Maxine Kumin

Search form

The Uses Of Emily
Recording: 
Download:Audio icon kumin.mp3

 

I just want to start by saying what a great pleasure it is to be invited to a festival of this sort in the company of my peers, other women poets, and what a kind of sense of reunion it gives me to be here with Mary and with Ruth. Ruth, in particular, is an old friend. And later today I guess I'm going to get to see Denise, and then Adrienne is coming and tomorrow Carolyn, and I think, "What an incredible collection John Harrington has gathered for this." I told him earlier this year that I had been trying to write an Emily Dickinson poem. It's a kind of vengeful poem. Without naming names, there is an august critic whose book on American literature contains mention of exactly one female and of course you know who that one is. A well known male poet being asked to list the women poets, American poets, whose work he admires, could come up only with you know who. The facts in this poem, the biographical facts, are actual and I'm calling it "The Uses of Emily."

Oh, how they wrack
their seasoned attention,
the masculine critics,
to find one woman worth mention,
one woman who matches the list in their mind
and then they'll acclaim, they'll commend her.
No one alive will do
from the other gender,
but Emily, there's always you,
long and safely gone from here.
Emily the good,
wearing white and staying in
and little better understood
now than you were then.

While half Mount Holyoke College swooned,
converting on the spot, what to make of your behavior,
Emily the doomed,
refusing Christ as your personal savior?
No wonder Father snatched you out of algebra and astronomy,
and sat you down at home.
Anyone could clearly see
these intellectual wizardries
were weakening the womb.
Posthumouosly, you were disdained.
The Atlantic Monthly's best reviewer
said, "Miss Dickinson's versicles are queer and quaint,
and in emotional breasts have stirred
a momentary burst of curiousity,
but could predict that blear oblivion
lingers in the immediate neighborhood."
And what from this may we infer
except that fate is twisted?
Poet you are,
Poet you were,
and, Emily, you've lasted

[end poem]

I'm going to be reading from The Long Approach, which is my new book, and, taking a cue from Mary, I too would like to start with a spring poem. It's a poem that begins in the winter, but ends on a happier note and it's called "Getting Through":

I want to apologize
for all the snow falling in
this poem so early in the season.
Falling on the calendar of bad news.
Already we have had snow lucid,
snow surprising, snow bees
and lambswool snow. Already
snows of exaltation have covered
some scars. Larks and the likes
of paisleys went up. But lately the sky
is letting down large-print flakes
of old age. Loving this poor place,
wanting to stay on, we have endured
an elegiac snow of whitest jade,
subdued biographical snows
and public storms, official and profuse.

Even if the world is ending
you can tell it's February
by the architecture of the pastures.
Snow falls on the pregnant mares,
is followed by a thaw, and then
refreezes so that everywhere
their hill upheaves into a glass mountain.
The horses skid, stiff-legged, correct
position, break through the crust
and stand around disconsolate
lipping wisps of hay.
Animals are said to be soulless.
Unable to anticipate.

No mail today.
No newspapers. The phone's dead.
Bombs and grenades, the newly disappeared,
a kidnapped ear, go unrecorded
but the foals flutter inside
warm wet bags that carry them
eleven months in the dark.
It seems they lie transversely, thick
as logs. The outcome is well known.
If there's an April
in the last frail snow of April
they will knock hard to be born.

[end poem]

Now this is a little bit self-indulgent. It's a poem called "Grandchild." The setting is the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland, right on the border with France. If you know that area, you know that just across the Douan lies Ferney a Voltaire, which was where Voltaire had his summer home, his secondary residence. And he had it there for a good reason: so in case he was accused of heresy, he could just step across to Switzerland and not go to jail, or far worse. Okay, there's nothing that I think needs to be explained, having said that. It's just called "Grandchild," for Yann:

All night the douanier in his sentry box
at the end of the lane where France begins plays fox
and hounds with little spurts of cars
that sniff to a stop at the barrier
and declare themselves. I stand at the window
watching the ancient boundaries that flow
between my daughter's life and mine dissolve
like taffy pulled until it melts in half
without announcing any point of strain
and I am a young unsure mother again
stiffly clutching the twelve-limbed raw
creature that broke from between my legs, that stew
of bone and membrane loosely sewn up in
a fierce scared flailing other being.

We blink, two strangers in a foreign kitchen.
Now that you've drained your mother dry and will
not sleep, I take you in my arms, brimful
six days old, little feared-for mouse.
Last week when you were still a fish
in the interior, I dreamed you thus:
The douanier brought you curled up in his cap
buttoned and suited like him, authority's prop
--a good Victorian child's myth--
and in his other hand a large round cheese
ready to the point of runniness.
At least there, says the dream, no mysteries.

Toward dawn I open my daughter's cupboard on
a choice of calming teas--infusions--
verbena, fennel, linden, camomile,
shift you on my shoulder and fill the kettle.
Age has conferred on me a certain grace.
You're a package I can rock and ease
from wakefulness to sleep. This skill comes back
like learning how to swim. Comes warm and quick
as first milk in the breasts. I comfort you.
Body to body my monkey-wit soaks through.

Later, I wind the outside shutters up.
You sleep mouse-mild, topped with camomile.
Daylight slips past the douane. I rinse my cup.
My daughter troubles sleep a little while
longer. The just-milked cows across the way
come down their hillside single file
and the dream, the lefthand gift of ripened brie
recurs, smelly, natural, and good
wanting only to be brought true
in your own time: your childhood.

[end poem]

It occurred to me reading that poem that often we say the poet has one song and sings it over and over. Well, I think it's certainly true that poets build on their own obsessions, and as I was reading about that dream of the origins of the baby, I remembered this earlier poem. This is from Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, which I wrote as a poem for my mother on her eighty-fourth birthday and it too . . . I like to call this my sex misinformation poem.

"Birthday Poem" 

I am born at home
the last of four children.
The doctor brings me as promised
in his snap-jawed black leather satchel.

He takes me out in sections
fastens limbs to torso
torso to neck stem
pries Mama's navel open
and inserts me, head first.

Chin back, I swim upward
up the alimentary canal
bypassing mouth and nose holes
and knock at the top
of her head to be let out
wherefore her little bald spot.

Today my mother is eighty-two
splendidly braceleted and wigged.
She had to go four times to the well
to get me.

[end poem]

And I'm going to read one more mother-daughter poem. This is called "The Envelope":

It is true, Martin Heidegger, as you have written,
I fear to cease, even knowing that at the hour
of my death my daughters will absorb me, even
knowing they will carry me about forever
inside them, an arrested fetus, even as I carry
the ghost of my mother under my navel, a nervy
little androgynous person, a miracle
folded in lotus position.

Like those old pear-shaped Russian dolls that open
at the middle to reveal another and another, down
to the pea-sized, irreducible minim,
may we carry our mothers forth in our bellies.
May we, borne onward by our daughters, ride
in the Envelope of Almost-Infinity,
that chain letter good for the next twenty-five
thousand days of their lives.

[end poem]

Well I feel emboldened by . . . It's always nice to go second. I think it's awful to have to go first. Now that Mary has mentioned that she did a USIA tour for the State department, I feel emboldened to say that I did one too. My husband and I also were sent to four countries, the last of which, in our case, was Japan and, unfortunately, we had not been there more than four or five days when I came down with an unspecified tropical disease that was later diagnosed here, in the States, as Dengue fever, but I spent eight days in a hotel room in Kyoto trying to stop shaking enough to get on a plane to come back to the States and I was really grieved that this was, that this had happened in Kyoto, because I had so longed to go to Hiroshima. While I was alternately shivering and, well you know how these fevers are, the up and down part. In the in betweens, I did a lot of reading and a young woman from the American embassy, a Japanese woman, gave me Ibuse's book, Black Rain. It's a novel about the bombing of Hiroshima. I really was afraid to read it. I thought it would be so scarifying to read, and, yet, it's an amazing book. You can buy it in paperback now in virtually any bookstore. It's a wonderful novel. It will hold your attention. You will be able to read it. I don't quite know how this poem came about. I think it was partly reading the novel, partly the fever, partly the fever dreams, partly my enormous and abiding affection for the gingko tree, because I grew up with one in the backyard and Japan is full of them.

"How to Survive Nuclear War"
After reading Ibuse's Black Rain

Brought low in Kyoto,
too sick with chills and fever
to take the bullet train to Hiroshima,
I am jolted out of this geography,
pursued by Nazis, kidnapped, stranded
when the dam bursts, my life
always in someone else's hands.
Room service brings me tea and aspirin.

This week the Holy Radish
Festival, pure white daikons
one foot long grace all the city's shrines.
Earlier, a celebration for the souls
of insects farmers may have trampled on
while bringing in the harvest.
Now shall I repent?
I kill to keep whatever
pleases me. Last summer
to save the raspberries
I immolated hundreds of coppery
Japanese beetles.

In some respects,
Ibuse tells me,
radiation sickness is less
terrible than cancer. The hair
comes out in patches. Teeth
break off like matchsticks
at the gum line but the loss
is painless. Burned skin itches,
peels away in strips.
Everywhere the black rain fell
it stains the flesh like a tattoo
but weeks later, when
survivors must expel
day by day in little pisses
the membrane lining the bladder
pain becomes an extreme grammar.

I understand we did this.
I understand
we may do this again
before it is done to us.
In case it is thought of
to do to us.

Just now, the homage that
I could not pay the irradiated dead
gives rise to a dream.
In it, a festival to mourn
the ritual maiming of the ginkgo,
pollarding that lops
all natural growth
from the tumorous stump
years of pruning creates.
I note that these faggots
are burned. I observe that the smoke
is swallowed with great ceremony.
Thereupon every severed shoot
comes back, takes on
a human form, fan-shaped,
ancient, all-knowing,
tattered like us.

This means
we are all to be rescued.

Though we eat animals
and wear their skins,
though we crack mountains
and insert rockets in them

this signifies
we will burn and go up.
We will be burned and come back.

I wake naked, parched,
my skin striped by sunlight.
Under my window
a line of old ginkgos hunkers down.
The new sprouts that break from
their armless shoulders are
the enemies of despair.

[end poem]

Well, I think we need something light after that. This is called "A New England Gardener Gets Personal":

Kale
curls. Laughs at cold rain.
Survives
leaf-snapping hail.
Under snow, stays green.
Comes crisp as a handclap
to the bowl,
then lies meekly down
with lettuces and cole.

Willynilly
after years of no-peppers
a glut of them
perfect as Peter Piper's.
Only piccalilli
will get shut of them.
None grow riper
none redden in this clime
but such sublime
pectorals! Such green hips!
No Greek torso could be
more nobly equipped.

What ails you, cherry tomato?
Why do you blossom and never bear?
Is it acid rain you're prey to
or nicotine in the air?
Are you determinate or not,
wanting trellises,
strings to cling to from the pot?
What evil spell is this?

Apple on a stalk
kohlrabi
grows fronds in its ears.
Stands stiff as a bobby
when the Queen appears.
Quoth she: my dears,
eat this pale knob when small
or not at all.

Winters, like money in the bank,
that dull gargantuan, the swede,
yellow, thick, and faintly rank,
is eaten by cattle and people in need.

Carrot
wants company in bed.
Presses
to be held on either side
by purslane, chickweed
and coarser grasses.
Meanwhile puts down deep alone
its secret orange cone.

[end poem]

I should really have explained about the swede. In the Northern states, that's what people call rutabagas and probably in New Jersey, nobody eats a rutabaga anyway. Why should you, you have all that asparagus, right? This is a little father poem called "Appetite":

I eat these
wild red raspberries
still warm from the sun
and smelling faintly of jewelweed
in memory of my father

tucking the napkin
under his chin and bending
over an ironstone bowl
of the bright drupelets
awash in cream

my father
with the sigh of a man
who has seen all and been redeemed
said time after time
as he lifted his spoon

men kill for this.

[end poem]

This is sort of a little memory poem, a World War Two poem, called "Atlantic City, 1939."

When I was young and returning from
death's door, I served as chaperone,
pale as waxworks, a holiday child,
under the bear laprobe in the back
of my courtesy uncle's Cadillac
careening through a world gone wild.

The Germans pushed into Poland. My
mother sat up front, close pressed
as bees to honey to Uncle Les
and wobbled the stick he shifted by.
I whooped my leftover cough but said
no word, a bear asleep or dead.

Later, in the Boardwalk arcade
when a chirping photographer made
me put my face in the hole with wings,
they snuggled behind him, winked and smiled
as he fussed and clicked the shutter's spring
and there I was corporeal
in the garb of the angel Gabriel,
forever a captive child.

Pink with ardor, not knowing why,
I longed for one of them to die
that slow September by the sea.
He fell on the beach at Normandy.
I never heard her say his name
again without a flush of shame
for my complicity.

[end poem]

I'm going to close with the title poem from The Long Approach, and again, just before we came on, Mary told me, I think it was just before we came on, she said that she had done the poet-in-residency at Bucknell University, something that I had also done, and I didn't ask her how difficult it was to get back from there to Provincetown, but I can tell you how difficult it was to get back from there to Warner, New Hampshire. And I traveled in this plane called a Metro Swearingen, which I had never heard of before. It looks like a flying cigar. But there's something about traveling and going home, the going out and the coming back, I think all of us who are, I say this irreverently, but we are all in it together, those of us who are in 'Po Biz', come to understand rather more about our lives through the act of travel and the suspension of getting from one place to another. This is, I guess, kind of a love poem to our farm. It also fills me with horror to think that when I was a child in grammar school, public school in Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Stephen Foster's songs were taught in music period and that we sang all of those racist songs and I have a wind-up key in my back-I have them all by heart and they have washed over into this poem, so you will recognize them.

"The Long Approach"

In the eel-thin belly of the Metro Swearingen
banking in late afternoon over Boston Harbor,
the islands eleven lily pads, my life loose as a frog's,
I try to decipher the meaning of hope rising up again
making music in me all the way from Scranton
where the slag heaps stand like sentries shot dead
at their posts. Hope rising up in my Saab hatchback,
one hundred thousand honest miles on it as I speed
due north from LaBell's cut-rate autopark
to my spiny hillside farm in New Hampshire.

March 21st. Snow still frosts the manure heap
and flurries lace the horses' ample rumps
but in here it's Stephen Foster coming back to me
unexpurgated, guileless, all by heart.
'Tis summer, the darkies are gay, we sang in Miss Dupree's
fifth grade in a suburb that I fled long ago.
Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away
to--an allusion that escaped me--a better land I know.
O the melancholia as I too longed to depart.
Now I belt out Massa's in de cold cold ground
and all the darkies are a'weepin on route I-93
but what I think of are the french-pastel mornings
daylit at five in my own hills in June when I may
leap up naked, happy, with no more premonition
than the mother of the Pope had. How the same
old pump of joy restarts for me, going home!

What I understand from travel is how luck
hangs in the lefthand lane fifteen miles
over the limit and no cop, no drunk, no ice slick.
Only the lightweight ghosts of racist lyrics
soaring from my throat in common time.
Last week leaving Orlando in a steep climb
my seatmate told me flying horses must be loaded
facing the tail of the plane so they may brace
themselves at takeoff. Otherwise you run
the risk they'll panic, pitch over backwards,
smash their hocks. Landing, said the groom,
there is little we can do for them except
pray for calm winds and ask the pilot
to make a long approach.

O brace me, my groom. Pray for calm winds.
Carry me back safely where the snow stands deep in March.
I'm going home the old way with a light hand on the reins
making the long approach.

[end poem]

Read more from Maxine Kumin