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.


My eyes are the stars in your deepest night

4 09 2013

From “Requiem” by Anna Akhmatova:

No, not under the vault of another sky, not under the shelter of other wings. I was with my people then, there where my people were doomed to be.

Instead of a Forward

During the years of the Yezhovschina, I spent seventeen months standing outside the prison in Leningrad, waiting for news. One day someone recognized me. Then a woman with lips blue from the cold, who was standing behind me, and of course had never heard of my name, came out of the numbness which affected us all. She whispered in my ear (for we all spoke in whispers there): “Can you describe this?”

I said, “I can.”

Then something resembling a smile slipped over what had once been her face…

(Wholesale blog theft from Brad DeLong)

Catching Witches

18 07 2012

I don’t write poems anymore.

I don’t know why I stopped, don’t consider this a writer’s block, don’t know if I’ll ever write poems again.

The words always come, if not always right away, but how they come? That’s beyond me. I try to be good and pay attention when they do come, not to let them tumble out and away, but I can be careless, so careless with the words.

You can’t be careless in poetry; poetry is care for words, care in words, care for the quick-step and sidle, the long breathless pause and the swoon and swoop out over the water.

I would like that back, but here is one I wrote before the poetry went away. I may have posted it before, but if so, well, I like it enough to post it again.

Catching Witches

Washed down
the river
you will be
again into
the hands
of God.
if your lungs are
than your faith,
you will be
on this earth,
still alive,
but dead

There was no agenda when I wrote this, just the sound, and the impossibility.

Announcing Knotted String Press

9 05 2011

I’ve finally done it: came up with a title for my writers’ blog.

Haven’t done much beyond that—if you go to the site, you’ll simply see the title and the generic WordPress intro post—but I am pleased finally to have started something.

As for the title itself, well, I could say that this had something to do with quipus/khipus and how the notion of digit-ized communication tickled my double-meaning fancies—I could, but that would be a lie. I mean, I like the notion of “talking knots”, but any doubling of the title’s meaning came after the fact.

No, I wanted something that could be remembered, that no one else had claimed, and that was an uncommon enough term that if someone entered “knotted string press” in a search engine I had a shot someday of appearing on a page nearer to the top than the bottom of the results.

Oh, and I wanted to have some connection to the title. I immediately thought of Black Cat Books, figuring (correctly) that that name had been snatched up, then came up with Black Coffee Books—alas, there was a Black Coffee Press (out of Detroit) already in existence, and while they’re real publishers (and KSP won’t be) I didn’t want to be an asshole and claim a name so close to theirs.

I ran through a number of other options, some of which were taken or too boring or too close to common terms or just too cumbersome, but I wasn’t coming up with anything. So I decided to open my old poetry file to see if there was some evocative-but-simple phrase I’d written that I could steal re-purpose for the new site.

There was gaspingly pure blue sky from “Sky Blue (Was My Favorite Color)”, but that was too clunky; shimmering ink also appeared in that poem, but, apparently, that has World of Warcraft connotations (no offense to gamers, but that’s not what I’m going for). I like the line ransacked of faith from “Reckonings”, but, really, that’s no title for a writer’s blog.

Then there was dislocated photograph from “Gretel, Away From Home”, but that didn’t fit. I tried to think of some sort of Gretel connection, but, nope.

I skimmed and scrolled up and down, then landed on the phrase We are a knotted string/
across the lake.

Huh. There was also this, from “Last Light On”:

Like a coarse string
                her conflicting
                passions and necessities
                pull through her –

                not cleanly, like
                scraping and ripping,
                tightly weaving
                an intricate
                bloody knot. 

And finally, my first novel was briefly named “Knots on a String”—hell, that might have been it’s original title—and in one draft I had a scene in which one character explains to another that, well, it had something to do with knots and string and it was all so very clumsy that I took it out.

Anyway, I clearly have a thing with that whole “knot” and “string” image, and “Knotted String Press” fit the other criteria, so “Knotted String Press” it is.

I think that could work.

Friday poem (Saturday): The Road Not Taken

29 05 2010

Robert Frost is blowin’ up!

Y’know, that whole ‘Fences’ thing? With La Palin, and McGinness and Twitter and ‘good fences make good neighbors’ and all that? And is Frost pro- or anti-fence? ironic about fences? talkin’ about something besides fences and neighborliness and all that?

Well, I don’t care. I don’t care about the half-guv and the journalist beyond that cheap thrill gossip, and barely even that. Yeah, Sullivan may have a point about paying attention to her if she does decide to run for Prez in 2012, but until that happens, I’m happy to leave Sully to it.

I’ve got other things on my mind, like, how do I support myself after my current job ends? How do I want to support myself after my current job ends?

This job isn’t terrible. The other temp and I get along, and the people we report to are smart and kind and utterly reasonable. The main task we have to perform—calling people who don’t necessarily want to talk to us—sucks, but, again, the working conditions are congenial enough. And, unusual for a temp job, we get vacation, personal, and sick days, as well as paid holidays.

Not a bad gig.

But: this not-bad gig has simply reinforced my antipathy for 9-5 work. I don’t like being in the office just because I have to be in the office, getting paid by the clock rather than the task. There’s a stability there which, honestly, is nice, but blecch, nice has never really been my thing.

So a long conversation with my friend L. in Seattle got me a-thinkin’ about other ways to support myself besides a regular 40h workweek. I’m not sure where I’m going to go with this, but as she noted about both her and her girlfriend, it is possible to cobble together a decent work-life based about the work itself, rather than around a regular schedule.

And, in fact, I have done that, more and less successfully, since I left Montreal, although I’ve felt more that I’ve been flailing about rather than freestyling.

Maybe I need a change in attitude toward all of this, to remind myself that I am still afloat, still moving—waving, not drowning—even if I am still at sea.

With that in mind, then, another Frost poem, another poem which is more ambiguous than it appears, more ambivalent than it ends.

Tricky man, that Frost.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Friday poem (Sunday): Ratty Go Batty

25 04 2010

I fucking hate money.

I may have mentioned this antipathy previously, but as I’ve spent the past few months working 1 & 2/3 jobs and actually saving money and am still—STILL—awoken by fears of debt and bills, it’s worth emphasizing.

Yes, money is useful—I get that. Unlike Sue Lowden, who thinks bartering livestock for splints and surgery is a good idea, I find it much easier to stuff a few pieces of green paper than chickens into my wallet, and coins are certainly a more durable form of change than eggs. Even an anti-capitalist like me can agree with Adam’s Smith’s observations on the ease and convenience of a common currency.

But I hate having to think about it, having to worry over it, to be shaken from sleep by it. I work—more or less hard—and certainly a lot, but months of unemployment years ago have left me in a hole which narrows my views and shortens my breath.

Piss and moan, piss and moan, I know. Get back to work!

But before I do, a bit more kvetching, over the top and angry and sly and funny for being over the top and angry and sly, courtesy of Caroline Fraser:

Ratty Go Batty
Look what your God has done to me. —Dracula

What a joke, this planet. The inmates
running the asylum. See them
in their little cars, whizzing? Stop
and go! Riding the escalators, flashing

their shiny finery, hoarding,
hawking. Wearing dark glasses
indoors. The rest of the animals
continue rational, sleeping in caves

or nests in winter, pursuing food, marking
territory clearly. None of this
petulance. What can be done
to restore order? Give the government

over to the insects, for the tidy digestion
of all that dung, give the infants
to the higher mammals
with the softest fur. Let it be done.

Friday poem (Wednesday): The Purification of Space For Dorothy

14 04 2010

There’s grading, a lecture to polish, and oh, have I mentioned that my apartment is a mess? You know what this means, don’t you?

It’s poetry time!

No, this is not like my old habit of cleaning my apartment whenever I had statistics homework. Not at all. (Even if grading sucks as much as stats.) Anyway, cleaning’s a drag; poetry is pure pleasure.

The New Yorker recently had a review of Kay Ryan’s work, and I was thinking of using one of the poems from the essay—Wait, I think it was, or Waiting—but I decided against it, for one of the very characteristics the reviewer noted of her poems: They’re short.

Now, I  like short poems—most anything longer than 4 pages and my fingers itch—but I wanted something a bit meatier this week, more involved than 10 or 20 lines.

No particular subject; just something that would pull me down and hold me under for awhile.

This one isn’t long, not really, so it doesn’t take much breath; still, you live in a city and your breath does catch on people like this.

Liliana Ursu caught Dorothy with her words. (Translated from the Romanian by Bruce Weigl.)

The Purification of Space For Dorothy

She has hair the color of rust.
She wears a red dress
and three watches:
one for her daughter in California,
one for her daughter in New York,
and one for her sister in Scotland.
She smokes cigarette after cigarette.
She takes lithium and tells everyone,
“Love, and do what you want.”

She listens to the same play on the radio
and tries to convince me
that Ibsen is American.

“He was like me, of course.
He can’t be anything else.”

She has a lover who works for God, she says.
“I’ve never met him,
so I wear this red dress
so he will recognize me
and know I am the fire.”

I pretend not to understand her.
I pretend I’m in a hurry
when she asks me, almost silently,
“What do you do
up in your apartment:
do you laugh or do you cry?”
I would like to answer her.
I would like to take her hand with three watches
and caress her
as if she were an orphan,
but she is on fire.

Below our mailboxes,
each morning,
she leaves a cup full of coffee,
a pack of cigarettes,
and, near them, a card which says,
“Live your life in beauty.
I leave these so you may partake,
as if in the body and blood of Christ.”

When she meets me running up or down the
she says the same thing:
“Fly if you want, but don’t run.
God loves us all,
but those who fly he loves the most.”

Quietly, Dorothy with rusty hair
and dress red as fire
“Raspberries ripen only in summer,
only when I dream of my love,”
and she shows me her empty wallet.
“Everything I touch turns to gold,” she says,
“then into silver, then to tears.”

Friday poem (Friday!): Little Fugue

2 04 2010

Anxious and scattered; words keep running away from me.

I need to write—and yes, need is the correct word.

A physical need, like that for air or water? No. But I feel it, physically, if I’m not doing the one thing I know I can do.

And then it builds, of course: I can’t pull my mind together, which means I can’t string words together, which exacerbates the entropy.

Chicken-egg-chicken—doesn’t matter which came first; my sternum contracts, regardless.

I wasn’t sure what to pick: a poem which reflects my skittering, or something to distract me from it. Picked up this one, then that, then came across this poem by Frank Bidart.

Not quite sure why I set this one aside; the poem itself seems incomplete to me, in need of one or two more goings-over to get it right.

And yet I set is aside, and yet I’m using it this week. Something is right about this.

Little Fugue

at birth you were handed a ticket

beneath every journey the ticket to this
journey in one direction

or say the body

is a conveyor belt, moving in one direction
slower or swifter than sight

at birth

you were handed a ticket, indecipherable
rectangle forgotten in your pocket

or say you stand upon a moving walkway

as if all you fear
is losing your

balance moving in one direction

beneath every journey the ticket to this
journey in one direction

Friday poem (Monday): An Anatomy of the World

29 03 2010

Tuesday update: Sorry for posting a naked poem—Wordpress was all wonky last night.


I have, of late, become preoccupied with the medieval period in Europe history, or, more accurately, with the intellectual history of that long moment of transition between medieval times and modernity.

The ‘whys’ of a such a preoccupation I’ll save for another post. But given my current backward glance, a poem from that moment seemed appropriate.

John Donne is not, strictly speaking, a medieval poet: He was writing at the turn of and into the 17th century, a time which might be pegged as ‘early modern.’ But he fits into that long moment of transition during which old certainties about the place of God in nature were crumbling under the onslaught of observation and a kind of deistic theorizing. 

Three centuries later Yeats noted that ‘the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’, but the intellectual revolutions of  the 17th century were in many ways far more unsettling than the political revolutions of the  20th: How was man to know who he was if his God were pushed into the recesses of the heavens, and mere mechanism replaced divinity and grace?

The section, below, from Donne’s elegy for a friend’s young daughter allows us entry into that disorienting new world—the world we now take for granted as our own. Reason and science and deduction will lead us forward, it was argued then (and now)—nevermind the past.

In mourning this young girl, however, Donne shows that a world without a past is a world without meaning; to take things apart may yield a new kind of knowledge, but it may also leave us dismantled.

from An Anatomy of the World

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no-man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that there can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
This is the world’s condition now, . . .

Friday poem (Sunday): Green Behind the Ears

21 03 2010

My antipathy toward summer is well-recorded, as is the splash-back of this feeling on spring.

I should like spring—time to get out and rediscover this city, the light, the green.

Pity I do not.

Kay Ryan reminds me to go gentle with this season, and all the springs we experience, and to live this spring as itself, and not just on the way to something else.

Still, for those for whom this is insufficiently celebratory, there is a bonus poem—a classic.

You know what it is.

But first, Ryan:

Green Behind the Ears

I was still slightly
fuzzy in shady spots
and the tenderest lime.
It was lovely, as I
look back, but not
at the time. For it is
hard to be green and
take your turn as flesh.
So much freshness
to unlearn.


The formatting doesn’t hold in html, but you still get it. Of course: e.e. cummings:

in just-

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan          whistles