Maxine Kumin Kumin, Maxine (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kumin, Maxine 1925–

Kumin, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, is an American poet, novelist, and writer for children. Her poetry is distinguished by sharp images of closely observed natural phenomena. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's hard to know what to say about Maxine Kumin's new volume ["House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate"]. It suffers from a disease of similes: children "naked as almonds," kisses "like polka dots," a corset spread out "like a filleted fish," someone "patient as an animal," a visit "as important as summer," chromosomes "tight as a chain gang," and genes "like innocent porters" all inhabit one poem, and the disease (one shared with Anne Sexton) becomes mortal as the book continues. The poems talk about family, about living in Kentucky, about horses; and they have a cheerful will to make the best of things, to make things grow, to save things from frost, to take lessons from nature. There is something admirable about this as an attitude, but the whimsy in Kumin gets in my way, the spunkiness of "the survival artist" finally cloys. In "A Time for the Eating of Grasses" we progress through the seasons from spring to fall (and Kumin's poems are often predictable in their structure), watching grass being eaten by geese, then lambs, then cows, and finally by the goat…. There is no point in asking Kumin to be other than whimsical, because when she tries to be deadly serious she is speaking under strain and constraint. She dutifully describes, for instance, various hideous experiments performed by the Defense Department (sewing eyelids of rabbits open; giving shocks to dolphins, mice and monkeys; implanting electrodes into cats; substituting plastic hearts in calves) and then ends her poem—"Heaven as Anus"—with an embarrassing indictment of some invisible deity…. [There is, in this poem,] comic language presumably intending a Swiftian effect, with a side glance toward something dignified with the name of "excremental vision." But Swift would not have parodied the hymnal at the end; somehow the bitterness here can't find a proper language. Kumin's less ambitious poems, like the riddling "Song for Seven Parts of the Body," are closer to her competence; here she is plausible and light, if still too girlish for some tastes. (pp. 7-8)

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 7, 1975.

Barbara Fialkowski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The fields of Maxine Kumin's new book of poems, House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, are fusions of the external and internal worlds a poet must confront. They are her gardens and she as poet has been about naming their flora and fauna. Kumin has said that the poet must be "terribly specific about naming things … naming things that already exist, and making them new just because the names are so specific … bringing them back to the world's attention … dealing with names that are small and overlooked." (p. 108)

Kumin doesn't miss a speck. Her drive for detail and her compulsion to name recall Thoreau. Her poems speak to us of "wet burls of earthworms" ("Up From the Earth") and the "gaggle of gnats" ("Amanda Dreams She Has Died and Gone to the Elysian Fields") that "housekeeps in her" horse's "ears."…

Language is … swept up, as if uttered for the first time "bald as an onion." Kumin includes children's rhymes and games, imbuing them and thereby her poetry with surprises. (p. 109)

Kumin's poems happen in the present tense. Even history occurs now. In "The Death of Uncles" Kumin's metaphor for the presentness of the past is cinema…. There is no past in cinema. Events have the authority of Now.

Kumin speaks of this presence as if possessed by it, telling becomes her mission. In "Life's Work" she says,

Well, the firm old fathers...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Philip Booth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The maturity of Maxine Kumin's poems] is the uniquely lovely maturity of a woman who has never forgotten the girlhood she has long since outgrown.

The values The Retrieval System values … are primarily conservational. The book in no way presents itself as any kind of "breakthrough" experiment; it isn't Life Studies or Ariel, nor does it want to be. It is, rather, prime Maxine Kumin, who has simply gotten better and better at what she has always been good at: a resonant language, an autobiographical immediacy, unsystematized intelligence, and radical compassion. One does not learn compassion without having suffered, but poems like "Splitting Wood at Six Above" amply show that suffering doesn't require confession to validate pain. Maxine Kumin's mode is memorial rather than confessional: in celebrating the past, and her own part in its passing, she celebrates in herself the very capacity to survive.

Recurrence and memory steady Maxine Kumin "against the wrong turn, / the closedward babel of anomie." Beyond her daily milk-runs between house and barn, she often makes the connection between present and past by way of dreams. But her dreams are dreams worked-through to poems: they shape and make a music of their meanings even as they explore and report them. Jerome Bruner says somewhere that the problem of information is "not storage but retrieval;" Maxine Kumin's poems are over and over informed, and lent depth by, the individuality of The Retrieval System which is this book's title and its introductory poem. She deeply sees …

elderly aunts, wearing the heads of willful
intelligent ponies, stand at the fence begging apples.
The sister who died at three has my cat's faint chin,
my cat's inscrutable squint, and cried catlike in pain.

I remember the funeral. The Lord is my shepherd,
we said. I don't want to brood. Fact: it is people who fade,
it is animals that retrieve them….

What other poet (saving only, perhaps, Elizabeth Bishop or A. R. Ammons) would risk that "fact" with its colon? Few poets would chance following the flat statement of memory by the apparently equal flatness of "The Lord is my shepherd, / we said." But the flatness is redeemed by how "shepherd" is echoed by "said," "brood," "fade"; the irony of "we said" precisely derives from how the previous line is end-stopped. To miss as much, or as little, in reading Maxine Kumin is to miss—in this poem—how gently the ironies reverberate within its seeming facticity, until, in the unexcused absence of the Lord, it is animals that shepherd our most human remembering.

Maxine Kumin is, so to speak, as full of facts as either Bishop or Ammons, but her work is innately inclined toward less speculation about what she feels or how she sees…. Maxine Kumin's book most strongly of all calls to mind the charged facticity of Randall Jarrell's The Lost World….

Nobody who has read her fiction, or "In April, In Princeton," here, can doubt her own urbanity. But the distinctive nature of Maxine Kumin's present poems derives from the primary fact that she lives in, and writes from a world where constant (if partial) recovery of what's "lost" is as sure as the procession of the equinoxes, or as familiar as mucking-out the horses' daily dung. (p. 18)

Such cyclical optimism isn't cheaply earned. When one reaches fifty, and beyond, regeneration of any kind is hard to come by. But the second essential fact of these poems is that Maxine Kumin has come to the time of her lifetime when, as poet and person, she finds it vitally necessary to outlive the departed by surviving their present absence…. [She] is familiar (in every sense) with how one's parents depart toward death at nearly the same time one's children leave to find lives of their own. Inevitable as such desertions may be, their coincidence (multiplied by a close-in suicide) is the shock which these seismographic poems record and try to recover from….

Her compassion is never condescending; her...

(The entire section is 1728 words.)

Harvey Curtis Webster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maxine Kumin thinks of Anne Sexton as her "best friend"; they lunched together cheerfully the day before Sexton killed herself. They shared a sense of woman's bondage by both nature and society. Though they have written occasionally of social matters …, neither has written poems of social protest comparable to Adrienne Rich's. Both have concentrated on their individual lives as subject matter…. [At] her worst (a rarity in her last two books), Kumin is too New Yorker-sophisticated…. Kumin uses similes more than Sexton, though sometimes her metaphors (the potatoes' "ten tentative erections") shock in the best sense of the word…. Kumin, who is [hard] to pin down, is represented rather well by her reluctant wearing of dead Sexton's clothes in "How It Is." Most of Kumin's poems turn from inside to outside…. Although Kumin can write a poem entitled "Heaven as Anus," and close one of her best poems with the line "I honor shit for saying: We go on," an appropriately startling conclusion to a poem that epitomizes The Retrieval System, usually it is her homely similes one remembers: cows wear "their flies like black tears"; she prays the Lord will raise her up each day "like bread." In their accurate specificity, Kumin's poems surpass Sexton's and rival [Peter] Davison's.

Kumin is almost consistently good as she diversifies her daily life into poems. Sometimes in The Retrieval System—a fine binding metaphor for all the poems in her current book—Kumin echoes Frost's rhythms and whimsy a shade too closely, as in "Extrapolations from Henry Manley's Pie Plant"; sometimes she is cutely obscure, as in "Song for Seven Parts of the Body." Usually she converts her own experience into anyone's experience without losing its particularity. (p. 232)

Harvey Curtis Webster, in Poetry (© 1979 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), January, 1979.