Maxine Kumin Kumin, Maxine (Vol. 164) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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 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 in Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (2000).

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Grace Schulman (review date 29 November 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

William Dieter (review date November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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:...

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Peg Padnos (review date November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Miller (review date fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bill Christophersen (review date winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leslie Hunt (review date winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Diana Hume George (review date summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Finn Cotter (review date autumn 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Henri Cole (review date April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Diana Hume George (review date May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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David Baker (review date November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom Wilhelmus (review date spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Penelope Reedy (review date fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert McDowell (review date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Buttel (review date May-June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Judith Kitchen (review date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Tillinghast (review date 3 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ben Howard (review date June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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B. A. St. Andrews (review date summer 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Judith Barrington (review date April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 180 words.)