Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Maxine Kumin died -- did anyone notice?

Last Thursday, poet Maxine Kumin died at the age of 88.

While in Baghdad sewage infiltrates
the drinking water and no one dares to go out
to market, or goes, inshallah, praying
to return, and everyone agrees
-- Maxine Kumin, "Still We Take Joy"

I heard the news late Saturday/early Sunday from a friend who'd called to give some background on a piece Ava and I were doing about an MSNBC program ("TV: Big Ed of the Little Mind").  He asked if I planned to note the passing at The Common Ills?

Maxine was part of Poets Against The War, "Poets Against the War was a global movement of poets that erupted in February, 2003, to protest the invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration. Within a few weeks, the movement ballooned into an international phenomenon, with over 13,000 poets submitting their poetry to the web site to protest the war."

I said on the phone I'd probably string together something on Monday from what others wrote but wasn't in the place to do much more than that.  I figured that I'd grab from The Progressive first of all because Maxine liked Matthew Rothschild.  (I knew Maxine going back to the Vietnam era.)  And certainly The Nation would note her passing as well, right?


And wrong.

Neither posted a lament.

Neither sang her song.

Until the Women's Movement, it was commonplace to be told by an editor that he'd like to publish more of my poems, but he'd already published one by a woman that month. -- Maxine Kumin

And I figured I'd grab from Ms. because Maxine's work was important and she was a feminist so surely Ms. would run a wonderful piece on her.

Together with Carolyn Kizer, she first served on and then resigned from the board of chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, an act that galvanized the movement for opening this august body to broader representation by women and minorities.

Apparently Ms. had other things to do.

And Women's Media Center too.

They're too-too busy, as Trina noted last night, chasing celebrities to write about the lives of actual women.

Paul Muldoon (The New Yorker) does note her passing and, in doing so, underscores why feminist should have been noting the passing, "She belonged to the line in American poetry that may be traced back through Robert Frost to Mistress Bradstreet."

She might be traced back there.  But equally true, she held her own in the 20th century and was a part of a group of poets which included Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath.

Maxine was their contemporary.

With her passing, one of the last great voices of that generation is lost.

Tufts University professor John Holmes, the former president of the New England Poetry Club, was a poet who held a workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. (Holmes would late be addressed in Anee's poem "For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.")  Maxine, Anne Sexton, Ruth Soter and Sam Albert were part of that workshop.

Maxine and Anne Sexton would become peers and lifelong friends.  They'd both be part of the Radcliffe Institute, they'd share their work, the stories of their lives and critical success.

In 1973, Kumin would win the Pulitzer for her volume of poetry Up Country: Poems of New England.

Many honors would follow.

Her awards include the Pulitzer and Ruth Lilly Poetry Prizes, the Poet's Prize, the Aiken Taylor Award, the 2005 Harvard Arts Medal, the Robert Frost Medal in 2006 and the 2008 Paterson Prize for Distinguished Literary Achievement. In 1981-2 Kumin served as Poet Laureate of the United States. She and her husband, married 62 years, live on a farm in Warner, New Hampshire.

  Kumin served as the poet laureate of New Hampshire from 1989 to 1994. From 1991 to 1994 Kumin was a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She has taught at many of the United States' most respected universities, including Princeton, Columbia, Brandeis, MIT, Washington at St. Louis and the University of Miami, served on the staff of the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Bread Loaf and Sewanee writer's conferences, and given readings or conducted writers' workshops in every state in the Union, save Hawaii and North Dakota. In 2005, Kumin was the recipient of the Harvard's Arts Medal.

And, even as so many of her contemporaries passed away, Kumin would continue both living and creating.  Her poetry would give voice to the world at large.

Kumin’s later work received praise for its emotional attentiveness and elegiac nature. Reviewing Nurture (1989), in the New York Times Book Review, Carol Muske remarked, “These poems are exhaustive in their sorrow: they are predominantly short, brutal elegies for the natural world.” In later books, such as The Long Approach (1986), Nurture, Looking for Luck (1992), and Connecting the Dots: Poems (1996), Kumin continues to focus on the daily rituals of farm-life, as well as turning her attention to social and environmental problems such as pollution, religious persecution, nuclear holocaust, and famine.

The illegal Iraq War did not render Maxine silent.  She continued to do amazing work.

"Entering Houses at Night"
None of us spoke their language and
none of them spoke ours.
We went in breaking down doors.

They told us to force the whole scrum
-- men women kids -- into one room.
We went in punching kicking yelling out orders

in our language, not theirs,
The front of one little boy bloomed
wet as we went in the breaking down doors.

Now it turns out that 80 percent
of the ones in that sweep were innocent
as we punched kicked yelled out orders.

The way that we spun in that sweltering stink
with handcuffs and blindfolds was rank.
We went in breaking down doors.

Was that the Pyrrhic moment when
we herded the sobbing women with guns
as punching kicking yelling out orders
we went in breaking down doors?

Another strong example would be her "New Hampshire, February 7 2003:"

It’s snowing again.
All day, reruns
of the blizzard of ’78
newscasters vying
for bragging rights
how it was to go hungry
after they’d thumped
the vending machines empty
the weatherman clomping
four miles on snowshoes
to get to his mike
so he could explain
how three lows
could collide to create
a lineup of isobars
footage of state troopers
peering into the caked
windows of cars
backed up for white
miles on the interstate.

No reruns today
of the bombings in Vietnam
2 million civilians blown 

apart, most of them children 
under 16, children
always the least
able to dive
for cover when
all that tonnage bursts
from a blind sky.
Snow here is
weighting the pine trees
while we wait for the worst:
for war to begin.
Schools closed, how
the children
love a benign blizzard
a downhill scrimmage
of tubes and sleds. But who
remembers the blizzard
that burst on those other children?
Back then we called it
collateral damage
and will again.

Maxine's life is a life of art, a life of children, a life of friends.  She could speak as passionately about art, her own three children or the world's children and her friends.  Those topics mattered to her.

Her friendship with Anne Sexton matters to the world.

Two of the most legendary poets of the 20th century.  And they were friends.  They even did a little co-writing.  They applauded and supported one another.  They could not be pitted against each other.  It was a real friendship, the sort that would make an amazing film but the kind of films that, as Shirley MacLaine so often points out, feed up, that enrich us, are also the kind of films that fewer and fewer people want to make these days.

Maxine never fell back on silence when her voice was needed.

A life lesson in and of itself.

A life lesson certainly today.

Last Thursday, Maxine Kumin passed away.  Last Thursday, Human Rights Watch's released their report entitled (PDF format warning) "'NO ONE IS SAFE: Abuses of Women in Iraq's Criminal Justice System."

Ms. magazine, NPR, Women's Media Center and so many others couldn't do a segment on either, couldn't even do a Tweet.

Repeating: Maxine never fell back on silence when her voice was needed.

Sadly, Maxine was a rare voice and far from the norm.

She will be greatly missed.

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