I skipped the reading.
I didn’t do the reading, so I skipped the reading.
I had no idea what I was missing until I had already missed it.
The TA in my first creative writing class assigned us Maxine Kumin’s The Retrieval System around the time that Kumin would be visiting campus. We weren’t required to go, so I didn’t bother. After I got around to reading the poems, I thought, Oh, too bad, but not much beyond that.
It was only in re-reading did I think, Oh no!
The Longing to Be Saved
When the barn catches fire
I am wearing the wrong negligee.
It hangs on my like a gunny sack.
I get the horses out, but they
wrench free, wheel, dash back
and three or four trips are required.
Much whinnying and rearing as well.
This happens when I travel.
At the next stopover, the children take off
their doctor and lawyer disguises
and turn back into little lambs.
They cower at windows from which flames
shout like the tattered red clot
of dimestore devil suits. They refuse
to jump into my waiting arms, although
I drilled them in this technique years ago.
Finally they come to their senses and leap
but each time, the hoop holds my mothers.
Her skin is as dry and papery
as a late onion. I take her
into my bed, an enormous baby
I do not especially want to keep.
Three nights of such disquiet
in and out of dreams as thin as acetate
until, last of all, it’s you
trapped in the blazing fortress.
I hold the rope as you slide from danger.
It’s tricky in high winds and drifting snow.
Your body swaying in space
grows heavier, older, stranger
and me in the same gunny sack
and the slamming sounds as the gutted building burns.
Now the family’s out, there’s no holding back.
I go in to get my turn.
She was so clear about so many things. You can notice things, she said in her poems, without having to make a fuss.
You can live this life and accept these burdens and not like it and accept it anyway. You can get naked and laugh and admire the beavers even as you curse them and notice the spiders in the sink and grant them dreams. You can eat all of the wild red raspberries.
It’s all life, she wrote. It’s all just life.
I wrote a paper on her in my intermediate poetry seminar, used lines from “How It Is” (. . ./with vodka and ice, our words like living meat) to start off a grad paper on Habermas, and for the last chapter of my dissertation, drew from “After the Cleansing in Bosnia” (We saw the great brooding wings hump by./We felt the empty air rush back./We saw there was no obstacle).
Political scientists might consider poetry too elusive for explication, and it is. But it also cuts through, reveals a moment that neatly stacked paragraphs cannot. You can’t think your way past her skin is as dry and papery/as a late onion.
You can only stop, recognize. Yesss.
She was in her seventies when her horse Dexter tipped her out of her carriage, then tumbled it over her.
For the accident itself I have total amnesia. I come back to consciousness facedown, my arms and legs asprawl. My limbs are numb, I am only vaguely aware they are still attached to me. Kathy, an old carriage-driving buddy who happens to be an emergency room nurse, is kneeling beside me, keeping me absolutely immobile. It is she who saves my life.
I gasp. “I can’t breath,” and she comforts me. “Yes, you can. Just keep taking little sips of air.”
Inside the Halo
Just keep taking little sips of air. The line comes from her friend and savior, Kathy, but Kumin takes them and makes them her own.
Little sips of air. That’s how we get through. It’s all just life.