As an act of self-promotion, suicide is hard to beat. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, most recently Amy Winehouse—their overdose deaths are part of their legend. And would we read Sylvia Plath or Ann Sexton with the same attention without their famous deaths? Of course, suicide is the ultimate desperate act–not a marketing gimmick.
The survivors have a harder time getting known. Maxine Kumin, a close friend and fellow student with Ann Sexton, has lived a more ordinary life: a long-term marriage, children, a farm in New Hampshire. Her poetry often refers to the cycle of growing things—horses, woodchucks, planting and harvesting, the crusty neighbors who last out the long winters. But it also encompasses the complexity of the modern world and struggles to affirm in full knowledge of its imperfection.
I’ve never met Maxine, but years ago I had the temerity to send her a version of her poem “Oblivion,” a poem about those who survive another’s suicide, with an altered ending. Instead of dismissing me as a crank, she wrote me back a gracious note, and we’ve corresponded off and on for several years. You can read or hear another of her poems on surviving her friend’s suicide. Her work, grounded in specifics, moves from these to the larger view the way a camera focuses and then moves back to show the full context.
I want to include three poems of hers in a brief tribute on this first Monday of the New Year. The first is, to me, a celebration of a world that encompasses, sewage, war, terror, and the redeeming power of nature. It includes references to The Georgics, Virgil’s early poem of agriculture, itself full of tensions and contradictions, written in the tumultuous period after Caesar’s assassination.
Still We Take Joy
While in Baghdad sewage infiltrates
the drinking water and no one dares go out
to market, or goes, inshallah, praying
to return, and everyone agrees
it’s civil war as it was in Virgil’s time,
brother Roman against brother Roman,
warrior farmers far from their barren fields,
I am reading that pastoral of hard work,
as Ferry calls it, introducing his
translation of The Georgics, still a handbook
for gardeners two millennia later.
Last winter’s sooty ashes are spread
and fields are fertilized with oxen dung
much as we do today, with cow and horse manure.
It’s garlic we plant in autumn, beans, yes, in spring
in this fallen world that darkens and darkens.
On January 12th, an ice-locked day,
I dig three carrots, just as the poet instructs us
to take joy in the very life of things
so that, when Zeus comes down in spring
to the joyful bridal body of the earth
and the animals all agree it is time,
I can believe the wheel will turn
once more, taking me with it or not.
* * *
The second is a poem of the late 50’s, and also a New Year’s poem. It captures the innocence and disquiet of that time, and also serves as a tribute to her friend.
New Year’s Day 1959
remembering Anne Sexton and Jack Geiger
This was the way we used to party:
lamps unplugged, shoved in the closet
rugs rolled up, furniture pushed back
Glenn Miller singles on the spindle.
There was the poet kicking off her shoes
to jitterbug with the Physician
for Social Responsibility
the only time they ever met
and he pecking his head to the beat
swinging her out on the stalk of his arm
setting all eight gores of her skirt
twirling, then hauling her in for a Fred
Astaire session of deep dips
and both of them cutting out to strut
humming along with the riffs
that punctuated “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
This was after Seoul and before Saigon.
Coke was still a carbonated drink
we added rum to. There was a French wine
but someone had misplaced the curlicue
and a not-yet famous novelist
magicked the cork out on the hinge
of the back door to “Sunrise Serenade”
and dance was the dark enabler.
Lights off a long moment at midnight
(squeals and false moans) madcap Anne
long dead now and Jack snowily
balding who led the drive to halt the bomb
and I alone am saved to tell you
how they could jive.
* * *
And finally, a poem not about New Years, or social responsibility, but simply one to savor:
Afterwards, the compromise.
Bodies resume their boundaries.
These legs, for instance, mine.
Your arms take you back in.
Spoons of our fingers, lips
admit their ownership.
The bedding yawns, a door
blows aimlessly ajar
and overhead, a plane
singsongs, coming down.
Nothing is changed, except there was a moment when
the wolf, the mongering wolf
who stands outside the self
lay lightly down, and slept.
* * *
Hopefully, this leaves you wanting more. Her most recent collection, Where I Live, New and Selected Poems 1990-2010, was the winner of the 2011 LA Times Book Award, and would be a good place to start. Or you could listen to her on the December 24 Prairie Home Companion.