by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
I guess it’s human nature to try to make things fit, whether it’s putting on roof tiles, or papers we need to file, or sorting the animal kingdom into family, genus and species – most of us feel compelled to make order out of the chaos all around us. Order makes us feel safer, and more in control of our lives.
Order can also be a delusion that makes us complacent. We become vulnerable to dangers that would be obvious, if only we were paying more attention. One of the most important functions of Art is to make us uncomfortable, to shake things up. Art makes us see anew, shakes some dust off our brains, and scrapes at the rust on our hearts.
Several critics have referred to Maxine Kumin (1925–2014) as a poet of “maturity” who got a “late start” in writing. She’s also been labeled a “regional” writer because of her strong connection to her native New England, and to life on her beloved farm in “rural New Hampshire,” and that’s led to many comparisons, some dismissive, with Robert Frost.
The danger of these labels is that they make her sound “old-fashioned” at best, and stodgy or boring at worst.
So before you buy into those labels, please read this poem:
Afterward, the compromise.
Bodies resume their boundaries.
These legs, for instance, mine.
Your arms take you back in.
Spoons of our fingers, lips
admit their ownership.
The bedding yawns, a door
blows aimlessly ajar
and overhead, a plane
singsongs coming down.
Nothing is changed, except
there was a moment when
the wolf, the mongering wolf
who stands outside the self
lay lightly down, and slept.
When I read literary criticism, I often find myself imagining the poor author covered in sticky notes of all these labels – “Modernist” or “Harlem Renaissance,” “Confessional” or “Fin de siècle” – some writers have been so covered in labels that their actual work completely disappears from view.
So let’s rescue Maxine Kumin from all that, and just look this poem.
Where I Live
garden, pond, uphill
pasture, run-in shed.
Through pines, Pumpkin Ridge.
Two switchbacks down
church spire, spit of town.
Where I climb I inspect
the peas, cadets erect
in lime-capped rows,
hear hammer blows
as pileateds peck
the rot of shagbark hickories
year’s pterodactyl nests.
humped like bears
dot the outermost pasture
where in tall grass
clots of ovoid scat
butternut-size, milky brown
announce our halfgrown
moose padded past
into the forest
to nibble beech tree sprouts.
in dapple-shade. Violets,
landlocked seas I swim in.
I used to pick bouquets
for her, framed them
with leaves. Schmutzige
she said, holding me close
to scrub my streaky face.
Almost from here I touch
my mother’s death.
“Sonnets Uncorseted” is a long poem Kumin wrote in tribute to Margaret Cavendish, a nearly forgotten 17th century author who dared to publish under her own name at a time when the few women who were published had to resort to some masculine-sounding alias, or even credit “Anonymous.” Kumin digresses here to describe her college years:
I went to college in the nineteen forties
read Gogol, Stendhal, Zola, Flaubert.
Read Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky
and wrote exams that asked: contrast and compare.
Male novelists, male profs, male tutors, not
a single woman on the faculty
nor was there leaven found among the poets
I read and loved: G.M. Hopkins, A.E.
Housman, Auden, Yeats, only Emily
(not quite decoded or yet in the canon).
Ten years later, I struggled to break in
the almost all-male enclave of poetry.
When I find myself sneezing from imaginary dust, I stop reading what critics have to say. I’m sure somebody out there has compared this poem to “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, because Kumin is looking back at what might have been. But she is not looking at a metaphorical road, she is looking at actual choices, the ones that women struggle harder with than men, between Love and Opportunity.
Looking Back in My Eighty-First Year
How did we get to be old ladies—
my grandmother’s job—when we
were the long-leggèd girls?
— Hilma Wolitzer
Instead of marrying the day after graduation,
in spite of freezing on my father’s arm as
here comes the bride struck up,
saying, I’m not sure I want to do this,
I should have taken that fellowship
to the University of Grenoble to examine
the original manuscript
of Stendhal’s unfinished Lucien Leuwen,
I, who had never been west of the Mississippi,
should have crossed the ocean
in third class on the Cunard White Star,
the war just over, the Second World War
when Kilroy was here, that innocent graffito,
two eyes and a nose draped over
a fence line. How could I go?
Passion had locked us together.
Sixty years my lover,
he says he would have waited.
He says he would have sat
where the steamship docked
till the last of the pursers
decamped, and I rushed back
littering the runway with carbon paper . . .
Why didn’t I go? It was fated.
Marriage dizzied us. Hand over hand,
flesh against flesh for the final haul,
we tugged our lifeline through limestone and sand,
lover and long-leggèd girl.
Maxine Kumin started taking herself seriously as a poet in her thirties, going to workshops at the Boston Center for Adult Education. There, she became close friends with poet Anne Sexton. They were both “homemakers with children,” and they wrote four children’s books together, talking or exchanging notes nearly every day.
Sexton was almost instantly pigeon-holed by critics as a “Confessional” poet. Some effort was expended trying to make Kumin fit that mold because of her close association with Sexton, but their poems are very different, making it harder to keep the “Confessional” label stuck on Kumin.
On October 4, 1974, Anne Sexton met Kumin for a working lunch, proofing and revising galleys of Sexton’s manuscript, The Awful Rowing Toward God, due to be published in March 1975. When Sexton returned home, she put on her mother’s old fur coat, removed all her rings, poured a glass of vodka, locked herself in the garage, and started the engine of her car, committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 45 years old, three years younger than Maxine Kumin.
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 bits 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.
Maxine Kumin lived a long, productive life. No one reaches their eighties without feeling some of the weight of guilt, and most regrets are for things not done.
How pleasant the yellow butter
melting on white kernels, the meniscus
of red wine that coats the insides of our goblets
where we sit with sturdy friends as old as we are
after shucking the garden’s last Silver Queen
and setting husks and stalks aside for the horses
the last two of our lives, still noble to look upon:
our first foal, now a bossy mare of 28
which calibrates to 84 in people years
and my chestnut gelding, not exactly a youngster
at 22. Every year, the end of summer
lazy and golden, invites grief and regret:
suddenly it’s 1980, winter buffets us,
winds strike like cruelty out of Dickens. Somehow
we have seven horses for six stalls. One of them,
a big-nosed roan gelding, calm as a president’s portrait
lives in the rectangle that leads to the stalls. We call it
the motel lobby. Wise old campaigner, he dunks his
hay in the water bucket to soften it, then visits the others
who hang their heads over their dutch doors. Sometimes
he sprawls out flat to nap in his commodious quarters.
That spring, in the bustle of grooming
and riding and shoeing, I remember I let him go
to a neighbor I thought was a friend, and the following
fall she sold him down the river. I meant to
but never did go looking for him, to buy him back
and now my old guilt is flooding this twilit table
my guilt is ghosting the candles that pale us to skeletons
the ones we must all become in an as yet unspecified order.
Oh Jack, tethered in what rough stall alone
did you remember that one good winter?
Maxine Kumin once said: ”Women are not supposed to have uteruses, especially in poems.” She is one of the poets who broke that taboo, giving a voice to many women. She called her first volume of poems, published when she was 36 years old, Halfway. I wonder how many men ever think of themselves as halfway through life at age 36?
She actually lived to be 88 years old, and wrote almost to the end, so the few poems I’ve included here barely scratch the surface, and many of the recurring themes in her work aren’t represented.
To find more, check the Bibliography below.
For Stanley, Some Lines at Random
You, Sir, with the red snippers
who twice saw Halley’s comet fly,
you, who can identify
Coprinus, chanterelle and sundry
others of the damp-woods fleet,
whose broadside “The Long Boat”
produced on handmade paper
woven from your discards—
here, the delivery boy declared
is Mr. Kunitz’s laundry—
hangs in my study,
it’s forty years since I, a guest
in your Provincetown retreat
arose from what you said
had once been e.e. cummings’s bed
to breakfast on an omelet
fat with choice boletuses
that had erupted in
your three-tier garden,
perhaps under one of your dahlias
the size of a dinner plate,
a garden that took decades to create.
Luck of the alphabet,
since 1961 we’ve leaned
against each other, spine
on spine, positioned thus.
Upright or slant, long may we stand
on shelves dusted or not
to be taken up by hands
that cherish us.
Don’t we all hope to be remembered at our best, and in good company?
- Halfway, Holt (New York, NY), 1961
- The Privilege, Harper (New York, NY), 1965
- The Nightmare Factory, Harper (New York, NY), 1970
- Up Country: Poems of New England, New and Selected, illustrated by Barbara Swan, Harper (New York, NY), 1972
- House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Viking (New York, NY), 1975
- Progress Report (sound recording), Watershed, 1976
- The Retrieval System, Viking (New York, NY), 1978
- Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief: New and Selected Poems, Viking (New York, NY), 1982
- Closing the Ring: Selected Poems, Press of Appletree Alley, Bucknell University (Lewisburg, PA), 1984
- The Long Approach, Viking (New York, NY), 1985
- Nurture, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1989
- Looking for Luck, W. Norton (New York, NY), 1992
- Connecting the Dots: Poems, W. Norton (New York, NY), 1996
- Selected Poems, 1960-1990, W. Norton (New York, NY), 1997
- The Long Marriage, W. Norton (New York, NY), 2001
- Bringing Together: Uncollected Early Poems, 1958-1988, W. Norton (New York, NY), 2003
- Jack and Other New Poems, W. Norton (New York, NY), 2005
- Still to Mow, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2007
- Where I Live: New and Selected Poems, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2011
- Through Dooms of Love (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1965, published as A Daughter and Her Loves, Gollancz (London, England), 1965
- The Passions of Uxport (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1968
- The Abduction (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1971
- The Designated Heir (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1974
- Why Can’t We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings? (short stories), Viking (New York, NY), 1982
- Quit Monks or Die! (mystery novel), Story Line (Ashland, OR), 1999
- Sebastian and the Dragon, Putnam (New York, NY), 1960
- Spring Things, Putnam (New York, NY), 1961
- A Summer Story, Putnam (New York, NY), 1961
- Follow the Fall, Putnam (New York, NY), 1961
- A Winter Friend, Putnam (New York, NY), 1961
- Mittens in May, Putnam (New York, NY), 1962
- No One Writes a Letter to the Snail, Putnam (New York, NY), 1962
- (With Anne Sexton) Eggs of Things, Putnam (New York, NY), 1963
- Archibald the Traveling Poodle, Putnam (New York, NY), 1963
- (With Anne Sexton) More Eggs of Things, Putnam (New York, NY), 1964
- Speedy Digs Downside Up, Putnam (New York, NY), 1964
- The Beach before Breakfast, Putnam (New York, NY), 1964
- Paul Bunyan, Putnam (New York, NY), 1966
- Faraway Farm, W. Norton (New York, NY), 1967
- The Wonderful Babies of 1809 and Other Years, Putnam (New York, NY), 1968
- When Grandmother Was Young, Putnam (New York, NY), 1969
- When Mother Was Young, Putnam (New York, NY), 1970
- When Great-Grandmother Was Young, illustrated by Don Almquist, Putnam (New York, NY), 1971
- (With Anne Sexton) Joey and the Birthday Present, illustrated by Evaline Ness, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1971
- (With Anne Sexton) The Wizard’s Tears, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1975
- What Color Is Caesar?, illustrated by Evaline Ness, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1978
- The Microscope, illustrated by Arnold Lobel, Harper (New York, NY), 1984
- Mites to Mastodons: A Book of Animal Poems, Small and Large, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, edited by Liz Rosenberg, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006
AWARDS AND HONORS
- 1973: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry – Up Country
- 1981-1982: U.S. Poet Laureate
- 1993: Poets’ Prize – Looking for Luck
- 1999: Ruth Lily Poetry Prize
- 2006: Robert Frost Medal
- Wolves sleeping
- Shagbark Hickory
- Maxine Kumin, 1940s
- Cunard White Star Line Majestic
- Tuna fish sandwich
- Abandoned horse barn
- Maxine Kumin, older – year unknown
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud