I was a young editor at Norton in 1991 when I learned the thrilling news that my colleague Carol Houck Smith had offered to publish Maxine Kumin’s new book of poetry, Looking for Luck. Years before when I was in college at Ohio University and then a grad student with poetry aspirations of my own, I knew vaguely about Maxine Kumin through my curiosity about women poets who managed to snake their way up the publishing ladder. That Maxine Kumin was a close friend of Anne Sexton’s had its own romance about it. But it was Maxine’s poems, their lucidity, wit, dark irony, poignancy, and attention to craft I admired most. Her poems are informed by her deep connection to the natural world and love of animals, particularly horses. They pay tribute to family relationships and to poets of the past. They mine history, quarrel and mourn losses, and find sustenance in the power of poetry, literature and art.
When Carol Smith passed away in 2008, I worked with Maxine on Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010 and a forthcoming new volume, And Short the Season, to be published in April of this year. The new poems course with the rhythms of nature and wrestle with mortality. They are alive with her passion for animals and are informed by her down-to-earth first-hand knowledge about the natural world. They mourn losses. In the poignant “The Revisionist Dream,” the speaker struggles with the pain and terror of a suicide, other poems commemorate the “beauty of books,” celebrate and remember the joys of motherhood and the tenderness of marriage. In “The Day My Student Teaches Me That Life is Not Art,” inspired by a student’s rape, Kumin’s human rage and feminist spirit is on display.
Over the last year working on the new volume seemed to give Maxine renewed energy. She wanted to call the new book And Short the Season, from the opening poem “Whereof the gift is small,” quoting Surrey’s “Brittle Beauty.” “I know people will garble it & it will come out as The Short Season but tant pis,” she wrote. In another email around Thanksgiving she was happy that at eighty-eight she was still able to make gravy.
During the last several months she sent me several memoir pieces that she’d written which appeared in The American Scholar and Georgia Review about her coming of age as a poet and feminist, beginning with her childhood in the small Jewish community of Depression-era Philadelphia, daughter to a pawn-broker, her years at Radcliffe where she became an intellectual, her romance with the soldier-turned-scientist who would become her husband, to winning the Pulitzer Prize and serving as US Poet Laureate, to her life on a New Hampshire farm where many of her poems are set. On Wednesday I called to tell her we’d like to publish the memoir, The Pawn-broker’s Daughter and spoke to her son. On Thursday I woke up to discover that Maxine Kumin had died.
Read Maxine Kumin’s “The Green Well,” first published in the Winter 1990 issue of The Kenyon Review.