When I read that Maxine Kumin had died, I went to the bookcase where we keep a lot of our poetry and found my copy of Our Groundtime Here Will Be Brief . Here is one of my favorites. (Text from Page 71)
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese
packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees
at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds.
It slips in clumps off the barn roof,
wingless angels dropped by parachute.
Inside, I hear the horses knocking
aimlessly in their warm brown lockup,
testing the four known sides of the box
as the soul must, confined under the breastbone.
Horses blowing their noses, coming awake,
shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats.
They do not know what has fallen
out of the sky, colder than apple bloom,
since last night’s hay and oats.
They do not know how satisfactory
they look, set loose in the April sun,
nor what handsprings are turned under
my ribs with winter gone.
Maxine Kumin was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and once served as the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress or Poet Laureate as the position is now know. The New York Times obituary recounts her struggles after an accident left her with a severe spinal injury,
One of her most talked-about works of nonfiction was her memoir, “Inside the Halo and Beyond” (2000), a book born of swift, deep adversity.
An accomplished horsewoman, Ms. Kumin was training for a carriage-driving show in 1998 when her horse was spooked by a passing truck. She was thrown from the carriage, which weighed 350 pounds; the horse then pulled the carriage over her. She suffered serious internal injuries, 11 broken ribs and a broken neck.
A doctor told her afterward that 95 percent of patients with her injuries die; of those who survive, 95 percent remain quadriplegic.
Ms. Kumin spent months encased in a cervical-traction halo.
“Imagine a bird cage big enough for a large squawking parrot,” she wrote. “Imagine a human head inside the cage fastened by four titanium pins that dig into the skull. The pins are as sharp as ice picks.”
She was sustained, she later said, by her family (her daughter Judith typed the spoken words that became the memoir); by her beloved Boston Red Sox; and by the reams of poems she harbored within her. After a grueling rehabilitation, Ms. Kumin regained most of her mobility and even rode horses again, though she lived with chronic pain to the end of her life.
The New York Times also discusses her belief in the sound of poetry.
The stylistic hallmarks of her poetry include carefully calibrated rhythms; frequent, often witty use of rhyme, near-rhyme and assonance (also called vowel rhyme); and clean, unadorned diction.
Ms. Kumin was such an evangelist for the sound of poetry that she exhorted her students — she taught at Tufts, New England College, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and elsewhere — to memorize 30 to 40 lines of it a week.
“The other reason, as I tell their often stunned faces, is to give them an internal library to draw on when they are taken political prisoner,” she told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans in 2000. “For many, this is an unthinkable concept; they simply do not believe in anything fervently enough to go to jail for it.”
Ms. Kumin was herself a great memorizer, and in her work one can hear the faint, benevolent echoes of the poets she drank in as a child: Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. E. Housman, Marianne Moore and others.
That’s a challenge – 30 to 40 lines of poetry a week! Good mental exercise for those of us with aging memories. I’ll start with “Late Snow” and maybe I will know it by April.
Photograph: Christian Science Monitor