Sunday, March 04, 2007

Maxine Kumin: "Let Them Eat Baked Potatoes"

Maxine Kumin read her poetry this afternoon at Plymouth State University, introduced by her "neighbor," U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall (she lives in Warner, NH; he lives in Wilmot, NH; the bulk of Mt. Kearsarge rises between them). She opened with a poem she said was especially dear to her, "Morning Swim," with its rhyming couplets and declaration of faith. Then she gave a grand sampling of the work that makes her so well loved: the poems about dogs, horses, haying, rural life with its generous doses of labor, miracle, and tenderness. Anecdotes crept into the reading, such as for the poem "Praise Be," about a foal that arrived much later than expected. It was Kumin's habit to sleep in the barn when a foal was due, and she lay on a mound of sawdust that positioned her to look directly into the foaling pen. "I slept on that pile for twenty-one days," she marveled ruefully.

Working her way forward in time through her collections, she reached "Three Dreams After a Suicide," and explained simply, "Of course it's all about my friend Anne Sexton, with whom I was terribly close for seventeen and a half years until she took her own life." Kumin "scribbled incessantly" after Sexton's death, and the poem came together after about thirty years of writing.

Her finale was a set from her most recent book, Jack (she has another book headed for publication in fall 2007). One, written at the 25th anniversary of the blizzard of 1978, also confronted the eruption of the Iraq war ("New Hampshire, February 7, 2003") and was the only one of her choices today to reflect her strong anti-war stance. The next, "The Apparition," enfolded the "putting down" of a long-loved dog; she followed it with "Jack," for a horse whose path out of her hands left her with "guilt about a sin of omission." And she concluded with a poem about her friend Stanley Kunitz and his garden.

With a chuckle, she shared one more tale: "I like to always tell the story about my moaning to Stanley about how I never could find time to write because I had all these family obligations. And he patted my hand and said, 'Just put them all on baked potatoes.'"

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