Maxine Kumin

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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

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 432 words.)

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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 are dead
           and I didn't come to grief.
           I came to words instead
           to tell the little tale that's left….

The past, things, these are possessors for which, as Kumin suggests in her epithet, the poet is merely voice. (pp. 109-10)

Yet though Kumin is the voice of her world, she is also its creator. The objective and subjective worlds come together as do the body and the spirit…. Kumin as poet is the voice of the spirit, the listening poet and the creator. (p. 110)

Her world is complete in that it incorporates change. She is change and does not regret giving herself up…. The violence of death is not frightening to Kumin. There is nothing of the romancer in her attitude toward nature. (pp. 110-11)

The poet has created herself, placed herself at the center of her poems. Kumin might well understand Alan Dugan's words in his poem, "Variation on a Theme by Stevens,"

               it is absolutely typical to say
               goodbye while saying hello.

The poems of House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, are "absolutely typical." (p. 111)

Barbara Fialkowski, in Shenandoah (copyright 1976 by Washington and Lee University; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Spring, 1976.

Philip Booth

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[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 emotions, however complex, are always clear, even in those poems which confront the suicide of her closest friend. The Retrieval System also deals strongly with the death of her father; but Maxine Kumin is most of all moving when she focuses on her daughters (to whom Retrieval is dedicated), and the mutual "uncertainties" she shares with them in what she wryly calls "this mothering business."…

Maxine Kumin knows that she and her lawschool daughter "bulge toward the separate fates that await us," and that her own fate is bearing the realization of mortality that accompanies maternity…. The poet says she is "afflicted" with the immediacy of memory; but such memory is, as she well knows, the sure vitality of these poems. Even in the tense present of "Changing the Children," or "Parting," or "Sunbathing …" or "Seeing the Bones," Maxine Kumin sees both ways: back to her now very old mother …, and forward to her hope (against death) that she may be "borne onward" in her daughters' bellies

like those old pear-shaped Russian dolls that open at the middle to reveal another and another, down to the pea-sized, irreductible minim …

Whether sensing the world in utero or post partum, Maxine Kumin knows that we are all "locked up in our own story"; but she equally knows that to tell each story is part of the poet's function. Whether she knows it or not, she is intuitively faithful to the sense of Isak Dinesen's "Be loyal to the story" as Hannah Arendt interprets it: "Be loyal to life … accept what life is giving you, show yourself worthy of whatever it may be by recollecting and pondering over it, thus repeating it in imagination; this is the way to remain alive." These poems recollect in every sense; the story for Maxine Kumin is most of all telling in how surely the laws of conservation apply to family as well as to farmstead….

But poems as human as these, by the very definition of humanity, are bound to have some small failings. A line like "when she was in the egg unconsidered" seems to me, in context, rhythmically flat; I'm also stopped by some enjambed lines which look and sound (even within a single poem) otherwise parallel to lines which are end-punctuated. My reader's ear is repeatedly troubled that so aurally sophisticated a poet should add to modulated rhyming the sibilance that always derives from playing off what's singular against plurals ("winter"/"manners" or "save"/"graves" etc.). But these are mostly such minor flaws as one poet often hears in another poet's work yet seldom notices in his own. What is more surely worth notice in Maxine Kumin's work is the extent to which she has individually outrun the limitations of the generation which poetically came-of-age twenty years ago…. One of Maxine Kumin's strengths has always been the way in which her implied narratives combine a Frostian delight in metaphor with Marianne Moore's insistence on being a "literalist of the imagination." There are few poets who so clearly know the names of things, or who value more deeply the eventful literalness of our language…. Where being a "literalist" suffices, Maxine Kumin can let language be; where she wants metaphor, her metaphors are deeply rooted in the facticity of what Jarrell called "the dailiness of life."

Nobody's poems of that "dailiness" are, this side of Frost, as strongly peopled as Jarrell's. Neither are anybody's peopled poems as strongly creaturely as those in The Retrieval System…. [Maxine Kumin] has become the woman who exorcises her demons by making a poetry of horses. And not only horses, but the usual run of dogs, cats torturing chipmunks, porcupines, raccoons, chickadees, deer, fieldmice, frogs, woodchucks, pigs and lambs—the backyard familiars of rural life anywhere…. Reading The Retrieval System, I wonder if to refuse suicide, yet be able to come to terms with a friend's killing herself, may not have much to do with the dailiness of farm life and farm death, with a poetry which comprehends how

                      my pony
           filching apples, rears and catches
           his halter on a branch and hangs
           himself all afternoon….

No, Maxine Kumin is not immune from anguish; but anguish becomes integrated in how the poems get written, in how the book (or the life) is composed. The Retrieval System is brilliantly sectioned and ordered; its poems are so much of a piece, so skilfully equal to the variety of their concern, that each reinforces the other. An organic book, a family of poems. It is not random that the book's second from final poem is "How It Goes On," a poem which identifies, as Jarrell repeatedly did, with victimized innocence:

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

But it does go on, the dailiness of life, in spite of the ways in which man is wolf to both lamb, wolf, and himself…. It "goes on" every day. And every day has become for Maxine Kumin, as her final title tells, "A Mortal Day of No Surprises." The poet rests in the marginal assurance that, although "the mare's / in heat and miserable, / squirting, rubbing her tail bare …," the day is as predictable as the song of a white-throat sparrow; the poet, too, will predictably pass:

               When I'm scooped out of here
               all things animal
               an unsurprised will carry on.

And there will even be, on that predictable land renewed by another family, "someone else's mare to call / to the stallion."

As she lends "a rakish permanence to / the idea of going on," Maxine Kumin's acceptance of death as "fact" (colon) in no way reduces her tough-minded will to survive, or her capacities as surveyor of what's past but never done with. Being gifted, she knows to give form to her recollection: in the full context they provide for their emotion, in the generosity of their description, these poems clearly make a present of the present. They honor the moment by duly valuing the past that composes it; written from ground-level, they are not above caring for horses as part of the world's total poem. These poems retrieve our best instincts, our realizing that it is possible to survive grief: not without pain, but also not without joy. (p. 19)

Philip Booth, "Maxine Kumin's Survival," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1978 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Philip Booth), November/December, 1978, pp. 18-19.

Harvey Curtis Webster

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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.

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