Monday, January 22, 2024

You should definitely read Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

After reading Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I looked for more of her work at my favorite bookstore Giant Nerd Books in Spokane. They didn't have any, so when I returned the next week, I was delighted to find four books of her books waiting. What a wonderful bookstore! So, I figured I ought to start fulfilling my part of the request and purchase Dark Tales—which I quickly devoured. In fact, at times, I would be reading and think how I ought to slow down. Or that it would be so nice to be finished with the book so that I could reread it with the second eye that brings so much more out. Suddenly, my first reading became a preliminary run. 

In my book, that's a sign of an excellent book.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson is a selection of stories from her previous collections and several unpublished works. The book is fantastic, every story a careful and ingenious work of art. If I’d realized upon purchase that the book wasn’t one of her original collections, I likely would have paused to read her collection The Lottery, which is already in my queue. Regardless, I will enjoy encountering these stories again, whether by rereading this collection or stumbling upon them in the collections she gathered during her lifetime. I will not keep you in suspense: this is definitely a book to read, no matter your preferred genre or style.

Every. Single. Story. Is. Fantastic.

The stories range from first-person to third-person, but the majority of them are told in third. The ordering of the stories is well done—each story complementing the one before it, whether in tone, subject matter, speed, or length.

All of the stories turn in the end, usually in an unexpected but earned way—much like the episodes in Twilight Zone. She very much could have written for the program, and one can easily imagine Shirley Jackson and Rod Sterling sitting by a fireplace trading cigarettes and stories.

In these “dark” tales, dark stands in for strange, unexpected, slanted. None are gory or gross, none are horror or require nail-biting in suspense. No, these are almost like illusions—where one expects ground, it turns out to be the reflection of ground—where one reaches into a hat for a rabbit and pulls out a smile. 

Because the stories absolutely function on the way they twist, I’ll simply note a few favorites and leave the rest to come alive to haunt you.

My absolute favorite is “Louisa, Please Come Home,” the story told by a young woman about how she ran away, how very well she planned it, and how all worked out swimmingly—from taking the bus instead of walking, to purchasing a plain raincoat that looked like anyone’s raincoat, to wandering the bus station late at night with other college-aged girls. Her trick, she believes, is to imagine herself as others like her and then to think like them. She finds a room in a house to rent and follows the news of her disappearance, which varies from kidnapping to murder. In one poignant moment, she and her landlady are having breakfast and the girl’s picture is in the newspaper. The girl remarks that she looks a lot like the picture, and her landlady waves her off and says not to be so self-absorbed. Ha! But it is not simply the telling of a well-executed plan but an exploration into the anonymity we all experience without trying:

“It’s funny how no one pays any attention to you at all. There were hundreds of people who saw me that day, and even a sailor who tried to pick me up in the movie, and yet no one really saw me.” 

This not-seeing—this fact of our being like so many others—becomes a terrifying reality toward the story’s end.

In another story, “The Story We Used to Tell,” two friends find themselves transported from a house into an old picture of the house. When the first friend disappears, she is searched for but the case of her whereabouts soon abandoned. Her friend insists that a few more days be given before giving up and that night she sleeps in her friend’s bedroom:

“The full moon had turned into a lopsided creature, but there was still moonlight enough to fill the room with a haunted light when I lay down in Y’s bed, looking into the empty windows in the picture of a house. I fell asleep thinking miserably of Y’s cheerful conviction that the old man was loose in the picture, plotting improvements.” 

When the friend also becomes consumed by the picture, she and her friend encounter a strange dancing couple who harass them and dance with them. This story is one of the darker visions in the book and is threaded with vivid, nightmarish imagery with a turn at the end that invites, if not requires, the reader to begin again.

Many times, I felt myself hearkening back to Patricia Highsmith's Collected Stories because of the variety in this collection and its particular focus on the house as an intimate space, such as the story of Highsmith's in which a young woman is tidying her house for her sister's visit, or in another in which a person continually buys parakeets and gives them to all the people who post "lost parakeet" signs in the city. All seems fine but nothing is actually fine.

In Dark Tales, Jackson walks Jack the Ripper into a bar, playing the role of a man worried about a girl slumped drunk in an alley; in another story, a wife imprisoned in her bedroom by a jealous husband has accepted her fate; in a short but memorable story about a college girl stealing small objects from her roommates, the ironic importance secrets play in creating community becomes laid bare. 

All told, these are stories to be told again. They are all quite readable, the style consistently beautiful but clear, the insights sudden and thought-stopping, and the variety of tales makes for a well-rounded trip through the halls of Jackson’s stories. I recommend Dark Tales this in every way and would hope the book or any one of its tales be included in literature classes. None of Jackson’s work appeared in any undergraduate or graduate literature course I took, though clearly should have—this is simply, and unquestionably, writing of the highest caliber. 


Sunday, January 21, 2024

Wake to Words and Brew Some Coffee (January 21, 2024)

Three poems for today's reading. Enjoy!


  • Make Me No Lazy Love by Norma Farber (from Poetry, January 1958)
  • Our City is Guarded by Automatic Rockets by William Stafford (from Poetry, January 1958)
  • Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard by Mary Oliver (from her book House of Light)

🠊 Catch the live show Sunday mornings at some time-ish: 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Yes, Go Read Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Until reading Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), I’d somehow made it from high school to now only reading her widely anthologized short story “The Lottery.” That haunting story of a town’s annual ritual of stoning a randomly chosen citizen, despite no one remembering why.

I picked up a vintage paperback of We Have Always Lived in the Castle somewhere in life and finally read it over holiday break. It is one of the most beautiful and perfectly told stories I have ever read. It was so strange and right that I'd feel excited by the reading experience itself. Joyous. As one feels when falling in love, just being near the person. From the narrator’s way of thinking to the descriptions of the small town to the minds of the characters--Jackson's telling is rich and finely crafted in its minimalist approach. 

The narrator is the younger of two daughters in the Blackwood family, a once wealthy and powerful family in the town but after five family members were all poisoned to death at the same dinner, the family has become alienated, feared, and ridiculed by the town. The house remains like a haunted house on the outskirts of town, and Merricat is the only one of the three to leave the house for town, for weekly grocery shopping, which she does not enjoy.

“The rows of stores along Main Street was unchangingly grey. The people who owned the stores lived above them, in a row of second-story apartments, and the curtains in the regular line of second-story windows were pale and without life; whatever planned to be colorful lost its heart quickly in the village. The blight on the village never came from the Blackwoods; the villagers belonged here and the village was the only proper place for them.

I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.”

Merricat and her older sister Constance live in the house with their wheelchair-bound uncle whose mind wanders in time, and he sometimes begins narrating parts of the night of the poisoning either as though he’s there again or as a more present-self who has been rethinking that night from every angle in order to figure out how it happened.

The older sister Constance had stood trial for the deaths and the trauma of that, not to mention and the loss itself has kept her homebound. It is a quaint but isolated life—one that the narrator loves. She loves her sister Constance, and her love reminds me of how I once felt about my older sister when I was very young--a kind of idolization as much as adoration. Merricat spends much of her time alone, busy in her mind creating games that help her determine varying routes through town or arbitrary rules that guide her daily play in the surrounding woods. Some of these rules call back to her life when her parents were still alive--there is the sort of faint outline of that life still showing through in this one.

She has learned about botany and cooking and much from Constance. Constance cares for both the uncle and Merricat, allowing them both to live as much in their imaginations as in reality. Which perhaps allows her to do so too; one of the magical aspects of the novel is only understanding Constance through her interactions with other characters. What sort of life had she imagined for herself before that night? Before that trial? How does she imagine herself now that she has become caretaker for a disabled uncle and wandering sister?  

However imagined, the way of life that Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian have measured out their days becomes threatened when a far-flung cousin comes to visit and ingratiates himself into the family. He begins courting Constance, which involves his frequent and vocal disagreement with the way she allows Merricat to behave or allowing Uncle Julian to live there instead of in an institution of some sort. The cousin comes to seem like the physical incarnation of the town and patriarchy—constricting, narrow, self-serving and with a lust for money. His presence makes the house feel under threat, and the narrator tries multiple clever ways to make him go away. Each attempt beautiful in its enactment.

But the way everything turns out, which I’ll leave to you to discover, leads to a kind of ideal life for the sisters--or at least for Merricat who has Constance all to herself. But their lives, fully autonomous now, exist only by sacrificing all interaction with the outside world in order to live it, safely. Where the town had tried to demolish them in rage and jealousy, now the town keeps them alive out of guilt and pity.

Surely there is a clear wisdom here that Shirley Jackson is pointing at, regarding the total sacrifice that women must make in order to live autonomous, creative lives—or perhaps it shows the extent that love, or nurturing, when used to protect another, can lead to self-destruction and the suffocation of one’s own possibilities. Multiple times while reading it I thought the novel must be a queer classic and taught in many a queer literature class due to its way of rendering identity, relationships, love, and the conflict between the individual and the community that leads, inevitably, either to the total annihilation of self or town. They cannot both live and retain their points of view because of the chasm in perspectives.

In conclusion, Jackson writing is superb. The style, the perspective, the way that the story and mystery of the family’s murders unravels via town folk chants, the wandering mind of the uncle, the overheard dialogue of an archaic afternoon tea. It’s gothic and observant and creative. Shirley Jackson has definitely become one of my favorite writers, shoulder to shoulder with Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. She sees inside things and writes in the strange angles that reveal the world in useful light. And this book's light seems to glow like ghosts thrown on the wall by a modernist’s stained glass lamp. 



Monday, January 15, 2024

Yes, You Should Find Mary Roberts Rinehart's Alibi for Isabel

When I picked up Mary Roberts Rinehart's Alibi for Isabel (1941), I believed it to be a novel and was quite surprised to find myself in the middle of a story collection--and what a pleasant surprise it came to be. This is my first Rinehart book, and I had no idea that she was considered America's Agatha Christie but can see why. The stories in this collection are wonderfully readable and full of variety in plot. There's murder mysteries, war stories, and even a Florida fishing story. Some stories end like punchlines and others with the ominous knowledge of what's to come. All of the characters are interesting, even when they're plainly awful.

The opening story "Once to Every Man" is about a couple with a one-year old; the mother is exhausted with caring for the child, even with the help of the nurse, and this is exacerbated by the rationing that makes shopping its own set of hurdles. Early on, we learn that her husband has announced that he will be leaving her for his mistress, and even would like her to take the train to the lawyer in order to draft up the papers. She realizes the utter nonsense of his decision and decides to leave the baby with him so that he can can come to his own epiphany. 

And so he finds himself unable to focus at work, starts noticing the flippant greed of his mistress-fiance who does not want to care for the baby or cook or sit home with him when she could be out dancing; he is then confronted by the nurse-maid packing up and leaving to care for her sister, which leaves him as the sole caretaker of the baby. No other women can be hired because they are all working jobs related to the war and making more money than they would otherwise. Unable to find help, he stays home from work, suffers from no-sleep-thanks-to-baby, and when the cupboard is bare he has to push the stroller and baby to the store, a task made more difficult due to the ration book and the weight of what he buys (his wife had solved the problem by using the stroller as a cart and having the nurse-maid care for the baby at home). 

Within only a few days, he realizes not only the financial cost of leaving one family to marry again, but also the pleasure that came from spending evenings home with his wife. He sees, finally, all that she has done to keep his life steady, despite the clear upheaval of life the introduction of the baby has caused, and he sees the error of his ways. It's then that she returns, and the story ends with sort of a wink when she calls up the nurse-maid and tells her it's fine to return now. 

Later in the collection is a story that is almost the inverse of that plot, "The Temporary Death of Mrs. Ayers," in which Mrs. Ayers, an older woman/widow who lives alone but has busy days ensuring her adult children's lives are steady and that she supports the war effort by volunteering at the Red Cross; meanwhile, her own financial situation is dire and still have not recovered since 1929. Her feet are hurting her something awful, one son needs to borrow money for his business, the younger son wants to enlist in the war (his older brother had served in the first world war), and her granddaughter is in the hospital having her appendix out. Finally, when she feels faint, a doctor checks her pulse and advises her to stay home. Of course, none of her children know her financial situation or the emotional weight she carries by caring for them--much less the steady drain on her caused by constant war. The idea of rest, though, seems laughable to her until the weekly family dinner she hosts when her son's finance starts stridently insisting that she support the son's decision to enlist. And then she announces the doctor's advice for her to rest, but she exaggerates the extent of what she needs: 
"It's to be rather drastic," she said, "The idea is to cut myself off entirely. I'll not be seeing even any of you. No radio, no telephone, no newspaper, no visitors. I'm not even going to talk to Sarah and Annie [her household help]. It's to be--well, exactly as though on took a thumb out of a bowl of soup"

Which is to mean that her removal will seem to change nothing in the lives of everyone else. Her children rally and cheerfully escort her up the stairs to her room. It's then in these two weeks that she has the time to reflect on her life, talk to the portrait of her deceased husband, and rest from the constant beat of war. She rereads the love letters her husband wrote her when they were first married and he was in the Spanish War. On the second week, she begins feeling more restless and goes down during a night blackout and talks to one of the volunteer watchmen. It seems like the first real conversation she has had, where she isn't holding back one part of her in order to steady the other. At the end of her isolation, she feels much better, sees that her children have survived without her, and is able again to contribute to the war effort. It ends with her volunteering to stand by the air-raid phones.

She felt happier than she had felt for a long time [... Sitting by the phones] wasn't much, she thought. But after all wasn't that what this war was about? That weary people, men and women and children, could sleep in peace; could live and work and sleep.

Above her the sky was filled with stars. Some day Andy would be up there. But perhaps Herbert [her husband] was up there too, and maybe God and all his angels. She waited serenely, while she put her family and the beaten weary world into her hands. 

What I appreciate about the stories is not only the strong female characters who often appear (although there are frivolous ones, too) but also her candid portrayal of the war--whether its effect seems small, as in the fact of rationing, or whether it changes the course of the characters' lives, such as in my favorite story "Test Blackout" when a man volunteers to be Post Warden on night shift once a week. His wife finds his decision laughable and makes fun of him to her bridge-playing friends as he goes out, wearing the helmet and gear he wore in the first world war. It does not fit well, which he is aware of. But in volunteering, he has gained relationships with the men in the neighborhood and regained a clear purpose for his life; his life as a businessman was flailing. He now feels needed and necessary. 

On the night of the story, there's to be a test blackout, and while the readers are allowed to see the seriousness of the event, he is on edge for it all to go well and has clearly practiced all the steps of the evening. His wife, however, leaves their apartment lights on, and he has to leave his place to call her up and remind her. Her response is to shrug him off. She forgot, she says, even though he'd reminded her. It's in this interaction that we see to the nth degree how little she listens to him and what it means for some people to disregard the war or live as though it weren't there--thus endangering the lives of everyone else. She lives her life as though everyone were playing at war, which allows her to continue playing at life--hosting bridge parties and making jokes.

During the blackout, his fellow warden and friend is wounded and rushed to the hospital. Earlier we learned that this friend was a single father and had instructed his child on what to do should something like this happen, and so our man goes to pick up the boy from the apartment and envisions a new life for himself. He imagines raising the boy so that his friend can enlist in the war, the boy visiting for summers the rest of his life. And he imagines how he will tell his wife and at first she will not go along with it but eventually she will. It's a story of purpose, and almost like a glimpse into the life of Tom in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit before he is sent off to the war, which explains why his life after the war seemed so purposeless and hollow.

Overall, Alibi for Isabel is an interesting collection full of fresh and clever stories, both deeply rendered or necessarily flat characters, and now provides a useful glimpse into the lives of people during the decades between the world wars. It certainly highlights how passive and distant our own civilian lives have become, despite the many wars ongoing around the globe. It seems that a great many of us are playing bridge from warm apartments.

When out book-looking, I will definitely keep my eye out for more vintage paperbacks by Mary Roberts Rinehart. This will certainly not be my last by her. She clearly has a lot to teach me about writing and life.


Sunday, January 14, 2024

Wake to Words and Brew Some Coffee (January 14, 2024)

Welcome back to this week's installment of Wake to Words and Brew Some Coffee--our perfect excuse to gather and drink coffee while I read good poems by other people. 

  • On the Floor by Humberto Ak'abal, trans. by Michael Bazzett from the Spanish (appears in Poetry, Jan/Feb 2024)
  • Mask by Regan Huff (appears in Poetry Jan/Feb 2024)
  • The Retrieval System by Maxine Kumin (from her Selected Poems 1960-1990)
  • Progress Report by Maxine Kumin (from her Selected Poems 1960-1990)

🠊 Catch the live show Sunday mornings at some time-ish: 

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Yes, You Should Read The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

I’ve become enamored by old paperbacks and have just finished Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. It’s the story of Tom who is nine years returned from WWII as a paratrooper who now lives a life as a married father of three, in a starter house that he and his wife feel trapped by. He makes a just-enough living to maintain the life they have but not the one that he and his wife once imagined for themselves. Then he learns of a better job prospect. The first quarter of the novel is his interviewing for the job and the large gap he feels between who he is and the role he feels he must play in order to get it. Ironically, the job has to do with putting together a foundation advocating for mental health funding, but Tom never considers that he himself would benefit from such a foundation, struggling as he does with his memories from WWII. 

Eventually, he does get the job—at about the same time that his grandmother dies and leaves him a small inheritance and a house. The pressures at work (caused as much by his fear of failure as by learning this new job) added to the pressures created by the unsettled and disputed estate lead to Tom seeing himself as a phony—or at least he starts really meditating on the chasm between his experiences in the war and the workaday world he is now expected to live in. 

This is when we finally learn of Tom’s time in the war. From the rhythm of jumping out of airplanes, becoming lost on one of the jumps and killing a man for his coat, to the brief leave he has in Italy before being sent to a third location. He and his best friend believe that they will surely die this third time, and the droning nearness of death creates the atmosphere in which Tom ends up having a love affair with a woman for the 49 days of leave.

Like Odysseus living with Circe on her island, Tom lives with Maria in a kind of fever dream. She too understands the darkness of war, having watched her parents die from white phosphorous. He has seen men take the heads, teeth, and fingernails of enemies for souvenirs. But in that brief time together, they live in a sort of highly attuned present. On the day he learns he’s to report for duty, she tells him she’s pregnant. The rest of this is followed by a harrowing memory of dropping from an airplane onto an island already under attack by water and his accidental killing of his best friend whose corpse he then carries for hours searching for a medic. 

Now, back in his New York life he mainly tries not to think or talk of the war. The children have chicken pox, his wife wishes for a better house, he commutes to work on a train with other men in gray flannel suits. He finds his wife lacking in depth since she has had a comparatively easy life and judges her attempt to see the bright side of any situation a symptom of this—and so their marriage seems like a dull theatrical production they both play parts in—if only because they married before he left for the war and must resume their parts after. 

In a particularly poignant passage, Tom sees the pre-war vision of himself still lives inside his wife--and with it their pre-war dreams. On the night of his return from the war, his wife takes him to a hotel and 

“began to talk brightly about the future. As he listened to her, he had gradually realized that here in this pretty girl sitting across from him in a pair of silk pajamas was himself as of 1939. Here was a kind of antique version of himself, unchanged. Here was the casual certainty that he would get a job which would soon lead to the vice-presidency of J.H. Nottersby, Incorporated, or some firm with a name which would have to sound like that. Here was all the half-remembered optimism, the implicit belief that […] they would of course be happy, real happy for the rest of their lives. The trouble hadn’t been only that he didn’t believe in the dream anymore; it was that he didn’t even find it interesting or sad in its improbability. Like an old man, he had become preoccupied with the past, not the future. He had changed, she had not.”

As Tom sees success in his new job, he runs into a former paratrooper from his company who knew of Tom’s relationship with the Italian woman and the resulting child. Tom fears the man will use the knowledge of the child to blackmail him or worse. Much of the novel is Tom fearing the worst, whatever the situation. What will happen if he loses his job. What his boss will say if he doesn’t feign positivity and play the “yes man” to whatever the boss asks of him. What will happen if his grandmother’s will is successfully contested. Everything always feels teetering on a precipice in his mind.

The later part of the novel dips briefly into two other men on the periphery of Tom's life. First, the local judge who will have to settle the matter of the estate and his background--the way conflict makes his stomach ache, which is constant in his job, and the way in which his Jewishness has isolated he and his wife from the town, despite how highly he is respected for his fairness as a judge. And second, Tom’s boss, a man small in stature who has pulled himself out of childhood poverty by working twelve-hour work days, despite his now significant income and enviable lifestyle. His public and personal life is work, which has led to a hollow marriage, despondent wife, and strangers for children. Finding himself the head of United Broadcasting, various foundations and non-profits, and a life tangentially connected to his family's, he starts to see the negative results of such a life—but is so entrenched in it that he only considers his way out by grooming Tom into the same financial trajectory. He is our cautionary character who never served in either of the wars, having enlisted but not deploying before the first war's end. His existence in the novel suggests a kind of cultural rift between the generation that experienced the first war and the generation that experienced the second, and with it, dissimilar perspectives about life and death. 

By the novel’s end, Tom has stopped being a “yes man” and has started telling his boss the truth as he sees it. This eventually leads to positive results. The estate is settled on his side thanks to the judge's investigation into the matter. Tom learns that his Italian love and child are living in poverty and rather than ignoring this, he decides to send money to support them, after telling his wife the truth of the war —of having killed 17 men, the godawful experience it had been, the affair, and she in turn is able to be honest with him. This all happens toward the end of the book, so while she does become angry with him, it takes her only a matter of hours to forgive him and stand by his side—agreeing to help support his child in Italy however they can. Had Wilson given more time to the revelation, Tom's wife may have become a more dimensional character, but likely not since all of the female characters are self-sacrificing supporters of their men--the depth of their support equal to their value in the eyes of the men (and novel).

There is enough grimness, cynicism, and tension throughout the novel both to propel it forward and to allow its rather tidy, fairy-tale like ending. 

At the heart of the novel is the friction between the American Dream and the disillusionment of it after war as well as the question of how people survive their own lives—through busying themselves, ignoring their pasts, working tirelessly, pretending to agree with those with more power in order to gain in power, to live in a nostalgic past, acting opposite to their parents in an attempt to avoid their mistakes, or trying to profit from a changing present—all while coming from or waiting for the next war. 

Overall, yes, you should find a copy of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. There are so many well written passages—both in analyzing the society or of striking images, such as burning the legs of a grand piano during a picnic—that the book is worth your while. I’m glad I picked it up.


Monday, January 8, 2024

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Giveaway for Unexpected Weather Events

LibraryThing is a website for avid readers to track their reading and receive recommendations for other books to read. To help spread the word about the existence of my new story collection Unexpected Weather Events, I'm offering five free copies to LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. The only caveat is that winners promise to review the book on LibraryThing (and/or other social media). 

Readers in the United States can enter the giveaway until January 25, 2024. 

LibraryThing selects the five winners. 

To add your name to the lottery for Unexpected Weather Events, visit LibraryThing at


"Erin Pringle is my favorite living author. This breathtaking new collection more than solidifies that opinion. Her writing is soul-rich with wonder and terror, tapping into a child's dream-like experience of family, change, and death. These are not only stories; each piece is a spell swirling with grief, love, and the bitter-strong beauty of being alive." 

—Owen Egerton, author of Hollow and How Best To Avoid Dying

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Wake to Words and Brew Some Coffee (January 7, 2024)

 We have entered a new year, and here is our first reading within it. 

  • Address to the Angels (from her Selected Poems 1960-1990)
  • My Father's Neckties by Maxine Kumin (from her Selected Poems 1960-1990)
  • The Farmer and the Sea by Wendell Berry (from his book The Peace of Wild Things)
  • Awake at Night by Wendell Berry (from his book The Peace of Wild Things)

🠊 Catch the live show Sunday mornings at some time-ish: 

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Yes, You Should Read Maxine Kumin's Selected Poems (1960-1990)

I’ve finished my first read of 2024 and a wonderful introduction to the year it was. Maxine Kumin’s Selected Poems (1960-1990) is an interesting growing of life and word over the thirty years. Many of the selections meditate on the farm and its animal inhabitants, especially her horses; there are the reflections on her father’s life and death, her uncles, a few on the loss of her best friend Anne Sexton. Much of the poetry deals with the contrast of those who need and those who have, and she often unravels time and memory to its beginnings with a kind of Lazarus touch.

By the time I reached her poems from The Retrieval System (1978), I was marking most every poem as one to return to—as her writing seems to reach a depth and solidity that previous selections were working toward.
Here is one of the poems I marked that she addresses to an adult daughter:

Seeing the Bones by Maxine Kumin
This year again the bruise-colored oak
hangs on eating my heart out
with its slow change, the leaves at last
spiraling end over end like your
letters home that fall Fridays
in the box at the foot of the hill
saying the old news, keeping it neutral.
You ask about the dog, fourteen years
your hero, deaf now as a turnip,
thin as kindling.
In junior high your biology class
boiled a chicken down into its bones
four days at a simmer in my pot,
then wired joint by joint
the re-created hen
in an anatomy project
you stayed home from, sick.
Thus am I afflicted, seeing the bones.
How many seasons walking
on fallen apples like pebbles in
the shoes of the Canterbury faithful
have I kept the garden up
with leaven of wood ash, kitchen leavings
and the sure reciprocation of horse dung?
How many seasons have the foals
come right or breeched in good time
turned yearlings, two-year-olds, and at three
clattered off in a ferment to the sales?
Your ponies, those dapple-gray kings
of the orchard, long gone to skeleton,
gallop across the landscape of my dreams.
I meet your father there, dead years before
you left us for a European career.
He is looping the loop on a roller coaster
called Mercy, he is calling his children in.
I do the same things day by day.
They steady me against the wrong turn,
the closed-ward babel of anomie.
This Friday your letter in thinnest blue
script alarms me. Weekly you grow
more British with your I shalls
and you’re off to Africa
or Everest, daughter of the file drawer,
citizen of no return. I give
your britches, long outgrown, to the crows,
your boots with a summer visit’s worth
of mud caked on them to the shrews
for nests if they will have them.
Working backward I reconstruct
you. Send me your baby teeth, some new
nail parings and a hank of hair
and let me do the rest. I’ll
set the pot to boil.

Like the strongest poems in the collection, or at least the ones I’m most drawn to, Kumin balances vivid imagery as she moves from present to past or vice versa. Similar to Wendell Berry’s necessary agrarian awareness of the seasons, Kumin marks time as a farmer—constantly made aware of death and birth, and the past repeating itself through to present, despite war, atomic bomb, farflung children, or long lost relatives. It snows, the mare is pregnant, she mows, the calves are hauled off to slaughter, her children age, and a grandchild is born--and through that tapestry thread the memories of the past, hers and the abstract larger one.
It’s an excellent collection of work, and I feel deeply connected to her now, as though I am rooted too on the East Coast on a rural New Hampshire hill. I recommend finding a copy for yourself to peruse. The poems invite rereading and like all good poetry, bring the brain to a meditative simmer that makes your own life one worth considering.


Monday, January 1, 2024

Standing Atop Chronicle Building with my book Unexpected Weather Events


On Thursday, February 22, I'll stand on the rooftop of Spokane's Chronicle Building at 7 PM--with my book, on purpose, and for the Spokesman Review event Northwest Passages. I'll read a story or part of one, and then Shawn Vestal will join me in discussion about Unexpected Weather Events. I am told it is a beautiful, intimate setting. Is it enclosed? I do not know. Will we shiver together despite scarves and coats? Will I tie a rope around my waist and offer the other end to Shawn, to prevent either of us from falling over the edge while daydreaming?

I'm honored to be part of the Northwest Passages series and am curious to discover what it's all about. That I'm investigating as the featured author instead of an audience member will present some obstacles, no doubt, but I hope that you'll join me there and help me to fill in any gaps I could not observe. Perhaps you could bring a chalk bag and sturdy climbing shoes. The one time that I did try to climb the side of a cliff, many years ago, I dangled far more than I clung. But I believe I was in college, hung over and had no knowledge that I had a core, much less a strong one. 

I think I'll do much better this go round.

For more information about the event and to order tickets, visit