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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Kumin is noted for her formalist approach to poetry, her use of traditional metrical patterns. In the case of “The Retrieval System,” however, the poet experiments with something akin to free verse. Yet, underneath the apparent freedom of her poetic line lies Kumin’s masterful control. She manipulates stanza length, for example, to underscore her theme. The first three stanzas are six lines each, the fourth is eight, and the fifth is nine. Like the accumulating references to the dead, the basic structure of the poem adds increasing weight to the last two stanzas. In effect, the entire poem offers a verbal equivalent to the final image of the shrouding snow.

Another Kumin strength is her careful use of detail. In the third stanza, for example, the poet makes three references to musical selections associated with her late piano teacher. Each is extraordinarily resonant. “Country Gardens” by twentieth century Australian-born American composer Percy Grainger is a piano duet, a fact that underscores the relationship between poet and teacher. The piece is also a tone poem meant to conjure up country life, an apt parallel to Kumin’s bucolic setting. The second musical selection, “Humoresque,” by nineteenth century German composer Robert Schumann, is a piece that calls attention to the shifting moods of Kumin’s poem. As its title indicates, the piano piece is intended to be lively and funny, just like some of the poet’s correspondences,...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

The Retrieval System

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Perhaps because she began her career as a writer of light verse and children’s poetry, Maxine Kumin remains among the most colloquial and accessible of contemporary poets. Her sixth volume of poems, The Retrieval System, speaks with a passionate authority that displays both the maturing of her vision and an impressive refinement of her technical skill. In this volume, as in House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate (1976), she moves beyond the boundaries of her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Up Country: Poems of New England (1973), to a more complex view of the significance of rural life. The pastoral experiences that provided subject matter for Up Country function in this newest book as metaphors and settings for emotion, emotion that resonates far beyond the New Hampshire landscape. Most of the poems that are traditionally pastoral in content—the ones about peepers, wild turkeys, and horses—are gathered into the book’s final section, “The Time on Either Side of Now,” where they offer a partial resolution for the painful conflicts portrayed in the four earlier sections, called “Making the Connection,” “Henry Manley,” “The Envelope,” and “Body and Soul.” Kumin seems to be redefining her use of the events and characters of farm life in her introductory poem, “The Retrieval System”: “Fact: it is the people who fade,/It is animals that retrieve them.” The lines announce that her dominant interests in this volume are not the land and its creatures, but the fact of loss and the process of recovery.

From the outset Kumin locates herself precisely in time: she has reached “Life’s afternoon,” a stage when the soul can humorously address the physical self as “Body, Old Paint, Old Partner” and the two can ride together in “the meander of our middle age.” We recognize immediately both the poet’s dismay at the fact of having aged and her valuing of life’s afternoon as a vantage point from which to move easily through time. In several poems she makes apparently casual references to weather in order to call attention to these deeper mysteries of aging and change. “The Longing to Be Saved” blends phrases from a weather report with a crazy, surrealistic nightmare about saving loved ones and then, inevitably, oneself from a fiery death. In “Changing the Children” a family celebrates with the simplest domestic rituals their pleasure and amazement at being reunited as adults: “We stand in the kitchen/slicing bread, drying spoons,/and tuning in to the weather.” “Sunbathing on a Rooftop in Berkeley” begins with the pretense that “summer is eternal,” a pretense that eventually forces a mother to face the baffling mortality of her grown daughter. Thus Kumin’s clear-eyes attention to the natural world, with its repetitive shifts in weather and season, reminds us of the connections among present, past, and future, connections so complete and so intimate that time occasionally collapses altogether into simultaneity, as is “July, Against Hunger” and “Caught.” This fascination with sameness and change achieves its most intense expression in the poet’s exploration of relationships between parents and children, a subject in which she has been interested. In The Retrieval System the father “who wore hard colors recklessly” appears in a dream; so does the ghost of a dog, who quickly merges with a brother, thereby posing the problem of recognizing one’s present self in the child one once was.

The poet’s handling of the difficult mother-daughter nexus is especially perceptive and deeply felt. The volume is “For my daughters,” and the sections called “Making the Connection” and “The Envelope” deal powerfully with the complexities of this relationship. In “The Longing to Be Saved,” endangered children must be coaxed to jump from a burning barn into the persona’s arms, but when they finally do so, they are transformed into her mother, who must be taken into bed, “an enormous baby/I do not especially want to keep.” “Birthday Poem” records a fantasy of birth: the child, brought in the doctor’s bag, is inserted into its mother’s navel and them swims...

(The entire section is 1715 words.)