“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”