Maxine Kumin

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What is the poem "How It Is" by Maxine Kumin about? Explain the use of literary devices.

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The poem "How It Is" by Maxine Kumin is about the suicide of Anne Sexton, a close friend of Kumin. They were close to one another in age and would routinely share their poems with one another and critique them and even collaborated on several works. Kumin was the last person to see Sexton alive.

Sexton's blue blazer serves as a metaphor for Sexton herself and her influence on Kumin. It serves as both a reminder of Sexton's presence and of her absence. Sexton committed suicide by putting on her mother's fur coat, drinking vodka, and then sitting in the garage with her car running and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. In the poem, Kumin wishes she could unwind time back to when her friend was alive. She thinks of the death using the metaphor of the collage, with the different elements of the sequence of Sexton's acts being compared to the separate elements that comprise an artistic collage. 

Part of the sense of collage or fragmentation is given by sentence fragments, perhaps the most common lexical deviations of the poems. Examples are the lines beginning with "In the ... In the ... In my ...." Kumin also makes frequent use of the rhetorical device of asyndeton, omitting grammatically expected connective words. 

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In the poem "How It Is" by Maxine Kumin, explain the use of all metaphors, lexical deviations, grammatical deviations and semantic deviations found in the poem. How do these contribute to the meaning of the poem? What are examples of parallelism (lexical, sound, grammatical) found in the poem, and how do they affect the meaning of the poem? Is "they swell like wine bags" a semantic deviation?

Let's start with Kumin's deviations in language and grammar, which are numerous. I also think that we can talk about lexical and semantic deviations simultaneously. There is, after all, the field of lexical semantics, which deals specifically with the meanings of words and phrases in text.

To illustrate the feelings of the narrator in the wake of a loved one's death, Kumin upturns our traditional understanding of what words mean, what they ought to do, and how they ought to be organized. This reshuffling of language parallels the reorganization that occurs in life in the aftermath of a loved one's death.

The first example of semantic deviation occurs at the end of the first stanza: "My skin presses your old outline. / It is hot and dry inside." The narrator has reduced her old friend's jacket, the one she wears "a month after [her] death," to an "old outline." The reference to an outline is especially macabre, as we know that the police make chalk outlines of the deceased in homicide investigations. The narrator's loved one has also died an "unnatural death": a suicide resulting from "the death car idling in the garage." The narrator gives the outline a temperature and interiority: it is hot and dry inside.

Other examples of semantic deviation include the following: "praying hands unlaced" and "a ceremony of sandwich." Choosing the word "unlaced" instead of "folded" gives the friend's hands a limp and fragile quality. The "ceremony of sandwich" occurs on the last day of his or her life, giving something as mundane as the tuna sandwich he or she makes a mortal significance it would not otherwise have. Both phrases occur in a stanza that, grammatically, is a run-on sentence (grammatical deviation):

      I think of the last day of your life,
      old friend, how I would unwind it, paste   
      it together in a different collage,
      back from the death car idling in the garage,   
      back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,   
      reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish   
      into a ceremony of sandwich,
      running the home movie backward to a space   
      we could be easy in, a kitchen place
      with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.
The last day of the friend's life is unwound like a piece of disassembled celluloid that, in reality, cannot be pieced together anywhere except for in the narrator's imagination. She pastes together "a different collage," one in which the friend is still alive, one in which they sit in a kitchen over cocktails, talking, their "words like living meat." The grammatical deviation, in the form of a run-on sentence, reflects the stream-of-consciousness state that allows the narrator to enter this scenario.
Simile is a more common use of figurative language in this poem than metaphor. I would encourage closer attention to those, particularly the one which ends this stanza: "words like living meat." Meat is, of course, the carcass of a dead animal, which makes the use of the modifier "living" a bit oxymoronic here. However, she imagines that, if her friend had lived, their conversation would be as textured and as nourishing as meat.
In the first stanza, the narrator says: "In my heart, a scatter like milkweed, a flinging from the pods of the soul." In this line, there is both simile and metaphor. The simile is "a scatter like milkweed." Reminders of the friend—the parking ticket and a hole in the pocket—resurrect a presence that is not physically there. Thus, her heart becomes fragile in response to the memory, as fragile as milkweed. The feeling is a "flinging"—this motion, which is sudden and violent, is both a lexical deviation and a metaphor in this context, as is the phrase "pods of the soul." "Pod" parallels "heart." A pod is an anatomical pouch from which a life form emerges. A heart, anatomically, resembles a pouch, and, figuratively, contains memories of our loved ones.
The line you cite, "They swell like wine bags," is an example of simile. This is preceded by an example of sound parallelism: "Dear friend, you have excited crowds with your example." The words "excited" and "example" sound similar, and both words stress the first syllable "ex," whose sound suggests, very subtly, 'X,' or the prefix 'ex-," which indicate elimination or the evocation of something taboo. Suicide remains a taboo in our culture.

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