Selected Poems, 1960-1990

by Maxine Winokur

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Although Maxine Kumin is primarily known as a poet, she has published widely in other genres as well, including four novels, eighteen works of juvenile fiction (four coauthored with friend and fellow poet Anne Sexton), one book of short stories, and two books of essays, including the famous volume To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living (1980). Selected Poems, 1960-1990 represents the poet’s selection of her own best work from nine volumes, beginning withHalfway (1961) and ending with Nurture (1989). Although Connecting the Dots (1996) is not represented in this collection, Kumin does include a group of four poems from the “Joppa Diary” section of Up Country(1972), the book for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

Significantly, Joppa is the name of the country road on which her farm (outside Warner, New Hampshire) is located. This farm is the locus of all the natural artifacts she celebrates in her work, including swans, horses, pigs, sheep, dogs, bats, skunks, peas, beans, radishes, tomatoes, trees, and weeds. In an unblinking fashion, Kumin celebrates the precious beauty of each creature without ever losing sight of its inevitable mortality. In her world, beauty depends upon the certain coming of death, and a kind of tragic sense informs the best and most typical of her poems. Beauty and loss always coexist in Kumin’s poetic universe.

There is a wholeness and unity to this poetic world, chiefly because she writes about two dominant subjects—nature and the members of her family—and also because she writes with precision and a masterful command of the metaphorical possibilities of the English language. Kumin is a dedicated and careful master of her craft who can somehow divide her time between teaching workshops, writing books, and weeding her garden. A true poet, she is always creating links and connections between one image or perception and another, a process she calls “retrieval.” Here, for example, is her telling description of a dog swimming in a pond:

A dog was swimming and splashing.
Air eggs nested in his fur.
The hairless parts of him bobbled like toys
and the silk of his tail blew past like milkweed.
The licorice pads of his paws
sucked in and out,
making the shapes of kisses.

The moment of that human and canine coexistence is saved forever, preserved in a series of unforgettable similes and metaphors.

In like manner, Kumin, who usually writes in a kind of controlled free verse, can also employ traditional rhyme to achieve powerful effects. The splashing rhythm and echoing sounds of raindrops may have inspired her intricate rhyming in this stanza from “The First Rain of Spring,” with its abaabab pattern of rhymes and the unusual effect of whole lines echoing one another:

This is the first rain of spring:
it is changing to snow in the west.
The children sleep, closing the ring;
this is the first rain of spring.
Darkly, inside the soft nest,
the children sleep, closing the ring,
It is changing to snow in the west.

A poem about rain provides a simple introduction to Kumin’s major thematic preoccupation, the world of nature, as it is closely observed and studied without sentimentality or false piety. This natural world becomes numinous, almost mystical in its effect on a truly observant writer such as Kumin. In “The Hermit Wakes to Bird Sounds,” her use of onomatopoeia links the unique tones and song patterns of New England birds to the common mechanical objects they suggest—typewriters, sewing machines, and pumps:

The bird who presides at the wellhouse primes the pump.
 Two gurgles, a pause, four...

(This entire section contains 1956 words.)

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 squeaks of the handle
and time after time a promise of water
can be heard falling back in the pipe’s throat.

The animals, like their observer, are fragile members of the biosphere, never knowing if or when they will die. “Sleeping with Animals,” for example, is a highly autobiographical poem in which Kumin recounts her nocturnal nurturing of a broodmare “ten days past due,” an event that calls to mind an earlier tragedy. Kumin’s universe is not merely defined by birdsongs or beautiful flora but by the juxtaposition of beauty and death. The power of death extends even to the lovely, newborn foals. One foal, she recalls, was “stillborn,” another

One, hours old, dead of a broken spine.
Five others swam like divers into air,
dropped on clean straw, were whinnied to, tongued dry,
and staggered, stagey drunkards, to their feet,
nipped and nudged by their mothers to the teat.

Kumin evokes this particularized world of nature repeatedly because it is one of the ways she defines herself. The nature poems are not decorative but documentary in nature. She sees herself as intimately involved in the natural environment. In “January 25th,” a love poem to her husband, the couple lie together “back to back” in a freezing farmhouse that grew so cold that a “ball of steel wool/ froze to the kitchen window sill.” However, the sun rises and covers the pair in “daylight the color of buttermilk,” and Kumin addresses her husband in poetry that links them to the hibernating tadpoles and the gradual coming of spring. Thus, the lovers become survivors:

Lie still; lie close.
Watch the sun pick
splinters from the window flowers.
Now under the ice, under twelve knee-deep layers
of mud in last summer’s pond
the packed hearts of peers are  beating
barely, barely repeating
themselves enough to hang on.

Nature, however, is not the only frame of reference in the unfolding story of the poet’s life. The other great backdrop is provided by her family history. In fact, Selected Poems could be read as a kind of family history, beginning with Kumin’s great grandfather who emigrated from somewhere in Bohemia and who wrote letters to his daughter (Kumin’s grandmother) on the official bills of sale from his tailor shop in Newport News, Virginia: “ROSENBERG, THE TAILOR, DEBTOR/ A FULL LINE OF GOODS OF ALL THE LATEST IN/ SUITING AND PANTS.”

In “Sperm,” she addresses the sexual vigor of her grandfather, who eventually had seventeen grandchildren who would cover his wrinkled face with kisses like “polka dots.” This grandfather, she imagines, may have been making love to her grandmother in New York City at the same time that the trolley car

derailed taking the corner at 15th Street
in a shower of blue sparks, and Grandmother’s
corset spread out like a filleted fish
to air meanwhile on the windowsill.

This family saga continues in “The Deaths of the Uncles,” perhaps one of Kumin’s saddest and most poignant poems on the theme of death and loss. She likens the whole process of writing these poems about family members to “going backward in a home movie.” Each one of her uncles is dead, but each is remembered for the virtues and occasional vices of his lifetime. Uncle Mitchell might be taken as an emblem for the group as he eminently suggests the inevitability of change and loss, for Mitchell undergoes a dramatic physical metamorphosis: Once he was “big bellied” and “broad as a rowboat,” but then he

Shrank to a toothpick after his heart attack,
fasted on cottage cheese, threw out his black cigars
and taken at naptime died in his dressing gown
tidy in paisley wool, old pauper thumb in his mouth.

Yet, Mitchell and his brothers were once young and jolly, dressed in knickers, spats, and puttees, entertaining their girlfriends on Kumin’s “grandmother’s veranda” and “spiking the lemonade.” The poet remembers it all, the good and the bad. The reader senses that their deaths preserved and heightened her powers of recollection so that her form of honoring the lost relatives is to create the precise imagery and detailed description employed in this elegy.

In “My Father’s Neckties,” Kumin uses imagery like a painter applying a few deft touches of color. She suggests her father’s personality in a double image in which the lightning bolts of anger merge with the printed design of his neckwear. Kumin sees him in a dream that encapsulates her entire girlhood, “a time of/ ugly ties and acrimony: six or seven/ blue lightning bolts outlined in yellow.” He was a man who wore bright colors “recklessly,” a man given to hiding out in the “bargain basement of his feelings.” By contrast, Kumin’s mother, devastatingly sketched in “Life’s Work,” appears repressed and undeveloped, a stunted personality that ceased to grow after Kumin’s grandfather forbade her to go on tour with a violinist, even though she was a “Bach specialist . . . fresh out of the Conservatory.” Kumin determines to be her own person and rebels against her parents by choosing to become a swimmer, entering “the water like a knife.” The mature poet seizes this image again and places the venue of the freedom-swim in nature, an act of intimacy and bravado: “I hung my bathrobe on two pegs./ I took the lake between my legs.” In this place she is utterly welcome; fish twitch beneath her and sing her name.

The most moving of the family poems are those addressed to her daughters and husband. In “Making the Jam Without You,” Kumin addresses the poem to a nineteen-year-old daughter who speaks three languages. She has left home to travel in Germany. Kumin reminds her of the bonding that took place in the kitchen, “that harem of good smells,” while they ritually prepared blackberry jam under “a white cocoon of steam.” Kumin wants to put a dream in her daughter’s head because the poet wishes the sweetest and most romantic possibilities for her—an angelic suitor, with whom she might pick giant berries in the mountains and spread the “bright royal fur” of ruby-red jam on fresh bread. In short, the poet donates a fairy-tale fantasy (complete with Prince Charming) to her distant and clearly beloved daughter.

In “Family Reunion,” Kumin’s daughters return home for a roast pig dinner, with all the trimmings provided from their mother’s garden. The good meal ends, and the poet reflects on how their roles and relative positions have changed. Their growth into adulthood is just another form of loss, another adjustment for the poet:

Wearing our gestures how wise you grow,
ballooning to overfill our space,
the almost-parents of your parents now.
So briefly having you back to measure us
is harder than having let you go.

Kumin composes many touching elegies for her husband in the pages ofSelected Poems. Perhaps the most affecting is the poem entitled simply “How It Is.” A month after the death of her husband, the poet wears his blue jacket one day, with the following results:

The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you’ve come to visit, he’s ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
delivered up last August on Bay State Road.
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.

In a sense, all of the poems in Maxine Kumin’s Selected Poems are about “outlines” that the poet has touched. The book is a treasure of craft and pure feeling. There is not a dull page—or even a single poem unworthy of rereading. In the midst of a pervasive video culture, Kumin’s text reminds the readers of America that life always has more, much more, to offer.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, May 15, 1997, p. 1557.

Library Journal. CXXII, June 15, 1997, p. 74.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, August 3, 1997, p. 10.

Ploughshares. XXIII, Spring, 1997, p. 215.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, April 28, 1997, p. 70.