Maxine Kumin’s New England Aesthetic

The New Hampshire poet Maxine Kumin died on February 6 at age 88.  Born in Philadelphia, Kumin was, early on, a promising swimmer and trained toward the olympics before she entered Radcliffe College, whose paltry swimming facilities put an end to her intensive training and olympic aspirations. She was close friends with famous confessional poet and eventual suicide Anne Sexton in the 1960s. Though both were housewives, mothers and poets, Kumin described herself as ‘frumpy’ to Sexton’s high heeled glamor. In the 1970s, Kumin moved with her family from Newton, Massachusetts to a horse farm in Warner, New Hampshire where they bred Arabian horses and where she lived until her death.  Kumin’s 1973 Pulitzer prize-winning collection Up Country launched her reputation as a New England poet in the Frost tradition. Like Frost, also not a New England native, Kumin captured something essential about the region, its landscape and people in her poetry.

from her poem January 25

Now daylight the color of buttermilk

tunnels through the coated glass.

Lie still; lie close.

Watch the sun pick

splinters from the window flowers.

 

from The Presence:

Something went crabwise

across the snow this morning.

Something went hard and slow

over our hayfield.

 

from Woodchucks:

Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.

The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange

was featured as merciful, quick at the bone

and the case we had against them was airtight,

both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,

but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.

 

For New England poets like Frost and Kumin, and we could add the late Jane Kenyon to the list, nature poetry wasn’t synonymous with natural beauty or nature celebration. To live on the rocky New Hampshire soil season after season for decades, to live in such close proximity to your land, perhaps, like Frost, attempting to farm it a little, is to know a landscape intimately, to know it’s virtues and vices, to be undeceived by its beauty and also see its ugliness. The poet Donald Hall, also a New Hampshire resident and celebrated New England poet, has written of the looming presence of Mount Kearsage outside his kitchen window, Mount Kearsage in dawn- and dusk-light, ablaze with colors in fall, denuded in winter. This was Kumin’s New Hampshire as well, the landscape as imbued with personality, as present as her horses.

The poem Morning Swim also from Up Country is a poem sensuous in both its imagery and sound. Kumin uses couplets with long vowel end-rhymes that give the reader a sense of limbs moving through water, the languorous feel of water on skin, the simultaneous weight and buoyancy of the element. And like other New England poets before her, she imbues the poem with biblical significance, which acts as a homage to the Puritan and Protestant traditions of the region, but also captures the sensuality of hymns in the mouth and in the limbs; in Donald Hall’s parlance: “goatfoot, milktongue”, that animal delight in both physicality of the body and the tongue. Here is the poem Morning Swim in its entirety. I only wish it were summer and I could celebrate Kumin properly through mist, in chilly solitude.

 

Morning Swim

Into my empty head there come 
a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom

I set out, oily and nude
through mist, in chilly solitude.

There was no line, no roof or floor
to tell the water from the air.

Night fog thick as terry cloth
closed me in its fuzzy growth.

I hung my bathrobe on two pegs.
I took the lake between my legs.

Invaded and invader, I
went overhand on that flat sky.

Fish twitched beneath me, quick and tame.
In their green zone they sang my name

and in the rhythm of the swim
I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.

I hummed “Abide With Me.” The beat
rose in the fine thrash of my feet,

rose in the bubbles I put out
slantwise, trailing through my mouth.

My bones drank water; water fell
through all my doors. I was the well

that fed the lake that met my sea
in which I sang “Abide With Me”.

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