Maxine Kumin’s poems about the specifics of life on the farm with family, and relationships to fish, fowl, horse and vegetable matter, not to mention lovely liquids and unappealing solids, are consistently satisfying and sometimes deliciously entertaining.
Maxine Kumin was born in 1925 and has written poetry, essays, a memoir and short fiction. She has done this despite early discouragement and a professor’s advice to abandon her mutually nourishing friendship with Anne Sexton as the two shared poems-in-progress and cheered one another’s first successes. Sexton’s suicide in 1974 was expected and devastating, and though the loss is addressed in searing, elegant poems in her newest volume and elsewhere, Kumin turned down a four-figure offer from Mirabella to write about it. “Left behind, there is no oblivion,” are the last words in “Oblivion,” in Where I Live, New & Selected Poems, 1990-2010. As an energetic member of the legions left behind, Kumin continues to be an example of a literary life well led.
Kumin and her husband Victor raised three children, and still gladly share tasks on a New Hampshire horse farm. This never kept her from acting on the just side of urgent issues. In “During the Assassinations,” she calls herself a “sixties soccer mom,” an ironic partial truth in contrast with marching against the war in Viet Nam . She notes in the same poem that she “carried lemons in case of tear gas. “ Years later she risked life and limb to escort young women inside abortion clinics. Moral reasoning feeds art, though it may not always produce it, and at her best, Kumin is in company with the strongest, most eloquently honorable American writers.
Maxine Kumin has won a Pulitzer, a Ruth Lilly Prize and the 2006 Robert Frost Award from the Poetry Society of America. She was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress before the post was renamed U. S. Poet Laureate. Kumin’s tenure in the Capital was marked by down-to-earth graciousness, and I regret not attending her open, brown-bag lunches. Just beginning to publish, I was too shy. Acquaintances remarked on her rigorous generosity, which this collection illustrates with typical verve. Her empathy and disgust are often in perfect balance, as in the last lines of “Game:”
Scalia, pudgy son of Sicilian
immigrants, indulged in
when, years later, he had
scores of farm-raised birds
beaten from their cages and scared
up for him to shoot down
which brought him an inner joy.
to him when he was a boy?
A similar balance is on display in “Extraordinary Rendition,” with its definition “To rend : to tear (one’s garments or hair)/ in anguish or rage. To render : to give what is due.” She’s less successful at the end of “Please Pay Attention, the Ethics Have Changed,” with “Fuck the Geneva Convention ,’‘ a rare, and so more irritating, thud.
Her poems about the specifics of life on the farm with family, and relationships to fish, fowl, horse and vegetable matter, not to mention lovely liquids and unappealing solids, are consistently satisfying and sometimes deliciously entertaining. All can be considered fan letters to the natural world and labors in it, and none descend into sentimentality.
As a title, “The Winking Vulva “ suggests Judy Chicago with a sense of humor, but the piece attached to it is a portrait of an elderly, dying mare and what happens when a middle-aged gelding is brought to keep her company. Old mares, like sagacious old crones, are not above strutting in response to male attention, and in this case the horse’s vulva winked vigorously, as tail flipped suggestively. When the vet was called in to explain the mystery, the amiable expert laughed and said, “good for her!” All of this is reported with Kumin’s warmly calibrated touch.
A selection at this stage of a career is clearly intended to contain material that matters most to the writer, for artistic and personal reasons. New Hampshire poems do not disappoint, in part because Kumin is so well matched to her surroundings, including the fact that swimming since girlhood has kept her fit and given her another way to appreciate her body’s surroundings and the rewards of alert discipline. Lines from “Summer Meditation” illustrate this impeccably :
the great rock
that is always dark
on its underside
the one I used to dive
from, aiming to come up
in the heart
of a cold spring
time after time
into the fizz
of lime-green light.
At sundown the horses’
winter hay arrives.
The dogs raise
an appropriate racket.
Always the annual
hay supply comes
on the hottest day
Kumin mentions many authors of her generation, including Carolyn Kizer, Hilma Wolitzer and the under-appreciated William Meredith. Nods to Wordsworth and Coleridge are less successful and are included, it seems, out of respect and as a way to boost legacies of members of the canon . I share this view, but wish the poems that honor these men were less awkward.
Having pointed out admiring quarrels with Where I Live, I would still urge it on anyone who cares about poetry and needs, as do we all sometimes, a tonic and another vision of an active, creatively thoughtful existence. There are dozens of poems here that show Maxine Kumin at her particulate, passionate finest. The piece below makes the point:
I love to be lured under the outstretched wings
of hemlocks heavily snowed upon, the promise
of haven they hold seductively out of the wind
beckoning me to stoop under, tilt my face
to the brashest bits that sift through. Sequestered,
I think how in the grainy videos
of refugees, snow thick as flaking plaster
falls on their razed villages. Snow
forms a cunning scrim through which the ill-clad
bent under bundles of bedding and children appear
a generic vision of misery and terror
for those who may step out of their skins to sit
under hemlock wings in all-American quiet.
Maxine Kumin knows how to savor the privilege of comfort, and why that demands discomfort. So many of her poems are embodiments of this essential recognition. Revere her. And enjoy.