The Retrieval System

by Maxine Winokur

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

From time to time, all people use mnemonic devices to train the memory. There is, for example, the namelike acronym “Roy G. Biv” commonly used by schoolchildren to help them remember the colors of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. In the case of “The Retrieval System,” Kumin develops a system of resemblance between the familiar animals resident on her New Hampshire farm and the significant human beings in her life, now dead. The second and third lines of the fourth stanza provide the poem’s explicit thesis: “it is people who fade,/ it is animals that retrieve them.”

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“The Retrieval System,” the title poem in a 1978 collection by the same name and the poet’s sixth separate volume of verse, deals with a recurring theme in Kumin’s work, the subject of loss. Most notable in this regard are the poet’s many elegies to American confessional poet Anne Sexton, who was Kumin’s closest friend and creative collaborator for seventeen years before her sudden suicide in 1974.

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Kumin’s coping with loss is essentially optimistic. “I don’t want to brood,” she writes in the second line of the fourth stanza. In much of her poetry on this subject, Kumin contends that one can reconnect to the dead through the agency of the imagination, particularly through the exercise of metaphor. At times, the correspondence is humorous, as when the goat’s blat reminds her of her piano teacher; at other times, the correspondence is more poignant, as when the cry of her cat sounds like her little sister in pain. Yet, Kumin does not, in this poem, dwell upon either mood too long, nor does she seem to provide a hierarchy of loss as she moves from father to piano teacher, from aunts to sister, and from boy-lover to dentist. Hers is a democracy of separation and retrieval.

In addition to being part of a long tradition of elegiac verse, “The Retrieval System” is also a good example of what might be termed nature poetry, for it is not just the people who are memorialized in the poem but also the animals. Kumin, who follows in the footsteps of twentieth century American poet Robert Frost in the exploitation of the New England countryside in all seasons, pays as much attention to the animals in her life as she does to the humans that she refers to in her essays as her “tribe.” For example, the dog that calls to mind her late father has eyes whose “phosphorescent gleam” is a “separate gift.” The yearling colt “runs merely to be.” Because of the keenness of the poet’s observational skills, these animals can stand on their own. They are not merely physical receptacles for the imaginative reincarnation of lost family and friends.

It is interesting to note that “The Retrieval System” was written around the time of Kumin’s personal transformation from weekend and summer visitor to permanent resident of rural New Hampshire. Her thoughts on this change are captured in the “Place Where I Live” section of her 1979 collection of essays entitled To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living. These prose pieces are redolent with animal life, particularly in winter, and there are fragments that focus on “beasts” similar to those in the poem, particularly a young horse and a resident owl. Critics have long remarked on the poet’s reverence for animals, either because of their capacity to explain people to themselves or because of their own inherent magic.

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