Monday, November 12, 2007

Poetry of Protest: Maxine Kumin, STILL TO MOW

In 1995, Maxine Kumin was named a Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets. It was a prestigious position, an elegant crown to a career that already included a Poets' Prize, a Pulitzer (for her poetry collection “Up Country”), a term as Poet Laureate of the United States (then called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress), and five years as poet laureate of her own state, New Hampshire.

Yet in 1999, Kumin resigned her chancellorship in protest, determined to encourage broader representation of women and minorities in the organization.

With the fall 2007 publication of her collection “Still to Mow,” the 83-year-old poet demonstrates the art of effective protest - that is, of protest where listeners can grasp the issues, understand the passions, and develop a sympathy that may in fact draw them onto the speaker's side. In a time of multiple global wars, in addition to global warming, “Still to Mow” offers a necessary set of choices.

Kumin was born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1925 and earned her degrees from Radcliffe College. Married for more than sixty years, she speaks from the welcome familiarity of a truly long marriage (“The Long Marriage” was even the title of one of her books). A child of Jewish parents but schooled at first among the Catholics, for the benefit of the better education available, she speaks also from experience of “outsider” identity, and her poems burn with desire for justice.

Like California essayist Anne Lamott, Kumin finds the Bush Administration choices of invasion and occupation intolerable. The opening poem in “Still to Mow,' called “Mulching,” refers to her life as “a helpless citizen of a country / I used to love,” confronting a stack of old newspapers that proclaim suicide bombings, AIDS, earthquakes, and diaspora. Later, in the brutally graphic poem “Please Pay Attention as the Ethics Have Changed,” she rages at Vice-President Cheney's duck hunting (shooting at “pen-reared mallards”) and at the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib: “But where is that other Humane Society, the one with rules / we used to read aloud in school // the one that takes away your license to collar / and leash a naked prisoner” - and when reading the poem aloud at The Frost Place last summer, Kumin pointed to her unprecedented (for her) use of “the F word” twice in the poem. “It felt good to say it,” she burst out, enflamed with anger at her government's betrayal of the ethics she thought were agreed-on necessities.

But she is careful to paint the human background from which her voice speaks: She writes of her innocence in college, battling for union workers until FBI agents visited her father; of the similar innocence of leaping into marriage after graduation; of Jewish view of the Messiah and hope for the world. And then, inverting the telescope, she peers back from her eighty-first year, with the stubbornness of body and spirit that once nourished her recovery from a broken neck, an injury that made her beloved chores of caring for her horses into far harder work.

This open door into her life and emotions - including her grief and anger at the suicide of her close friend Anne Sexton - also opens a door to listening. Instead of polemic, Kumin's protests are braids of passion, honesty, and invitation. There are no footnotes here, no flourishes of foreign languages, no obscurity. There are instead the clarity of a mountain spring, the cold certainty of granite.

And in the end, when we ask why we should stand up for the weak, protect the poor, house the homeless, Kumin leads us as simply as if we too were aging lonely horses glad for her touch, as she writes in “When the Messiah Comes”:

“The first green pushing past the last snow / the old horses in their spattered coats of rubbed plush / lined up facing downhill, sunbathing, / shedding great handfuls of hair toward the reckoning / when the Messiah comes up the sluicy drive / and the crows, holding nothing back, / halloo their praise.”

This is a collection to come home too, after visiting Iraq with embedded poet Brian Turner or facing wintry death among the lambs with Flathead Indian son Kevin Goodan; here is the voice that not only parents us on our way, but demands that we become the adults we always meant to be. Even our own aging need not deter us, for as Kumin quotes John Gardner in the epigraph to the book:

“When you look back there's lots of bales in the field, but ahead it's all still to mow.”

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