Friday, February 7, 2014

Maxine Kumin: Poet of Rescue, Poet of Witness

Maxine Kumin died yesterday.  According to reports, she was at home in Warner, New Hampshire, where she and her husband of sixty-eight years had rescued countless dogs and horses to run free on their hillside farm--her garden, her swimming pond and, at least for the dogs, her rambling country house.  This was the same house where she taught countless numbers of poets to free their poems by "pounding them into form"--a phrase that, at first, seems oxymoronic, but makes sense when you witness her life--a life of freedom not only in spite of (in the case of those placed upon her because she was a woman in the first half of the 20th century), but because of the external parameters she placed upon herself: the wife of one man for nearly seven decades, a pastoral, domestic life, a writing life that unfolded not out of ambition, but out of love for the art form, for her mentors, her colleagues, her peers, her students.

I was fortunate enough to be one of those students.  I sat in workshop in her farmhouse, stepped over her dogs on my way to the kitchen for a glass of water, saw her horses, walked her property, listened to her stories about animals as dear to her as her own human family members.  I remember one poem of mine ("New Mexico Sighting") she was commenting on.  It was a poem about seeing a rare black coyote while standing on a dike that extended from the famous peak in New Mexico called Shiprock.  The dike was formed millions of years ago by lava flowing underground that hardened and then was exposed by erosion.  In my poem I called it a "plutonic spine."  Maxine said "What does the word plutonic mean?"  I replied that it was a cognate for volcanic.  To which she replied, "Then why don't you just say that?"  That was Maxine.  Say it like it is--no facade, no dressing it up, call it what it is.  The draft I had brought to the workshop was 15 lines, and I knew what was coming next.  "This is almost a sonnet," she said.  "Why don't you hammer it into fourteen lines and see what happens?"  Which I did.  Which tightened the poem and made it better than it had been.

The consistency of Maxine Kumin's life with her writing life is exemplary.  It speaks of a kind of truth that is all too rare these days, when poetry has become an industry for many, and an art for a dwindling number.  In Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Chard deNiord asks Maxine how she would say she crosses "that boundary, between the pastoral and the political?"

MK:  Well to me, my so-called animal poems . . . are truly political.  We've been in the rescue business for about forty years and this little dog that you just met is our newest waif.  She came up from Tennessee in April from a horrible life, unspeakable life, and we were told we could never let her loose because she would run and run and never be seen again.  And here she is, totally at liberty.

Maxine Kumin spent a lifetime "rescuing the perishing; caring for the dying," and standing in her place of witness for the living--her animals, her friends, her family, her students, her garden, her country, her home.  She did so within boundaries that she either created or accepted or changed.  And now "here she is, totally at liberty."

The best tribute we can give to her is to stand in our place of rescue, our place of caring, our place of witness.  To pound our lives into form, and to be at total liberty inside of them.