Monday, February 10, 2014

Maxine Kumin (1925-2014)

To the dismay of some modernists, I suppose, I’m an old-fashioned poet – a story teller.
                                                  ~ Maxine Kumin, Colloquy, Spring 2005
I know only the thinnest sliver of poet Maxine Kumin’s work.  I own and have read a single volume of her poetry, the one titled Nurture (1989) (not even the volume for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973).  This was a gift from, perhaps, my mother, though it doesn’t bear her telltale inscription, so, more likely from my sister.  That’s it, a mere glimpse, yet, there are worlds upon worlds in these few pages.  Almost no need to go farther.

Kumin died this past Thursday, February 6th, on her New Hampshire farm, the farm that often appeared in her poems (at least those in my volume, the implicit limitation to everything else I have to say in this post), prompting musings on nature, nurture, life, and death.
What does it mean, I ask myself, while I am mowing
with the Tuff-Cut, slicing through a sprawl
of buttercups, graying pussytoes, and the unfurled
pale green tongues of milkweed in the pasture, how
do I, who buried both my parents long ago,
attach my name and number to another birthday?
Whoever mows with a big machine like this,
with two forward speeds and a wheel clutch, nippled hand grips,
a lever to engage the cutting blade, is androgynous
as is old age, especially for us marathoners.
                                                   ~ from “Distance”
Her poems are deceptively straightforward.  This one is no exception.  The “working distance” to be kept?  From death, for sure, but, also, from the dying of her sexuality.

Though this year has seen a nearly total decimation of the Monarch Butterfly’s epic migration, I still forgive her the cutting down of that milkweed in “Distance” because, elsewhere, she had, with eloquent sadness and bracing ire, marked extinctions of species.  “Noted in The New York Times (Lake Buena Vista, Florida, June 16, 1987)” opens with
Death claimed the last pure dusky seaside sparrow
today, whose coastal range was narrow,
as narrow as its two-part buzzy song.
The proximate cause – “hummocks lost to Cape Canaveral.”  She wrote of how easily we turn extinct species to adornments on postage stamps.
How simply symbols replace habitat!
The tower frames at Aerospace
quiver in the flush of another shot
where, once indigenous, the dusky sparrow
soared trilling twenty feet above its burrow.
Her empathy for animals radiates warmth and, on occasion, sentimentality, but underlying it all is a realism – animals kill and animals die.  There was the bear who waddled in and destroyed her bean crop as she watched:
At last he goes the way the skunk
does, supreme egoist, ambling
into the woodlot on all fours
leaving my trellis flat and beanless
and yet I find the trade-off fair:
beans and more beans for this hour of bear.
                                                ~ from “Encounter in August”

Of her dog, who each summer patrolled the pond where frogs abounded, and who would hunt, catch, carry, and release the “dazed” but unharmed amphibians, watching them work their way back to the water, she wrote that he was “an old pensioner / happy in his work.”  His gentle shepherding of the frogs contrasted sharply with their random killing by other dogs or by the little children who would trap tadpoles and “lovingly squeeze / the life out of them in their small fists.”

Nothing is to be said here
of need or desire.  No moral arises
nor is this, probably, purgatory.
We have this old dog,
custodian of an ancient race of frogs,
doing what he knows how to do
and we too, taking and letting go,
that same story.
                                 ~ from “Custodian”
And that “taking and letting go” suffuses the poems in this volume of mine.  In “Reviewing The Summer And Winter Calendar Of The Next Life,” she pondered in what form she would appear in her next life.  Dying in July might mean she’d be back as a barn swallow, “consigned to an 18-hour / day of swoopings and regurgitations.”  But even that was preferable to returning as a weasel:  “Rat-toothed egg-sucker, making do / like any desperate one of us . . . .”

Were she to die in January, she thought she’d have a choice, and I detect a note of pleasure in her description of that thought.  She might be reincarnated as an evening grosbeak “bombing the feeder,” or “a wild turkey, one of the brace / who come at a waddle at 10 a.m. / punctual comics, across the manure pile / for their illicit fix of feedbin corn . . . ,” or a junco, “whose job description involves / sweeping up after everybody else.”

I trust February was close enough to January for her wish to be granted.

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