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.