Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief
In a recent collection of essays, To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living (1979), Maxine Kumin refers to certain of her works as “’tribal poems’—poems of kinship and parenting.” Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, a collection of new and selected poems, extends this sense of “tribe” to include everyone in the human family. Composed of selections drawn from more than twenty years of Kumin’s poetry and arranged in reverse chronological order, this book presents particulars which add up to a collective history. In elegies and catalogs of loss, the poet’s sense of mortality is pervasive, yet the larger poem that the book makes is one of preservation, a record of one woman’s growth and experience that serves as a totem for the human tribe.
The opening poem, having the same title as the collection, takes for its title an announcement commonly heard on airplanes; this poem establishes a context for all the poems that follow. The title suggests an immediate metaphor: “ground time” is one’s time on earth, one’s life. Extending the metaphor, Kumin suggests that the fear of flying is the fear of death. She uses the pronouns “our” and “we” to link all those who make this brief stopover, thus extending the tribe. From references to past and future generations in the final two stanzas, the reader can see her continuing concerns with tribal succession and with mortality. The poem closes with the lines: “We gather speed for the last run/ and lift off into the weather”—a movement toward death.
The new poems, twenty-nine in all, explore territory that Kumin has explored in her earlier work: the changing nature of identity as it is defined by relationships, including issues of loss and separation; the depravity of humankind; the joy and salvation to be found in ritual. Familiar characters from earlier poems appear: members of the poet’s family; Anne Sexton, the friend who committed suicide in 1974; Henry Manley, Kumin’s elderly neighbor. The setting remains primarily her New Hampshire farm, although the last poem in the section is located in Washington, D.C., where Kumin spent the year from 1981 to 1982 as Poetry Consultant for the Library of Congress. Reading the new poems is like traveling familiar routes but going farther down the road.
In the majority of new poems, those concerned with family and friends, the poet tries to come to terms with the separation and loss that occurs with either growth or death. “Family Reunion” speaks of grown children returning home for a visit and measuring the parents rather than the reverse: “Wearing our gestures, how wise you grow.” The generations have nearly been spanned, the roles nearly transposed. As Kumin has predicted in earlier poems collected here, “The Envelope” and “The Longing to Be Saved,” parent eventually becomes child again. In “Leaving My Daughter’s House,” the poet speaks of the physical separation from her grown daughter, who lives in Belgium, acknowledging that “I know/ I can’t penetrate my daughter’s life.” Kumin’s poem “The Journey,” included here from her first book, Halfway (1961), suggests a similar message in an address to a daughter who makes a metaphoric journey into adolescence, a territory “where no one charts the laws—/ of course you do not belong to me/ nor I to you.” Even the love poems, “Stopped Time in Blue and Yellow,” “Spending the Night,” and “Continuum: A Love Poem,” are filled with a sense of loss, illustrating Kumin’s contention that “Love poems . . . are elegies because if we were not informed with a sense of dying we wouldn’t be moved to write love poems.” This sense is a continuation of the elegiac tone which pervades such an earlier poem as “After Love,” from The Nightmare Factory (1970).
Dead relatives and friends are also recalled in the new poems. In “February,” the poet takes joy from the ease of her mother’s death, while in a series...
(The entire section is 1,725 words.)