Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Maxine Kumin 1925-2014: The Long Approach: A Life in Poetry

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Maxine Kumin 1925-2014: The Long Approach: A Life in Poetry

Article excerpt

I think I am going to get personal in this essay, because my subject is a person first, poet next, though the two, in her case, are not separable, and that inability to separate her life from her poems will be very much my subject, as it was hers. I shall call her Max, because that is what I called her. Though my poems are about as different from hers as poems can be, some of her books have fallen apart in my hands from referring back to them, and some of her poems-a memorable line whose music catches home truth, an image that strikes deep-are wound like strong cords of hemp through my memory in such a way that, pull one thread, the whole thing shimmers.

And I think this essay needs to be informal, at home with memory, ruminative. Like ruminant animals who literally chew things over, so do we return, again and again to muse on certain things, as I, over these many years, return to her poetry, to enjoy and for yet another serious look.1 Max's own intimate assimilation into the lives of the animals she'd raised, rescued and lived with is reflected in her poems by this metaphoric resemblance between viscera and vision, and is certainly what brings it to mind for me.

And even as, for the final fermentation of difficult to digest material, the bacteria are crucial, just so what is often despised and considered alien is necessary in the creative transformation of material. So the originally indigestible is made digestible and its nutrients released into the bloodstream to nourish life. The rest: well, that's manure, and it helps the next generation of grass grow. As Max wrote of her own valuation of natural process in "The Excrement Poem":

I think these things each morning with shovel

And rake, drawing the risen brown buns

Toward me, fresh from the horse oven, as it were.

Or, at the end of that poem: "I honor shit for saying: We go on." After all, as her poems remind us, death feeds the growing world, even as manure helps produce the next season's flowers. Besides, it is evidence of nature's excellent discrimination of what nourishes us, and what, though waste to us, might nourish another kind of organism. Would that we all had such fine detectors.

Max wrote, 25 years ago, of "the newly dead red squirrel" done in by her barn cats Abra and Cadabra: "I bury what I deplore // in the manure pile, deep in that warm brown / digester to be flung next fall on the meadow, / then let myself down rung by rung into / the green well of losses, a kitchen midden // where the newly dead layer by layer // overtake the long and longer vanished." "We have art," said Nietzsche, "in order not to die of the truth." "I'm very fond of that statement," said Max, and heran was poetry; it let her live her life with open eyes.

"Poetry is my life," she wrote. "The steady and gradual accretion of poems is inherent now. I could no more do without it than breakfast." No poet has more closely woven poetry into her daily life, a poetry that is personal but never confessional; she guarded her privacy and that of her three children and husband of nearly 70 years with the clear knowledge that though there was nothing to hide, there was plenty to protect.

What her art, as affectionate as it was astringent, required- first and last-was form: for her, formal prosody was essential; it was enabling. She says of this:

The tougher the form the easier it is for me to handle the poem, because form gives permission to be very gut honest about feelings. The curious thing for me is that rhyme makes me a better poet. Invariably I feel it does. This is a mystic notion, and I'm not by any stretch a mystic, but it's almost as though I'm not capable of the level of language and metaphor that form enables me to achieve.

I have always thought of her poems, and not just for the ring of the phrase, as études of finitude. It was Chopin who turned the étude from an exercise that hones a technical skill to an art in itself, a virtuoso piece illustrating the intrinsic relations between technique and expressive power. …

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