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Selected Poems, 1960-1990 Paperback – December 17, 1998
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A welcome addition to any poetry library. -- Richard Tillinghast, New York Times Book Review
This collection by a versatile elegist and observer of nature features vivid poems that are, refreshingly, about something. Many tell stories that serve to preserve her family's history. Last year , Richard Tillinghast called the book "a welcome addition to any poetry library." -- The New York Times
About the Author
Maxine Kumin (1925―2014), a former U.S. poet laureate, was the author of nineteen poetry collections as well as numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. Her awards included the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Aiken Taylor Award, the Poet’s Prize, and the Harvard Arts and Robert Frost medals.
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Kumin’s poems are based on the simple idea of telling a story. Kumin doesn’t write in the abstract, obfuscationist way that many poets do. You won’t need an unabridged dictionary and a degree in Poetry Interpretation to read her poems. Instead, you’ll find them open, warm, accessible (which, in my world, is never, ever, a dirty word when applied to poetry). This isn’t to say that Kumin’s poems are without a deeper meaning. On the contrary. Many of her poems leave you with a new way of looking at the world. Especially if, like me, you’re city born and raised. My sensibilities are very urban in nature, and while I don’t mind a drive in the country, I’m not predisposed to wanting to live there. I don’t want to live off the earth, or as a part of the earth. I’m not one to find pleasure in picking beans, or riding horses, yet, Kumin brings her world to life so vividly that one almost feels as if they’re a guest in her home.
As a poet, Kumin doesn’t go for the verbose, highly metaphoric, dense, lyrical language that some poets rely on. Kumin doesn’t need to use flowery words to disguise a lack of substance (as some poets do). Kumin’s poetry language, like the poems, like her life, is everyday, conversational. Yet, she wields her words with great skill, bringing out the natural poetry of the poem’s subject. For example, in her poem “Quarry, Pigeon Cove, Ms Kumin relates a tale of a younger self, swimming in the quarry pond, diving to the bottom, and, looking up, just as a dog swims by:
A dog was swimming and splashing.
Air eggs nested in his fur.
The hairless parts of him bobbled like toys
and the silk of his tail blew past like milkweed.
The licorice pads of his paws
sucked in and out,
making the shapes of kisses.
Her poems are not all idyllic images of happy summer days in the country. Some of the poems realistically depict life in the country (and, for a pampered city boy, some of the images are not easy to read), as in this verse, from Woodchucks, describing what happened after a failed attempt to plug the woodchuck holes, and gas them to death:
Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigaretts
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to a scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.
The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
to the feel of the .22, the bullets’ neat noses.
I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,
now drew a bead on the littlest woodchuck’s face.
He died down in the everbearing roses
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 murderer inside me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.
Yet, not all of Kumin’s poems are A Day In The Life of A Farm. There are poems of love, poems of life and death. And, perhaps because of living so close to the earth, Kumin often lets her thoughts ruminate about god and religion. She mentions, in passing, that she is Jewish, and tells us more than once of her agnosticism, and her struggles to believe, as in this, from the poem, Address to the Angels (the ‘best friend’ in the poem, is, I believe, reference to her close friend, poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide):
Angels, where were you when
my best friend did herself in?
Were you lunching beside us
that final noon, did you catch
some nuance that went past my ear?
Did you ease my father out
of his cardiac arrest that wet
fall day I sat at the high crib bed
holding his hand? And when
my black-eyes-Susan-child ran
off with her European lover
and has been ever since an unbelonger,
were you whirligiging over
the suitcases? Did you put
your imprimatur on
It’s no consolation, angels,
knowing you’re around
hopelessly observing like
some scared CIA.
Reading Maxine Kumin for a few days allowed me to escape from the endless pall of the holiday season cheer. Spending time with Ms Kumin’s poetry introduced me to her family, her horses, The Hermit who lives up the road in a rundown shack. Kumin showed me the not only the harshness of farm life, but also the beauty of small-town living. I discovered a new way of seeing vegetables growing in the garden, discovering the sweet smell of the air, and finding that the ghosts of your parents never truly leave you. Selected Poems: 1960-1990, is a fine introduction to the work of this Pulitzer Prize winning poet.