PROUD FEMINIST THAT SHE IS, Maxine Kumin would doubtless wince at the last line of Kipling's "If-," but how few poets of the last half century have managed to keep their heads (when all about were losing theirs) as well as she has? Always Beginning,1 her new collection of prose, is a scattered gathering-journal entries, comments on poems, reviews, speeches delivered at writers' conferences, a long interview. However, there is nothing scattered about the calm, consistently sane voice of the poet as she ranges over five decades of pobiz (a favorite term), taking in such other matters as literary friendships, marriage, family, horses, and, in one of the best essays in the book, beans. Most of these pieces appeared before Kumin's devastating accident in 1998 (one of her horses reared and turned a carriage over on her), which she relates in her recent memoir of her painful recovery, Inside the Halo and Beyond, but I am cheered to see that some of the pieces date from a year or so after the event and give every indication that she is, figuratively if not literally, back in the saddle again.
I will move quickly through this collection, noting as one virtue of it Kumin's comments on a half dozen of her own poems. One of them, "Purgatory," is a sonnet that I don't recall having seen before. It was written after the poet took her then-young daughters to Romeo and Juliet and embarrassed them by her tears in the last act:
In another essay, the poet describes how she staved off panic during a harrowing medical examination by using Housman's meters to tame to the insistent clatter of the machine: "Lying in my MRI tomb and doggedly reciting ["Is My Team Plowing?"] against the terrible rapping, I realized what saved me was the regularity of successive stresses." Kumin does not take meter lightly. Here it serves as talisman against the invasive eye of mortality, in other cases it keeps her afloat in the rhythms of the Australian crawl or is heard in the music of a horse's hooves. For this poet, form is no trifling matter; it has become "a way of life, a sustenance, a stout tree for the vine of our poems. We are, for better or worse, committed to make rhymes, be they exact rhymes or slant. We are still writing sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, even pantoums and triolets, ballades and rondels, as well as inventing 'nonce' forms to suit our uses. Practicing formal poetics does not in any way suggest that a poet is elitist or reactionary. Often a poet will choose to write in a historically powerful form in order to transform it."
I can recommend Always Beginning on several more counts: for its brief memoir and other glimpses of Kumin's great friend Anne Sexton, whose personality takes on more color (and caustic attractiveness) here than anywhere in Diane Middlebrook's lugubrious biography; for the touching yet unsentimental description of the difficult birth of a "final foal"; for wise assessments of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and Josephine Jacobsen; and for delicious passages on gardening like this one:
In the bush-bean department I've raised Provider, Seville, skinny French flageolet, and flat Romanos planted in triangular clusters down the three-foot-wide row. Of pole beans, I've enabled yellow and green Kentucky Wonders to hurl themselves up chicken wire or, more recently, fish netting that washed ashore on Cape Cod, where we found great clumps of it on the deserted beach on an autumn vacation.
One tires of reading collections of prose by poets who may know their craft from holes in the ground but don't appear to know beans about anything else. Maxine Kumin knows beans about.
When Kumin and Carolyn Kizer resigned from The Academy of American Poets in 1998 to draw attention to what Kumin calls "how to achieve equitable representation for women, African Americans, Hispanic and Asian and Native Americans" on its Board of Chancellors, no small amount of controversy was stirred up. …