The Retrieval System

by Maxine Winokur

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

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 resembles her sister, who died at the age of three.

The fourth stanza continues this pattern of apparently free association. After a brief reference to her sister’s funeral and a quote from the twenty-third psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd,” a subtle reference to the often symbiotic relationship between man and beast, the stanza occupies itself primarily with one poignant correspondence. The poet focuses on a “yearling colt” whose exuberant energy recalls the “cocksure” quality of a boy that the poet once loved but who died thirty years earlier in World War II.

This temporal reference seems to snap the poet out of her reverie temporarily and to bring readers not only to the poem’s present but also to a forecast of what is to come. A television weatherman, who reminds the poet of an owl who has found a home in her barn, outlines current conditions and predicts snow. The weatherman-owl connection, however, leads to another apparently serendipitous linkage. The owl’s face that is both “heart-shaped” and “donnish, bifocaled, kind” conjures up memories of the poet’s late dentist, who filled in one of the poet’s wisdom teeth, just like the snow threatens to fill the “open graves” of memory.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

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, particularly the piano teacher and elderly aunt examples. Yet, at the same time, the reader cannot help but think of the composer’s tragic death in an asylum following a failed suicide by drowning, a reference that may foreshadow the burial at sea of the boy-lover in stanza 4. Finally, there is the “unplayable” music of eighteenth century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, whose work was forgotten for a time only to be resurrected long after his death. This Bach reference underscores the theme of retrieval. The use of the adjective “unplayable” may refer to the fast fingering required of many Baroque keyboard pieces, a tempo at odds with the poet’s prevailing mood of reverie.

Throughout this essentially meditative poem, the principal agency of correspondence is synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part signifies the whole. Thus, a dog’s eyes conjure up memories of the poet’s father. The power of these correspondences comes from the concrete language that the poet employs to describe the animal “features” that “uncannily” come to the surface of her mind when she is alone and offer her a means by which she can be linked to people lost to death. The goat, for example, has “flecked, agate eyes” with “minus-sign pupils.”

The Retrieval System

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1715

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 to the top of her head, where it knocks “to be let out/wherefore her little bald spot.” The birth fantasy takes another shape in “The Envelope,” in which the poet contemplates an odd but familiar psychological reversal: the way all daughters “carry our mothers forth in our bellies” like “those old pear-shaped Russian dolls that open/at the middle to reveal another and another.” The poem suggests that this carrying-forward, this absorption of the mother into the daughter, can provide some opposition to death. But it can also be the source of great pain, as in “Parting.” Here parents and daughter are viewed from a distance as they say goodbye in an airport lounge; their goodbye is a “dangerous struggle” which culminates in yet another birth image as the daughter is “drawn into the silver belly of the jet/and shot from the parents.” Kumin chooses an astronomical metaphor for this family; they are a “constellation,” and their painful separation is not unique to their particular relationship, but a “celestial arrangement” endured by all parents and all children.

Parents may quite justly be angry about losing their children, as they inevitably must; at the same time, Kumin suggests, they may also quite justly be angry at their children for the perversity and independence they display in growing up. “Changing the Children” takes as its subject “the legitimate rage of parents” which transforms a son into crow and toad, a daughter into porcupine and spider. Seen from the vantage point of middle age, these transformations are not only forgivable expressions of parental anger; they also allow parents to turn on their children the very psychological weapons that children themselves repeatedly use. In a much earlier poem, “A Voice from the Roses,” Kumin speaks the misery of a daughter changed into a spider and caught on a thorn, wanting freedom from her mother’s spell. In another earlier poem, “The Fairest One of All,” the persona sees her daughter as Snow White and herself as the wicked stepmother who is “consumed by an inexorable fire” as the daughter watches. But in “Changing the Children” we view the Arachne and Snow White situations from the other side, the parents’ side; we see through the metaphors of enchantment how reversible are the roles of adult and child. We see also that despite legitimate anger and the distress of separation, parents and children may be reconciled: “Eventually we get them back./Now they are grown up./They are much like ourselves.” If this material is the stuff of psychoanalysis as well as of fairy tales, it is also the stuff of our most intimate and puzzling human relationships, and Kumin handles it with a witty and convincing authenticity.

Kumin’s meditations on loss and retrieval, on what she calls “death-by-separation,” are at their finest and most painful in “Progress Report,” “How It Is,” and “Splitting Wood at Six Above,” all poems responding to the suicide of her best friend Anne Sexton. “Progress Report” begins calmly and beautifully with the whiteness of caterpillar tents, apple blossoms, and graying hair; it rises to fury midway through, modulates to a loving, almost comic dream, and ends in angry resolve. In “How It Is” the survivor puts on her dead friend’s blue jacket, discovering a hole in one pocket and a parking ticket in the other, and remembers conversations at the kitchen table, “our words like living meat.” “Splitting Wood at Six Above” investigates the possibility that the souls of trees, and of people, might be released by an ax—or, less violently and abruptly, by time itself—so as to travel through the air. If the absent friend lives, as she clearly does, in memory and dream, then perhaps it is logical that her “stubbornly airborne soul” has reached “the other side” and is “none the worse for its trip.” But the poem offers neither an explicit affirmation of this hope nor a denial of it; rather, the meditation ends by exposing the living grief of the wood-chopper: “It is the sound/of your going I drive/into heartwood. I stack/my quartered cuts bark down,/open yellow-face up.”

While the anger and pain in these poems is intense, as a whole The Retrieval System attempts to move beyond the tallying of losses. The poet muses over and then rejects the Egyptians’ “adamantine faith/in total resurrection.” Her own faith comes finally to rest not in any spiritual afterlife but in the palpable, natural world whose most humble and fundamental processes insist on continuity. In “Progress Report” the reappearance of last year’s scarlet tanager gives “a rakish permanence/to the idea of going on without you.” The volume’s final poem, “A Mortal Day of No Surprises,” catalogs the events of an ordinary day on the farm—the weeding of the garden, the eviction of a frog from a bathtub watering trough, the coping with a mare in heat. This poem makes clear that while people do fade and die, while all are, eventually, lost, still the parent is carried forth in the belly of the child, still “all things animal/and unsurprised will carry on.” Ending as it does, Kumin’s volume reveals the paradoxically seamless continuity between repetition and change, between loss and retrieval, between death and life.

The force and urgency—and sometimes the stark anger—of Kumin’s sense of this continuity require recognition that The Retrieval System is pastoral only in the deepest and broadest meaning of the term. Farm and horses provide no comfortable escape. Rather, they allow Kumin to pit her sanity and skill against the stubbornest human dilemmas, thereby awakening us to the profundity of our most common and most intimate experiences. In this use of the pastoral she reminds us inevitably of Wordsworth, who also employed simple language to celebrate the common life. As he observed in his famous “Preface,” “In spite of differences in soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things gone silently out of mind, and things violently destroyed, the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society. . . .” The Retrieval System clearly demonstrates that Maxine Kumin belongs in such august company.

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