“. . . things keep growing where we put them . . .” (Kay Ryan)

IMG_6336 - CopyA couple of days ago I needed a cup from a kitchen cabinet I seldom open. My company-for-dinner dishes are there, a complete set of tableware my late partner and I bought so we could appear to be grownups rather than graduate students when guests came to dinner. These days I seldom need to appear grown up at dinnertime, so I don’t open that cabinet except when I want a specific item.

That cabinet is also home to a few keepsakes, sentimentally valuable reminders of loved ones who are gone, including a commemorative plate from my paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, May 31, 1963. It is not high-quality china but no doubt was expensive in those days because my uncle, whose signature “with love” is on the back, had it inscribed for the day. It wasn’t one of those made-to-order items from the internet (t-shirt or coffee mug, or . . .). I remember that celebration well – three weeks before my high school graduation.

IMG_6459-002On my desk is a copy of The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan inscribed by the poet to me. It is the collection for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. She signed my copy after she did a reading of her work at SMU last year. I had ordered it on the internet just in time to receive it before Ryan’s reading.

As I took the commemorative plate from the cabinet, Kay Ryan’s poem “A Certain Kind of Eden” was in my mind. I had just read it because Google reminded me it’s National Poetry Month, and her book was the handiest volume of poetry on my desk. That was the poem to which I randomly opened the book.

It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.

I don’t recall holding my grandparents’ plate since I put it in the cabinet thirteen years ago. However, I have used another of the keepsakes in the cabinet, odd little rectangular salt and pepper shakers at least as old as I am, an inheritance from my mother that commemorates my birthplace, Wyoming. I used the little souvenirs the last time I had company for dinner and wanted to appear to be a grownup. The Morton sea salt container and the McCormick black pepper box I usually use are definitely graduate student style table settings.

You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re give
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.

When I first read “A Certain Kind of Eden,” I assumed it is about a lifetime of decision making. I’ve made decisions in which I have “overprized intention,” thought I was in control. I think of my life since I left my parents’ home after high school graduation in four chapters: Southern California for university and a few years beyond; Iowa for graduate school; Massachusetts for a career as an organist and then 17 years as a college professor; Dallas for graduate school (in a new field) and for love, 23 years and counting.

IMG_6463Anyone reading that litany might assume I’ve made some momentous decisions, that I “chose the bean and chose the soil” in Ryan’s poetic terminology. I have a 54-year-old plate and 70-year-old salt and pepper shakers that indicate a different reality. And I have more. My grandmother’s father was born in 1860 and died in 1937 (he died in an automobile accident on the way to my parents’ wedding). Great-grandfather was over six feet tall and office chairs did not fit him. He shortened the back legs of his favorite chair so he could lean back and be comfortable. I have that chair. It is at least 80 years old, but I would guess much older.

Three ordinary objects. Three family memories. For me, a plethora of decisions to move or to stay, to work or educate myself to change work, to be in a relationship or be alone. With each decision, I have carried with me those three ordinary objects.

I have made each of those decisions in the belief I was acting autonomously, doing what was best for me, following my dreams and desires, abandoning one place for another. But – it’s almost too obvious to need writing – wherever I have gone, whatever decisions I have made, I have with me decisions my great-grandfather (whom I never met), my grandmother, and my mother made before me. I “can’t go back and pull the roots . . . and replant.” I am bound, too, by all the decisions I have previously made.

kay ryanKay Ryan’s “one vine that tendrils out alone,” perhaps the shape of my own life, grows by “its own impulse.” I do not, ultimately, control it. My greatest hope, but finally my greatest sadness.

“A Certain Kind of Eden,” by Kay Ryan
It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It’s all too deep for that.
You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them—
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.

Kay Ryan, “A Certain Kind of Eden” from Flamingo Watching. Copyright © 1994 by Kay Ryan.

“Only we . . . must drag along the backpacks of our past . . . “

Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin came into my consciousness somewhere along the line a few years ago. She was an American poet who had been – a long time ago – Poet Laureate, and who won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Up Country: Poems of New England in 1972. I had read enough of her work to be able to say I thought it was “nice,” but I hadn’t pursued it because too many poets publish books of verse in America to keep up with them. I’ve never been a Professor of Literature or held any of those other exalted positions, so what did I care about obscure poets.

Then Maxine Kumin’s work came into my focus by accident. A couple of years ago one of her poems was the “poem-a-day” selection from the American Academy of Poets. I was taken with it and bought her latest collection, Where I Live: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010 (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010). This collection won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for 2010.

I quoted her poem “In the Park” from her 2008 collection Still to Mow a couple of weeks ago.

Maxine Kumin died two days ago. Her poetry is quoted in many news sources online today, as it should be.  

I am doing something here I’ve never done before. Simply letting Maxine Kumin speak for herself. Nothing I could say about her work would make sense. And her work is so clear, so without obfuscation that it needs no explanation. The following are poems of hers I found on the internet. If any of them is under copyright and I need to remove them, I will do so—but suggest that you find her collections and read her work. She has entered the pantheon of my favorite contemporary American poets.

“In The Moment,” by Maxine Kumin

Some days the pond
wears a glaze of yellow pollen.

Some days it is clean-swept.
The trout leap up, feasting on insects.

A modest size, it sits
like a soup tureen in a surround of white

pine where Rosie, 14 lbs., some sort
of rescued terrier, part bat

(the ears), part anteater (the nose),
shyly paddles in the shallows

for salamanders, frogs
and little painted turtles. She logged

ten years down south in a kennel, secured
in a crate at night. Her heart murmur

will carry her off, no one can say when.
Meanwhile she is rapt in

the moment, our hearts leap up observing.
Dogs live in the moment, pursuing

that brilliant dragonfly called pleasure.
Only we, sunstruck in this azure

day, must drag along the backpacks
of our past, must peer into the bottom muck

of what’s to come, scanning the plot
for words that say another year, or not.

—Kumin, Maxine. “In the Moment” Where I Live: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.

“Where Any of Us,” by Maxine Kumin

he "never cracked the curtain"

he “never cracked the curtain”

Where any of us is
going in tomorrow’s reckless Lexus is
the elemental mystery: despite

Instructions he left behind, Houdin-
i, who could outwit
ropes and chains, padlocks and steam-

er trunks, could extricate
himself from underwater metal crates,
could send forth, he was certain,

a message from the other side,
never cracked the curtain
and Mary Baker Eddy’s telephone

said to be hooked up in her crypt—
would it have been
innocence or arrogance,

such trust in the beyond?—
has, mythic, failed to ring. If
they knew the script

these two (God may be love
or not) they left, tightlipped
and unfulfilled.

As we will.

—Kumin, Maxine. “Where Any of Us.” Ploughshares 30.4 (2004): 92.

 

“Though He Tarry,” by Maxine Kumin

I believe with perfect faith in
the coming of the Messiah
and though he tarry I will
wait daily for his coming
said Maimonides in 1190
or so and 44 percent
of people polled in the USA
in 2007 are also waiting
for him to show up in person-
though of course he won’t be a person.

Do we want to save our planet,
the only one we know of,
so the faithful 44 percent
can be in a state of high alert
in case he arrives in person
though of course he won’t be a person?

According to Stephen Jay Gould
science and religion are
non-overlapping magisteria.
See each elbowing the other
to shove over on the bed
they’re condemned to share?
See how they despise, shrink back
from accidental touching?
It’s no surprise that
60 percent of scientists
say they are nonbelievers.

But whether you’re churchy or not
what about the planet?
Damn all of you with dumpsters.
Damn all who do not compost
Damn all who tie their dogs out
on bare ground, without water.
Damn all who debeak chickens
and all who eat them, damn
CEOs with bonuses
corporate jets, trophy wives.

Damn venal human nature
lurching our way to a sorry
and probably fiery finale….
If only he’d strap his angel wings on
in the ether and get his licensed
and guaranteed ass down here —
though of course he won’t be a person —
if only he wouldn’t tarry.

Kumin, Maxine. “Though He Tarry.” The Hudson Review. Summer (2007).


“Either Or,” by Maxine Kumin

Death, in the orderly procession
of random events on this gradually
expiring planet crooked in a negligible

arm of a minor galaxy adrift among
millions of others bursting apart in
the amnion of space, will, said Socrates,

be either a dreamless slumber without end
or a migration of the soul from one place
to another,
like the shadow of smoke rising

from the backroom woodstove that climbs
the trunk of the ash tree outside
my window and now that the sun is up
down come two red squirrels and a nuthatch.

Later we are promised snow.
So much for death today and long ago.

—Kumin, Maxine. “Either Or.” Ploughshares 37.2/3 (2011): 63.

"crooked in a negligible arm of a minor galaxy"

“crooked in a negligible
arm of a minor galaxy”

 

“. . .not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen. . .”

A splash of color from my inamorato.

A splash of color from my inamorato.

.

.

.

.

.

.

One of my favorite poems about getting on in years is “Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins, originally published in Poetry, 1990.
(You can hear it and watch an endearing video of it here.)

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a
bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

(Collins, Billy. Questions About Angels.  Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. 20-21)

On Monday afternoon at about two, I sent my inamorato an email thanking him for the tiny gift of a miniature orchid. I’ve been trying to find potted flowers that will bloom in my apartment. I get no direct sunlight through my north-facing wall of window. He tells me not to worry about the sun. It will be fine in the indirect light.

I am amazed at the delightful splash of color one tiny pink orchid provides among the green of the non-flowering odd collection of plants in my living room.

My email message was problematic in one way. I teach a class at 2 PM on Mondays.  Don’t ask. I don’t know why. I’ve never simply forgotten to go to class before. The day will be one for a good laugh sometime soon, I trust. But on Monday, the memory of my schedule seemed to be “not even lurking in some obscure corner of [my] spleen.”