main page, here
Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 1992
It is a false-spring day in late February, and my car fishtails lazily, hauling itself up the once-frozen, now mud-slushed road. The first thing that catches my eye when I arrive at Maxine Kumin's home is the sign high on the barn wall: "Pobiz Farm" — a bit of humor twice-compounded, just what one would expect from a crafter of language. This modest horse farm survives (the sign implies) only through the auspices of that other business Ms. Kumin is engaged in: poetry. And, of course, only another poet would grasp what a tenuous and absurd occupation it is — selling words: the art of making language and images sing themselves alive so that a reader might join them in the music.
Maxine Kumin has long survived in the "pobiz," precisely because of her unreasonable and passionate commitment to the life of language. Never one to be steered by literary fashion or academic orthodoxy, she has cultivated her clear, intimate, irrepressible poems in the same determined manner she's used to nurture family, farm animals, and her small corner of the earth. A Pulitzer Prize winner and poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, Ms. Kumin is the author of novels, short stories, essays, and 10 volumes of poetry. The newest, "Looking for Luck," was recently issued by W. W. Norton & Co.
Checking my shoe size, Ms. Kumin scrounges up a pair of Wellingtons for me, and we head straight for the barn, accompanied by a complement of cats and dogs. Work takes on a dreamlike rightness when it is rooted in daily practice and profound pleasure. I watch her and her husband, Victor, make their rounds, ministering to each creature in turn — the ritual of their husbandry that is set down so faithfully in her poem "Feeding Time." I begin to feel how the simple moments resonate in her imagination. The literature of our time is richer and more humane for the caretaking of poets like Maxine Kumin.
Steven Ratiner: I think it's fair to say that, in your poems, the natural world receives more consistent praise than human nature and society. Where does that feeling come from?
Maxine Kumin: I guess out of my own observations. I don't see that kind of depravity in the natural world that I see in the human world.
But how did that bond with nature come about in your life?
I think it was the good fortune of my childhood that I grew up in suburban Philadelphia — in Germantown, but virtually on the edge of Fairmount Park, which is a huge park complex that runs from center city well out into the suburbs. And as kids we had an enormous amount of freedom. That was before anybody worried about children being abducted, sexually abused, or whatever. And as long as you got home in time for supper with your hands and face washed, you could be gone all day in the woods.... We spent endless hours lying in wait for our favorite park guard, who might just let us sit on his horse. So really early I think I cultivated this kind of bond with the natural world.
In the poem "Credo," the relationship you describe with your horses is astonishingly intimate, almost a mystical bond.
I trust them to run from me,
arched in a full swan's S, tails cocked up over their
backs like plumes on a Cavalier's hat.
I trust them
to gallop back, skid to a stop,
level with my mouth, asking for
my human breath
that they may test its intent, taste
the smell of it.
Well, I'm afraid of words like "mystical" and "spiritual," since I'm neither, I think. But I'm not sure how to characterize what it is. There's some kind of nonverbal communication that takes place between humans and animals.... I'm fascinated just exploring that interrelationship.
But the poem goes on to say, "I believe in myself as their sanctuary/ and the earth with its summer plumes of carrots,/ its clamber of peas, beans, masses of tendrils/ as mine."
That's certainly true for my horses. I am their sanctuary. We've done this to them. We've taken them out of their wild state. It's pitiful to see this out West. The cattlemen have driven the tattered remnants of the wild horse bands up into the mountains, practically above the tree line where there's virtually nothing to eat, where it's very difficult for them to find enough water to stay alive. And it's all in the name of the almighty steer that we eat....
We turned [nature] to our own uses. And having done that, we have a moral responsibility to take care of what we've taken on. So, in that sense, I'm feeding them, I'm housing them, I'm cleaning up after them. I am indeed their sanctuary.
I know you've taken care of many abused and abandoned animals. But the implication in the poem is much broader. As a people, are we "caretakers" of the natural world?
Well, it is to be wished. What can I say? Clearly we're not.
The poem "Hay" has a line that says, "Allegiance to the land is tenderness." But that's not easy to feel if you live in New York City or Los Angeles.
I feel great compassion and sorrow for people who have to live in high-rises. It would be the death of me. If I couldn't open the door and put my feet on earth, I think I would languish and just fade away.
What would you be missing? How are you enriched by the experience of walking on your hillside, of feeding the animals each day?
I don't know if I can express it. But it completes me, makes me feel whole, makes me feel an integral part of the world that I live in. That I'm one more healthy organism in this little microcosm here on the earth.... It's very much a part of the New England consciousness, I think. The fact that we have four well-defined seasons.... Because we've toughed-out winter, we've earned our spring. Then we go through the season of dreadful black flies, followed by mosquitoes. And you have to be of stern stuff to put up with all that to get those few good months. But to have to live ... in the terrible sameness of the concrete canyons of the city, ... never to see the changing skyscape as the seasons turn — this, to me, is to be deprived.
It reminds me of the poem "Rejoicing with Henry" where you show your neighbor your new foal. "Next year, if I live that long,/ she'll stand in the shafts. Come Christmas Day/ we'll drive that filly straight to town./ Worth waiting for, that filly. Nobody says/ the word aloud: Rejoice." That's life's prize, isn't it?
Oh, yes! Absolutely. To have, as we say, "a foal in the oven," shortens the winter remarkably. I mean, not expecting one this spring is my great sorrow, because all winter long, through thick and thin, through 30 below, you can console yourself with the thought that come May, come June, you're going to have new life in the barn.
Reading through your books, I was confronted again with the idea of a "women's poetry." At one time, feminist writers felt this classification marginalized their work. But more and more now, there are such dramatic differences between men and women poets — not just in styles and subjects but in the sense of purpose that's embedded in the vision. Do you see yourself as a "women's writer"?
Yes, I do. I mean, I write from a woman's perspective because I am a woman. It's as simple as that. I'm attracted to certain subjects because of my gender, and there are certain subjects I clearly can write about that perhaps a man can't.
A poem like "Noah, at Six Months" just couldn't come from a man's sensibility. There is a constant awareness of life's comings and goings in your work, with the image of family as the one steady presence between.
Certainly those tribal poems about children are quintessentially female, I think.... We have just the two grandchildren.... Noah is now two years and two months old, and he was just here yesterday. And he's just an incredible child.... This little kid sits at the table and counts [us] to see how many we make. Then he counts Josh and Rilke [the Kumin's dogs] because they're family. Then he counts the horses because they're family, too. It's marvelous to see this continuum.
There are also a large number of poems about women in the new book. Some mention famous names, but more focus on ordinary individuals struggling with the burdens of daily existence like the "Chambermaids in the Marriott."
Well, that's a "pobiz" poem.... When I go out to give readings, I try to piggyback them so I don't go just for one overnight.... And hopping across the country you do see scenes like this.... They are the unheralded ones who, with Rabelaisian vigor, are out there living their lives. That was what was so heartening about them, I think — to see that they had so much zest. Even imprisoned in what must look to you and me like terrible dead-end jobs. But to them, there is the camaraderie of cleaning together on the 14th floor, and the camaraderie of knowing they're going to plug into the same soaps ... of being able to share the events of their lives which are sometimes more soap opera than soap opera.
That's where the political aspect of your poetry is most apparent. You carry your readers into points-of-view that we might normally struggle to avoid. But we can't even imagine how other Americans live, let alone other peoples from around the world.
Well, I think we're seeing the danger it puts us in. Look at this recent campaign here in New Hampshire.... It's just come down to slogans, nothing but a sound byte here, a sound byte there. Everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator. And it just makes people more and more solipsistic.... So, in a sense then, it becomes the mission of the poet and any writer to alert people to the danger.
There is that painful awareness in your poems that sometimes language binds us and other times it becomes the barrier. There's the section in "Telling the Barn Swallow" about your daughter moving to Europe. "Now she will raise her children/ in a language that rusts in my mouth,/ in a language that locks up my jaw." What do you fear will be lost between you and your grandchildren?
My mother tongue is English. We're never going to have quite the comfortable commonality of a shared tongue. And no matter how hard I try to improve, for example, my French [is] not going to match their French.
But then the poem goes on to warn the swallow: "to cover well her hatch/ I tell her that this hour/ must outlast the pies and the jellies,/ must stick in my head like a burdock bur." Why? What can words and images contain that will penetrate this barrier of time and distance?
Love. What else can I call it?
But the image of "a bur" makes me think of a painful persistence.
No, burdock burs aren't painful. I'm picking them out of the dogs all the time. A bur is merely a seed, a way of moving from point "A" to point "B" where it can finally drop to the ground and sprout.
So is that the task that falls to the poet: to preserve family stories, family loves, history, and beliefs?
For me, yes.... You collect the saga, and you hand it on.
And what do we do with it then?
Well, then they, the next generation, will keep it and they'll hand it on. That's the kind of continuity which is our only immortality.
Poetry distills experience. I say to students all the time, life is not art. Art is something that takes a step beyond. It transmutes what you take out of life experience and enables you to build on it.
As a writer, you have a gift for simply following your own impulses. But what keeps your poetry on course?
Just that inner compass that you're probably not conscious of.... I don't really see the direction that something has taken until it takes it. You just have to be open. Rilke says, "Await the birth-hour of a new clarity, keeping holy all that befalls, even disappointment, even desertion."
Do you think this farm helps you to maintain that openness?
Oh yes. This is where you do "keep holy all that has befallen." I know that.
Atlantic Unbound | February 6, 2002
THE ART OF LIVING
In her first poetry collection
since a near-fatal accident, Maxine Kumin celebrates the forms that life and
established herself as a poet by writing in a straightforward, direct style
about her active life, which included swimming and horseback riding, raising
children and horses, dogs, and sheep. In 1999, however, at the age of
seventy-four, her life dramatically changed when she was nearly killed in a
horse-driving accident. This past November, following a difficult recovery, Kumin published The Long Marriage, her first book of poetry since the
The poems in The Long Marriage draw from Kumin's close relationship with the natural world on her family's farm, her overcoming of her physical injuries, and her feelings about her friend, the poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974. (Kumin was the last to have spent time with her, chatting about poetry over a lunch of tuna-fish sandwiches and vodka, and Sexton's death still haunts Kumin's work; references to it are found in The Long Marriage's "Three Dreams after a Suicide," "The Ancient Lady Poets," and "Oblivion.")
The youngest of four children born to a Jewish pawnbroker and his wife, Maxine Kumin studied history and literature at Radcliffe, where, in 1945, she met Victor Kumin, a Harvard graduate on furlough from the Army. The pair married a year later. Poetry was not an important part of Kumin's life until 1957, when she enrolled in a poetry workshop offered by the Boston Center for Adult Education. The workshop's instructor, John Holmes, soon realized there were two major talents in the workshop: Kumin and classmate Anne Sexton, who was, like Kumin, married with children and living in suburban Boston. Kumin and Sexton began commuting to class together and became inseparable. With Sexton's support, along with that of Holmes and other members of the workshop, Kumin began to take her poetry seriously and to garner public acclaim for her work. Her first collection of poems, Halfway, was published in 1961. Since then she has gone on to publish fourteen books of poetry, five novels, five books of essays and memoirs, and twenty children's books, several in collaboration with Anne Sexton. Up Country, a book of her poetry published in 1972, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1963 Kumin
and her husband bought a 200-acre farm in New Hampshire, where they and their
three children eventually moved permanently to grow vegetables and raise Arabian
and Standardbred horses. Horses were at first just a hobby of one of Kumin's
daughters, but they became Kumin's own obsession after moving to the farm.
Always an athlete (Kumin swam competitively in college), she took up distance
riding and then, when arthritis hindered her ability to ride for long periods of
time, driving horses. The accident, which happened at a driving clinic, left her
with a broken neck, eleven broken ribs, considerable internal bleeding, a
punctured lung, and a bruised kidney and liver. "Ninety-five percent of people
with your fracture never make it to the emergency room," her physician told her.
"Ninety-five percent of the ones who do [survive], end up as quadriplegics."
From her struggle to pull through the ordeal and the rigorous therapy it
involved came Kumin's memoir,
Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery
Now, with The Long Marriage, Kumin offers a testament to survival, a collection of poetry that, in an unwavering voice and with vivid descriptions, calls out: I'm still here, and I'm glad to be alive.
She spoke with me recently by telephone from her farm in New Hampshire.
Megan Harlan of The New York Times interpreted the
title of The Long Marriage as a reference not only to your relationship
with your husband but also to your relationship with your "New Hampshire horse
farm, with numerous social and political causes, with poetry itself and, most
fundamentally, with [your] own body." Is this what you had in mind? Did she
leave anything out?
I thought she was incredibly perspicacious to pick up on all that, quite frankly. I don't know that I consciously intended the title to reach beyond the actual marriage and marriage to place, but I think everything she said was right on.
Harlan also comments on your "apparent allergy to flowery language." I was interested to read in Always Beginning, your latest book of essays, that Wallace Stegner, your writing instructor at Radcliffe, told you to "Say it with flowers but for God's sake don't write poems about it." Did his comment have anything to do with the direct style that you developed over the years?
That just simply turned me off of poetry. I didn't write another poem for years and years and years. I was seventeen. I had led a comparatively sheltered life, at least intellectually, and I was not at all prepared for this. I had no comprehension of the fact that I was writing flowery, romantic sonnets. I thought the fact that they were metered and rhymed was pretty good. The one thing I learned from that was never, ever do that to a young student, because you simply cannot predict what somebody who is seventeen or eighteen years old is going to be like in five years. And then of course I forgive him because I think he was only four or five years older than I was.
Are you glad that you began so steeped in rhyme and meter?
I think so, yes. I was very fortunate to have what I guess is now referred to as a classical education. It was the Columbia eight-year study plan, which was very innovative back then. I had the same Latin teacher and the same English teacher from ninth grade straight through, and they were both wonderful. They were dedicated teachers of the old style. I just think I got a terrific start.
The thing that's depressing is teaching graduate students today and discovering that they don't know simple elemental facts of grammar. They really do not know how to scan a line; they've never been taught to scan a line. Many of them don't know the difference between lie and lay, let alone its and it's. And they're in graduate school! So I get very upset about that, although I realize that I'm taking an embattled position.
Have you found your study of Latin helpful in your work as a writer?
I think the background in Latin has been immensely useful to me over the long haul. I started Latin in eighth grade and by the time I was a senior in high school I'd already done the standard curriculum—right up through Virgil, which is the name of the dog lying at my feet this moment. I had a year translating Ovid's Metamorphoses, and that was just sheer heaven for me. I loved it.
The Long Marriage opens with the sensual "Skinnydipping with William Wordsworth" and is followed by six poems celebrating Rilke, Gorki, Marianne Moore, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Muriel Rukeyser, and Carolyn Kizer. What was it that drew you to write about other writers in these poems?
It just kind of happened. It wasn't part of a game plan at all. I pretty much wrote them in the order in which they are arranged in the book. Actually, I think the first one I wrote was probably the Gorki one and then the "Skinnydipping"... and then the others just sort of came, here and there; they weren't written sequentially. Often you don't know what you've got in terms of a book until you start shaping the forty or forty-five poems that you have, and then you see what kind of grouping they fall into.
I want to ask you about the poem "Pantoum, with Swan." It evokes the image of Leda and the Swan, and it ends "I had his knowledge, I had no power/the year I taught Yeats in a classroom so pale/ that a mist enshrouded the ancient religions/ and bits of his down flew from under my fingernails." This speaks to me, in part, about what it means to be a woman in academics or simply a woman in a man's world. Is that what you were trying to convey?
Well, that's part of it, certainly. For many years I've taught Yeats' sonnet "Leda and the Swan," and have been struck over and over again with what a terribly sexist poem it is (though enshrined in the canon). And then, I felt harassed teaching a seminar in prosody—teaching form—at the graduate school level to unwilling, even surly students who were only taking it because they needed the credit. They would say things like, "Form is just a crutch. Who needs form?" Meanwhile, I'm assigning everyone to write a sestina, and everyone has to write a villanelle, and so on. When we came to the pantoum I just sort of decided, "Well, I'm going to write a pantoum, too. I'm so sick of the way these people are responding." And so it was a "get even" poem, initially. But I love to work in form. I think the challenges of form elicit extraordinary responses. You don't know what's going to come. And that was certainly the case with this poem. Remember in the Yeats version it says, "Did she put on his knowledge with his power?" That to me was one of the more offensive lines. That's why mine says, "I had his knowledge but Bird had the power." Of course, I was thrilled to be able to complete the pantoum by having the last line refer back to the first line, which is what a pantoum wants to do. But it's usually one of the harder things to achieve. And I took a lot of liberties with the form. I didn't repeat entire lines. I repeated tag ends of lines, and in some cases I repeated just the concept.
Have you written anything in response to 9-11?
I have written one poem that refers to catastrophes in general—the Towers is just one of them. There are two ways of looking at it; I think it was the German philosopher Theodor Adorno who said, "After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric." That's the line that my poem starts with. So there's that response, and then there's the other response that says you can't stop living, and you can't stop having art if you've got to go on living.
In Always Beginning: Essays of a Life in Poetry (2000) you have a conversation with the poet Enid Shomer about the dangers of driving horses. Although the book was published after your near-fatal horse-driving accident in 1999, the interview must have taken place before it happened.
Yes, well before.
When Shomer asked if you were attracted by the danger of driving, you said, "It may help." Did you ever worry that you would actually have a serious accident? In retrospect, do you feel as if you might have been tempting fate?
If you ask my grown children that question, they'll tell you absolutely, yes, because I had this awful sanctimonious thing I said over and over: "Well, at least you'll be able to say Mother died doing something she loved." It is a very dangerous sport. You don't have anywhere near the control you have when riding a horse—you have nothing, really. You have your voice and your hands. So when a horse spooks... This was not a green horse—this is a horse I had driven literally a thousand miles. We were very familiar with each other. We read each other very well. But when he lost it, he totally lost it.
I was very compelled by the way you wrote about your horse Deuter, the way your love for him comes through in your reconciliation with him in Inside the Halo and Beyond.
Well, Deuter tried. He swerved to avoid stepping on me, so instead he pulled the cart across my body. It's awful, looking back on it, but I'm so lucky—I'm lucky to be alive, I'm lucky to have gotten almost everything back. I do have some nerve damage, and my body hurts all the time, but that doesn't keep me down.
Judith Barrington of The Woman's Review called Inside the Halo "ultimately . . . a book about courage." It struck me, though, that there was also a strong undercurrent of frustration with your being so dependent upon loved ones. What was the book ultimately about for you?
I don't really have an answer for that. None of that was intentional; I didn't see it as a book about courage, I saw it simply as a memoir of a terrible accident and how I came out of it. And, of course, I've improved a lot since the end of that book. It took me at least a year to get back everything that was going to come back. The book only represents possibly seven or eight months. I was very pleased with that review; I thought it was a very kind review.
"Grand Canyon" is the only poem that directly addresses your personal recovery. Is it too difficult to write about in poetry?
Some of the poems that came out of that experience, like "Grady" and "The Woman Who Moans" and "Wagons," are peripheral, but they're pretty intimate, too. I don't think I've ever felt terribly comfortable writing about my body. First of all, I think I took my body for granted for so many years. I abused it a lot. We (my husband Victor and I) were endurance riders, and I was a swimmer before that. We've always been immensely athletic, and it's very hard to feel betrayed by your body. So, I am still coming to terms with that, but I'm not sure if I'm going to write any more poems about it.
In "Making the Jam Without You," a poem for your daughter Judith, (The Nightmare Factory, 1970), you say, "It was not clear who did the mothering."
It's still not clear.
It seems this would be especially poignant now because she played such an important role in taking care of you after the accident.
Yes, it's murkier and murkier. Well, I'm so blessed to have kids who care. I just feel extremely fortunate. My son lives twenty-seven miles away. A day never passes that he doesn't call. He has a big unruly dog that we call "the dog from Hell" and he comes over frequently. We walk and the dogs romp. But Dan's been absolutely wonderful. He's a great source of help for me, because he's my computer. I'm constantly getting into trouble on the computer, but since he's a freelance writer he's almost always available.
In your essay "Long Road to an Upland Farm," you write about your family's gradual move from suburban Boston to a farm in central New Hampshire. You write, "the farm was a magnet; it held me fast," and that family members joke about how hard it is to get you off the 200-acre property. How do you think your work would be different if you were still a suburbanite?
I think it would be worlds different. The countryside and the farm itself are so important to me; I can't even visualize being a poet without living here, even though I was a poet before. I can't really project myself into that other life.
Most people find it difficult not to be angry when friends commit suicide, and yet in your foreword to The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (1981, 1999) you seem to have understood Sexton's decision to take her life. Was that only after you processed the anger?
No, I felt that way long before she succeeded. There were so many mock attempts, or half-hearted attempts. And she was going downhill; it was so obvious to absolutely everyone that she was in such torment. I felt she was absolutely entitled. And we all knew it was going to happen; it was just a question of when.
You've said that poetry kept her alive.
Yes, I think it did.
Did you feel that way as well, after your accident—that poetry kept you alive?
No. I think it was writing in general. It was thinking of myself as a writer, respecting myself as a writer that kept me going. And there again I have to credit Judith because it was she who brought her laptop to the hospital and said, "you talk and I'll type."
Sunday, July 20, 2003, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
Grounded in nature, deeply comforting
By Sheila Farr
Together: Uncollected Early Poems, 1958-1988"
by Maxine Kumin
As a writer, Maxine Kumin can do anything and has: more than a dozen books of poetry, five novels, numerous short stories, essays and, a few years ago, a memoir of her brush with death and painful recovery from a horse accident. Now, as is fitting at the peak of a long career, Kumin is releasing a selection of previously unpublished early poems called "Bringing Together." They're pretty wonderful stuff. Even the ones that haven't yet attained the mature Kumin voice are a pleasure to read and just plain interesting.
You come away knowing something about the way horses sleep and carrots grow and a long marriage chafes and survives. Kumin is one of the most comforting poets I know.
It's not because she writes the kind of feel-good poems you might associate with the word — Kumin is plenty dark — but because she's so grounded in the natural world. She writes about real things. And she does it in a voice that reports on birth ("the marbleized rat-wet new foals/blowing blue bubbles like divers into air ... ") with the same measured acceptance she shows for the suicide of her friend, the poet Anne Sexton, or a pair of illicit lovers flying home on separate planes. The best instruction, though is how insignificant we are in the scheme of things. The farm and the garden keep that fact foremost in Kumin's poetry, as in these closing lines from "A Mortal Day of No Surprises:"
When I'm scooped out of here
all things animal
and unsurprised will carry on.
Frogs still will fall into
those stained old tubs we fill
with trickles from the garden hose.
Another blue-green prince will sit
like a friend of the family
guarding the doomspout.
Him asquat at the drainhole,
me gone to crumbs in the ground
and someone else's mare to call
to the distant stallion.
July 9, 2010
Afraid of the Dark
WHERE I LIVE
New and Selected Poems 1990-2010
By Maxine Kumin
235 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $29.95
Theodor Adorno said, “After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric,” which is true — about Auschwitz. His statement is a measure of the horror of the death camps, not the pointlessness of poetry. Who says poetry has a point anyway? It’s more important than that.
Maxine Kumin uses Adorno’s statement as an epigraph to “Women and Horses,” one of the poems in “Where I Live,” her latest deeply satisfying collection, which begins with 23 new poems and includes a dozen or more from each of five previous books. And actually, Kumin might say that poetry does have a point, or so it seems in some of the more assertive political poems here.
But not in “Women and Horses,” which begins with a litany of cruelty: Auschwitz, where “ten of my father’s kin / . . . starved, then were gassed in the camps,” then Vietnam, Somalia, Haiti, the World Trade Center towers. After all this, though, “let us celebrate whatever scraps the muse, that naked child, / can pluck from the still-smoldering dumps.”
“If there’s a lyre around, strike it!” cries the poet. And the rest of the poem celebrates a host of small pleasures: sparrows laying their eggs in bluebird boxes, bluebirds laying theirs elsewhere, “navel-bared teens, eyebrow- and nose-ringed prodigies,” fat old ladies in flowery dresses playing bridge, howling babies and babies at rest and, for the able-bodied, steamy sex. There’ll always be war, she says, so let us see life, in the words of Isaac Babel, “as a meadow over which women and horses wander.”
This poem works because it expresses a desire, not a statement of fact. There are a few war-is-wrong poems here, but we know that, or at least we know that poets think so. (Not long ago I heard someone ask Billy Collins if he planned to contribute to a Poets Against the War anthology, and he said he didn’t see the point, because everyone expects poets to be against war, whereas, say, Butchers Against the War would have more of an impact.)
Likewise, there are a few nature-is-holy poems: agreed, so let’s move on to something more tantalizing. Emerson liked what he called croisements or “crossings” — points of contact between two different things, leading to some new third and unexpected thing. In his journal he writes of the sea touching the shore, the taste of two metals at the same time, “our enlarged powers in the presence . . . of a friend.” And Kumin’s best poems thrum with just that kind of energy.
Take the delightful, heart-catching “Sunday Phone Call,” in which the speaker gets a ring from her dead father. Pop! she cries, you’re dead! But that doesn’t keep the old guy from kvetching: “What’s / an educated dame like you / doing messing with horses?” he wants to know. (For years Kumin and her husband have bred Arabian and quarter horses on a New Hampshire farm.) Just before he hangs up, she asks when she’ll see him, and he replies: “I may be dead but / I’m not clairvoyant.”
In the meantime, there are plenty of opportunities for fruitful encounter right here on terra firma, including, in Kumin’s case, collisions with other literary figures. In “Where I Live,” she name-checks probably 20 or more: English Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge), classic American poets (Whitman, Longfellow), contemporaries (Czeslaw Milosz, Anne Sexton), and such behind-the-scenes types as Carol Houck Smith, Kumin’s old editor and a beloved fixture in the publishing world until her death in 2008.
Kumin’s casual mastery of beat and rhyme suggest her debt to the poets who preceded her. As Emerson knew, poetry is not a terminus but a journey toward a destination never reached — it’s the journey that counts. Poems like “Looking Back in My Eighty-First Year” unroll with a deceptive smoothness that brings to mind Freeman Dyson’s description of the Nobelist Paul Dirac’s papers on quantum mechanics: “Exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky, one after another.”
The poems that resonate most are the ones that measure the passage of years, from Kumin’s affection for the “darling nuns” who schooled her (she recalls a tract on menstruation “so vague it led me to believe you bled / that one year only”) through her time as a young wife and mother to her present status as much-published poet and recipient of countless honors, including a Pulitzer in 1973.
Formally, these views of a long and rich life are meted out in classical cadences. In terms of content, Kumin relies on her favorite quadruped as yardstick, referring more than once to “the last two horses of our lives.” The title of the final poem, “Death, Etc.,” is wittily misleading. Here Kumin starts out with a characteristically satisfied look at a marriage of many years that will nonetheless end with one partner left alone, then swerves toward a startlingly grim conclusion when she says “we try to live gracefully” but “in truth we go forward / stumbling, afraid of the dark, / of the cold, and of the great overwhelming / loneliness of being last.”
Hey, what happened to the stoicism? Maybe this is Kumin’s way of pointing out the real importance of her calling. Because it’s not going to end well, folks: Hitler killed his millions, and one of us will be broken by the death of the other. Between now and then, this book says, there’s poetry.
David Kirby is an editor, with Barbara Hamby, of “Seriously Funny: Poems About Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex and Everything Else.”