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The Poetry of Maxine Kumin

Lawrence Bush
May 6, 2017

Maxine Kumin (1925-2014) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on this date in 1973 for Up Country: Poems of New England. Kumin, who was appointed the Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate in 1981–82, wrote eighteen books of poetry as well as novels, memoirs, essay collections, and children’s books. While studying at Radcliffe, she helped try to organize a union for workers at the Fore River Shipyard and helped write the union newsletter. She began publishing her poetry in 1953 with a four-liner in the Christian Science Monitor. “Maxine struggled all her career to balance the conventional duties of a housewife and mother with her desire to fan the intellectual flame and excel as a writer,” says her biographical website. “When she began her career the women’s movement did not yet exist, so she had few role models to rely on.” “During Kumin’s eighteen-year friendship with Anne Sexton, whom she met in a writing workshop when they were both young mothers,” writes Alicia Ostriker at the Jewish Women’s Archive, “the two women kept a phone line open in their respective Boston suburbs, and workshopped poems with each other almost daily, honing their craft, respecting each other’s styles.” As Kumin aged, “she wrestled with public issues including Nazism, pollution, the extinction of species, war, nuclear holocaust, famine and — fearlessly — United States’ involvement in the torture of prisoners. Criticized for being political, she stood her ground. Upon receiving the Frost Medal in 2006, she defended the obligation of the poet ‘to bear witness.’ ” To hear Kumin reading “Woodchucks,” look below.

In the Park

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time
or climb, like a ten-month-old child,
every step of the Washington Monument
to travel across, up, down, over or through
-- you won’t know till you get there which to do.

He laid on me for a few seconds
said Roscoe Black, who lived to tell
about his skirmish with a grizzly bear
in Glacier Park. He laid on me not doing anything. I could feel his heart
beating against my heart.
Never mind lie and lay, the whole world
confuses them. For Roscoe Black you might say
all forty-nine days flew by.

I was raised on the Old Testament.
In it God talks to Moses, Noah,
Samuel, and they answer.
People confer with angels. Certain
animals converse with humans.
It’s a simple world, full of crossovers.
Heaven’s an airy Somewhere, and God
has a nasty temper when provoked,
but if there’s a Hell, little is made of it.
No longtailed Devil, no eternal fire,

and no choosing what to come back as.
When the grizzly bear appears, he lies/lays down
on atheist and zealot. In the pitch-dark
each of us waits for him in Glacier Park. --Maxine Kumin

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.