The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like so much of the poet’s work, Maxine Kumin’s “The Retrieval System” focuses on human-animal interactions. In this case, the poet examines the surprising ways that certain animals remind her of the “lost” people in her life and how these correspondences serve to “retrieve” those individuals.

The first line of the poem sets the pattern. “It begins,” Kumin writes, “with my dog.” The pronoun “it” refers to the system of resemblance that seems to well up from the poet’s subconscious when she is alone. In the first of five stanzas, the poet comments on how her late dog’s brown eyes reminded her of her father, who is also deceased. The eyes of both dog and man shared certain qualities; both were “keen, loving, accepting, sorrowful.”

This linkage leads to another outlined in the second stanza and the first part of the third. Here the poet remarks about how much the “tiny voice” and “terrible breath” of an old goat “who runs free in pasture and stable” remind her of her “former piano teacher// whose bones beat time in [her] dreams.”

This resemblance is, in the third stanza, followed by two more examples of how the poet’s dead family and friends are linked with the “patient domestic beasts” in her life. Kumin writes of how much her “willful/ intelligent ponies” remind her of her “elderly aunts” and how much her cat in “faint chin,” “inscrutable squint,” and cry...

(The entire section is 447 words.)