SOURCE: Schulman, Grace. Review of The Long Approach, by Maxine Kumin. Commonweal 112, no. 21 (29 November 1985): 683-84.
[In the following review, Schulman comments on the themes and style of The Long Approach.]
Maxine Kumin's poetry is, at its center, profoundly human. Throughout her work, she has displayed a tough-minded, unsentimental compassion for the patient animals she knows well; she has portrayed men and women with generous regard, and also with an acute eye for common virtues and moral aspirations.
These qualities, as well as her close identification with the land, the farm, and natural life, enable her, in The Long Approach, to deal with subjects that are difficult at best, which she treats with directness, and with a stark bareness of utterance: nuclear war; ungoverned technological advances; senseless modern combat.
This is an important book. It succeeds because the author writes beautifully of her rich full world that is in imminent danger. “Getting Through,” for example, contains these lines:
Snow falls on the pregnant mares, is followed by a thaw, and then refreezes so that everywhere their hill upheaves into a glass mountain. The horses skid, stiff-legged, correct position, break through the crust and stand around disconsolate lipping wisps of hay.
Maxine Kumin 1925-
(Full name Maxine Winokur Kumin) American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Kumin's career through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 13, and 28.
In a career spanning more than forty years and coinciding with an emergence of women's writing in American literature, Kumin has authored thirteen volumes of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Up Country (1972). In addition, she has authored a series of novels, collections of essays and short stories, and more than twenty children's books. Kumin's poetry is often compared to that of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost, and meticulously records her observations of the rhythms of rural life in New England, chronicles of family relationships, the annual cycles of husbandry and the seasons, the fragility of the natural environment, and life's transience. Her poetry uses a plain, direct style and such traditional poetic forms as rhyme schemes, iambic meter, and quatrain stanzas.
The youngest daughter of Jewish parents, Kumin was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she attended Catholic schools. She studied history and literature at Radcliffe College, earning a bachelor's degree in 1946 and a master's degree in 1948. During the last year of World War II, she met Victor Kumin, an engineering graduate of Harvard University on furlough from the Army, and they were married in 1946. In 1957 Kumin enrolled in a poetry workshop conducted by John Clellon Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education. There, she met and befriended poet Anne Sexton, establishing a close personal and professional relationship that lasted until Sexton's death in 1974. As a result of Kumin's experiences with the poetry workshop, she began to write more seriously and published her first poetry collection, Halfway, in 1961. During this period, she joined the English faculty at Tufts University, lecturing between 1958 and 1961, and again between 1965 and 1968. Kumin has since held appointments as a visiting lecturer and poet-in-residence at numerous American colleges and universities. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for Up Country, Kumin and her husband permanently settled at a 200-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. Following a stint as a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress from 1981 to 1982, Kumin further diversified her career by publishing short stories and essay collections in addition to her volumes of poetry. In...
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the 1990s Kumin was honored with a number of poetry awards and accepted an appointment as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a position she held from 1995 to 1998 when she resigned to protest the organization's lack of diversity. In 1999 Kumin was seriously injured in an accident in Vermont. Preparing her horse and carriage for a dressage event, the horse was startled by a passing truck, causing the carriage to overturn. Kumin broke her neck and eleven ribs, punctured a lung, and suffered severe internal injuries. She has since recovered and published an account of her ordeal and recuperation inInside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (2000).
Beginning with her collection Halfway, Kumin has consistently explored a wide range of topics throughout her career, such as the interior lives of women as they pass through their various roles as daughters, sisters, lovers, and mothers. Other touchstones of Kumin's poetry include the transience and fragility of life, surviving loss or the threat of loss, and humanity's connections with nature. Similarly, lessons learned in childhood, memories of the past, and curiosity about the future are equally represented in Kumin's verse. Autobiographical material informs many of the poems in The Privilege (1965), which explores the ties that bind and the privileges of belonging to a “family.” A different type of persona—a male hermit—narrates the poems in Up Country. This collection, centered in rural New England, makes several allusions to the works of poets Robert Frost and Henry David Thoreau. The poetry returns to several favorite Kumin themes, celebrating the importance of daily events in the countryside, and emphasizing man's affinity with the natural world. The Retrieval System (1978) is an homage to Anne Sexton and recounts Kumin's memories and reminiscences about her longtime friend. The Long Approach (1985) reflects on Kumin's experience of ageing and her hope for the beneficence of all living things, despite occupying a world rife with such imminent dangers as nuclear war, insidious technology, and senseless violence. The environmental themes of Nurture (1989) address ecological issues and Kumin's concerns for the survival of Earth's inhabitants, both human and animal alike. Looking for Luck (1992) continues Kumin's focus on the connections between humans and other creatures of this world within several contexts, including death and loss, happiness and contentment, and chaos and order. These familiar themes are also reworked in Connecting the Dots (1996), but the poems in this collection are infused with a sense of urgency, particularly in Kumin's meditations on ageing and mortality. The Long Marriage (2001) focuses on issues such as the natural world, how Kumin overcame her physical injuries, and her unresolved feelings about her friendship with Sexton, particularly in the poems “Three Dreams after a Suicide,” “The Ancient Lady Poets,” and “Oblivion.” In addition to her poetry, Kumin has also published several works of fiction and nonfiction. To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living (1979) contains interviews with Kumin, her reviews of other poets' works, and comments about her own poetry. In Deep: Country Essays (1987) offers seasonal meditations on life at Kumin's New Hampshire farm. A literary potpourri, Woman, Animals, and Vegetables (1994) consists of diary-like essays on Kumin's life as a poet, treatises on farm chores, ruminations on the joys of gardening and canning, and short stories about difficult situations. Kumin's fictional works include the novels Through the Dooms of Love (1965), The Passions of Uxport (1968), The Abduction (1971), The Designated Heir (1974), and the short story collection Why Can't We Live Together like Civilized Human Beings? (1982). Kumin has also published more than twenty children's books—several of which were written in collaboration with Sexton—most notably Eggs of Things (1963), More Eggs of Things (1964), Joey and the Birthday Present (1971) and The Wizard's Tears (1975).
Critics have generally responded favorably to Kumin's poetry and essays since the publication of her first work. While some reviewers have argued that her strongest poems evoke autobiographical moments, often drawing comparisons to such confessional poets as Sexton and Robert Lowell, most commentators have appreciated Kumin's keen insights on the ordinary details of rural life in New England and her skill with speech cadences. Initially identified as a “nature poet” or regional writer by many reviewers, Kumin has more recently attracted the attention of critics who have noted subtle elements of feminism and a restrained sense of social activism at work in her writings. However, other commentators have criticized these works for their examination of social issues, an arena that some have considered beyond the scope of Kumin's typical range. These reviewers have asserted that when Kumin engages such themes, she often compromises her verse by slipping into blatant metaphor, dull prosaic language, and simplistic summation. A majority of critics have contended that Kumin's poetry is far more accomplished than her prose works, although the rustic themes of her fiction have attracted favorable attention. Despite her prolific body of work and numerous literary honors, critics have curiously noted the lack of scholarly interest in Kumin's writings.
SOURCE: Dieter, William. Review of In Deep: Country Essays, by Maxine Kumin. Smithsonian 18, no. 8 (November 1987): 265-66.
[In the following review, Dieter praises Kumin's exploration of the rural experience in In Deep: Country Essays.]
How long has it been since you were invited to a farm home in the New Hampshire hills? Quite some time, I'll bet. It was for me. My own homeplace, half a century, half a continent away, has long since gone back to wind and grass and so I was pleased to accept Maxine Kumin's invitation, which will come to you as it did to me, in the form of a handful of essays all nicely stanchioned between the covers of this, [In Deep: Country Essays,] her 15th book.
Kumin and her husband managed to do what the rest of us only threaten—get away to the country. They found the south slope of a wooded hill and cleared a field or two, put up some fence (“Making fences presupposes not only pastures but a storehouse of diligence”), bought several horses, planted a few seeds. Now they're enjoying a stubborn serendipity at the end of a steep and rutted lane, having traded “easy access for solitary splendor.” Maxine still writes, of course, still travels and teaches out there in the world, wisely remembering John Donne's admonition that none of us is an island.
Be advised, however, that this is not your gentlemanly, pseudoscientific, Louis Bromfield approach to country living. This book is as genuine as a Ball jar with wire bale and rubber-ring sealer, as personal as a foal's first breath, the suck of barnyard mud, the snap of a July green bean. No summer gardener in Gucci bonnet, this lady. Kumin strides her bosky hills in four-season boots, fixing fence in spring, battling blackflies in summer, canning assorted manna in fall and thawing water for her beloved horses at 30 below.
When, on a fierce, blizzardy morning, the owner reluctantly puts feet to floor, jacket to frame, dons boots and gloves, and sallies forth to the barn, a chorus of nickers arises from the throats of the Family Horses. The basso profundo of the bossy gelding mingles with the middle voice of the mare. The ecstatic greetings of the yearling filly, sounding in the upper register, override them both.
In truth, this collection could have been titled Horses I Have Loved with a subtitle reading And Wild Mushrooms I Have Gathered. Kumin knows both intimately, but her relationship with the horse is the one with love in it. Here is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who finds sitting up with pregnant mares at night and mucking out stalls in the morning a fine time for creative thinking. Isn't there a moral here for us? Shouldn't we all have a few stalls to muck out?
Kumin takes us back in her woods, in deep, to hunt the wild mushroom, and so precise is her study of this fleshy fungus of the class Basidiomycetes, so helpful her description of what is safe to eat and what is not, that if you will but listen closely and take a few notes, you will never have to count yourself among the six dozen or so mushroom fatalities occurring each year in this country. (“Best of all, go moreling the first season with an old-timer and learn your craft in situ.”)
It was destiny that I read this book, I who have ridden a horse to library as well as to trail, who can remember to this very day and hour the taste of fresh-picked mushrooms fried in cracker crumbs and butter. (It's all right, Maxine, they were morels.)
But all is not horses and mushrooms here; there are also Matters Practical at hand—winter feeding patterns for mixed livestock, the mechanics of maple syrup production, the merits of the mule and the hardiness of Scotch Highland cattle in New England's mizzly weather. Kumin's lee-slope farm is no romantic ivory tower. Don't look for a Brontë sister here; look rather for Hiram Jones of The Old Farmer's Almanack.
There's something for everyone in this folio of pieces. Even if your rural experience totals up to no more than a visit to Grandma's farm one summer, you can still savor the heart-place wisdom of an essay like “The Country Kitchen,” that Action Central of every farmhouse, that immense core room where the food smells swirl, the kids play their games and dye their eggs, where the wood stove pops in rhythm to the wind and the cat lies down with the dog. “Consider,” Kumin says,
the democracy of the country kitchen as opposed to the scullery mentality of the separatist kitchen. … Think how many daily transactions take place in the country kitchen. How many feet enter, cross and leave it from first light to bedtime, year-round. … Merely the steady rhythm of the life of the farm and the people who live here. Making all seasons better.
This is a thoughtful, intimate book about a life in which you cut your own wood and grow your own food. Maxine Kumin could bask equally in Emerson's tribute to an earlier New England poet-naturalist, Henry David Thoreau: “It seemed as if the breezes brought him / It seemed as if the sparrows taught him / As if by secret sight he knew / Where, in far fields, the orchis grew.”
Follow the Fall [illustrations by Artur Marokvia] (juvenilia) 1961
Halfway (poetry) 1961
Mittens in May [illustrations by Elliott Gilbert] (juvenilia) 1962
Eggs of Things [with Anne Sexton; illustrations by Leonard Shortall] (juvenilia) 1963
More Eggs of Things [with Anne Sexton; illustrations by Leonard Shortall] (juvenilia) 1964
The Privilege (poetry) 1965
Through Dooms of Love (novel) 1965
The Passions of Uxport (novel) 1968
The Wonderful Babies of 1809 and Other Years [illustrations by Carl Rose] (juvenilia) 1968
The Nightmare Factory (poetry) 1970
The Abduction (novel) 1971
Joey and the Birthday Present [with Anne Sexton; illustrations by Evaline Ness] (juvenilia) 1971
Up Country: Poems of New England (poetry) 1972
The Designated Heir (novel) 1974
House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate (poetry) 1975
The Wizard's Tears [with Anne Sexton; illustrations by Evaline Ness] (juvenilia) 1975
The Retrieval System (poetry) 1978
To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living (essays) 1979
Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief (poetry) 1982
Why Can't We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings? (short stories) 1982
The Long Approach (poetry) 1985
In Deep: Country Essays (essays) 1987
Nurture (poetry) 1989
Looking for Luck (poetry) 1992
Women, Animals, and Vegetables (essays and short stories) 1994
Connecting the Dots (poetry) 1996
Selected Poems, 1960-1990 (poetry) 1997
Quit Monks or Die! (novel) 1999
Always Beginning: Essays on a Life in Poetry (essays, speeches, and interviews) 2000
Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (memoirs) 2000
The Long Marriage (poetry) 2001
SOURCE: Padnos, Peg. Review of In Deep: Country Essays, by Maxine Kumin. Wilson Library Bulletin 62, no. 3 (November 1987): 84.
[In the following review, Padnos outlines the major themes of In Deep: Country Essays, focusing on Kumin's daily routine and her relationship with her horses.]
As Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin writes, her husband proclaims they're “in too deep,” what with running a hill farm in New Hampshire (“fourteen acres of forage fields”) complete with fences to mend, six horses to tend, sugar maples to tap, roofs to shovel in winter, meat to raise for the table. … But the payoff is evident as this collection [In Deep: Country Essays] shows: such rigorous living feeds the author's imagination, makes her marvelous poetic voice ever stronger, gives meaning and metaphor to her life as each year plays out.
Divided into four sections that follow the seasons, the book celebrates, by turns, the joys of birdwatching, mushroom gathering, and baking fragrant breads and assembling hearty soups, among other country pleasures. Satisfying, to be sure, but these merely orbit around the sun and center of Kumin's life: the “large and redolent” occupants of the hill barn, her beloved horses. She confesses to hours spent “hanging over the fence” in summer, watching their ballet, “endless, repetitious, aesthetically spectacular,” but never tiresome. Neither, it seems, is the routine drudgery it takes to keep these animals. “Hay first. Water next. Grain last,” says one of Kumin's poems, but readers, please note that this water must be warmed on below-freezing mornings. There are other matters to attend to: the daily mucking out of stables, repairing tack, and exercising these outsize pets. And there is emotional wear and tear on the owner as well. Consider Kumin's moving tale of the foal whose high-strung mother rejected her. Then there's the story about the burying of yet another foal who, heartbreakingly, never breathed.
This is a deeply personal, graceful, and inspiring work that doesn't idealize country life even as it proclaims its earthly rewards. Maxine Kumin gently but persistently makes us rethink our own links to the land and its animals as if to urge us to go “in deep” ourselves to probe for the “impulse for poetry.”
SOURCE: Miller, David. “Out Far and In Deep.” Sewanee Review 96, no. 4 (fall 1988): 684-87.
[In the following excerpt, Miller offers a positive assessment of In Deep: Country Essays.]
Nature writing is essential, if only to remind us that there may still exist what Thoreau, perched on Mt. Ktaadn in Maine, called “the unhandselled globe”—a wonderful phrase Maxine Kumin borrows for a chapter title. The better sort of nature book occasionally diverts us from rustic delight and ecological exhortation deep into the unhandselled darkness for a lesson in otherness. Ktaadn, Thoreau wrote, was beautiful, but also “savage and awful,” a creation of “Chaos and Old Night” as alien as “some star's surface” yet of the same material as our bodies. In terror he exclaimed: “Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in Nature—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it. … Who are we? Where are we?” Now there's the right mood for starting a book about nature.
Maxine Kumin's In Deep, a gathering of previously published country essays, is grouped into four seasons and is focused on her New England farm. Most frequently she writes—with real feeling and with irony—about her relationship with her horses. “It's madness,” she complains one icy morning, “this glut of critters to look after and feed, but it is a glut of shared needs.” She has tethered herself near horses the better to understand their world. “These New England upland pastures are like a secret garden,” she rhapsodizes, “like a poem. Every dip and scarp is now engraved on my brain pan.” She has learned, from Thoreau, to cultivate “a holy sense of the minute observable details of natural life.”
Fortunately she often leavens holiness with humor. Who could bear a consistently elevated presentation of details about country kitchens, popple, mushrooms, and the care and feeding of horses? Kumin is a realist: “There is no more, no less, peace of mind in the disciplined life of the barnyard than there is in the routine of the office.” Mushrooms go into the stewpot as well as the poem. Popple goes into the fireplace (and the fodder).
Occasionally technology mingles with husbandry and begets a metaphor: “We worm the babies [colts] in the middle of John Dean's testimony and at last I see a connection. Although it makes me want to be sick, I count the nematodes in the little ones' shit. … I am making sure.” More amusing, perhaps more outrageous (far out, if you will) is an essay-length metaphor comparing mules and poets. Both are expected to survive on reduced feed. Both endure despite predictions of obsolescence. Both (among many other similarities) tend to survive long falls, literal or figurative. Reference to such writers as Sexton, Plath, and Berryman in that connection reveal the deeper wounds underlying Kumin's whimsy.
With more obvious reverence she describes a foal's birth and first commerce with its mother. To be present she sleeps in her barn. Biologists refer to bonding: “I call it a miracle,” she writes, simply. She rides out on Sundays, in an equally reverent mood, exploring “all those roads not taken”: “One by one they peter out like rambling thoughts, like glimmering ideas unrealized.” She contents herself along the way with these minute observables. “The quest is real. To get there, you have to go in deep.”
Gwynn, R. S. Review of Always Beginning: Essays on Life in Poetry, by Maxine Kumin. Hudson Review 54, no. 2 (summer 2001): 341-42.
Gwynn assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Always Beginning: Essays on Life in Poetry.
Howe, Florence. “Only Connect.” Women's Review of Books 14, no. 1 (October 1996): 15-17.
In the following favorable review of Connecting the Dots, Howe contrasts the poetry of Kumin and Shirley Kaufman.
Maso, Carole. Review of The Long Approach, by Maxine Kumin. Women's Review of Books 4, no. 2 (November 1986): 19.
Maso offers a thematic and stylistic overview of The Long Approach.
Additional coverage of Kumin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Nature Writers, Vol. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Authors in the News, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 8; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 21, 69; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 13, 28; Contemporary Poets; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poets: American and British; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 15; and Something about the Author, Vol. 12.
SOURCE: Christophersen, Bill. Review of In Deep: Country Essays, by Maxine Kumin. Prairie Schooner 63, no. 4 (winter 1989): 131-33.
[In the following review, Christophersen contrasts In Deep: Country Essays with Wendell Berry's Home Economics, highlighting the respective strengths and weaknesses of each.]
Wendell Berry and Maxine Kumin both operate small farms and write poems, stories, novels, and essays that embrace rural life. Now each has published another volume of essays elaborating this attachment. While Berry's Home Economics wrestles with ecological, social, and philosophical questions concerning (among other things) the small farmer's demise, Kumin's In Deep dotes on the minute particulars of horse rearing, moreling, jack breeding, and fence building.
Most of the fourteen pieces that constitute Home Economics are essays in the original (French) sense of the word—testing grounds for ideas. In “Getting Along with Nature,” Berry charts a middle path between the industrialists, who would consume nature, and the environmentalists, who would seal off what's left of it. Balancing anecdote with analysis, he argues that to regard either nature or civilization as an escape from the other is to subscribe to an “opposition that threatens to destroy them both.” “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground” walks an equally fine line, contending that today's married couples, no longer homesteaders, tend to be mates rather than “helpmates” in a mutual venture—and so remain fundamentally disunited.
Berry's sociopolitical outlook is radical, though his values are as traditional as a mullah's. Quoting Scripture and touting Amish cooperativeness and a subsistence economy, he lambastes post-war, corporate America, which, he argues, has jettisoned and betrayed even such conservative ideals as family, community, and private proprietorship. In “Property, Patriotism and National Defense,” he notes the shrinking percentage of Americans who own (or can reasonably hope to own) homes or land, the gobbling up of the small farmer and shopkeeper by big business, and the unraveling of community ties, then asks whether the way of life our politicians extol—and presume to protect with billion-dollar defense budgets—even exists anymore. In another essay he characterizes rural America as a domestic colony whose population and resources are exploited by the larger society. At such moments Berry sounds a bit like a latter-day William Jennings Bryan, angry at a system that, by selling out the farmer, has in some measure forsaken its humanity.
Home Economics has a few weak spots. Husbandman that he is, Berry tends to recycle certain crotchets from one essay to the next. And however astute his critique of modern America, his 40-acres-and-a-mule mindset seems—well, mulish. But the book's thoughtful intensity and plain spoken insight make this voice-of-one-crying-in-the-postindustrial-wilderness something to be reckoned with.
Maxine Kumin's essays, while not as provocative, offer the pleasures of country life painstakingly rendered and recollected:
Now we revel in pots and pans depending from hooks over the stove, in garlic and onion braids festooning the window, dried-mushroom necklaces decorating the rafters. … We are no longer ashamed of appetite and odor.
(“The Country Kitchen”)
In Deep is an album thick with snapshots of mares foaling and herons landing, maple sugar flowing and heifers napping in the snow. Some of its essays are informative as well as charming. In “The Mushroom Hunt,” Kumin teaches us to appreciate the finer points of puffballs and to distinguish between mushrooms with names like chicken-of-the-woods, pig's trotter, and Medusa-head (“large, fleshy masses in the shape of an ox's heart” that can weigh twenty pounds). In Deep is rich, too, in personal detail: the evolution of Kumin's love affair with horses, for instance, and with Henry David Thoreau's particularistic prose. Her own writing, indeed, echoes Thoreau's earthiness: “I find mucking out stalls each morning a fine and private time for thinking,” she asserts in “Bringing Up Boomerang”; “the poet in me is fed.”
What these essays lack, however, is Thoreau's fertile reflectiveness and editorial acumen. Some of Kumin's nostalgic reminiscences can cloy—how, for example, as a 10-year-old, she used to sneak down to the basement at night to curl up with the family pup. And while as a rule her prose is enlivened by the tropes she employs, some of these—the horse whose back is “a topography of saddle sores,” or the filly “fast as greased lightning”—were better put to pasture. The nearest thing to an idea Kumin presents us with, meanwhile, is an ultimately sway-backed comparison between mules and poets. In Deep does, however, illumine the relationship between Kumin's life and poetry:
My daily life provides a metaphor for my work, allowing me instant access at all times, crosshatching reality with the snail tracks of the unconscious, enabling me to pull poems up out of the well of the commonplace. …
In the same essay (“A Sense of Place”), Kumin also confesses,
Clearly the impulse for poems is here for me, in the vivid turn of the seasons, in the dailiness of growing things. … Without religious faith and without the sense of primal certitude that faith brings, I must take my only comfort from the natural order of things.
The book's elegant title piece suggests, to be sure, that the comfort she speaks of must, at moments, be wrested from thickets of doubt. But one senses too that for Kumin this comfort suffices.
SOURCE: Hunt, Leslie. “Hewing Our Creative Time.” Belles Lettres 4, no. 2 (winter 1989): 21.
[In the following review, Hunt compares In Deep: Country Essays to Brenda Chamberlain's Tide-Race, emphasizing their thematic similarities.]
What is waiting on the other side? Maybe nothing special, maybe only more of the same, dear enough for this watcher. But the quest is real. To get there you have to go in deep.” This ending to Maxine Kumin's first essay of the collection In Deep serves as a point of departure for our quest into her life in the country, while her question and response echo the voice of Brenda Chamberlain in Tide-Race. Chamberlain charts her life on a remote, sparsely populated island off the coast of North Wales, whose inhabitants coexist uneasily with each other and with the sea. For both writers, the journeys they describe are at once a movement outward to discover the essential rhythms of the natural world and inward to find each writer's place and purpose in this scheme.
In part because her geographical isolation is more profound than Kumin's, Chamberlain is more completely and constantly absorbed in the business of daily survival. Haunting and graceful, her writing expresses her sustaining bond to the natural world. Weaving together physical description, legend, and poetry, she evokes the very soul of the island—its weather, its geography, the ebb and flow of life upon it. Descriptions are as clear and evocative as her drawings of the sea and of the creatures who dwell there; her training as an artist complements her writing, while her word portraits by themselves illustrate the striking power of her observations.
The water was limpid, simple as the blue height of sky. But the island, the island, was the legendary rock, the magnet of our blood. For an instant forgetting the reality in dream I saw it as an unattainable, nameless vision. Going back through troughs and rainbow sprays, nobody in the world seemed more fortunate than I, for this was life and colour and movement under the sun.
While Chamberlain focuses steadily on revelations and challenges that constitute her daily existence, she is also stirred by visions of past and future and by what she calls “the strong pulling of the dead.” Here on this island, the nourishing and destructive aspects of the sea are equally present. But despite social conflicts, scant food supplies, and the ever-present possibility of death on the sea, she finds in this threatening landscape a sustaining continuity. Her dream fantasies about joining her mother seal in the sea symbolize her identification with the natural world; but, on another level, these dreams simply show her strong affinity with the natural life forces around her. Her sense of belonging to this cycle is most eloquently expressed when she writes that a seabird “is handing on to me the living tradition of the island's past that is the present moulding the future.”
Maxine Kumin's essays also reflect a deeply rooted sense of time and place. Kumin sees an awareness of the past as essential to the creative process and posits that “a sense of region” is also present. She wonders where women writers derive their sense of place, including their plumbing of “interior landscapes.” Like Chamberlain, she depends on the natural world for both her creative and physical sustenance. But—in part because of her academic obligations, in part because her isolation is not as complete—Kumin feels a deeper conflict than Chamberlain between the urge to write and the need to hew a life from the land. While she cites “the centrality of the natural world” as the foundation for her writing, she finds herself unable to resist the pull of the outside world away from that center. Writing of this conflict, she seizes upon a quote from Anne Tyler about “hewing our creative time in small, hard chips from our living time.”
Despite her self-proclaimed struggle to accommodate both her living and her writing, Kumin's work resonates with striking harmony; on these pages, at least, life and work coexist amicably. She leads us through the seasons with the vigilant eye of Thoreau, to whom she is unabashedly indebted. Although her descriptions are detailed—she goes on for pages about varieties of mushrooms—they are lively and engaging, never pedantic or esoteric.
The polypores are also tree-dwellers, and they are probably the most obvious fungi in the wood. … Everyone has seen tough old “conks”—shelf-like protrusions adorning the torsos of aged trees, and most people have idly picked up dried birch polypores for the fun of drawing pictures on their flat white undersurfaces.
Much of the book is devoted to writing about horses of one kind or another, but you do not have to be an equestrian to appreciate Kumin's meditations about them. As she builds a fence, waits at night for the birth of a foal, and reflects on the similarities between poets and mules, she writes so precisely and so intimately that we feel we are sitting in her country kitchen or out in the barn. Of animals, for example, she confides,
[they] are my confederates. They arrive, sometimes with speaking parts, in my dreams. They are rudimentary and untiring and changeless, where we are sophisticated, weary, fickle. They make me better than I am.
She goes on to observe that her daily life provides a metaphor for her work, confirming that, despite the difficulty of finding time to write, life on her New Hampshire hill provides a rich source for her thoughts.
I think that Kumin may speak for Chamberlain and does so for herself when she refers to the choice to live in relative seclusion as “a paradox … it is making the world over as you want it to be, while at the same time coexisting with nature.” Yet the work of both writers is grounded solidly in this paradox. Even in the midst of physical hardship, hostile weather, and sudden death, each finds renewal in the promise of change.
SOURCE: George, Diana Hume. Review of Nurture, by Maxine Kumin. Georgia Review 43, no. 2 (summer 1989): 425-26.
[In the following review, George highlights the environmental themes in Nurture, noting a movement in Kumin's verse toward global and ecological issues.]
In Nurture Maxine Kumin continues to explore many of the themes that for decades have compellingly informed her poetry, fiction, and meditative essays: the clear and present delights of the natural world and our connections with it as creatures who know we are part of it; our responsibility toward more fragile forms of life on the planet we share; the necessity of endurance in the face of odds we cannot finally beat; the salvaging of human care and love from the wreckage of time and loss; the significance of legacy and continuity in a world of mortal mutability.
She means to make us ponder lovingly the webs of relationship that bind us to fates we both control and, ultimately, share. Stubborn celebration is the tone: she bids us “rejoice to be circumpolar, all of us / on all fours obeying the laws of migration” (“With the Caribou”). She sees 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”).
Increasingly hers is a poetry I would call environmental; if she used to be a nature poet, she's now globally ecological. The danger here is the same as with any other political poetry—that the song will be devoured by or subsumed in the polemic, yielding a fine ideal rendered graceless in the poetic frame—but Kumin largely escapes the trap. Sometimes awkwardly expository lines sneak by, as in “Thoughts on Saving the Manatee,” in which “Worldwide less than five / thousand manatee remain.” The trumpeter swan poem is similarly marred by the necessity to impart facts. But usually the poet manages to make her connections beautifully and clearly, letting her animals “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 conversation “conveyed in a wordless yet perfect / language of touch and tremor” (“Sleeping with Animals”).
Kumin eschews both moralism and sentimentality through her insistence on facing cruelty, predation, and stupidity, whether committed by our fellow animal travelers or by us: “Nature a catchment of sorrows. / We hug each other. No lesson drawn.” Even when the tone is admonitory, the tale cautionary, the reader is gently invited to draw the lesson through implication and inference. Kumin offers no untenable idealism here, only the civil suggestion that we consider the depth of our footprints in the world.
As fine as the environmental poems are, the collection's most accomplished statement, perhaps made weightier by what surrounds it, is a new “tribal poem” (Kumin's longstanding name for poems about her extended human family). “Marianne, My Mother, and Me” links her personal and poetic heritages by paralleling her mother's life with Marianne Moore's, mediating their connections and mourning their distances through her own transformations. While there is much in the poet to remind a reader of Moore (Kumin recognizes this in Moore's own “be accurate and modest”), I am also reminded of Kumin by the artist she addresses in “A Calling”: like Georgia O'Keeffe, Kumin combines intimacy and passion with immense reserves of detachment, reservation, dignity. Both artists celebrate life with a generous civility and encounter the bones of death with an even gaze, always keeping (as Kumin says elsewhere) “our working distance.”
SOURCE: Cotter, James Finn. “Poetry Travels.” Hudson Review 42, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 520-21.
[In the following excerpt, Cotter argues that survival is the primary theme of the poems in Nurture.]
Maxine Kumin in Nurture, her eighth collection of poetry, describes a return to ancestral Austria in “On Reading an Old Baedeker in Schloss Leopoldskron” and “The Festung, Salzburg.” She wonders if she will meet some distant and unrecognized relative there, a survivor of the Anschluss. Survivors populate this poet's work. Caribou, seals, turtles, penguins and other animals struggle to survive. “I am thankful for what's left that's wild,” Kumin reflects in “Distance,” and lists coydogs, hoot owls, moose, and bears. As she mows with her Tuff-Cut power motor on her birthday, she echoes Hopkins' line: “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” In “Homage to Binsey Populars,” she directly alludes to Hopkins' pain at trees being cut down. If she is to be reincarnated, the poet says in “Reviewing the Summer and Winter Calendar of the Next Life,” she would prefer to be a barn swallow, grosbeak, or wild turkey, but not a weasel. She is drawn to dramas of animal rescue, Kumin states in the title poem, even if she seems to suffer, as “the critic proclaims, / from an overabundance of maternal genes.” This mothering instinct is best represented by “Sleeping with Animals,” an account of a birth watch at her New Hampshire farm:
Nightly I choose to keep this covenant with a wheezing broodmare who, ten days past due, grunts in her sleep in the vocables of the vastly pregnant. She lies down on sawdust of white pine, its turp smell blending with the rich scent of ammonia and manure.
A bonding is made between human and animal:
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.
The bond between generations is beautifully rendered in “A Game of Monopoly in Chavannes.” The game being played with her grandchild in France recalls summers long ago in the real Atlantic City which gave the game its street names. As her grandson loses, he fights back tears, but in reality he is their “sole inheritor”:
All that I have is his, under separate cover and we are the mortgaged nub of all that he has. Soon enough he will learn, buying long, selling short
his ultimate task is to stay to usher us out.
For no one survives forever. In “Bringing Back the Trumpeter Swan,” Kumin notes the irony of conservationists who destroy the balance of nature in trying to preserve one species at the expense of others. In “Thoughts on Saving the Manatee,” she concludes that we should “revert to the Catch of the Day / and serve up the last few as steak marinara.” But like the parsnip and pudding stone she uncovers in “Turning the Garden in Middle Age,” Kumin is herself a survivor. Many of these poems are sure to endure for their integrity of spirit, human warmth, and strength of expression.
SOURCE: Cole, Henri. Review of Nurture, by Maxine Kumin. Poetry 156, no. 1 (April 1990): 48-50.
[In the following review, Cole offers a positive assessment of Nurture, praising Kumin's “affectionately modest demeanor.”]
Maxine Kumin is a senator for man and beast and earth. She speaks for the caribou, the manatee, the orca, the arctic fox, the Aleutian goose, the trumpeter swan, the dusky seaside sparrow, the broodmare, the grizzly bear, the Scotch Highland heifer, and all this only to begin a list, for there are also three generations of kin to consider and a plot of land to be worked. Please let me not be counted among those critics who devalue her “overabundance of maternal genes.” In a world where dolphins are sacrificed daily for our light lunches of tuna fish salad, should there not be one among us to take up their cause?
Fifteen years ago a classmate in college introduced me to Maxine Kumin's poetry. He was a philosophy student from Tidewater, Virginia, who owned all the volumes of Maxine Kumin, John Ashbery, and little else. An unlikely pair, one might think. Yet tossed in the Cuisinart, perhaps the blended result would yield Emerson, another of my friend's favorites. In any case, since we are all, as writers, children of Emerson, and Maxine Kumin's broadest good sense is immediately at hand in her latest volume of poetry, Nurture, her ninth, let me recall his regard for Margaret Fuller, whom he praised for adopting “all the people and all the interests she found” at his home upon her visits. For so rich was her mind that “she never was tempted to treachery by the desire of entertaining” in her fortnight stays. And how he relished her conversation, whose details seemed to him to include “wit, stern introspection, poetic play, religion, the finest personal feeling, the aspects of the future”—all of which seem the happy sum of Maxine Kumin's new collection.
Overlooking the dreadful Bambi jacket-photograph, which seems to want to sentimentalize this book, these sensible poems record the passage of seasons in the North Temperate Zone. In “Surprises” Kumin reports, “After fifteen summers // of failure …” a hundred California peppers cluster in her garden:
Doubtless this means I am approaching the victory of poetry over death where art wins, chaos retreats, and beauty
albeit trampled under barbarism rises again, shiny with roses, no thorns.
Such abundance, too, leads to Proustian recall of her mother's leftover stuffed peppers, served “every washday // Monday,” reminding the reader that the poet's heart is not so tidily divided as the book's sections—“Catchment,” “Place Names and Datelines,” and “More Tribal Poems”—might suggest. For there is a complex “crossover” in the worlds that Kumin inhabits or that inhabit her. We see from the book's title piece that her urge to shelter both the “wild child” and the “bummer lamb” is equally strong. And later, in “In the Park,” she explains:
I was raised on the Old Testament. In it God talks to Moses, Noah, Samuel, and they answer. People confer with angels. Certain animals converse with humans. It's a simple world, full of crossovers.
Further on one recognizes that as much for man, as for those with whom he shares the earth, it is a world of “good and harm.” For all creatures, as newborns, must struggle to their feet, or into the air, or against a tide, and along the way nature can be a “catchment of sorrows.” This perhaps explains the specter of war looming often in these pages. In the poem “Grappling in the Central Blue,” a “benevolent blue October” sky leads Kumin to call back an afternoon in 1940 with her “unemployed uncles / hangdog in the yard / playing touch football …” while they could not know the war that awaited them:
One is to die by torpedo. One in a swamp on maneuvers. Only the oldest, at a great age a child again, outlasts my father to drift off alone in bed.
And elsewhere on these pages, as from an intaglio print of war's ravages or of German troops marching, the hellish past can dynamite quite suddenly into a poem's narrative.
The one longish poem in this collection “Marianne, My Mother, and Me,” is a litmus test of sorts for Kumin's easy-going prosaic style, which elsewhere can be clipped and sinewy in the best shorter lyrics (“Nurture,” “In Warm Rooms, Before a Blue Light,” “Catchment,” “Sleeping with Animals,” “In the Park,” and the wonderful “A Game of Monopoly in Chavannes”). It's fun to watch the rhymes unreel, yet they are not as exhilarating as the couplets which often conclude other poems, and the language finally remains peculiarly proselike. Unchallenged, Marianne Moore steals the limelight with her cameo appearances, and one longs for more morsels of her. Whatever the verdict on the poem (mine is a demurring yea), it does offer a useful glimpse at Kumin's poetic sympathies. We see her as a young woman, noting Marianne Moore's pronouncement, “‘We / must be as clear as our natural reticence / will allow. …’” And later, after a Moore poetry reading, Kumin reports:
We never meet. I am content to take to heart her praise of idiosyncrasy, exactitude, intensity, technique. Her “be accurate and modest” speaks to me.
Surely one cannot come away from Nurture without a sense of its accuracy and the author's affectionately modest demeanor. Detractors may translate modesty as thinness, yet in a world of shadow, thinness, too, can yield an agreeable, sometimes even divine translucence.
SOURCE: George, Diana Hume. “Creature Comforts.” Women's Review of Books 9, no. 8 (May 1992): 17.
[In the following review, George explores the major themes of Looking for Luck, situating them in the context of Kumin's career.]
With Looking for Luck, her tenth volume of poetry, Maxine Kumin joins the Norton stable of writers. I'm usually uncomfortable with that term, but for Kumin, the horsewoman-poet of American letters, it's appropriate. For decades she has written about the connections between humanity and the rest of the folk who inhabit the world. In Looking for Luck she continues this and other themes—death and loss, family and legacy, how to survive devastation and celebrate life.
The poems here are often about the intervention of imagination in the natural world. The opening, “Credo,” announces Kumin's belief in magic—in the “rights of animals to leap out of our skins,” as in an Indian legend in which suddenly “there was a bear where the boy had been.” The epilogue, “Rendezvous,” comes full circle to magic again, this time as a renewed, reclothed eros. Evoking a legend that says a male bear can feel shame, she writes that a woman encountering one is advised to remove her clothes, which will scare him away. But in Kumin's version the woman slips off her clothes while the bear removes his teeth. His pelt falls to the ground as a bed for them.
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.
Kumin's volume titles usually indicate a great deal about her intentions, with implications both ironic and serious. Here “luck” means coincidences she invests with meaning—but with a wry glance over her shoulder, a tongue sometimes so far in her check it's down her throat.
In “Looking for Luck in Bangkok,” Kumin describes a superstition in that country, where she apparently spent time: if you walk under an elephant, you'll have luck. People engage in the ritual at a market while she watches:
They count out a few coins, then crouch to slip beneath the wrinkly umbrella that smells.
of dust and old age and a thousand miracles …
Kumin participates, with ironic reflections:
I squat in his aromatic shade reminded of stale bedclothes, my mother's pantry shelves of cloves and vinegar, as if there were no world of drought, no parasites, no ivory poachers. My good luck running in as his runs out.
In “Progress,” luck continues to get bound up with nature. Kumin moves from Bunyan's Pilgrim who “attains his goal the way enough / ants can carry off an elephant / and time will mend a migraine,” to a horse, an injured “Indian paint” whose owners turn him out “to starve to death—the law of the West” and who “wander[s] into a distant slough instead,” there to become “a champion cutting horse.” Then she invokes the memory of Hiroshima:
The boggy hollow is dark and perilous,
sometimes language impedes, some- times it helps. “Observe moon in first phase.” The professor drops articles to be more easily comprehended by his Japanese students who say, “To you, Hiroshima is death. To us, is beisbol team, long life, Hiroshima Carp.” They thrive in sloughs, these golden fish. Such luck they do not need it deep.
Pilgrim's luck is in his dogged persistence; the Indian paint would have died but he gets lucky—a champion cutting horse springs from his skin. It's the students' luck to be “golden fish” who thrive in the slough of catastrophe, thumbing their noses at death.
Progress in all its forms arouses a dry scepticism in Kumin. Not only do different generations and cultures understand it differently (for the teacher “progress” means enduring Western guilt over the bombing of Hiroshima, for the students, a jaunty amnesia), but progress itself is a human concept, and therefore limited. Only nature is limitless, dangerous (“The boggy hollow is dark and perilous”) and flourishing. “Praise Be,” which immediately follows “Progress,” begins with the birth of a horse and ends with images of peace, natural abundance.
I tear the caul, look into eyes as innocent, as skittery as minnows. Three heaves, the shoulders pass. The hips emerge. Fluid as snakes the hind legs trail out glistering. …
Let them prosper, the dams and their sucklings. Let nothing inhibit their heedless growing. Let them raise up on sturdy pasterns and trot out in light summer rain onto the long lazy unfenced fields of heaven.
1982 marked a watershed in Kumin's career: Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief (Viking) anthologized her six previous collections. In individual volumes since then (The Long Approach in 1986 and Nurture in 1989, both from Viking), she has developed the terms of survival first fully articulated during the late 1970s, when she wrote elegies to her closest friend, poet Anne Sexton. Life is full of losses, but we must get on with it, enduring—even thriving, as do the women in “Voices from Kansas”:
You learn to pull out and pass, say the Wichita women
Whom distance has not flattened, who cruise at a cool 80 miles per hour toward the rolling-pin horizon. …
… Long hours at a stretch behind the wheel they zoom up to Michigan to speak at a conference,
revisit a lover, drop in on old friends. They will not be sequestered by space. …
As the grassland is rooted, so too are the Wichita women. No absence among them may go un- marked into sleep. Like wind in the wheat, the boundary blurs but keeps.
Now in her sixties, Kumin often writes poems about the life cycle that brings together the family of other creatures with her own; these she calls her “tribal poems.” In “The Geographic Center,” the poet watches a pair of pileated woodpeckers, “[l]ike us, a faithful couple.” The speaker and her husband
shoulder what this life has lots of, prisoners of hope as set in our own way as the woodpeckers
whose bright red crests and red mustaches glint against the flourishing bittersweet we say we should but never will rip out.
The human family is both part of and separate from nature. What humans and horses “say to each other in the cold black / of April” is what “connects us most surely to the wet cave we all once burst from gasping, naked or furred” (“Sleeping with Animals”). We must comfort other creatures (“I believe in myself as their sanctuary,” writes Kumin in “Credo”). They can offer us little comfort in return, of course, unless we relinquish our separation from them and lie down with horses, as would an old woman in one of the volume's most moving pieces, “The Confidantes”:
Dorothy Harbison, aetat 91, stumps into the barn on her cane and my arm, invites the filly to nuzzle her face, her neck and shoulders, her snowdrift hair and would very likely be standing there still to be nibbled, never enough for either of them, so sternly lovestruck except an impatient middle-aged daughter waits to carry her mother off …
Leaving, Dorothy Harbison speaks to the foal in a lilting croon: I'll never wash again, I swear. I'll keep the smell of you in my hair. and stumps out fiercely young on her cane.
Kumin is at war with consciousness, the beloved enemy who must be embraced, who will help us make sense of things—but whose self-deceptions make us lie to ourselves about who we are. Her writing has a hard knot of realism, tending toward but never reaching cynicism. It speaks to our fears in “The Green Well,” when she lets herself down,
rung by rung into the green well of losses, a kitchen midden where the newly dead layer by layer overtake the long and longer vanished …
We're all destined for the midden heap (“It does / not end with us, not yet, though end it will”). Only “being with” and “being in” nature offer connectedness and continuity.
In Kumin's earlier work her gaze upon death was steady, yet often penetrated by anger and anxiety. Now there is an acceptance in which resignation is only part of the picture. A near-lightness suffuses some of her strongest poems. “Blindingly trite, this calling on the dead,” she concludes with a half-smile in “Visiting Flannery O'Connor's Grave.”
Kumin's poems to and about the dead continually play upon her own aging and her attempt to ready herself for death. She watches death and loss in the barn, the pasture, the woods, with clean-sighted toughness. In “Porch Swing,” the speaker sits with her one surviving brother: “Old orphans, our three middle siblings / dead, we look death straight / in its porcelain teeth, daring it / to squeeze onto the porch swing …”
While she is in no sense melancholic (she'd find that an intolerable indulgence in herself), the mourning of loss has become central to her poetic vision. We may know that we're mortal, but we don't have to like it. In “Finding the One Brief Note,” we sing, like the mockingbirds, “our single-minded still imperfect song. / We eulogize autumn.” This mortal music, full of longing, betrays that “we mean, / roughshod and winged, to last forever.”
Kumin's strength remains directly connected to celebration, for it is infinitely renewable life, as well as life's brutality, that she sings of and mourns. As a survivor who knows her survival is only temporary, she uses poetry to come to terms with as many permanent losses as possible before the final one.
SOURCE: Baker, David. “Ecstasy and Irony.” Poetry 161, no. 2 (November 1992): 99-113.
[In the following excerpt, Baker praises Kumin's achievement in Looking for Luck, focusing on the rhetorical schemes and aesthetics of simplicity that inform her poetry.]
Maxine Kumin is, and for a long time has been, one of our most widely praised poets. Her tenth collection of poems, Looking for Luck, is representative of her accomplishment, style, and vision. She writes like a lot of poets these days; or, more likely, many try to write like her. Her poems are never qualified by anything less than maturity, grace, and sureness of touch. It's as if her strong, good poems were found rather than composed. As if. Altogether appropriate for an ars poetica is Kumin's favorite figure of the horse, as companion and model:
Whenever I caught him down in the stall, I'd approach. At first he jumped up the instant he heard me slide the bolt. Then I could get the door open while he stayed lying down, and I'd go in on my hands and knees and crawl over to him so that I wouldn't appear so threatening. It took six or eight months before I could simply walk in and sit with him, but I needed that kind of trust.
I kept him on a long rein to encourage him to stretch out his neck and back. I danced with him over ten or fifteen acres of fields with a lot of flowing from one transition to another. What I've learned is how to take the indirect route. That final day I felt I could have cut the bridle off, he went so well on his own.
“Could have.” The conditional verb represents the gentle but knowing style of Kumin's work. To be sure, transparency and ease are rhetorical schemes, as purposeful as any baroque or neoclassical pattern. Her technique descends from the New England plain style, the quieter side of the romantic impulse, whose designs are humility and reverence rather than ecstasy and rapture. Here in “Ars Poetica: A Found Poem,” Kumin confirms an aesthetic preference to be (or to seem) closer to simplicity than clutter. The important, subtle paradox of such ease is that it is the product of hard work, training, a “kind of trust.”
It is then more illustrative than contradictory that quite a number of these poems show Kumin to be fairly self-conscious about her unself-consciousness. “Credo” finds Kumin's speaker reciting a litany of aesthetic and personal values: “I believe in magic,” she writes here: “I believe in the rights / of animals to leap out of our skins.” A few lines later, other favorite tropes are announced:
I believe in living on grateful terms with the earth, with the black crumbles of ancient manure that sift through my fingers
when I topdress the garden for winter.
A romantic faith in the magical capacities of nature, a reverence for animals and myth, a stewardship of the earth—these are Kumin's leitmotifs. A few pages later, in “Taking the Lambs to Market,” she reveals another aesthetic design. The character Amos, “who custom cuts and double wraps / in white butcher paper whatever we named, / fed, scratched behind the ear,” earns her praise for his ability to take “something living” and provide sustenance for his patrons, though they “deplore his profession.” He is, after all, “a decent man who blurs the line of sight / between our conscience and our appetite.” The brusque honesty of his occupation elicits from Kumin more admiration than disgust, in part because she sees in his example her own imperative to render nourishment out of harsh necessity.
Kumin is, by temperament, a naturalist. Her speaker is as conversant with the garden or barn as with human company. It's not that Kumin avoids people in her poems; on the contrary, they clearly interest her—from the “chambermaids at the Marriott” to politicians and neighbors. But it is nature that evokes her most passionate, exact writing, and provides a significant model for her to instruct or explain people to us—not the other way around. She seems drawn to people out of responsibility and to nature out of desire. To me, her finest poems are those which ironize or fuse the relationship between the natural and the human, between the pastoral and the political. In “The Geographic Center,” for instance, a pair of pileated woodpeckers, “the Harpy-like great flappers,” are among the bestiary of visitants to the speaker's winter yard where she and her husband have “put out 50 lbs. of birdseed … suet, sundry crusts and crumbs.” This obligation to nature becomes transfigured, several stanzas later, into “a 50 lb. pack” the husband carried during basic training in World War II; and the birdseed they leave out is echoed in “the seedy back way / out of a hotel dining room” where Bobby Kennedy was shot. The yard's plentiful small dramas reiterate the political struggles of “[her] generation.” This excellent poem is typical of Kumin's use of nature to provide the material impetus for a revelation about people, an equation she completes in the poem's closing:
We shoulder what this life has lots of, prisoners of hope as set in our own way as the woodpeckers
whose bright red crests and red mustaches glint against the flourishing bittersweet we say we should but never will rip out.
Throughout the thirty-six poems of Looking for Luck, Kumin's method is anecdotal and representative. She moves expertly between free verse and formal prosody. Her speaker is stable, instructive, experienced, and much more like a real person than a construct of language. She works, in other words, fruitfully within the mainstream. Occasionally, despite her clear accomplishment, something in Kumin's work leaves me wanting more. I suppose that which we call mannerly or serence in a person can seem, in a poem, safe or usual. I wish Kumin's indignation, every now and then, were closer to anger or fury, her affections more fiery, more obsessed. I wish she approached extremity, oddity, or disorder a touch more willingly. But perhaps that is too uncharacteristic of this fine poet whose use of the plain style seems like a matter of faith. Modesty is a trait she holds high.
SOURCE: Wilhelmus, Tom. “Ranches of Isolation.” Hudson Review 48, no. 1 (spring 1995): 145-52.
[In the following excerpt, Wilhelmus evaluates Women, Animals, and Vegetables in terms of the relationship between isolation and the creative process.]
[Maxine] Kumin's new book Women, Animals, and Vegetables: Essays and Stories creates a convincing portrait of a woman who seems to have gone Yeats one better, creating perfection of the work as well as the life, or at the very least has demonstrated how the two in rare instances may coincide. Having moved twenty years ago from suburban Boston to a New Hampshire farm, for reasons detailed in the essay “Long Road to an Upland Farm,” she has also demonstrated how isolation itself and an attentive reflection on the tasks of everyday life, are conducive to the creative process, an issue discussed in another essay entitled “Menial Labor and the Muse.”
For people who do not care about how art and life are related or who are likely to dispute the comforts of horses, dogs, jam, mushrooms, and country life in general, this book may seem to contain a bit too much granola or be a bit too recondite and tame. Nonetheless, the care Kumin brings to the work would grace any profession, and the details, descriptions, and advice regarding such things as the care, feeding, training, breeding, and parturition of horses, the raising of mushrooms or exotic vegetables, or the making of jam are precise, informative, and practical (many of them originally appeared in magazines like Country Journal, Countryside, and Organic Gardening).
At the same time, they bring an outlook to these practices that is arcadian in flavor and intention. By example if not by pronouncement, Kumin reminds us of the close relationship between poetry and pastoral, and while the times are not receptive to the connection, in some fashion these essays are her Works and Days and lend substance to her conviction that her writing “depends on the well-being that devolves from” a list of “chores undertaken and completed,” on “contentment in isolation [which] pervades every good working day,” and on “the haunting appeal of enclosure, the mindless suspension of doing simple, repetitive tasks … that allows those free-associative leaps out of which a poem may occasionally come.”
From these reflections it is but a simple, though necessary, step to the stories, which extend the values of the life she describes in the essays to scenes and situations which both challenge and confirm their assumptions. Introduced by a quote she has borrowed from Virginia Woolf that “Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners,” several of the stories make a direct reference to the values Kumin has learned from farm life and from living closely with the cycle of nature. These include “Solstice,” which is about the process of grieving compensated for by service to the environment, and “The Cassandra Effect,” about a case of olfactory hysteria originating in unresolved conflicts from childhood, compensated for by a love of horses. More generalized are stories which deal with family conflicts through several generations, particularly of women, where the need for some kind of retreat, usually into nature or the natural, balances the disruptions and distortions of contemporary life. For example, “Beginning with Gussie” is a story about three generations of independent, professional women—mother, daughter, and granddaughter—whose very independence threatens their relationship until a birth draws them together. Such a bond, originating in mutual need and mutual affection, may even span the gulf between a hunter and a radical environmentalist, whose love affair in “The Match” seems natural despite their conflicting political philosophies. And the final story, “Flotation Devices,” originally published in this magazine, is about a snorkeling expedition and three professional women who get separated from their group and wind up stranded on a rock—an understated study in resourcefulness, truth discovered in isolation, and solace in shared response: which is, after all, a sensible description of its author.
SOURCE: Reedy, Penelope. Review of Women, Animals, and Vegetables, by Maxine Kumin. Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 4 (fall 1996): 599-600.
[In the following review, Reedy examines the eastern American biases and upper-class assumptions that she finds in Women, Animals, and Vegetables.]
Maxine Kumin writes her stories and essays [in Women, Animals, and Vegetables] from the perspective of a well-heeled minor eastern American aristocrat; she is a “gentleman farmer” in all aspects of the term. As with most vocal animal rights activists, funding for her very expensive animal projects, especially horses, obviously comes from sources other than the piece of land that she inhabits, and she is quick to criticize animal owners who do not share her economic advantages, and therefore her philosophy. Her prose is meticulously politically correct, and from my perspective, that is, one who has butchered hundreds of chickens via ax and feels quite naturally balanced about it, she's a bit too “gushy.”
In “Have Saddle, Will Travel,” Kumin is “cursing absentee animal ownership” in the “depleted, if not dead” Texas landscape when she and an acquaintance rescue a stuck llama. As a fourth-generation western American, I found myself resenting these assumptions about people and circumstances she has only observed superficially while on a lecture/reading tour. Westerners have suffered this form of “drive-by” ridicule ever since easterners (Owen Wister, Ned Buntline, et al.) invented the “western.” She and others of this ilk treat the West as if real people with real economic concerns don't live here. Contrary to advertising hype, the West is NOT merely a playground, nor are our arid areas “wastelands,” nor are all of its inhabitants unenlightened boors.
I too am a writer/poet, but my words are not idylls celebrating the emotional foibles of a leisured class who can afford to “get away” and have “contacts” in exotic places to ease the grieving process (“Solstice”). Some of us believe we must stay put and hold our universes together or lose what little the system has allotted us.
Kumin's fictions are the most powerful section of this collection. And since they are coupled with essays, the reader wonders how much is “real” autobiography in spite of the crafty arrangement of events and dialogue. She is a gifted “nature” writer, but to celebrate her subjects as representative of contemporary American life is to whitewash the totality of the experience and, in my opinion, contributes to blaming and dismissing the disenfranchised, the poor, the homeless—who exist BECAUSE of the very economic structures that feed Kumin's purebred horses.
And what does Ivy League name-dropping mean to those of us who are either self-educated (due to the wonders of the intellectual “equalizing” nature of our national library system) or can only afford state and/or community college educations? The mere fact of the existence of this beautifully produced book dangerously crowds out other, perhaps more authoritative, rural voices. Women, Animals, and Vegetables, regardless of its inert literary quality, perpetuates the false myth of generalized American affluence.
Of Kumin's stories, I liked “Beginning with Gussie” best—maybe because my own recent experiences have rendered me sensitive to lineage, love, and procreation. And at least in this story, Kumin isn't having one of her silly conversations with “Mr. Ed.”
I don't want to be mean-spirited. Kumin's book is all right; it just doesn't sing to me in terms of my own lower-class struggles with life, love, survival, education, etc. And ultimately, what do stories, poems and essays matter since most of America sits mesmerized by the blue hum of television pap? It's just that I want literature to mean something again. I keep hearing Lawrence Ferlinghetti's voice thundering in my head, “I am waiting for someone / to really discover America / and wail” (“I am Waiting,” These Are My Rivers 101).
SOURCE: McDowell, Robert. “Poetry Chronicle.” Hudson Review 50, no. 1 (spring 1997): 137-38.
[In the following excerpt, McDowell considers the honest intimacy of Connecting the Dots.]
Maxine Kumin's eleventh book of poetry, Connecting the Dots, will do nothing to diminish her considerable reputation. Here is a remarkable journey. The most talented survivor of the generation of self-destructive poets (Berryman, Jarrell, Lowell, Plath, Sexton), Kumin has lived long enough, and written well enough, to achieve that most elusive, coveted prize: composing one's best poems in the latter stage of one's life. She has written wiser, more generous, and mature poems than any of her long-departed peers. Especially in the poems of the last ten years, Kumin has grown into the first rank of American poets.
In this new volume, her intelligence, compassion, liveliness, and skill are everywhere apparent. Personal moments in the poet's life expand to universal experience. This is so in the epistolary sequence to her late mother, the poem to her daughter working in Bosnia; it is true in the intriguing rhymes of “The Height of the Season,” in the perfect snapshot, “After the Heat Wave,” and in the compact, poignant “Vignette” (a must-read for parents and children contending with Attention Deficit Disorder); it is there, too, in “Chores,” a love poem about working together:
… I hope in the afterlife there's none of this stuff he says, stripping nude in the late September Sun while I broom off his jeans, his sweater flocked with granules, his immersed-in-sawdust socks. I hope there's no bedding, no stalls, no barn …
But after a Bloody Mary on the terrace … he says let's walk up to the field and catch the sunset and off we go, couple of aging fools.
I hope, he says, on the other side there's a lot less work, but just in case I'm bringing tools.
Kumin is also capable of assuming the role of other characters, as in the relaxed, homespun monologue, “The Last Words of Henry Manley,” and “The Bridge-Builder,” a five-page poem in the voice of Charles Ellet, Jr., designer of the suspension bridge over Niagara Falls, on the occasion of testing the span in 1848 with a horse and cart.
If any mood dominates this collection, it is one of looking back and summing up. As I began to read through these poems I thought, “She's working up to prophecy.” Later, I realized that the accumulation of Kumin's work is prophecy. This is the reward, perhaps, of a life lived honestly and well.
SOURCE: Buttel, Robert. “Sentimental Journey.” American Book Review 18, no. 4 (May-June 1997): 25.
[In the following review, Buttel examines the themes, tone, and structure of Connecting the Dots.]
In this eleventh collection of her poems, [Connecting the Dots] Maxine Kumin continues in a vein that has become familiar to her readers. These poems do not bristle with avant garde initiatives (nor should we require them to). The satisfactions come, rather, from attending to the accounts of a humane and intelligent observer whose love for children, family members, dogs, bears, and horses is boundless. Her heart quickens for the afflicted, the lost, and those victimized by hate and violence. At the same time, she admires skill, expertise, and order, as in the performance of music, the making of jam, and the building of the bridge at Niagara Falls in 1848—or, as indicated in the title poem of this volume, the ability to connect the dots, to organize the details of everyday existence, and, further, by implication, to take responsibility in the course of time and change for shaping one's life. Kumin reveals much about herself without being searingly confessional. She has cultivated a colloquial ease that fits smoothly into loosely formal patterns. Parallel to this stylistic interweaving, and one of the chief distinguishing marks of her verse, is the juxtaposing of seemingly trivial and anecdotal details with more serious preoccupations. Her voice is thoughtful, open, wryly amused at times, and often wise. When ironic, she is more playful than caustic.
“Youth Orchestra, With Dogs,” a typical Kumin poem, mixes reminders of the evils of war with the confused and partly humorous preparations for a concert. It begins: “On the day that Sarajevo falls / a gang of music-loving mongrels / scraggy, loosely arranged / and mysteriously ownerless / lolls panting by the junior harpist / who plucks bright sprigs of Vivaldi. …” When the musicians begin performing, “Mahler is ragged. A smoother Mozart. /. … / Such concentration is required / to stay in time. …” Here, the speaker herself drifts out of present time and recalls “Years ago” when she “ferried drums, cellos, children / to rehearsals, saved seven dogs / the pound prepared to gas, took in / A foster son thrust up by an earlier war. …” Then with shocking detail the horror of war intrudes upon her consciousness and her enjoyment of the peaceful University of the South campus scene in which the gothic arches create a protective “medieval surround”: “What was it the freelance photographer / said in her helmet and flak vest? We / zoomed in on exploded arms and legs, / instant orphans, blownup pets / and god! who cares?” (italics in poem). In the final stanza, however, peace and harmony in contrast to religious, gender, and racial divisiveness (the very divisiveness which stirs up wars) assert themselves, as the various instruments and the cultural diversity of the players come together in unison and symbolic renewal “Here on the Episcopalian plain / that once shunned women, Jews, and colored skin, / an orchestra containing all assembles. / The first violinist, sincerely / sixteen in a Laura Ashley print, / arrives on stage to modest applause. / The Adam's-apple conductor raises / his baton. Members in vigorous unison / embark on Copland's ‘Appalachian Spring.’”
This is all ably managed, with the light, buoyant tone associated with this college campus version of pastoral sharply contrasted with the dark reminders of war. But a question does arise: How with the rage of war can the sweet, innocent charm of the occasion, accentuated by the “Laura Ashley print,” hold a plea? The answer may well be that Kumin wanted precisely to show how fragile the beauty is (“Such concentration is required / to stay in time”), an evanescent civilized harmony in the midst of wars that have erupted throughout history. Another, more serious question: does the speaker wear her sympathy and virtue too much on her sleeve? Here, I think, the stress on the nobility of her actions, her big-heartedness, undermines the tricky but effective counterpoint of tones in the poem. Such speakers are common in Kumin's poems and they tend to become problematical when their sympathies are highlighted.
In each case, a question of aesthetic control arises. For example, the speaker's sympathy is certainly aroused in “Vignette,” a partially rhyming sonnet which describes the departure every morning of Emmet on the Head Start bus and his return every afternoon. Emmet “suffers from attention / deficit disorder but loves the schoolyard / slides and swings, lunchtime, and Sue, his driver.” On his returns home the horse, “old foundered Radar / uproots himself from the muck of his pasture / and focuses his one good eye uphill. / The van pulls over. Emmet, clutching the apple / Sue unfailingly provides, / scrambles over the sagging fence rail.” As boy and horse connect, the poem concludes, “No attention deficit on either side.” Love prevails: Emmet's for Sue, Sue's for Emmet; Emmet's for Radar, Radar's for Emmet. It cuts through the psychological jargon of “attention deficit disorder.” Indeed, love is part of an enabling order—the routine of departing and return and the pattern of expectations met and fulfilled. The dots are connected. Both Emmet and the horse are handicapped, and appropriately live on Poorhouse Road, but they are rich emotionally. How easy for all this to slip over the edge into the slough of sentimentality. Some readers might claim that it does; a matter of taste is involved here. For me, the poem is saved, partly because of the reciprocal ordering and balancing of details (“Emmet, who is first on / and last off”; “Every morning” and “Every afternoon”) but mostly because the speaker's big heart is not on display.
If Kumin tends to be overly fond of speakers whose hearts are so obviously in the right place, so tender and loving that the threat of sentimentality hovers over the poems (reading a large number of these poems at a sitting emphasizes the problem), the volume nevertheless contains a high proportion of excellent poems, in some of which the speakers are other than the sympathetic maternal figure—the “farm-raised” Dalmatian in “Gus Speaks,” for example, who “ran with the horses” and now lies “under the grasses / they crop, my own swift horses / who start up and spook in the rain / without me, the warm summer rain.” The poignancy here seems more affecting for the distancing device of having Gus speak his own epitaph. But even in a poem—“The Word”—in which the animal-loving speaker is like a female St. Francis (“Watch me / mornings when I fill the cylinders / with sunflower seeds, see how the chickadees / and lesser redbreasted nuthatches crowd / onto my arm …”), Kumin can be compelling. Here, the speaker yearns to comprehend the language a vixen uses in the education of her kits, especially the word she uses to bring them out of their burrow:
Its sound is o-shaped and unencumbered, the see-through color of river, airy as the topmost evergreen fingers and soft as pine duff underfoot where the doe lies down out of sight; take me in, tell me the word.
This lover of nature articulates exquisitely her awareness that human knowledge can never connect fully with the otherness of the animal world, however much she bonds with her horse that she is riding, however tantalizingly close she is to grasping the word.
SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. Review of Connecting the Dots, by Maxine Kumin. Georgia Review 51, no. 2 (summer 1997): 340-44.
[In the following excerpt, Kitchen commends the spirit of Connecting the Dots, praising Kumin's rejuvenation and urgency in such familiar themes as nature, survival, and memory.]
Maxine Kumin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1973. She served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1981, and in 1995 she became a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Connecting the Dots is her eleventh collection of poetry. The book's dust jacket suggests that she “expands on themes that have engaged her most strongly,” but I would suggest that, though this is certainly true, there's more than expansion going on. There's a kind of rejuvenation. These poems have the energy and urgency of youth; they are active more than reflective, leaving the reflection to take place after the fact, in the mind of the reader. Even memory seems to reside very close to the surface in this new collection.
Kumin's poems have always been toughly clearsighted; nature, for her, is wonderfully complicated and complicating, never romanticized. And humanity is seen as part of nature. Connecting the Dots opens with a crown of sonnets called “Letters,” placing the emphasis on the human. The letters are, if anything, silent missives written to a deceased mother who might or might not have understood them, a recitation of the poet's thorny, shifting relationship with her mother until they eventually “pulled even,” and a retrospective appreciation that leads, full circle, to the final line where the mother sends a brief message to the daughter. Because of the circular motion of the repeated lines in a sonnet cycle, the first and last lines combine to acknowledge—at last—a reciprocated love. From this perspective, the speaker launches a series of poems in which she links her life not only to her parents but to her children and grandchildren, then enlarges the circle by finding connections with other poets, friends, neighbors, historical figures, animals—in short, everyone and everything. A good example of this panoramic view comes at the end of “Rehearsing for the Final Reckoning in Boston,” where the Berlioz Requiem is filling the Symphony Hall:
Like a Janus head looking backward and forward, pockmarked by doubt I slip between cymbals to the other side of the century where our children's children's children ride out on the ranting brasses.
Kumin's poems assume continuity. That is the backdrop against which she can voice her religious doubts and her principled beliefs.
“After the Cleansing of Bosnia” sees those beliefs mirrored, even magnified, in her daughter's chosen mission with the UN in war-torn countries (this time Bosnia), but the poem moves ever outward to its enigmatic ending in the dream of an owl with a mouse in its talons:
We saw there was no obstacle he-who-looks-behind-without-looking, he-who-looks-ahead-without-blinking could not thread through, backward or forward, and we were falsely comforted.
In some ways Kumin also appears to have set herself the task of unblinkingly looking both backward and forward in order to assess and repossess the world. In the book's last section (but at the emotional center), two poems about her friendship with Anne Sexton are seminal, possibly even the source of Kumin's newfound energy. The first, “New Year's Eve 1959,” recalls Sexton dancing with Jack Geiger, the “Physician / for Social Responsibility.” Anne kicks off her shoes, and the dance (“setting all eight gores of her skirt / twirling”) begins. But the scene is replayed in memory, and the poet gives the evening a context it didn't have when the notes of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” filled the room. “This was after Seoul and before Saigon,” she says, placing the moment in the flow of human history, placing herself in the role of observer and, even, in the role of survivor:
madcap Anne long dead now and Jack snowily balding who led the drive to halt the bomb and I alone am saved to tell you how they could jive.
“October, Yellowstone Park” follows directly—elegantly formal in its rhymed and slant-rhymed (abba) quatrains—as an elegy to Sexton on the seventeenth anniversary of her death, but also as an affirmation: “Of sane mind / and body aged but whole I stand by the sign / that says we are halfway between the equator // and the North Pole.” At the halfway point of the poem, in full sun, on the 45th parallel, Kumin (as woman, as friend, as poet—but not as “speaker,” which would distance her from her own lived life) declares:
Fair warning, Anne, there will be no more elegies, no more direct-address songs conferring the tang of loss, its bitter flavor as palpable as alum on the tongue.
Despite her assertion, she lapses almost instantly into direct address:
I've come this whole hard way alone to an upthrust slate above a brace of eagles launched in flight only to teeter, my equilibrium
undone by memory. I want to fling your cigarette- and whiskey-hoarse chuckle that hangs on inside me down the back wall over Biscuit Basin. I want the painting
below to take me in. My world that threatened to stop the day you stopped, faltered and then resumed, unutterably altered. Where wildfires crisped its hide and blackened
whole vistas, new life inched in. My map blooms with low growth, sturdier than before. Thus I abstain, I will not sing, except of the elk and his harem who lie down in grandeur …
Even the rhyme scheme is altered; it shifts dizzily through a series of permutations, then resumes for the final stanza. Kumin moves from the tang of personal loss toward incantation. Her declaration of independence ends with a vision of Sexton hammered into memory. But the residual—and enduring—image is the sweep of Yellowstone and its resolute regeneration.
The present-tense immediacy of the poem brings it close to the reader, even as the formal aspects allow the writer a certain distance from the material. The result is a tension that energizes the work. It is experiential, not referential. The book's two sestinas—one early on, one after the poems about Sexton—also benefit from the constraints of form. “In Praise of the New Transfer Station” may be the only poem to celebrate a dump since Wallace Stevens did it—and what a dump this is! Kumin remembers the “pre-ecological days” when it was actually called a dump, but now recycling makes for a social occasion. This poem is pure fun—and its repetitions are so subtle that at least this reader was brought up short at the final three lines, suddenly (and only then) made aware of the form.
“The Riddle of Noah” is more noticeably a sestina from the beginning, so Kumin feels free to take liberties with the words, substituting rhymes, antonyms, and combinations to form an intricate network of sound and association which can sustain the content without trivializing it. Spoken directly to her grandson (“You want to change your name”), the poem moves from the child's wish for another name to a memory of the poet's brother (who did actually change his name) and then on to its central memory:
The names that we go by are nothing compared to the names we are called. Christ killer! they mocked and stoned me with quinces in my bland-looking suburb. Why didn't I tattle, resist? I guessed I was guilty, the only kid on my manicured block
who didn't know how to genuflect as we lock- stepped to chapel at noontime.
Again, the present-tense framework of the poem, combined with past-tense recollection, revivifies memory. Present and past exist simultaneously. The logic of association governs the poem and allows for its surprising turns, as it moves well beyond personal memory into a shared history that implicates not only the present but the future:
Spared being burned at the stake, being starved or gassed, like Xuan Loc, Noah is fated to make his mark, suffer for grace through good works, aspire to something. Half-Jewish, half-Christian, he will own his name, will unlock the riddle of who he is: only child, in equal measure blessed and damned to be inward-looking,
always slightly aslant the mark, like Xuan Loc. Always playing for keeps, for all or nothing in quest of his rightful self while the world looks on.
And so Connecting the Dots concludes by filling in the picture. From Kumin's vantage, looking at the progress of time, the world requires balance. On the day Sarajevo falls, she appreciates the music of a student orchestra. There's continuity in the changing seasons, the sense of the seed's tenacity even as she tucks the garden in for the winter. And always there's the word: reading Hopkins, she finds the “priest's sprung metronome” keeping descriptive time with the emerging landscape; poised on horseback, she sees a fox with its brood, wishing she possessed the word the vixen uses to call her young out of the den:
Its sound is o-shaped and unencumbered, the see-through color of river, airy as the topmost evergreen fingers and soft as pine duff underfoot where the doe lies down out of sight; take me in, tell me the word.
Kumin's own words feel unencumbered—lithe, shaped, charged with purpose.
Maxine Kumin has achieved by now a kind of wisdom based in honesty and grounded in her love of nature—her appreciation of its fruitfulness, its unruliness, its almost willed persistence. Her poems ask us to assess them in a complex manner, employing our intellect, our sense of form, even the biographical knowledge she has shared with us in other books over the years. For those interested in Kumin's overall accomplishment, Selected Poems, 1960-1990 (covering work from her first nine books) has just been published by W. W. Norton, and a collection of critical essays, Telling the Barn Swallow: Poets on the Poetry of Maxine Kumin, edited by Emily Grosholz, was recently issued by University Press of New England. But there's nothing retrospective about Connecting the Dots; it has the feel of the transitional, building on and extending the themes of earlier work even as it seems to be embarking on a new venture characterized by an active voice and a genuine curiosity about the future. Kumin teaches us, by example, to survive.
SOURCE: Tillinghast, Richard, “Natural Virtues.” New York Times Book Review (3 August 1997): 10.
[In the following review, Tillinghast surveys Selected Poems, 1960-1990, assessing Kumin's contributions to “nature” poetry.]
This selection of work [Selected Poems, 1960-1990] by Maxine Kumin from a 30-year writing career will be a welcome addition to any poetry library. Her poems bracingly remind us of several enduring virtues valued by anyone who reads verse for pleasure. First, like today's most vital and interesting poets, Kumin is neither a full-time “formalist” nor a practitioner of the monotonous free-verse “plain style” many of her contemporaries have been stuck in since the 1960's. She has the versatility to build an orderly, measured structure in rhyme and meter, or to adopt the easier virtues of free verse for a more transient, informal effect when she chooses to do so.
Second, her poems are about something. They often tell stories, and many of those serve the function of preserving family history. It's a family history worth preserving, involving a familiar journey to the New World from turn-of-the-century Europe. Leafing through an old Baedeker, the poet comments:
One of my grandfathers is in here somewhere living in three rooms over his tailor shop on the Judengasse in Salzburg or Prague, stitching up frock coats on Jew Alley in Pilsen, or in the mews of Vienna's Old Quarter.
The American part of the story is also familiar:
Pa, ascending among the nouveaux riches on Wall Street specs, is seldom home. Released from baby-tending
by a starchy Nanny, Momma finds renown as a demon shopper.
The familiarity of the material does not prevent Kumin from presenting it vividly. The lines just quoted come from a recent long poem, “Marianne, My Mother, and Me,” which narrates the poet's education and development side by side with a portrait of Marianne Moore, seen first “with her bright red hair / in braids wound twice around her head, / as long as that. She's the same age as my mother.” The poem traces Kumin's evolving understanding both of Moore and her own mother as role models and of the lives of these older women as cautionary tales—acknowledged at the end of the poem as “both shapers of my alphabet.”
The nuanced parallels and differences among these three women's lives are delineated in solid eight-line stanzas using the partial rhymes Kumin is adept at; their story traces some of the history of our times from “before the Great War” to the present. Moore chooses an unmarried life, while “My housebound mother, crazed with her first-born, / opens the lid of the Steinway with an axe. … Chopin is packed away. / A wet bar flows in the space of the vanquished Steinway.” Moore's esthetic guardedness challenges the young Kumin: “‘We / must be as clear as our natural reticence / will allow,’ she announces. Rapturously / I try this statement on like a negligee / that's neither diaphanous nor yet opaque.” Later, as Moore's persona becomes fixed as “an eccentric spinster,” Kumin finds: “Strong emotion has no place in her poems / but slithers into every line I touch.” She seeks to steer a course between Moore's chaste caution and artistic independence, on the one hand, and her mother's participation in the messy realities of marriage and family that have cut her off from the artistic and intellectual life.
As good as Kumin is at telling her own family's stories and placing them in context, she stumbles when she ventures into political and cultural commentary. This is not surprising in a poet whose primary loyalties are to the personal narrative, to the natural world, to things that can be touched and tasted and smelled. “Heaven as Anus” has that dated, mildly surrealistic, slightly hysterical tone typical of many poems written in the early 70's, when poets were lining up in opposition to the Vietnam War:
In the Defense Department there is a shop where scientists sew the eyelids of rabbits open lest they blink in the scorch of a nuclear drop
and elsewhere dolphins are being taught to defuse bombs in the mock-up of a harbor.
Her particular scorn fixes on that enduringly easy target intellectuals love to hate: Southern fundamentalism. “The Jesus Infection” is especially meanspirited. This poem about driving in Kentucky behind a truck filled with pigs, sporting a bumper sticker reading “Honk If You Know Jesus,” ends with an egregious slur: “We are going down the valley on a hairpin turn, / the swine and me, we're breakneck in / we're leaning on / the everlasting arms.” The attempt at humor cannot disguise the ugliness of the sentiment; these lines allude to a Protestant hymn, while equating believers with “swine.”
“The Selling of the Slaves,” all black-and-white vice and virtue, likens an auction of brood mares in Kentucky to a slave auction, taking place in what Kumin turns into some kind of evil church. This poem is better thought out and better constructed than others, like “The Jesus Infection” and “Living Alone With Jesus,” but equally informed by regional and religious animus: “In the velvet pews a white-tie congregation / fans itself with the order of the service. / Among them pass the prep-school deacons / in blazers.” We are asked to believe that class, Christianity and patriarchy conspire to mistreat expensive horses: “When money changes hands among men of worth / it is all done with sliding doors and decorum / but snake whips slither behind the curtain.” We hear hisses from the audience, all but audible in the alliteration of “snake whips slither,” a la 19th-century melodrama.
To return to the virtues of her poetry: happily, Kumin's prejudices do not accompany her into the natural world. An early poem, “Watering Trough,” pictures a discarded Victorian bathtub set out in a field for cows and horses to drink from. The poem concludes with the fine simplicity of this invocation:
come slaver the scum of timothy and clover on the cast-iron lip that our grandsires climbed over
and let there be always green water for sipping that muzzles may enter thoughtful and rise dripping.
As precise an elegist as she is an observer of nature, Kumin combines both modes in “Grappling in the Central Blue,” which celebrates the pre-World War II innocence in which “unemployed uncles / hangdog in the yard / playing touch football / shooting squirrels.” The poem rises to a fine apostrophe:
I declare you Month I Will Not Let Go Of October I take you into my arms even as festoons of mushrooms, adorned beneath with accordion-pleated gills attack the punky elms and fasten on their decay.
Kumin speaks to us most strongly when her sympathies are engaged by the natural world, but she by no means fits the stereotype of “nature poet”; she accepts the natural world's predatory side along with its beauty. In “Catchment” a bull mastiff pup that has snatched a doe kid “snapped its neck with one good shake.” In “Encounter in August” she watches with pleasure and doesn't try to interfere when a foraging bear wipes out the beans in her garden: “I find the trade-off fair: / beans and more beans for this hour of bear.”
SOURCE: Howard, Ben. Review of Connecting the Dots, by Maxine Kumin. Poetry 172, no. 3 (June 1998): 165-68.
[In the following review, Howard attributes the thematic coherence and “eclectic curiosity” of Connecting the Dots and Selected Poems to Kumin's “remarkable” consistency with the themes, techniques, and ironic perspectives that distinguish her career.]
“Poetry is like farming,” writes Maxine Kumin. “It's / a calling, it needs constancy, / the deep woods drumming of the grouse, / and long life. …” Kumin's analogy will not suit every poet, but for the former Poet Laureate of New Hampshire, the figure could hardly be more apt. By her own description a “restless Jewish agnostic,” Kumin long ago found a home in the natural world and a secular calling in the literary arts. And in a career spanning more than three decades, she has shown not only constancy but remarkable consistency. From her earliest poems to her most recent, she has held fast to her dominant themes, her inductive methods, and her darkly ironic outlook, which has altered only in the respect that it has become more recognizably itself. At once ardent and sceptical, her vision has grown more stringent over the years, and the strain of social criticism has become more insistent. What has not changed is Kumin's earthy realism, her generous receptivity.
Kumin's Selected Poems harvests the work of nine previous collections. Connecting the Dots presents her most recent poems. Together these volumes illustrate the breadth of the poet's concerns, while also defining her obsessions. As might be expected, the Selected Poems includes such well-known pieces as “The Nightmare Factory,” “Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief,” “The Long Approach,” and “Nurture” It also gathers poems major and minor, grave and slight, on subjects as diverse as dreamlife, country living, swimming, family relations, gardening, horses, war, racial prejudice, social inequity, and the poet's body, which she affectionately dubs Old Paint. Connecting the Dots, though narrower in range, displays a similar catholicity of subject and tone, setting meditations on aging and mortality cheek by jowl with lighter poems, including a posthumous monologue spoken by the poet's dog, a fantasy about doing chores in heaven, and a fairy tale about a princess who marries a bear.
Yet if these collections demonstrate an eclectic curiosity, they also reflect thematic coherence. Over the decades, themes and images recur, accruing meaning and importance. Among the most central is the poet's father, a Philadelphia pawnbroker, to whom she attributes a “love ingrown / tight as an oyster.” No less prominent is the figure of Anne Sexton, Kumin's friend and fellow poet, whose death by suicide left a grief expressed but unassuaged. Rivaling that loss, the departure of a daughter for a life in foreign countries—her “death-by-separation”—occasions some of Kumin's most affecting lines:
I do the same things day by day. They steady me against the wrong turn, the closed-ward babel of anomie. This Friday your letter in thinnest blue script alarms me. Weekly you grow more British with your I shalls and now you're off to Africa or Everest, daughter of the file drawer, citizen of no return.
(“Seeing the Bones”)
Lamenting parental loss, these lines also advance Kumin's continuing dialogue on the theme of mother-daughter relations. Developed in “The Envelope,” “Making the Jam without You,” and other poems, that dialogue coma to full fruition in “Letters,” a recent sonnet-sequence, in which Kumin confronts unhappy memories of her mother:
Your laugh, your scarves, the gloss of your makeup, shallow and vain. I wore your lips, your hair, even the lift of my eyebrows was yours but nothing of you could please me, bitten so deep by the fox of scorn.
From this recollection of the “rage of adolescence,” the sonnet goes on to track the growth of mutual acceptance, as “little by little,” mother's and daughter's lives “pulled up, pulled even.”
It is characteristic of Kumin to have chosen a rigorous traditional form when probing a subject close to the heart. As she explained in an interview, she “almost always put[s] some sort of formal stricture on a deeply felt poem. …” In the passage just quoted, both meter and rhyme are inexact, the third line being an approximate pentameter and hair/yours an imperfect rhyme. But whether her adherence to form be loose or strict, Kumin's craft can be felt in the symmetries of her forms and the densities of her textures, as when she speaks of pea-pods' “intricate / nuggety scrota” or describes a toad “lopsidedly hopping until his motor runs out.” Craft is also conspicuous in the endings of Kumin's poems, which close not only with a click but with reverberant finality. “If only they'd all consented to die unseen,” concludes “Woodchucks,” “gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.”
To characterize Kumin as a formalist would not be inaccurate, but neither would it be fair, insofar as that term connotes a subordination of content to an inherited or preconceived form. Kumin's forms are seldom conventional—and almost never predictable. And far from proceeding, a priori, from formal conventions, they appear to have grown from observation or, as often, from factual information. “It seems important to have the facts,” Kumin has insisted, “partly for accuracy and partly out of inquisitiveness”; and if the influences of earlier American realists—Lowell, Bishop, Sexton, Moore—can be found in Kumin's poems, so can the presence of Joe Friday, with his deadpan demeanor and his relentless demand for the facts.
The chief danger in Kumin's empirical approach is that it will produce fact-laden, literal poems, long on actuality but short on imaginative transformation. From time to time Kumin succumbs to chat pitfall, and her poems read less like lyric poetry than essays in verse. But in her most convincing work, Kumin allows the literal fact to become a natural symbol, as in “Splitting Wood at Six Above,” where the split wood calls to mind the release of Anne Sexton's “stubbornly airborne soul.” Or, as in “The Bangkok Gong,” she employs realistic detail to explore a complex emotional state:
When barely touched it imitates the deep nicker the mare makes swiveling her neck watching the foal swim out of her body. She speaks to it even as she pushes the hindlegs clear. Come to me is her message as they curl to reach each other.
Describing an object brought back by her daughter from the Third World, these lines express restrained emotion through precise description.
Forceful though it is, “The Bangkok Gong” leaves an impression of radical unease. Its tensions are articulated but not resolved. That quality of irresolution, ubiquitous in Kumin's poems, is at once their strength and their limitation, lending an ambience of intellectual honesty, on the one hand, and of spiritual uncertainty, on the other. The latter quality assumes the foreground in Kumin's poems on religious subjects, particularly “In the Absence of Bliss,” where she propounds an unanswered question: “[W]hat would / I die for an reciting what?” Reading the last line of diet poem (“No answers. Only questions.”), one is reminded of Patrick Kavanagh's remark in “Poetry and Pietism”: “It appears to me that we cannot go on much longer without finding an underlying faith upon which to build our world of letters.” But if Kavanagh's remark poses a pertinent challenge to Kumin's honest doubt, that challenge does not go unanswered in her art. “The only sanctity, really, for me,” Kumin has said, “is the sanctity of language.” And if her poems sometimes leave one's deeper appetites unsatisfied, her adroit and passionate language offers sustenance of another kind. A believer in the world's redemptive power, she has not failed to keep the faith.
SOURCE: St. Andrews, B. A. Review of Selected Poems, 1960-1990, by Maxine Kumin. World Literature Today 72, no. 3 (summer 1998): 623.
[In the following review, St. Andrews assesses Selected Poems within the context of Kumin's career.]
Back in the good old days when Maxine Kumin won the Pulitzer Prize for Up Country (1973), being a nature poet was almost to be expected for females. In fact, nature imagery has served not only Emily Dickinson but every other modern poet from Robinson Jeffers to Mary Oliver. Yet Kumin was, even back then, more than the usual categorical imperatives: New England farmer, naturalist, Jewish-American, woman poet.
To put this simply, Maxine Kumin is and has long been a writer's writer, composing not only a dozen books of poetry (the most recent of which is Connecting the Dots, 1997) but also four novels and a new prose collection. Women, Animals, and Vegetables. The Pulitzer and other honors including the Aiken/Taylor Award for Modern Poetry attest to the fact that Kumin has added a dimension to the relationship between humans and creatures: some precision, some unexpected juxtapositions, some honed edge to the usual animistic reverence.
For one thing, her poems counterpointed soil and spirit in oddly vivid and informing phrases. In her poem to a root cellar (selected from House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate) “parsnips, those rabbis / have braided their beards together / to examine the text. The word / that engrosses them is: February.”
The honors she has received (being appointed Consultant to the Library of Congress, Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and New Hampshire Poet Laureate) affirm her keen-eyed, unsentimentalized kinship with the world of gassed woodchucks and “the language of April.” Kumin is indeed a nature poet. And so much more. When she first went off to farm horses in the 1970s, readers and critics had yet to realize fully just how frail Earth's ecosystem was and how prophetic and elegiac the cautionary voices of poets like Maxine Kumin were becoming.
She has remained alert, aware of the flowering green line that leads us all back to Thoreau, back to our uncles and lost mothers and comrades. In “Apostrophe to a Dead Friend” she explains aging and a surcease of sexual sorrows to one who died too young to know or accept the fuller facts of life: “that men have grown smaller, drier, / easier to refuse. / Passion subsides like a sunset.”
One hears neither disenchantment nor romanticism in the poems of Maxine Kumin. Her poems of life, of Earth and its creatures are not spells cast in a fairy kingdom. Rather, her creative landscape is a solid, sacred place where the rituals of life, love, and death are performed purely: “Even knowing / that none of us can catch up … / we are making a run / for it. Love, we are making a run.” Reading Kumin's Selected Poems, 1960-1990 constitutes an act of pure connection.
SOURCE: Barrington, Judith. “Charmed Life.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 7 (April 2001): 6.
[In the following positive review, Barrington examines the appeal of Always Beginning and Inside the Halo and Beyond.]
I recently had the pleasure of re-reading Virginia Woolf's essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” Nowadays, it is unfashionable to tell anyone how they “should” do anything, but Woolf had no such inhibitions. As she pointed out, readers do sometimes miss the delicious heart of a book because they are looking for the wrong thing.
Woolf advocates taking from each genre “what it is right that each should give us.” But, she says, “Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices.” Of memoirs and diaries, both of which she wrote, there is no word, although these genres certainly have their share of misguided readers.
People sometimes assume that making literature out of personal writing is easy. While they might be in awe of a poet's language or a novelist's imagination, they believe the journal or memoir to be essentially similar to their own private writings, and read only for juicy personal details, particularly when the writing is by someone they have long admired. They shut out the rhythms of the language, the well-placed image and the perfectly-judged intimacy of the voice—all of which characterize these two works by the eminent poet, Maxine Kumin.
Always Beginning is a collection of Kumin's essays, speeches, reviews, and a long interview, most of which were first published in the 1990s. The collection is substantial, and will call out to admirers of Kumin's twelve collections of poetry, which include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Up Country (Harper, 1973). It will beckon to those who love her essays about the New England farm where she and her husband of 55 years raise horses and organic vegetables. It will attract those who are interested in her close friendship with Anne Sexton and the ways in which these two ground-breaking, feminist poets supported one another as they broke with tradition by daring to focus their poetry on themselves and their womanly view of the world. Some readers will come to this collection with an admiration for the staunch, but not showy, political perspective in Kumin's life and work (in 1998 she resigned as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets to protest its then appalling lack of diversity).
But no matter how the reader arrives here, she will almost certainly find herself enchanted by sections of the book that fall outside her original area of interest. The gardeners, for example, may surprise themselves by enjoying (and understanding) the section on prosody; and the poets, like me, will find themselves making notes on composting for those raised beds we've been thinking about for so long. Essays of various lengths address motherhood, swimming (Kumin was a serious long-distance swimmer), literary mentors and the Sexton friendship. One section comments on the work of Marianne Moore, Josephine Jacobsen, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost, while another explains Kumin's well-known attachment to traditional or adapted metrical forms, as well as the function of dreams in her work. In this section, too, she comments on some of her own poems, which allows the retrospective voice of memoir to enter:
Now, looking back at “Poem for My Son,” I reenter the struggle against the soft edge of sentimentality that I fear flaws many of my early poems. I have spent thirty-five years paring expressions of love and commitment down to the bone. Today, I would never permit myself the next-to-last line of the poem …
One poem that she looks at in some detail is “For Anne at Passover,” which weaves together elements of the Passover Seder with Christian symbols of Easter. Her comments begin with a quote from an old review of Halfway, the book in which the poem first appeared (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961). The anonymous reviewer complains that the cover material mentions Kumin's “Jewish heritage,” claims that Kumin's Jewishness does not affect her rhetoric, and dismisses such Jewish details as do enter her poems (a Menorah; a Torah) as “New Yorker-ish exotica.” Kumin responds by describing her observant Reform Jewish childhood. Her slightly defensive tone here (“Interested readers can follow the thread of my self-declared Jewish heritage through a spectrum of other poems …”) saddens me, since Kumin, in fact, never minimizes her Jewishness, but seems to remain true to its actual importance in her life—sometimes relevant, sometimes not.
Kumin's feminism, too, remains an undercurrent, only occasionally becoming the focus of her attention—as in the PEN address explaining her resignation from the Academy of American Poets. But reminiscences reveal the early instinctive feminism that forged an unusually egalitarian marriage, and she is generous in attributing to the feminist movement her later consciousness about both the past and the present. Looking back on the poetry scene that she and Sexton experienced in the fifties, she can now see what was invisible at the time: “Told ‘You write like a man,’ we took it for the supreme compliment that it was. I don't know the source of the saying ‘There was a man so poor he fell in love with jail’ but it exactly fit our situation.” She tells, too, of being told by John Ciardi, poetry editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, “I'd love to publish one of the poems in this batch, but I published a woman last month …” This, says Kumin with the irony of hindsight, struck her as entirely reasonable.
One of the most impassioned pieces in the book, “Premonitory Shiver,” was given as the keynote address to a writers' conference in 1998. Paying tribute to the writings of the late Terrence Des Pres, Kumin exhorts poets, while not turning away from the personal details of their lives, to venture into the largest, most difficult subjects: nuclear threat, war and genocide. Poets, she says, must name the things of everyday life: “‘house, bridge, fountain, gate, jar, fruit tree, window,’ as Rilke says, ‘in such a way that even the things themselves never hoped to exist so intensely.’” But naming, in this nuclear age, must expand to embrace a wider vision. “For those of us,” she concludes, “who read the Book of Genesis as mythic, its metaphor for the beginning of life arouses in us a vivid premonition of its ending. I think we must now address this premonitory shiver.”
Given that this speech was made on May 14th, 1998, the “premonitory shiver” about life's ending acquires an extraordinary personal dimension: less than ten weeks later, Kumin's own life was very nearly ended by an accident which broke her neck. She woke in a hospital inside “the halo”—“a bird cage big enough for a large squawking parrot,” fastened to her skull by four titanium pins. Late in the process of recovery, she was told by the orthopedic surgeon, “Ninety-five percent of people with your fracture never make it to the emergency-room. Ninety-five percent of the ones who do, end up as quadriplegics.” But Kumin's diary-like account, Inside the Halo and Beyond, turns out to be more than an eloquent recital of physical therapy, family support and personal determination through disaster.
Organized under date headings (most written close to the days they describe, thanks to the constant presence of Kumin's daughter, Judith, who took dictation onto a laptop in the hospital room), the book widens its view to include reminiscences about horses, speculation about poetry and pondering on marriage and family. It is an inspiring account of a hard-won recovery, but for me the most telling thread of the book—the piece that so clearly underscores Kumin's character—is the story of her relationship with the horse, Deuter, whose bolting caused the accident.
Though they take up relatively little of the narrative, there are three crucial meetings between the injured poet and her horse. The first takes place on a short visit home from the hospital while she is still pinned into “the halo,” which scares the horse: “… Deuter takes one look at my bird cage, snorts his fear snort, and retreats to the back of the stall. He is unwilling to approach me but flicks an ear in response to my voice.” A page later, she reflects:
I know some people have had a horse put down after such an event because they could not bear to look at him again. Do I forgive Deuter for having almost killed me? Do I love him any less? I forgive him for doing what he could not help doing; there was no malice in his bolting. My affection for him is unchanged and I am confident that so is his for me.
At the second meeting, Deuter “snuggles his head under my armpit in the old way, his standard show of affection, asking to have his ears stroked,” and the poet feeds him carrots. “I take off my useless glove and bury my dead right hand in the fur under Deuter's red mane. His animal warmth comforts me.”
Kumin elegantly describes the experience of rehabilitation, people encountered along the way, and the essential loneliness of the hospital experience, even when supported by a loving family. But ultimately it is a book about courage. That she chooses to end it with a third passage about the horse tells us something important about the place where she finds that courage. From the early masterpiece, “Morning Swim,” in which she describes, in rhyming couplets, a long-distance swim across a lake, to the balanced prose of “Inside the Halo,” she inhabits a world filled with water, animals, pastures and woods, fungi, beans, and even stones that “from time/to time imitate oysters or mushrooms.” This is what she calls her “peaceful kingdom,” from which she ventures out into the “pobiz” circuit, the political arena, and the human world of children, family and friends. When finally she climbs shakily onto Deuter's back, she writes:
I've been planning this for so long! I thought regaining my seat in the saddle would bring with it some sort of epiphany, a revelation of huge consequence. Instead, I feel merely at home. I am back in my peaceful kingdom.
You don't have to have broken your neck, helped a mare give birth, or stayed married to one person for fifty years in order to enter this world. The voice is perfectly judged: friendly enough to invite you into its story, but unlikely to stir up more than a fleeting fantasy of dropping in for tea—finely-judged distance that is crucial to making this kind of art. While Kumin, with her total absence of egotism, may not provoke the excessive adoration of, say, a May Sarton fan, she will, with her measured cadences, always be a true artist.