Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Seasons and Reasons

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Seasons and Reasons

Article excerpt

Seasons and Reasons

The recent death of Maxine Kumin at 88 should not be an occasion for sorrow but for celebration of a long career for which "distinguished" seems somehow deficient as a modifier. Kumin's latest collection (I hesitate to say "last" because there is no volume of collected poems or Library of America edition) is And Short the Season and I can detect no diminution of her talents as she worked through her final years. There is no real need to summarize Kumin's accomplishments; the many obituaries were insightful and generous. She was a longtime feminist of the action-instead-of-talk variety, and some years ago she took (with Carolyn Kizer) a celebrated stand in resigning as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets because of the lack of minority members in key roles, a situation which has been remedied in recent times. She was a devoted environmentalist, emphasizing the nurturing of our resources from the ground up and the ground down, both as an organic farmer and horse breeder. She was as fine a memoirist as I have ever read, standing equal with, among others in her generation, Louis Simpson and W. D. Snodgrass. She was also, as the obituaries noted, the BFF of Anne Sexton, with whom she had lunch on that poet's last day. Kumin has written about Sexton on many occasions but never so poignantly as in "The Revisionist Dream," a villanelle from the present collection. It concludes:

She said she had begun

to translate Akhmatova, her handsome Russian

piano teacher rendering the word-for-word

so she didn't kill herself that afternoon.

She cooked for him, made quiche and coq au vin.

He stood the Czerny method on its head

while her fingers flew. She said she had begun

accelerandos, Julia Child, and some

expand-a-lung deep breaths to do in bed

so she didn't kill herself that afternoon.

We ate our sandwiches. The dream blew up at dawn.

For many years, the poetry establishment perhaps overvalued the work of women who lived and wrote on the edge of depression, addiction, feminist rage, social protest, and the gender wars. It is not so long ago that Elizabeth Bishop was categorized as a mere "poet's poet," a woman who could be praised for "not writing like a woman." The reassessment of Bishop as a woman who, with more individual sorrows than most of us, still let the poetry do the talking may signal a sea change in critical attitudes by which Kumin's legacy will endure. Surely, on the strength of anthology pieces like "Groundhogs" and the exquisite "Morning Swim," she will be remembered, but I hope that the valedictory poems here will also be treasured by readers. The book's title comes from Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and it introduces the first poem, a catalog of forward spring that the poet sees with eyes unclouded by age:

Wet feet, wet cuffs,

litde flecks of buttercup on my sneaker toes,

bluets, violets crowding out the tufts

of rich new grass the horses nose

and nibble like sleepwalkers held fast-

brittle beauty-might this be the last?

There is little that is dramatic in these pastoral observations of the years turning, but a slow pace should not be confused with torpor; the poems are replete with activity, from the local artist who, having made three sketches of a harvest of honey mushrooms, reports that she " took them home / cooked 'em up and et 'em" to descriptions of "raised beds cobbled / from hemlock boards now bulging / from the press of ancient manure" and a "Jewish atheistic all-organic / vegetable garden where wild dill / [is] used to outwit the squash bugs." Kumin, with her Jewish-bom but Catholic-educated background, is an exemplar of balance, always seeming to be on the wiser, more humane side of issues that others find too divisive for rational thought. She reports sympathetically on the solitary confinement of Bradley Manning, deplores the excesses of Guantánamo, and warns about the not-so-random harvest of fracking. …

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