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Kumin, Maxine (1925-2014)

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Biographical Introduction

Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin

This Pulitzer Prize-winning poet raised horses on a 200-acre farm near Warner, New Hampshire. Kumin was born of Jewish parents in the Germantown suburb of Philadelphia and her father was a pawnbroker. She received a B.A. degree (1946) and an M.A. (1948) from Radcliffe College. In 1946 she married a Harvard student, Victor Kumin, who became an engineering consultant.

Kumin’s poetry focuses on family relations, the fragility of our environment, and the life and death of animals. Her publications of short stories, novels, and essays are in addition to her more than a dozen books of poetry, beginning with Halfway in 1961. Her subjects are more realistic than romantic and dare to grapple with threats to humans as well as animals both from scientific military power and from fundamentalist Christianity.

When Maxine Kumin joined Anne Sexton in 1957 in studying poetry with John Holmes in Boston, she and Anne became dear friends and wrote children’s books together before Anne Sexton committed suicide.

Maxine Kumin, awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her book Up Country, held an appointment as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Her poetry readings, workshops, and lectures in 48 states provided more income than all of her books of poems. Her most recent volumes include Looking for Luck (1992), Connecting the Dots (1996), Selected Poems (1997), The Long Marriage (2001) and Bringing Together (2003).

Her neck was fractured and she was almost killed in 1998 in a horseback-riding accident. Despite the suffering, she continued to write until she died in 2014.

The Poetry of Maxine Kumin

As true as I was born into
my mother’s bed in Germantown,
the gambrel house in which I grew
stood halfway up a hill, or down,
between a convent and a madhouse.

The nunnery was white and brown.
In summertime they said the mass
on a side porch, from rocking chairs.
The priest came early on the grass,
black in black rubbers up the stairs
or have I got it wrong? The mass
was from the madhouse and the priest
came with a black bag to his class
and ministered who loved him least.
They shrieked because his needles stung.
They sang for Christ upon His cross.
The plain song and the bedlam hung
on the air and blew across
into the garden where I played.

I saw the sisters’ linens flap
on the clothesline while they prayed,
and heard them tell their beads and slap
their injuries. But I have got
the gardens mixed. It must have been
the mad ones who cried out to blot
the frightened sinner from his sin.
The nuns were kind. They gave me cake
and told me lives of saints who died
aflame and silent at the stake
and when I saw their Christ, I cried

where I was born, where I outgrew
my mother’s bed in Germantown.
All the iron truths I knew
stood halfway up a hill, or down.

Every spring when the ice goes out
black commas come scribbling across the shallows.
Soon they sprout forelegs.
Slowly they absorb their tails
and by mid-June, full-voiced, announce themselves.

Enter our spotted dog.
Every summer, tense with the scent of them,
tail arched like a pointer’s but wagging
in anticipation, he stalks his frogs
two hundred yards clockwise around
the perimeter of this mucky pond,
then counterclockwise, an old pensioner
happy in his work.

Once every ten or so pounces
he succeeds, carries his captive north
in his soft mouth, uncorks him on the grass,
and then sits, head cocked, watching the slightly
dazed amphibian hop back to sanctuary.

Over the years the pond’s inhabitants
seem to have grown accustomed
to this ritual of capture and release.
They ride untroubled in the wet pocket
of the dog’s mouth, disembark in the meadow
like hitchhikers, and strike out again for home.

I have seen others of his species kill
and swallow their catch and then be seized
with violent retchings. I have seen children
corner polliwogs in the sun-flecked hollow
by the green rock and lovingly squeeze
the life out of them in their small fists.
I have seen the great blue heron swoop in
time after wing-slapping time to carry
frogs back to the fledglings in the rookery.

Nothing is to be said here
of need or desire. No moral arises
nor is this, probably, purgatory.
We have this old dog,
custodian of an ancient race of frogs,
doing what he knows how to do
and we too, taking and letting go,
that same story.

Wilbur Wright is racing the locomotive
on the Baltimore and Ohio commuter line.
The great iron horse hisses and hums on its rails
but the frail dragonfly overhead appears to be
Soon we will have dog fights and the Red Baron.
The firebombing of Dresden is still to come.
And the first two A-bombs, all that there are.

The afterburners of jets lie far in the future
and the seeds of our last descendants, who knows,
are they not yet stored in their pouches?