Friday poem

20 11 2009

Maxine Kumin is one of my favorite poets.

She works largely in free verse, is economical in her phrasing, and her best work provokes response through not through direct appeal but unfolds from within a particular, almost always realist, imagery. For example, in ‘The Henry Manley Blues,’ she listens and observes her elderly neighbor:

Trouble with this country is, there’s more
beavers than people in it
. Henry gums
milk toast experimentally, still sore
from the painless dentist who emptied his mouth.

In this snippet from a longer poem you can hear Henry’s plaint against both the beavers and the world. The poignancy of this image, however, is in the contrast between Henry’s toothlessness and the potency of those toothsome, troublesome beavers.

How Kumin came to be my favorite poet is a lesson in arbitrariness: I was introduced to her work in a creative writing course at UW-Madison. As it happened, she visited the campus for a poetry recital, and the course instructor urged us all to attend.

I didn’t. And have kicked myself ever since. I think my dive into her work was partly a regret-response to my laziness: just what, exactly, did I miss? I haven’t wanted to miss anything, since.

In any case, I offer the following poem, not because it’s her best (it’s not: it’s clunky and stutters, rhythmically), but because a) it was one of the first poem I really analyzed (for a course paper); and b) because as much in thrall to self-destruction as I was at the time, it was jolt to read the response of a friend to another friend’s suicide. It was a perspective I, for a variety of reasons, I usually didn’t engage.

Oh, and the friend was Kumin’s best: Anne Sexton. And while I noted it is not her best poem, it is still a good poem.

How It Is

Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
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.
It is hot and dry inside.

I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
it together in a different collage,
back from the death car idling in the garage,
back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,
reassembling the bites of bread and tuna fish
into a ceremony of sandwich,
running the home movie backward to a space
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.

Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
like wine bags, straining at your seams.
I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.