Reviews of Recent Books by Maxine Kumin
Review of Kumin's Selected Poems 1960-1990
This selection of work by Maxine Kumin from a 30-year writing career will be a welcome addition to any poetry library. Her poems bracingly remind us of several enduring virtues valued by anyone who reads verse for pleasure. First, like todays most vital and interesting poets, Kumin is neither a full-time "formalist" nor a practitioner of the monotonous free-verse "plain style" many of her contemporaries have been stuck in since the 1960's. She has the versatility to build an orderly, measured structure in rhyme and meter, or to adopt the easier virtues of free verse for a more transient, informal effect when she chooses to do so.
Second, her poems are about something. They often tell stories, and many of those serve the function of preserving family history. It's a family history worth preserving, involving a familiar journey to the New World from turn-of-the-century Europe. Leafing through an old Baedeker, the poet comments:
of my grandfathers is in here somewhere
living in three rooms over his
shop on the Judengasse in
Prague, stitching up frock coats
Alley in Pilsen, or in the mews
of Viennas Old Quarter.
The American part of the story is also familiar:
among the nouveaux riches on Wall Street specs,
is seldom home. Released from baby-tending
by a starchy Nanny, Momma finds renown
as a demon shopper.
The familiarity of the material does not prevent Kumin from presenting it vividly. The lines just quoted come from a recent long poem, "Marianne, My Mother, and Me," which narrates the poet's education and development side by side with a portrait of Marianne Moore, seen first "with her bright red hair / in braids wound twice around her head, / as long as that. She's the same age as my mother." The poem traces Kumin's evolving understanding both of Moore and her own mother as role models and of the lives of these older women as cautionary tales -- acknowledged at the end of the poem as "both shapers of my alphabet."
The nuanced parallels and differences among these three women's lives are delineated in solid eight-line stanzas using the partial rhymes Kumin is adept at; their story traces some of the history of our times from "before the Great War" to the present. Moore chooses an unmarried life, while "My housebound mother, crazed with her first-born, / opens the lid of the Steinway with an axe. . . . Chopin is packed away. / A wet bar flows in the space of the vanquished Steinway." Moore's esthetic guardedness challenges the young Kumin: "We / must be as clear as our natural reticence / will allow, she announces. Rapturously / I try this statement on like a negligee / that's neither diaphanous nor yet opaque." Later, as Moore's persona becomes fixed as "an eccentric spinster," Kumin finds: "Strong emotion has no place in her poems / but slithers into every line I touch." She seeks to steer a course between Moore's chaste caution and artistic independence, on the one hand, and her mother's participation in the messy realities of marriage and family that have cut her off from the artistic and intellectual life.
As good as Kumin is at telling her own familys stories and placing them in context, she stumbles when she ventures into political and cultural commentary. This is not surprising in a poet whose primary loyalties are to the personal narrative, to the natural world, to things that can be touched and tasted and smelled. "Heaven as Anus" has that dated, mildly surrealistic, slightly hysterical tone typical of many poems written in the early 70's, when poets were lining up in opposition to the Vietnam War:
In the Defense Department there is a shop
where scientists sew the eyelids of rabbits open
lest they blink in the scorch of a nuclear drop
and elsewhere dolphins are being taught to defuse
bombs in the mock-up of a
Her particular scorn fixes on that enduringly easy target intellectuals love to hate: Southern fundamentalism. "The Jesus Infection" is especially meanspirited. This poem about driving in Kentucky behind a truck filled with pigs, sporting a bumper sticker reading "Honk if You Know Jesus," ends with an egregious slur: "We are going down the valley on a hairpin turn, / the swine and me, were breakneck in / were leaning on / the everlasting arms." The attempt at humor cannot disguise the ugliness of the sentiment; these lines allude to a Protestant hymn, while equating believers with "swine."
"The Selling of the Slaves," all black-and-white vice and virtue, likens an auction of brood mares in Kentucky to a slave auction, taking place in what Kumin turns into some kind of evil church. This poem is better thought out and better constructed than others, like "The Jesus Infection" and "Living Alone With Jesus," but equally informed by regional and religious animus: "In the velvet pews a white-tie congregation / fans itself with the order of the service. / Among them pass the prep-school deacons / in blazers." We are asked to believe that class, Christianity and patriarchy conspire to mistreat expensive horses: "When money changes hands among men of worth / it is all done with sliding doors and decorum / but snake whips slither behind the curtain." We hear hisses from the audience, all but audible in the alliteration of "snake whips slither," a la 19th-century melodrama.
To return to the virtues of her poetry: happily, Kumin's prejudices do not accompany her into the natural world. An early poem, "Watering Trough," pictures a discarded Victorian bathtub set out in a field for cows and horses to drink from. The poem concludes with the fine simplicity of this invocation:
come slaver the scum of
timothy and clover
on the cast-iron lip that
our grandsires climbed over
and let there be always
green water for sipping
that muzzles may enter thoughtful
and rise dripping.
As precise an elegist as she is an observer of nature, Kumin combines both modes in "Grappling in the Central Blue," which celebrates the pre-World War II innocence in which "unemployed uncles / hangdog in the yard / playing touch football / shooting squirrels." The poem rises to a fine apostrophe:
I declare you
Month I Will Not Let Go Of
I take you into my arms
even as festoons
of mushrooms, adorned beneath
with accordion-pleated gills
attack the punky elms
and fasten on their decay.
Kumin speaks to us most strongly when her sympathies are engaged by the natural world, but she by no means fits the stereotype of "nature poet"; she accepts the natural worlds predatory side along with its beauty. In "Catchment" a bull mastiff pup that has snatched a doe kid "snapped its neck with one good shake." In "Encounter in August" she watches with pleasure and doesn't try to interfere when a foraging bear wipes out the beans in her garden: "I find the trade-off fair:/ beans and more beans for this hour of bear."
From The New York Times, August 3, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by the New York Times Company.
Review of Kumins Selected Poems 1960-1990.
Maxine Kumin has published a selection from her first nine books at a moment in her distinguished career when her two most recent collections -- her 10th and 11th -- reveal that her work is taking interesting new directions. This gathering, then, takes the roundness of three decades as one principle of inclusion, and whether or not such a division is arbitrary, presents the work of those 30 years in a genuine spirit.
As fine as this book is, however, a reader acquainted with all of Ms. Kumin's work is likely to regret an omission here and there, for the poet has been strict in making her selections, especially from her earliest books.
Just a few pages, however, bring us to "Casablanca," first published in "Halfway" (1961) a few years before the flowering of the national craze over that and other Humphrey Bogart movies. The poem sets the scene and the tone with moments from the movies and faintly humorous rhymes, as when, in a reference to "The Maltese Falcon," the poet rhymes "Peter Lorre" by way of a boy who could imitate Bogart, doing "the dialogue all blurry." But at the end of the poem, the rhymes have settled, and so have the spirits: That boy has been lost at sea
in the other half of that real war.
The tough guy, lately dead
of cancer, holds the girl and then they kiss
for the last time, and time goes west
and we come back to where we really are.
"Where we really are" has been the central focus of Mrs. Kumin's poems ever since. Her points of departure have also become firmly hers without becoming repetitious. Among them are nature and the human place in it and the presence of death and violence. In "The Presence," first collected in "The Nightmare Factory" (1970), she describes tracks in snow, noticing that they are those of a predator or scavenger dragging prey or carrion. The poem ends,
I cross on snowshoes
cunningly woven from
the skin and sinews of
something else that went be- fore.
The steadiness of vision is so rare that some readers feel it to be hard-nosed, especially if they have become accustomed to the notion that poetry comes from some sort of misty feeling. But Mrs. Kumin has lived for years on a farm, where most of the residents have far shorter life spans than that of the average human, and for years she has written with a generous fidelity to that vision and to the resources of poetry, which make available a wide array of tonal responses to news good, bad and in-between.
Among the most chilling of these tonal convergences is in "Woodchucks," first collected in "Up Country" (1972), which received the 1973 Pulitzer Prize. It opens with a wry and rueful stanza about a feed-store gas bomb's ineffectiveness against a family of woodchucks that have invaded the speaker's garden. The next morning, the speaker goes to work with a .22 and starts by drawing "a bead on the littlest woodchuck's face."
Ten minutes later I dropped the mother. She
flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth
still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.
Another baby next. O one-two-three
the murder in me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.
One old woodchuck survives in the final stanza, keeping the speaker alert to his presence, filling her dreams; these are the poem's last two lines:
If only theyd all consented to die unseen
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.
Tensions arising from Mrs. Kumin's being Jewish among Christians have led to some of her best poems. As she is driving through the South and listening to the radio, the old country gospel songs carry her along, and for a moment she accepts them: Driving up close behind a Ford truck carrying hogs, she reads the bumper sticker:
It says: Honk If You Know Jesus
and I do it.
My sound blasts out for miles
behind the pigsqueal
and it's catching on the front end,
in the axle,
in the universal joint,
this rich contagion.
We are going down the valley on a hairpin turn,
the swine and me, we're breakneck in
we're leaning on
the everlasting arms.
Throughout the poem, swift quotations from gospel songs point the stanzas, so richly that that wonderful "universal joint" almost slips by unnoticed. Mrs. Kumin has a fine sense of how to make use of lucky phrasings inadvertently set loose in the world; in an example too recent for this book, she makes a spooky prophecy of the electronic voice at Chicagos O'Hare Airport that says "Look down. The walkway is ending." And in 1982, she published a book of new and selected poems titled "Our Ground Time Here Will be Brief."
A life of unusually sensitive responsibility has led Mrs. Kumin to a secure if sometimes troubled understanding of the continually growing community of which she is a part. The relatively brief periods of acquaintanceship with the animals on her farm and the occasional permanent partings from members of her family bring her, at the end of the last poem in this book, to a realization consonant with the steady vision noted above.
"A Game of Monopoly in Chavannes" recalls childhood frustrations with the game that arose from Depression fantasies and recounts the game being played now, in which the speaker's grandson has a run of bad luck. The poem ends,
I will deed him the Reading Railroad, the Water Works,
the Electric Company, my hotel on Park Place.
All that I have is his, under separate cover
and we are the mortgaged nub of all the he has.
Soon enough he will learn, buying long, selling short
his ultimate task is to stay to usher us out.
These poems glow in the dark.
Henry Taylor is professor of literature at American University. His most recent collection of poems is "Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986-1996."
From The Washington Times, August 17, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by News World Communications Inc.
Review of Kumins Nurture
Maxine Kumin sounds weary in "Nurture," and with good reason. These poems are exhaustive in their sorrow: they are predominantly short, brutal elegies for the natural world. She recites, in bitter, gripping litanies, the roster of extinct life-forms, along with those about to be extinct, and casts a cynical eye on humankind, the "unaware" species responsible for the destruction of the living world:
With zoom lenses we look in,
look in and wonder
at what flesh does for them --
we, who are going under.
Most of the poems are in understated rhyme, terse couplets, maximlike asides. The overall effect is one of anguished enumeration -- as if the poet stood on the deck of a sinking Noah's ark, counting again each animal we are losing. This emotional census fails occasionally as poetry and becomes a kind of versified prose, with the characteristic lilt of a zoology text. But if we read these poems as exhortations in the plain style, if we read them to learn, they amaze, in just the way the naturalists evidence amazes, because of their sheer wondrous detail. Of a trumpeter swan she writes:
In the wild its head and neck are often rust-red
from feeding in ferrous waters. There is
a salmon or flesh-colored stripe, like a fine cord,
at the base of the bill. This is called the grin line.
Ms. Kumin's refusal of lyricism, a willed, pained abstinence in this late hour of the species, cannot muffle completely her home-grown music:
Sleeping with animals,
loving my animals too much,
letting them run like a perfectly detached
statement by Mozart through all the other lines
of my life.
Refusing to see through the rosy glasses of a Rousseau, Ms. Kumin stays a realist. When a "she-leopard stalks and pounces on / an infant antelope," she asks: "which one / am I rooting for?" Both, it turns out, or neither -- since, as she notes, the leopard's cubs are starving for meat. There is no easy sentimental solution. Nature is "a catchment of sorrows." The poems in "Nurture" triumph in maternal righteousness and strength, but Ms. Kumin also displays subtle wit and a talent for self-parody, catching herself in top form as "a lady with a lamp": "Bring me your fallen fledgling, your bummer lamb, / lead the abused, the starvelings, into my barn."
With her imagined adoption of the "wild child" of the famous 19th-century French case history, the whimsy is carried to the perfect extreme. Despite critics attacking her for an "overabundance of maternal genes," the narrator does not condescend to, pity or smother the wild creature with love. She finds a way to talk to wildness: "Laughter our first noun, and our long verb, howl." Ms. Kumin is tough-minded, succinct, compassionate: mother-protector, "a lady with a lamp." If poetry could save the world, "Nurture" would be the ark.
From The New York Times, November 5, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by the New York Times Company.
Review of Kumin's Nurture
In "Nurture," Maxine Kumin moosefoots, bearfoots, dogfoots and cowfoots through a score of lyric poems about animals, whom she mostly loves. But she never pussyfoots. Thinking about saving a baby kangaroo by using a pillowcase as a surrogate pouch, she admits frankly in the very first, title poem:
I am drawn to such dramas of animal rescue.
They are warm in the throat. I suffer, the critic proclaims, from an overabundance of maternal genes.
And then she daydreams about saving a wild child:
Think of the language we two, same and not-same might have constructed from sign, scratch, grimace, grunt, vowel:
Laughter our first noun, and our long verb, howl.
Kumin has loved to write about animals since she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1973, but she also loves to be with them, in the language of silence and solidarity that nature knows best. The sacrifice of a summers crop of beans is worth the hour she gets to spend watching a bear eating beans in her garden, but she notices the sacrifice, in "Encounter in August." It is worth it to her to quote a man named Roscoe Black in "In the Park" about the way a grizzly bear "laid on me not doing anything," but she notices that he should have said "lay."
This tension between her sympathy with the grammarless bultitude of animals (to use a wonderful word C.S. Lewis made up for plump, staggering animality) and her love of precise speech creates both the rough and the smooth places in Kumin's work.
Even when she is writing about humans, she is writing about human animals. She has been with too many horses at the moment of birth (as she is again, magnificently, in "Sleeping with Animals") to think for a second that her baby grandson is something different in kind from a foal.
In "We Stood There Singing," she writes about an unforgettable minor "moment of civility among women": While Kumin and her daughter were traveling through Switzerland, a shopkeeper let her and her daughter into the bedroom in back of her shop so they could diaper Kumin's screaming grandson. And then the shopkeeper "opened her arms/ and bounced him chortling around the room/ singing him bits of le bon roi Dagobert." This civil moment has exactly the same tone of animal kinship as Kumin's words about rooming-in with a pregnant horse: "Together we wait for this still-clenched burden."
Robert Bly has written that every poet should take care of animals as part of her or his preparation, and Kumin has been certified and recertified in animal care as fully as any poet ever. She knows animals so well that she can identify "With the Caribou," and with penguins "In Warm Rooms, Before a Blue Light," though she's never cared for them on her upcountry farm.
But every now and then, the focus of her sincerity leaves the beast and lands on the word -- so that in a poem like "Repent," a catchy and cleverly rhymed defense of the killer whale, we get a lovely feel for the words without any sense of the animal.
Two-thirds of the 61 poems in this collection are about travel and family. In two poems about Austria, Kumin travels back into family history while she's visiting the places where her Jewish family lived before Hitler.
Later, she travels back to her friendship with Anne Sexton -- and here, "On Being Asked to Write a Poem in Memory of Anne Sexton," she produces a poem perfectly balanced among her loves for animals, words and special people. She compares her tormented friend with an elk, discarding and regrowing ever-larger antlers every year:
No matter how hardened it seems there was pain.
Blood on the snow from rubbing, rubbing, rubbing.
She uses lots of off-rhyme and muted meter in these poems, and in some of the best of them, we hear straightforward rhyme and fairly straight pentameter. "Marianne, My Mother, and Me," the first poem in the most personal third of the book, and the longest poem in the book, is a rhymed and metered genogram. It takes the lives of the poet Marianne Moore, who was an inspiration for the young Kumin, and Kumin's musical, haute bourgeoise mother, "both shapers of my alphabet," in time lines running beside one for Kumin herself. The poem is a beautiful act of witness. And this time, too, Kumin finds the words without reaching past her vision or her love:
The poet becomes her beast in armor and shell, a woman adept at the wittiest camouflages;
but under them always lurks the shy red-haired girl ...
From The Boston Globe, June 2, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Globe Newspaper Company.
Review of Kumins Novel Quit Monks Or Die!
Throughout her long career, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin has written frequently about her profound connection to animals. "Thoreau continues to be my mentor in every way," she said in 1992. But Kumin is no wide-eyed idealist: she understands that certain aspects of the human character make achieving harmony with nature tricky. The narrator of her poem "Woodchucks," for example, obsessively stalks the rodents who are devouring her garden, describing herself as "a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace / puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing." Self-interest, it seems, can awaken aggression in even the gentlest soul.
Now, in her fifth novel, "Quit Monks or Die!," an unusual animal rights mystery, Kumin continues to study the conflicting impulses of altruism and aggression that reside in all of us. Set in Montandino, an imaginary southern California town near the desert, "Quit Monks or Die!" opens with a crime: two squirrel monkeys, a mother and baby, have been stolen from the Graysmith Lab, where they were intended for use in maternal-separation experiments, ostensibly to shed light on human responses to the same trauma. Another, more shocking crime follows: the lab's director, Hal Baranoff, turns up dead, his body found in the same pit where he used to drop monkeys and observe their decline into catatonia. Next, the director's graduate assistant and mistress, a calculating redhead named Felicity, is discovered murdered.
Kumin is effective in sketching the characters that populate this small town -- a Latino sheriff with Anglo aspirations (Diego, who likes to be called Digger); a former member of the Mercy Bandits, an animal rights terrorist group -- as well as the arid landscape that houses them all. Not surprisingly, Kumin is a capable stylist, and she uses her edgy prose to form what can be unexpectedly tawdry story lines: Hal and Felicity, for example, enjoy a sex life that includes rubber cat suits, handcuffs and amyl nitrate. Hal likes to be "spanked in a Super 6 ... threatened with an enema as she stood over him in her white nurse's outfit." Felicity thinks that it's "a textbook fact that famous men like to be disempowered sexually." This aspect of the plot, however, feels a bit too "textbook."
There are moments, in fact, when one fears having been seduced into reading animal rights propaganda parading as literature. At a Jenny Jones-style talk show, for example, audience members stand up and make informed, sophisticated arguments against medical experiments on animals, offering a level of discourse that would hardly sell the advertising slots such lowbrow daytime programming commands. Likewise, Hal is such a villain that he once turned up the volume on his radio to drown out the cries of his first baby daughter, who died in her crib, apparently from sudden infant death syndrome, while he listened to Mozart. Perhaps the ambiguities and complexities poetry affords Kumin on the subject of animals are more difficult to manage in the form of a novel.
As the characters develop, however, their complicated psyches are challenged by archetypal tensions, and thus the book's allure takes root. Hal has a twin brother, Vance, with whom he shares a mutual lifelong animosity and with whom, unbeknown to Hal, he shares a woman: Hal's wife, Susie. (The paternity of Susie's children, the sweet-tempered twins Rachel and Reuben, is unclear.) When Vance becomes an ardent animal rights activist, he must wonder whether his newfound political cause is born of concern for animals or hatred for his brother, whose career depends on his cruel experiments. Again, self-interest has the power to confuse, if not corrupt, the generally good-hearted.
The outcome of the book's central mystery disappoints, but Kumin's highly original prose and her provocative analysis of human nature captivate. When Vance ponders the death of his selfish twin, he concedes that Hal "was my other self." Here the reader is implicated: Hal is our other self, too.
From The New York Times, September 26, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by The New York Times Company.
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