Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”

“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.

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 entire section is 589 words.)