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 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,
(The entire section is 1940 words.)