural world retrieves itself. After describing the many serendipitous mortal things which surprise with joy or horrify with their "naturalness"—a frog in the old outdoor bathtub; two white-throated sparrows, singing; a dog which "brings in one half a rank / woodchuck no angel spoke up for"—Kumin ends the final poem in the book, "A Mortal Day of No Surprises," with thirteen lucky lines. They sum up some of her acceptance of the potentials for and limitations of mortal retrievability:

When I'm scooped out of here
all things animal
and unsurprised will carry on.
Frogs still will fall into those
stained old tubs we fill
with trickles from the garden hose.
Another blue-green prince will sit
like a friend of the family
guarding the doomspout.
Him asquat at the drainhole,
me gone to crumbs in the ground
and someone else's mare to call
to the stallion.

In a poet's sixth book, we expect wise and purposeful construction. Within The Retrieval System, a sure and satisfying connection exists between the poems concerning Anne Sexton's death and those devoted to a portrait of Henry Manley, Kumin's rural neighbor. Henry Manley represents one who endures. He is a "rich example" of how to live a soul-building life. Manley does not suffer Kumin's kind of pain from loss, because he is even more connected to the natural world. In "The Food Chain" the poet describes Henry filling her pond with a "double tub of brookies" and warning her against kingfishers (of which he would rid himself with his air rifle) and martens:

He stands there, busy with his wrists, and looking savage.

Knowing he knows we'll hook his brookies
once they're a sporting size, I try for something
but all the words stay netted in my mouth.
Henry waves, guns the engine. His wheels spin then catch.

The last poem of the Manley sequence, "Henry Manley, Living Alone, Keeps Time," describes how life, for the aging, narrows to the essentials. For Henry these are, ultimately, "Coffee. Coffee Cup. Watch." Henry sits

But even though "Terror sweeps him from room to room," Henry Manley seems to dwell with more submission to his fate than does metropolitan man:

Knowing how much he weighed once
he knows how much he has departed his life.
Especially he knows how the soul
can slip out of the body unannounced
like that helium-filled balloon
he opened his fingers on, years back.

There are dimensions of the poems in The Retrieval System which are more brilliantly "Kumin-esque" than ever before: a language musical and lyrical, yet tough; reality re-imagined, as metaphor; a nearly fearless excavation into the unconscious; an attempt to make matter more palatable by locating spirit. Some of the poems here show flaws, of course. I notice most the occasional, forced tropes. It is arbitrary, for example, to compare time to a puppy (in "Waiting Inland"), and heavy-handed to say that one's time is like "unwashed dogfood cans" ("Progress Report"). Occasionally, there are lines which are much too flat, even when they are intended to represent a flaccidity or emptiness within the subject matter or theme of the poem. The lines ending "Remembering Pearl Harbor at the Tutankhamen Exhibit," already quoted, fall into this category. Another example of this shortcoming occurs at the end of "Making the Connection":

Brother Dog, is that who you were?
Is that who I was?

But the majority of Kumin's poems work well. Most of her music is fine, her ear for rhyme, and for the combination of melodious sounds, excellent. Listen, for instance, to the pleasing consonant consistencies, alliterations, and line breaks which create the right rhythms to describe a peaceful pastoral scene in its demise—the first strophe of "The Henry Manley Blues":

Henry Manley's house, unpainted for
eighty years, shrinks as attached sheds crease
and fold like paper wings. An elm tree sheers
the sitting porch off in a winter storm.
And Henry's fields are going under, where
the beavers have shut down a local stream
flooding his one cash crop, neat rows of pines
he'd planned to harvest for Christmases to come.
Their tips are beanpoles now, sticking up through ice.
We skate on the newborn pond, we thump on the roof
of the lodge and squat there, listening for life.

Maxine Kumin's life, as she knows, and her writing career, are indeed past their mid-point. Her poems in The Retrieval System are, in general, far better than those which she put in her first fine book, Halfway. Over twenty years later, Kumin's mature vision of what it means to sustain one's life is not only more compelling than it was in 1957, but her voice is less formal, more convincing, even more human, surely more "sincere." More than Halfway, more than The Privilege (1965), more than The Nightmare Factory (1970), more, even, than Up Country (1972), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, more than House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate (1975), The Retrieval System will return to us and return us to Kumin's compassion; her dry-eyed sensitivity; her exemplary choices to live on, even with pain, rather than to give up; her transformation of matter into spirit, body into soul. Perhaps these poems will be discovered to be the best system by which to retrieve Maxine Kumin in decades to come.

Diane Wakoski (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "Earth Mother, Earth Daughter," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, No. 1, October, 1989, pp. 20-1.

[Wakoski is an American educator and poet. In the following review of Nurture, Wakoski—while stating that "Kumin's vision is sometimes limited"—admires the poet's Earth poetry, especially "the wonderful images, that turn into big metaphors."]

If you had told me fifteen years ago that today I would assess Maxine Kumin as one of the ten best contemporary American poets, I probably would have smiled sceptically. However, my esteem for her work has continued to grow since publication of The Retrieval System (1978), work which seems to ground her right under a reader's bootsoles. In Nurture, she continues to explore American earth mythology as she offers her aging body as the aging earth itself.

Earth poets have fathers as well as mothers, and plainly Kumin's understanding of the world is from William Carlos Williams. Like Pound and Olson, she too has been telling the "tale of the tribe." Many of the best poems in this collection play in her smooth clear voice with the idea that holding on to things is human, but the real holding must be done for the community, the polis. And of course, there is father Whitman's ecstatic song of herself.

Let us eat of the inland oyster.
Let its fragrance intoxicate us
into almost believing
that staying on is possible
again this year in
benevolent blue October.
("Grappling in the Central Blue,")

Earth mythology is always about use and misuse. Thus the concerns of Maxine Kumin, as a person, become very central to the concerns of any twentieth-century citizen of the world—how can we survive the autumn, the fall of our misused earth? In this poem, she holds on to October, the month itself, the most beautiful (in her New England) season. Fall, of course, is the real season of death. When we "fall" out of the garden, the plants die or we harvest them, and recognize that winter is the time of sleep, of renewal, and preparation for the new generations to be born. "I declare you / Month I Will Not Let Go Of / October"; but what Kumin really affirms in this poem is that she accepts the season, the fall.

Over the years, some of Kumin's best poems have concerned her children and her Demeter-like role, grieving the loss of them as they grow up. However, what is most compelling in poems like "Seeing the Bones" is her willingness to accept evolution and change, replacing physical body with Williams' "body of light." Kumin, who at first may seem so simple in her sense of physical things, is a metaphysician too. Body is as transformable as any other matter. "It's a simple world, full of crossovers," she says in "In the Park."

Kumin's vision is sometimes limited, and it makes her uncharacteristically bitter in a few of the poems which might better have been left out of this accomplished collection. Nurture is divided into three parts, and if I had been the editor I would have thrown out or seriously edited all the poems in Part One, except "Sleeping with Animals," "Catchment" and "Encounter in August." They are self-conscious (and self-righteous) you-are-raping-the-environment poems. While Kumin can fill even bad poems with her cool, dewy voice, poems like "Repent," or "Noted in The New York Times," and the title poem, "Nurture" depart from her rich, gentle, loving satire of the human condition. There is always irony in Kumin's work, the irony which comes out of Dionysian tragedy (and comedy). She writes about hubris as well as any classical poet, but when she goes Puritan and preachingly moralizes, the poetry becomes bitter, overstated, trivial.

Fortunately for us, when she grounds her poems in her personal life and myth, the goddess voice and stance returns. If there is a sense of loss or misuse, it is a sorrowing sense, as in "Night Launch," which is studded with characteristic images:

the rise-and-fall of ocean
the lips of foam like seven-minute icing
moon-pricked dots of plankton skittering

and an acceptance of the fall, as she thinks of the rocket launch at Cape Canaveral:

On this warm seacoast tonight
in the false dawn my neckhairs rose.
Danger flew up to uncertain small applause.

In a typical and lovely ("Soft as beetpulp, the cover /of this ancient Baedeker") Kumin poem, "On Reading an Old Baedeker in Schloss Leopoldskron," she speaks of the on-goingness of the world, both people and "swans / in their ninetieth generation." In "'Primitivism' Exhibit" and many of the best poems in this collection, she returns to her "retrieval system" theme.

Longest I look at the dread
dog fetish, whose spiky back
is built of rusty razorblades
that World War II GI's let drop
on atolls in the South Pacific
they were securing from the Japs
who did not shave, but only plucked
stray hairs from chin and jaw.
I like the way he makes a funk-
y art out of cosmetic junk
standing the cutting edge of old steel
up straight to say, World, get off my back

In another poem, my own particular favorite, earlier quoted, "In the Park," it is clear that Kumin believes in the animal species and sees the human animal as having a chance.

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you're a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time

But it is more than the optimism in this poem which is engaging. It is Kumin doing, as a poet, what she is best at doing. Making images, wonderful images, that turn into big metaphors. Playing with dualities, and manipulating everyday language so that it works with complexity of idea and pattern.

The third section of Nurture is called "More Tribal Poems," a phrase which takes on several meanings, as she writes often about her very large family and the community of poets and, finally, our earth-world human com munity. I sometimes wonder these days if Georgia O'Keeffe is the only painter poets even know the name of. There seem to be as many Georgia O'Keeffe poems now as there were "black hole" poems ten years ago. "A Calling" is not a bad poem, but it could be written to or about anyone, and its most vital image ("Oh Georgia! Sashaying between / first base and shortstop") actually would be better applied to Marianne Moore, whom we all know as having an abiding love for baseball. In fact, there is a fine poem in the collection, "Marianne, My Mother, and Me," which defines poetry, for Kumin and for the tribe.

must be as clear as our natural reticence
will allow," she announces. Rapturously

I try this statement on like a negligée
that's neither diaphanous nor yet opaque.

With her poetic mother, Marianne Moore, to "shape her alphabet" Kumin has written a body of poetry which constantly reaffirms "no ideas but in things." She nurtures and offers to us her earthy world of trumpeter swans and the omnipresent horses, her private gardens which she turns and keeps separate from the wilderness she loves, as a good mother might, in this lyrical book….

Peter Harris (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle: Hunger, Hope, and Nurture: Poetry from Michael Ryan, the Chinese Democratic Movement, and Maxine Kumin," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 455-77.

[In the following excerpt, Harris commends Kumin's intimate and tender poems in Nurture. He states that with this volume the poet is seeking "atonement."]

Maxine Kumin labors under no immediate threat of being silenced for political reasons. But this has not tempted her to complacency. She has not had to look far in the modern world to discover ample cause for concern, ample provocation to resist evil and stupidity. In Nurture, Kumin focuses more strongly than ever on the animals passing from our lives. Nurture addresses the elemental subjects of birth, death, love, sex, the family, and violence but, as often as possible, it does so within the context of Kumin's long-standing concern for the welfare of animals. She mentions in the opening poem that a critic has accused her of suffering "from an overbundance of maternal genes." Her implicit response to this rather patronizing remark is that she agrees, and vows to suffer harder.

In a way that is not utterly unlike Shu Ting's "singing flower," Kumin claims for herself the role, or vocation, of nurturer. While its focus extends well beyond the animal world, Nurture gives animals pride of place. References to creatures from the natural world, usually mammals, appear in all 33 poems, although in one, a city poem, the flamingo is plastic. The first section, 13 poems, takes the fate of animals as their exclusive subject matter, though not always as their theme. Kumin touches on the subject of animals that are suffering, extinct or on the brink, animals that are struggling to reproduce, and animals that serve as playthings and foodstuff for humankind. Her list of concerns resembles the agenda of the Animal Welfare Institute, and Kumin at times bluntly criticizes instances of failed stewardship or human racism toward the natural world. In "Repent" she condemns the capture of killer whales for our amusement at marine parks, invoking as support a dictum of Immanuel Kant that "stupidity" is "caused by a / wicked heart." In "Thoughts on Saving the Manatee," she describes the depredation of the Manatees' habitat—the choking effect of six-pack collars and the cutting effect of pop-tops—and then presents her "quick and humane" modest proposal: drop the pretense of our interdependence and simply proceed to "serve up the last few as steak marinara."

Driven by outrage and empathy, "Repent" and "Thoughts on Saving the Manatee" are fine polemical poems; they do not hide their designs on us. Witty and well made, they are not detached, highly qualified meditations on the intrinsically tragic nature of existence. It is not that Kumin rejects such a vision—in fact, some of her best poems, "In Warm Rooms, Before a Blue Light," and "Catchment," convey it—but she simply won't restrict herself to accepting in the short term what in the long term seems inevitable: a massive loss of diversity in the biosphere. In the face of such loss, Kumin celebrates the stunning, compelling fact of birth. "Sleeping with Animals" describes the poet's vigil outside the stall of her "vastly pregnant" brood mare. One part of her acknowledges that, for a woman in her sixties, sleeping in a mummy bag on the floor of a stable is evidence of imbalance, of "loving her animals too much." But it is just such an imbalance or, rather, overabundance that she embraces as her "covenant," her sacrifice. As both the content and the quality of the poem indicate, she is immensely rewarded for her sacrifice, by sensory and spiritual renewal. The vigil becomes an occasion for observation and reflection:

I in my mummy bag just outside her stall
observe the silence, louder than the catch
in her breathing, observe gradations of
the ancient noneditorial dark; against
the open doorway looking south, observe
the paddock posts become a chain gang, each
one shackled leg and wrist; the pasture wall
a graveyard of bones that ground fog lifts and swirls.

Images of bondage and death impinge upon the manger and upon the poet's mind, prompting her recollection that, in seven previous vigils, two foals did not survive.

If death quickens her senses, and intensifies the signals from the muse, the imminent appearance of new life affords a holy communion, an interval of pure being:

Restless, dozy, between occasional coughs
the mare takes note of me and nickers. Heaves
herself up, explores the corners of
her feed tub. Sleeps a little, leg joints locked.
I shine my light across the bar to watch
the immense contours of her flanks rise and fall.
Each double-inhale is threaded to the life
that still holds back in its safe sac.
What we say to each other in the cold black
of April, conveyed in a wordless yet perfect
language of touch and tremor, connects
us most surely to the wet cave we all
once burst from gasping, naked or furred,
into our separate species.

Poets and mystics habitually invoke silence as the condition where, given psychic readiness, the gods descend, or ascend. The spiritually minded have long meditated on the paradox of trying to evoke the quality of such silence through language. While the phrase "wordless but perfect" might have been left unsaid, Kumin's dramatization of communion with the mare is nonetheless a vivid evocation of what may be borne and re-born in silence.

If Kumin had not called her book Nurture, it would have been as accurate, though less kinetic, to title it Communion. The former implies action, the latter a condition of being, though in Kumin's work they often come to the same thing. She wants, she craves, atonement, and if she cannot get it in fact, she'll have it in imagination, as in the poem "With the Caribou," which begins with a series of exotic wishes. The speaker wants to ride a reindeer-driven troika at "the top of the world"; she also wants to speak passionately on behalf of the caribou at a meeting in the Yukon. When she goes on to say that she wants to talk to the Caribou themselves, so as to become a fellow-traveler, the gulf between her and the animal world closes and she becomes a caribou, or at least a migratory animal. She handles this metamorphosis with such deft wit that it seems almost natural:

This poem shows a youthful, not to say primeval, spirit as it travels backward in time, reinvoking connections with our mammalian heritage as wanderers. In other poems in the volume, Kumin is equally "tribal," as she puts it, but the focus becomes her family.

"On Reading an Old Baedeker in Schloss Leopoldskron" springs from a trip to Austria partly designed to reconnect with the origins of her grandfather, a Jew who emigrated and avoided the holocaust. She reads the old guide book, visits old Jewish quarters hoping to see his double walking the streets. But when she visit an Austro-Hungarian venue that had been taken over by the Nazis, she reverses her purpose and, thus, paradoxically fulfills it. In Nazi headquarters, it is not his presence but his absence she craves, a banishing that brings his fate intensely to mind: "Never look back, Grandfather. / Don't catch my eye on this marble / staircase as wide as the 'gasse / you lived in." The ugliest fact in history obtrudes upon her desire for communion, but true to her vocation in this volume, Kumin will not let her connection resonate on a purely negative note. Searching for "a thin line of comfort… a weight-bearing bridge" to her grandfather, she settles for feeding stale bread in the rain "to the swans / in their ninetieth generation." Feeding the swans does not enact the vicarious cross-generational deja vu she'd hoped for, but it is a generous and touching gesture nonetheless, and one which allows us to see how nurturing others also serves her as solace for the depredations worked by the passage of time.

Kumin has always written well about her family, with a mixture of love, unsentimental piety, and almost parabolic detail. Nurture contains perhaps the longest, and most ambitiously inclusive, of these family poems, "Marianne, My Mother, and Me." It plays brief invocations of the major events of this century off against some turning points in the life of the three women mentioned in the title. Given its scope, the poem, even at six pages, is highly selective and impressionistic, a self-conscious sprint, which keeps us outside the sensibilities of the two elder women. But such distance has thematic relevance. Kumin's relationship to her mother is never directly dramatized, and her attitude is a bit chilly. Marianne Moore, whom Kumin never met, elicits a good deal more pathos from the speaker than does her mother. The most heartfelt, and precise, moments in the poem describe Moore's paradoxical presence and absence from Kumin's life as an undergraduate:

must be as clear as our natural reticence
will allow," [Moore] announces. Rapturously

I try this statement on a like a negligee
that's neither diaphanous nor yet opaque.
Crisp lyrics from her quirky intellect
flare across Modern Poetry Survey
where she's sandwiched between Pound and Ransom.
But not once in my four years as a Cliffie,
humble in Harvard Yard, do I find that phantom
I long for, a woman professor, trailed by her covey.

Reticence as a virtue and as a form of self-repression are themes in the poem. Moore becomes a victim of her shyness. While her correspondence with the Ford Motor Company and her appearance in Life magazine make her, briefly, a cultural icon, it is mainly as a curiosity, a belated Victorian, outside history.

Despite these distances, Kumin, at the end of the poem, reverts to rhyme in order to assert kinship with both her mother and Moore:

While in this conclusion Kumin owns her influences, it seems clear that the members of the previous generation serve her both as cautionary and as exemplary models. Nurture serves notice of Kumin's intention not to become irrelevant, not to stand outside history, not to abandon her interior life and her thirst for communion, not to stop nurturing.

The great strength of Kumin's poetry remains its capacity for intimacy. And yet what gives her intimacy its poise is exactly what she has inherited from her two mothers, a sense of grace and an element of reserve. Two closing examples I hope will make this clear. "The Bangkok Gong" describes the visit of someone Kumin loves deeply. The visitor, who goes unidentified, leaves her with a small gong. The speaker hangs the gong on her doorpost and, at the end of the poem, says just this:

Some days I
barely touch it.

Almost shyly, but to great effect, she implies a struggle for restrained equilibrium in a way that only intensifies the sense of loss and the desire for re-connection. The abundance of her longing comes through all the more clearly because of its litotes-like understatement.

A similarly restrained expression of strong emotion occurs in "We Stood There Singing." The poet is motoring in Switzerland with her daughter and grandson. They stop at a store, and when it becomes clear the boy needs his diaper changed, the proprietress invites them into her bedroom. After the boy is changed, the Swiss woman embraces and bounces him and soon the three women find themselves singing le bon roi Dagobert. About this moment of female intimacy and joyous solidarity with new life, Kumin comments:

We stood there singing.
I remember
that moment of civility among women.

The very flatness of diction and spare straightforwardness of syntax absorb a great charge of emotion. Most interestingly, Kumin sees this scene as an instance of "civility," a word with much greater currency among members of her mother's generation than today, but a word which Kumin wants to renew and expand so as to include a generosity ready to break out into spontaneous high-spirited song. We may be thankful for Maxine Kumin's fiery civility.

Diana Hume George (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "'Keeping Our Working Distance': Maxine Kumin's Poetry of Loss and Survival," in Aging and Gender in Literature: Studies in Creativity, edited by Anne M. Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 314-38.

[In the following essay, George examines how Kumin confronts the loss of friends and family and her own mortality in her later poetry.]

To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy.

—Martin Heidegger

A decade ago I began a sustained reading of modern and contemporary women poets on the subjects of memory, mortality, and aging in the literature of the life cycle. Exploring Denise Levertov, May Sarton, Marie Ponsat, May Swenson, and Muriel Rukeyser, I found that the writing of women poets on aging is confrontational, angry, tender, and unashamed. Their works indicate that they wish to do the work of aging, and of facing their own deaths, with fearlessness. But their poetry records the process of confronting their fear rather than the accomplishment of having defeated it. Theirs are poems of death and loss, and they would permit me no wishful projection that mature poets of demonstrated achievement, and presumably personal wisdom, had come entirely to terms with mortality or aging. What I did find was that such poets use their fears, deliberately and creatively. Their works embody the fact that we all, as we age, tally our losses, remember what has passed, think of our personal histories, our families, our unfinished business.

Memory and loss have always been among Maxine Kumin's primary subjects, and in that respect her poetry has consistently shared the preoccupation that becomes more concentrated in older poets. When Kumin was in her fifties, she wrote a series of elegies to deal with the loss of Anne Sexton, whose biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook was a controversial best-seller of 1991. Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin had been dear friends from the time they met in a Boston poetry workshop in the late fifties until Sexton's death by suicide in 1974. Their friendship surprised many people in the poetry community because they seemed to be opposites in almost every respect, both personally and poetically. Sexton, though she became a fine crafter of poetry, was unschooled and unintellectual, whereas Kumin was steeped in the great traditions of English formalism. Sexton's apprenticeship began in the mental asylum, Kumin's in universities and libraries. Sexton wrote uninhibitedly about her own madness and suicide attempts, but Kumin's early work was restrained, formal, decorous. In person Sexton was outgoing, often flamboyant, while Kumin's style was understated. Yet for seventeen years, they were inseparable, raising their children together, enduring deaths and losses, and always keeping the work at the heart of their lives. They workshopped their poems together over kitchen tables and telephones year after year, serving as each other's editors as well as soulmates and sisters.

The ultimate contrast between them became survival: Sexton chose to die, and Kumin chose to live. Cast by Sexton's death into the personal and poetic role of "survivor," Kumin spoke of endurance in direct connection to life-cycle issues. Now in her sixties, Kumin continues to represent and embody the survivor. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she makes it a matter of stubborn celebration as well as of constant, subtle, necessary mourning. The mourning of loss, particularly of loss generated by mortality, remains fundamental to her poetic vision. Her recent poetry, especially Nurture (1989) and Looking for Luck (1992), develops and sustains the terms of survival and endurance first fully articulated in the period following Sexton's death.

Here I discuss Kumin's elegies to Anne Sexton, especially as they apply to the issues of aging, loss, and survival for the living poet. I also look at the ways in which the representational aspects of poetic language make her poetry not only elegiac but in some respects epitaphic. The mourning of loss generated by mortality and the representation of absence remain fundamental to her recent poetry and to what I would call her poetics.

Kumin's poems to Sexton demonstrated the double haunting of lyric elegy—the poet haunted the dead as she herself was haunted. Through the dream site of elegy, Kumin attempted in the late 1970s and early 1980s to come to terms with her own middle age and her mortality. She "gathered up our words," both to fend off aging and to ready herself for it. While Sexton remained in the perpetual youth purchased by the flight from life, Kumin grew into the middle age that transformed her from the dead poet's "sister" into her "mother." Kumin's haunting by Sexton is overlaid by the living poet's words, carved as a monument to her (and our) mortality.

The five poems to Anne Sexton in Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief (some reprinted from The Retrieval System) participate in an old poetic tradition: an address by a living poet to a dead poet much loved or admired. Sexton's death left Kumin, as she says in "Apostrophe to a Dead Friend," with a tremendous burden to carry, "like a large infant, on one hip": "I who am remaindered in the conspiracy, / doom, doom on my lips". The large infant is carried on the hip of a poet past her childbearing years, a woman experiencing the aging her friend escaped and preparing for the death Sexton embraced in an untimely hurry. Kumin knows she will never fully recover from this loss. How could it be otherwise, for the poet-sister left alive, who wears the dead poet's clothes, her shoes, who must "put my hands in your death / as into the carcass of a stripped turkey?" Yet this infant, this stripped carcass, instructs the survivor on how to endure into the night of life.

"Where Presence—is denied them, they fling their speech," wrote Emily Dickinson. Poetry has always taken as one of its domains the representation of loss, has always attempted to give body to memory, flesh to ghostly form. Karen Mills-Courts calls the spectral power of the written word essential rather than incidental to poetry; she suggests that poetic language is both epitaphic and elegiac, that every linguistic gesture can be seen as a kind of speaking monument. During the act of writing, every poet becomes, momentarily, a carver of gravestones. Even as one constitutes a self through writing, that self slips away at the moment of inscription, so that the haunting is always double, the gravestone carved always that of the poet as well as whom she intends to memorialize. Wordsworth called the human urge to memorialize in epitaphs our "tender fiction"—we bring the dead to life through the process of inscription.

Especially since Sexton's death, Kumin has engaged in the tradition of the "tender fiction," continuously developing and playing upon the extent to which her poems about the dead become a part of her attempt to ready herself for death. The voice in her poems is her own, however highly mediated it is by representational considerations. She observes death and loss in the barn, the pasture, the woods, as well as in the rooms of her life, with clear-eyed, cleansighted toughness. Life is irrepressibly stubborn and delightful, and throughout her work she knows that it will renew itself, will go on without her. In "A Mortal Day of No Surprises", the speaker watches the abundance of life—a frog in the pasture bathtub, weeds in the zucchini patch, sparrows making their "departmental claims," the dog bringing in "one half a rank / woodchuck no angel spoke up for"—and fits her own into the recurring cycle this way:

When I'm scooped out of here
all things animal
and unsurprised will carry on…
me gone to crumbs in the ground
and someone else's mare to call
to the stallion.

Kumin is thus elaborately aware of how she uses her observations in the natural world and their connection to the fact of her own death. Loss and death are Kumin's dominant themes in the poetry of the 1970s and 1980s, in poems to and about her uncles, her brother, her animals, her Anne. And although many of these poems were written before Anne Sexton's death, that death seems to have allowed her to do sustained instead of intermittent mourning. When her poetry grows from solidity to stunning power, it does so in the elegiac tradition, as dirge; nor is this strength divorced from celebration, for it is the infinitely renewed mystery of life, as well as its brutality, that Kumin sings of and mourns. As the survivor who nevertheless knows that anyone's survival is only temporary, she uses her poetry to come to terms with as many permanent losses as she can before that final loss of self. Kumin's own statement on the purposes of poetry reflects her understanding: "I believe very strongly that poetry is essentially elegiac in its nature, and that all poems are in one sense or another elegies. Love poems, particularly, are elegies because if we were not informed with a sense of dying we wouldn't be moved to write love poems. The best love poems have that element of longing in them, that either they'll lose that love or that time will take it away. Behind the love poem there's always that sense of regret, that sense of doom." In this respect love poems are essentially elegiac, for they cast before them what Kumin calls "the premonitory shadow of your own mortality."

In Kumin's poems to Sexton in the early 1980s, the conversation between the live and the dead poet has gone on for nearly a decade; we overhear on occasion. Sexton joins Kumin in every activity of daily life: while she is walking in the woods, cutting and splitting logs, flying over Paris, listening to the pope in St. Peter's Square. Kumin picks up each conversation in medias res, lending a sense of immediacy and intimacy. In all of these poems Kumin entangles her complicated passions toward this dearest friend: she is loving, compassionate, bereaved, betrayed, sometimes ironic to the point of bitterness.

The first line of "How It Is" becomes an underlying theme for the series: "Shall I say how it is in your clothes?" The intimate paradoxes of their sisterhood are continually symbolized by this neat, biographical, entirely feminine detail: Kumin's and Sexton's shoe sizes were the same, their clothing sizes close enough that they could share everything from a blue jacket to "public-occasion costumes." Who shares clothes this way? Sisters and friends who call themselves sisters. When Kumin wears Sexton's clothing after her death—"A month after your death I wear your blue jacket"—she is in a sense trying on that other self who died by her own hand to escape old age and despair, to check the fit. "My skin presses your old outline." The question of identity between the living poet and the dead friend becomes and remains central. This otherwise selfpossessed speaker, who knows perfectly well who she is, must keep calling into question that knowledge when she thinks of her friend. Repeatedly the poems declare: I know who I am; and then they ask: but since who I am has so much to do with you, then who am I without you?

Still in Sexton's jacket, Kumin runs the home movie backward, from "the death car idling in the garage," through the rituals Sexton used to prepare for her death that day, to "a space / we could be easy in, a kitchen place" where they sit and speak together, "our words like living meat." The unspoken allusion is perhaps to the dead meat of the body that no longer speaks, for both Sexton and Kumin had used the metaphor of the body as meat. "Our words" is the object of the poet's wish, and also the richly troubled legacy of Sexton's death, as Kumin says in the end of "How It Is": "I will be years gathering up our words, / fishing out letters, snapshots, stains, / leaning my ribs against this durable cloth / to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death."

To "gather up our words" is to claim them, to put them back together, to hoard them as the only constants left, to use them both to mourn what has passed and to celebrate what still lives; it is also to claim them from and give them back to both poets' readers: writing this poem is part of the "gathering." In this first poem Kumin has conflated Sexton's dead absence and her living presence in the doubly haunted metaphors of clothing and words. Now that Sexton has gone, the living poet-friend must wear her clothing and speak their collective words from within the dumb blue blazer of Sexton's death. She must grow slowly, painfully, from within that death, to an acceptance of it; and she must also learn to lean into her aging body and its eventual death.

In "Progress Report," Kumin keeps Anne Sexton informed about how life is without her, two years after her death, and it is here that she is first specific about the aging process. "The middle age you wouldn't wait / for now falls on me" as the speaker walks through the woods, fighting her way through gnats and blackflies. There is less time now, and perhaps less need, for comforting the absent friend or reassuring her that the one left behind understands. Kumin had expected, after all, to share this time of life with Anne Sexton, and since she is alone in the flesh, it is her own dilemma, and not Sexton's, that concerns her. Her eye watches what is permanent: time goes on, marked by regular rhythms and returns, and the only constant is this loss. Last year's scarlet tanager, "a red / rag flagging from tree to tree," lends a "rakish permanence to / the idea of going on without you." The smile in that line is grim; for her "empty times"

still rust like unwashed dogfood cans
and my nights fill up with porcupine
dung he drops on purpose at
the gangway to the aluminum-
flashed willow, saying that
he's been here, saying he'll come
back with his tough waddle, his pig eyes,
saying he'll get me yet.

The haplessly vicious porcupine is more than incidentally connected with Sexton's death: "He is / the stand-in killer I use / to notarize your suicide." No sun-yellow souls here—only the open-eyed, frankly acknowledged desperation of just how bad the bad times are, just how stupidly horrible the natural world becomes when seen through the refracting lens of this senseless death that would not await the natural process of aging.

From this grotesque image of the world gone unaccountably awry, Kumin turns to a vision of possible peace to be wrested from this moment of madness. She notes that Thomas Mann's permit to take refuge in Switzerland said, "For literary activities and the passage of life's evening." She wonders if his loved and dear dead came to him in reverie there, "he taking both parts, working it out." She sees that she has been doing much the same thing with Anne Sexton, "Me taking both parts in what / I suppose is my life's afternoon." She seems to find this both faintly ridiculous and comforting, this dialogue with the dead friend with whom she had always supposed she would have time to work it out. She is compelled to keep talking to this dead love, compelled to both ask the questions and answer them in words she imagines Sexton might say. As in "Splitting Wood," the medium of their communication is dreaming:

Dear friend, last night I dreamed
you held a sensitive position,
you were Life's Counselor,
coming to the phone in Vaud or Bern,
some terse one-syllable place,
to tell me how to carry on.

For both Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, the dream is at the root of poetry. Kumin speaks of "the nightmare of one's choice," as described by Conrad in Heart of Darkness: "One must descend into the abyss and dream the nightmare of one's choice and dream it through to the very end." She will endure the decay of the organism, unpleasant though it be. For the period of her life beginning in 1974, Anne Sexton's death seems to be the nightmare of her choice. Waking from this dream, Kumin swears to Sexton that she

will break
your absence into crumbs
like the stump of a punky tree
working its way down
in the world's evening
down to the forest floor.
("Progress Report")

The movement of the metaphor is double and even contradictory, for Kumin will break Sexton's absence into crumbs that will finally, like the punky tree, disintegrate down into the forest floor. She seems to be saying both that she will finish with this loss once and for all by breaking down what's left of Sexton, forgetting her, learning to be done with the dead, and at the same time that it is only Sexton's absence that will break into crumbs, leaving the distillation of her presence, her very essence.

Another several years pass before "Apostrophe to a Dead Friend." As a continued progress report, "Apostrophe" has many confidences to impart. Everything is still the same; yet everything is different as Kumin ages, as Sexton's death and life recede:

It fades, the glint of those afternoons
we lay in the sun by the pond.
Paler, the intimate confidences.

Even the distances we leapt in poems
have shrunk. No more parapets.

With flat frankness, Kumin details what happens when you stay alive and embrace the aging process. The men have "grown smaller, drier, / easier to refuse;" their mutual children, grown up into "exacting adults," are "no kinder or wiser than we." Kumin won't pretend otherwise. Yet the poem has begun with the same event that began "How It Is" years before; an interview with Sexton's biographer has stripped her back down to "the bones of this person / whose shoe size was your size / who traded dresses in our pool / of public-occasion costumes."

If the years have made her somewhat less sentimentally attached to "the glint of those afternoons," it still takes very little to bring her back to "How It Is." "Apostrophe" ends on the note of doubleness that began it, calling over the chasm of the distance that separates them, yet whispering into the ear right next to her mouth:

Soon I will be sixty.
How it was with you now
hardly more vivid than how
it is without you.

It has been nearly a decade, at the time of this poem, and Kumin has had to develop some distance from that death. As always, Kumin tells her dead friend the truth: that Sexton has faded, that life grows more constricted as we age. The time between Sexton's death and this poem is almost half the number of years of their friendship, and Kumin has been busy living in the intervening years—and changing. For these two women poets who came together over creative acts that included both poems and babies, the "large infant, on one hip" is an especially powerful image. Kumin, old enough to be a grandparent now, carries the weight of the "telling" of this old love like a baby who never grew up. Locked in the past, the "infant" of their relationship has not grown up, or older, with Kumin. Just as Sexton would not wait for her own middle age, Kumin will not be able to stop her own old age from arriving. Perhaps that is the "doom, doom on my lips": she, like Sexton, will someday die, and with her, their old conspiracy.

In "Itinerary of an Obsession," Kumin speaks to Sexton in a voice as newly raw as it is familiar. The isolated notes of bitter irony in the other poems here gather into a chiding chorus of resentment, both good-humored and earnest. The "Obsession" of the title is the speaker's concern with Sexton's death—and with her own as she ages. She is telling Sexton the story of her trip to the Holy Land with a "planeload of pilgrims, / none under seventy."

All through the trip to the Holy Land that this poem describes, we might infer that Kumin, in however secular a fashion, is searching out some spiritual truth. Yet even here she is haunted by visions of Anne Sexton dead, Anne Sexton alive, Anne Sexton resurrected and restored to her.

Sexton's own search was for transcendent sacredness, for a patriarchal God of unquestionable authority and comfort. Kumin's search seems to be for connection of the human sort, transcendent over aging and time. While Sexton searched for God, Kumin searched for whatever it was she had, and lost, with Anne Sexton: a friendship stronger than death, a solidarity of souls that must continue. "Words are the only 'holy' for me. The only sanctity really, for me, is the sanctity of language." That language is the words between friends who are poets—"our words like living meat"—words turned by Sexton's death into a "carcass," which the living poet must try to reconstruct. She can do so, in these poems, only by bringing Sexton back from the grave. And she does so one final time in the last section of "Itinerary," where she finds that even if she "dreams of you less," she is still obsessed:

Still, when the phone rings in my sleep
and I answer, a dream-cigarette in my hand,
it is always the same. We are back at our posts,
hanging around like boxers in
our old flannel bathrobes. You haven't changed.
I, on the other hand, am forced to grow older.
How I am almost your mother's age.
Imagine it! Did you think you could escape?
Eventually I'll arrive in her
abhorrent marabou negligee
trailing her scarves like broken promises
crying yoo-hoo! Anybody home?

Recalling their old friendship, one of sisters and equals, the poet asks her dead friend to imagine the impossibility that she has been left to become the age of the monumental parental presence of Sexton's mother, Mary Gray. In these final lines of "Itinerary," Kumin transforms herself into Mary Gray and follows Sexton to the grave, arriving as a gaudy, inappropriately dressed ghost who promises to continue disturbing Sexton's sleep. Because she is now Mary Gray's age, she can take on her identity by the same act through which she has taken on Sexton's identity throughout the series: she is wearing the dead woman's clothes.

As Kumin wanders up the mountain with her body, which she called "Old Paint, Old Partner," in this "sedate roundup" in the "meander of our middle age," looking for the "same old cracked tablets," her "airmail half-ounce soul" touches tongues with "Old Paint"; but "somehow it seems less sure; / somehow it seems we've come / too far to get us there".

It was in part by working through Anne Sexton's death, and through the relationship between Sexton's body, so like Kumin's, and Sexton's soul, that small round entity like a "sun-yellow daisy heart," that Kumin tried in this middle period of her life and her poetry to unite her own body and soul, always uneasy partners. Sexton gave up the search. Kumin was left to puzzle her way through, aware that "our ground time here will be brief."

Since the mature period signaled by the publication of The Retrieval System and building through Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, The Long Approach, Nurture, and Looking for Luck, Maxine Kumin's poetry is fundamentally informed by the mourning of loss, such as we have seen in the Sexton elegies. While her earlier work included occasional poems of mourning for particular deaths or losses, The Retrieval System (1978) announced her clear intention to get down to the necessary business of confronting and then mourning loss, in the lived and in the written life. But this conscious embrace of mourning is not by any means a rejection of celebration. Quite the contrary: to live in the presence of a cultivated (self)-consciousness is to understand the necessity of loss, and to mourn it so that one may continue to live, so that one may experience delight.

The titles of three consecutive Kumin volumes clarify her position. "Fact: it is people who fade, / it is animals that retrieve them." The title poem of The Retrieval System indicates the nature of that system, i.e., the explicit, transmuted recovery of the dead. Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief has its source in the pun on airport announcements between flights; the analogy, of course, is to the shortness of the human life span. And The Long Approach is the approach to death as well as from air to ground. The Sexton elegies appear in Ground Time and Retrieval, where fistfuls of other poems sustain the mood of mourning. "In Memoriam P.W., Jr., 1921-1980," for instance, is a series of five poems for her dead brother.

The P.W. poems are different from the Sexton elegies in that the latter were composed over a period of years, thus most comprehensively signaling continuity in the mourning process; but in her two most recent collections, Nurture (1989) and Looking for Luck (1992), the beloved brother rises again, among the Kumin pantheon of dead aunts, cousins, parents, and living daughters, husband, son, and grandson, all the faces native to Kumin who form the core of the lifelong series she calls her "tribal poems." Even the mother-daughter poems, sustained over a period of decades, take mourning as their primary subject, beginning or ending in the leave-takings of physical or psychic separation.

Kathleen Woodward proposes the recognition of a state in between mourning and melancholia. As distinct from mourning, melancholia is a pathological state of mind, not a normal psychic process with a clear ending. Freud defined it as failed or unsuccessful mourning. Woodward finds that Freud "leaves us here with no room for another place, one between a crippling melancholia and the end of mourning." For some people, she argues, come to terms with their grief by learning to live with their pain. Moreover, she insists "that the distinction between mourning and melancholia has been cut too sharply, that we may point to something in between mourning and melancholia, that we may refer to a grief which is interminable but not melancholic in the psychoanalytic sense." Woodward contends that we all find mourning more difficult yet more familiar as we grow older and losses accumulate—and as we approach our own deaths. In the women poets whose work I explored ten years ago, Woodward's theory certainly holds true: the quality of a continuous, even a cultivated mourning suffuses many of their finest poems, but it is in no sense pathological, dysfunctional, or debilitat ing, not the symptom of a disorder or a diseased mind.

I propose an essential in-betweenness as central to Kumin's vision, even to what might properly be termed her poetics. Perhaps, indeed, a state of continuous and sustained mourning is the necessary province of the poet—in which case Kumin is among its most deliberate practitioners, believing, as we have seen, that poetry is essentially elegiac, that it casts before it that haunting "premonitory shadow of your own mortality." The best lyric poets have always known this. Wordsworth called his poetry a "speaking monument" in The Prelude. And Hopkins expressed it eloquently in "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child," where he asks, "Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?" Kumin's speaker knows Hopkins's answer: "It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for." I choose the examples of Wordsworth and Hopkins carefully in their connection to Kumin, for it is through the observation of nature, fundamental to the Romantic and post-Romantic vision, that she attempts to come to terms with the blight.

While Kumin herself eschews the practice of theory about poetry, she has commented in her poetry on one of the great theorists, Heidegger.

It is true, Martin Heidegger, as you have written,
I fear to cease, even knowing that at the hour
of my death my daughters will absorb me, even
knowing they will carry me about forever
inside them, an arrested fetus, even as I carry
the ghost of my mother under my navel, a nervy
little androgynous person, a miracle
folded in lotus position.
("The Envelope")

Heideggerean hermeneutics seeks meaning, while deconstruction insists that meaning is only an illusory effect of an illusory system. Karen Mills-Courts uses Heidegger and Jacques Derrida to discuss theories of language that are incarnative on the one hand and representational on the other. Heidegger's central figure is of "gathering" (which we have seen literalized in Kumin's "gathering up our words"), Derrida's of "dissemination." While Heidegger thinks of language as presentational and incarnative, Derrida and deconstruction treat it as ungrounded representation. And while Heidegger insists on the unconcealment of "meaning," Derrida dismantles the very concept. Caught between the fundamental conflicts about the nature of consciousness articulated in our time by these theories, many poets create poetry that is overtly intended to work as "unconcealment," as the incarnation of a presence, the embodiment of a voice in words. Yet, says Mills-Courts, he or she displays that voice as an inscription carved on a tombstone. Poetry must function between the presentational and representational workings of language. It attempts to incarnate meaning and intelligibility, even perhaps Truth; but "no choice between representational and incarnative language is genuinely possible." The speaking monument of poetry presents this contradiction: "The maintenance of presence and its undermining occur in the same gesture."

Poets, aware that their attempts to incarnate meaning are met with the limits of representation, grant poetry the same "privileges" one grants a gravestone. Having written extensively on burial stones, epitaphs, and iconography, I count the privileges of the monument, and our suspension of a certain kind of disbelief in its honor and presence, as considerable. If lyric poems share the province of the monument, their work is monumental in every respect. They assert, as does the memorial, that inscription makes a difference, points to or even creates significance, expresses or incarnates loss, gives body to the memory of spirit, stands meaningfully at the intersection between the living and dead, between consciousness and its end.

Poetry, for Heidegger, reveals to the self its relationship to its own death. "It is true," declares Kumin, "I fear to cease." Heidegger suggests that any evasion of this relationship creates a dearth of meaning. Poets must believe that their work offers, in one way or another, the lighting projection of truth: "This possibility motivates writing. Yet, most good poets have always understood that, as representation, poetry is always threatened by the possibility that words betray truth. As a result, poetry exists in an 'inbetween' state, located on a fine-honed edge between the desire to present the 'thing-itself and the knowledge that language can only stand in place of that thing."

Maxine Kumin enacts the poetic form of this knowledge in any number of her mature works. She is explicit about the self-deceiving "tender fiction" Wordsworth associated with the epitaph form and with all poetic endeavor—and of its necessary attempt to embody presence in the process of composition:

makes nothing happen.
It survives
in the valley of its saying.
Auden taught us that.
Next year another
Consultant will sit
under the hand with the arrow
that props the door ajar
for metaphor.
New poets will lie on their backs
listening in the valley
making nothing happen
overhearing history
history time
personal identity
inching toward Armageddon.
("Lines Written in the Library of Congress after the Cleanth Brooks Lecture")

Brooks had spoken of history, time, and personal identity as three touchstones of poetry. Kumin was then the Library of Congress consultant in poetry, thus occupying a ritual place in the history of poetry she sometimes found faintly amusing, perhaps even self-parodic. In "Revisiting the MacDowell Colony," she echoes Hopkins while acknowledging that poets behave as if poetry mattered and as if poetry were connected to Wordsworth's intimations of immortality instead of its opposite. Visiting poets have signed the plaque above the hearth, "as evidence of tenancy and worth," but there are "too many pale ones gone to smudges:" "Use a pen-knife, I advise my friend, / then ink each letter for relief /—as if a name might matter / against the falling leaf." ("Revisiting").

It is such grim but light-hearted parody of poetic vocation that she deploys to make sure she does not take herself, or her vocation, too seriously. But of course she does take it seriously, because she believes in the sacredness of poetic language. What she cultivates is the in-betweenness expressed in poems such as "The Envelope." Here she confronts fear simply and cleanly, but then, once again with combined seriousness and self-parody (another kind of inbetweenness), she indulges in the fantasy of endurance through inheritance, embodying yet another "tender fiction" that is also, in Stevens's famous phrasing, supreme. The second section ends the poem with a half-tongue-incheek hope, intoned through a grammatical construction that both expresses a wish and confers a blessing: "May we, borne onward by our daughters, ride / in the Envelope of Almost-Infinity". This though she knows that it is through reproduction that death announces itself, as she wrote much earlier: "But let there be / no mistaking how the dark scheme runs." The huntsman brings the mother a heart, which she eats, thinking it is the daughter's. "And as we both know, at the appropriate moment / I will be consumed by an inexorable fire / as you look on" ("The Fairest One of All"). But she will have it both ways, alternating between a vision of death that seals a curse and another that confers a blessing. Her own mother's death was good. In her barn she hauls a hay bale, "and with my free hand pull / your easy death along" ("February").

In the work she has completed in her sixties, Kumin contemplates mutability, aging, and mortality by intensifying her alternating gaze: inward toward family and heritage in variations of the tribal poems and outward toward the natural environment. This shifting gaze extends her essential in-betweenness; she looks outward, then inward, outward ward, then inward, as if to say that the two perspectives need each other in order to avoid sentimentality or self-absorption on the one hand or rigid detachment and objectification on the other. The result is what she herself calls her "working distance," one that allows for, even insists on, legitimate forms of intimacy within the constraints of individual consciousness and inevitable difference. The self mediates and interpenetrates the world of the other, the human the world of the nonhuman; body becomes, as nearly as she can envision, the domain of soul.

In the recent Nurture, a volume replete with the doubleness of her acknowledged fictions, Kumin conflates these issues with the other enduring subject of her poetry: the relationship of humanity to nature. The clear and present delights of the natural world and our connections with it as creatures who know we are part of it infuse her sense of responsibility toward more fragile forms of life on the planet we share. She continues to express the necessity of endurance in the face of odds we cannot finally beat.

Kumin's stature as a nature poet, far from distancing her work from the poet of "consciousness," unites the two endeavors in an emblematically modernist Romanticism. While she is largely without the sentimentality we associate with the Romantics in their efforts at union with, and idealization of, nature, they were perhaps less dedicated to that sentimental vision than we have thought. Wordsworth says that the end of the journey in The Prelude is not reunion with nature but a courageous self-consciousness. Much of his writing on nature is explicitly cast as the emblem of a mind, which he is careful not to create as a symbol of unification with nature. Returning to the notion of the "tender fiction," Wordsworth explicitly identifies the notion of simple presence within inscription as such a fiction and relates it to the "intervention of the imagination."

Kumin's consciousness of the interconnections among her visions of nature, mortality, and poetry is usually implicit, functioning as the subtle, never intrusive poetics underlying the poems. When she is explicit, as in "Surprises", it is almost a surprise; but never to be caught treating such sacred terms with reverence—she must remain "in-between"—she couches her hope in the wry intonations of self-parody. For the first time in fifteen years, her red peppers grow and "hang / in clustered pairs like newly hatched sex organs /…. Doubtless this means I am approaching / the victory of poetry over death." A string of associations leads her through her mother's roses, her mother's memories of horses' names in old age, her own coming old age, her mother's baked peppers "full of the leftovers she called"—what else?—"surprises."

Kumin's recent poetry also delineates that we are part of nature as well as its observer, formulator, victim, and victimizer. We must nurture it as it has us, and as it also refuses to do; comfort its creatures even though they can offer us little comfort in return—unless we relinquish our separation from them and lie down with horses, acknowledging that the mortal body (theirs at the mercy of ours) is also the soul. I would say that Kumin—or her poetry, at any rate—does not believe this for a minute, and also believes it utterly. The stakes are high, and consciousness (of mortality, in fact of anything) is the beloved enemy who must be embraced as well as extinguished.

She means us to ponder lovingly the webs of relationship that bind us to fates we both control and, ultimately, share. Stubborn celebration is the dominant tone: she bids us "rejoice to be circumpolar, all of us / on all fours obeying the laws of migration" ("With the Caribou"). She invites our gaze upon the parallels between us and her dog when he carries frogs from place to place in his mouth, "doing what he knows how to do / and we too, taking and letting go, that same story" ("Custodian"). We are better at taking than at letting go. But consciousness combines with nature to teach us that we must.

The animals she returns to most often are her own, who "run like a perfectly detached / statement by Mozart through all the other lines / of my life, a handsome family of serene / horses glistening in their thoughtlessness." She translates their conversation with her, "conveyed in a wordless yet perfect / language of touch and tremor" ("Sleeping with Animals"). Yet she eschews both moralism and sentimentality through an insistence on facing cruelty, predation, stupidity, whether committed by our fellow animal travelers or by us: "Nature a catchment of sorrows. / We hug each other. No lesson drawn" ("Catchment").

The poet finds the tendency to anthropomorphize dangerous because sentimental and falsifying; but its opposite, complete detachment, is equally untenable because it begets the insensitivity that leads to imperialism and destruction. A "being with" and "being in" that approaches but does not reach identification with nature—crucially distinct from anthropomorphism—presents the opportunity to explore continuity in a world of mutability. It is significant that in the purest moments of this "being-with," the poet must relinquish words, which are always, after all, representations of separation brought into "being" by human consciousness. Relinquish words, yes, but not "language," which is more like Mozart's music. The "being-with" is expressed in that "wordless yet perfect / language." It is a language both beyond and before human speech, the only one that escapes consciousness, and therefore knowledge of death. Heidegger said: "Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so, but animals cannot speak." Kumin would correct Heidegger: animals cannot speak, but they do have language. Ironically and appropriately, this indefinable concept, "language," that both includes and transcends poetry, that is shared by the beast and the bard, is one Kumin and Anne Sexton developed together decades ago.

Three poems, one near the end of Nurture, the other two the Prelude and Epilogue to Kumin's new collection, Looking for Luck, bring together Kumin's complex uses of nature in her confrontation with loss and mortality. "Distance" directly expresses the terms of her negotiation with aging. "What does it mean," she asks herself while mowing the lawn, "how / do I, who buried both my parents long ago, / attach my name and number to another birthday?" In part by detaching herself from exclusively gendered sexuality, the reproductive cycle that is also, ironically, the seal of death; she says the old are androgynous, which does not preclude a vision of eros but places it beyond the limitations of genital sex. And in part by acknowledging that life from now on will be that catchment of losses demonstrated to her by the natural cycles around her:

Around me old friends (and enemies) are beleaguered
with cancer or clogged arteries. I ought to be
melancholy inching upward through my sixties
surrounded by the ragged edges of so many acres,
parlaying the future with this aerobic mowing,
but I take courage from a big wind staving off the deerflies,

ruffling and parting the grasses like a cougar if there
were still cougars. I am thankful for what's left that's wild:
the coydogs who howl in unison when a distant fire siren
or the hoot owl starts them up, the moose that muddled
through the winter in the swampland behind us, the bears
that drop their spoor studded with cherry pits in our swales.

If I could free a hand behind this Tuff-Cut
I'd tug my forelock at the sow and her two cubs I met
at high noon last week on the trail to Bible Hill.
Androgyny. Another birthday. And all the while
the muted roar of satisfactory machinery.
May we flourish and keep our working distance.

Once again she shifts between intimacy and separation, claiming her essential in-betweenness. Yet in Luck, where almost half of the poems are concerned with death and loss and with the necessity of continuous mourning, her "Credo" announces that "I believe in magic." The nature of that magic? The "rights of animals to leap out of our skins." In an Indian legend "that instant a bear appeared where a boy had been." Rejoicing in the magic of the wild, she also draws near to the domesticated wildness inherent in "the gift of the horse," who reminds her of her custodianship.

I believe in myself as their sanctuary
and in the earth with its summer plumes of carrots,

its clamber of peas, beans, masses of tendrils
as mine. I believe in the acrobatics of boy
into bear, the grace of animals
in my keeping, the thrust to go on.

In the Epilogue poem, "The Rendezvous," that "thrust" will be expressed in a transmutation of the eros the poet, now in her sixties, seemed to reject in "Distance." This renewed and reclothed, or newly naked, eros transcends the human by wishing for sexual / spiritual union with animals. Employing a legend that says a male bear is able to feel shame—a piece of anthropomorphism she would eschew outside of the poem—she says that a woman encountering a bear is advised to remove her clothes, causing him to run away. But in her rendezvous she slips off her skirt and blouse while he takes out his teeth. Then he works his way out of his pelt, casting it to the ground as a love-rug.

He smells of honey
and garlic. I am wet
with human fear. How
can he run away, unfurred?
How can I, without my clothes?
How we prepare a new legend.

The fiction is tender, incarnative as well as representational. If the epitaph genre records hope as well as fear, celebration as well as mourning, this one could be an epitaph of renewal for the ravaged world at the close of the century, attended to and recorded in the valley of vision where the poet lies down in a destitute time, at the edge of the world's night, uttering her only holy. She is singing the traces of the vanished gods in whom she does not believe, and in whom she believes.

Publishers Weekly (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Connecting the Dots, in Publishers Weekly, June 3, 1996, p. 73.

[Below, the reviewer notes themes similar to those in Kumin's previous work, in particular examining relationships among people, animals and nature; and "observing the moral responsibility of daily life."]

The process referred to in the title—and final—poem of Kumin's 11th collection [Connecting the Dots] is the ability to take care of one's businesses, personal and metaphysical. Here, the poet is aware that her grown children, on their visits home, gently assess her ability in this regard. Kumin is indeed still taking care of the same business that has absorbed her throught her career: noting the connections among family members; tracking the relations among people, animals and the natural world; and observing the moral responsibility of daily life. Her customary candor and irony are still present, as in her recollection of her youthful religious imagination and the demands her faith might make on her: "I didn't know how little risk I ran / of being asked to set my people free… I didn't know the patriarchy that spared me / fame had named me chattell, handmaiden." Although some poems are less substantive than others ("Vignette" is little more than its title suggests), others are memorably strong, particularly the poems about her mother and a number of vivid elegies. In "New Year's Eve 1959," Jack Geiger is recalled dancing with Anne Sexton, "… pecking his head to the beat / swinging her out on the stalk of his arm / setting all eight gores of her skirt twirling." In "After the Cleansing of Bosnia," Kumin constructs startling and sophisticated images that connect her expatriate daughter as a child and as an adult, the continuing cycle of world sorrow and the mysterious beauty of her rural life.




Kumin, Maxine (Vol. 13)