Maxine Kumin, 1925-2014

8 02 2014

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.

~~~

I’ve written about her before, called on her when I needed someone durable and clear.

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.





Friday poem (Sunday): Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief

7 03 2010

I’m having problems with time.

It stretches too much here then snaps back and contracts there. It never ends and I don’t know where it’s gone.

Nothing new about this, nothing unique to my life. Who is able, truly, to get hold of time and tuck it in her pocket and happily carry it with her, knowing it will bend and curve  and carry her through her days?

I’m being bowled over by time, undermined at and by that same time; I need to latch myself into it, surf it, live in and with it.

What other option is there?

Still, I haven’t been able to dig my fingers in, still, it slips through me, still, it leaves its marks and I am running and falling back at the same time.

Clearly, I need someone with a better sense than me. No time for exploration this week; I need someone durable and clear.

I need Maxine Kumin.

Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief

Blue landing lights make
nail holes in the dark.
A fine snow falls. We sit
on the tarmac taking on
the mail, quick freight,
trays of laboratory mice,
coffee and Danish for
the passengers.

Wherever we’re going
is Monday morning.
Wherever we’re coming from
is Mother’s lap.
On the cloud-packed above, strewn
as loosely as parsnip
or celery seeds, lie
the souls of the unborn:

my children’s children’s
children and their father.
We gather speed for the last run
and lift off into the weather.





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.