Farther South Than This
Jack and Other New Poems by Maxine Kumin. Norton, 2005.
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is a kind of poem that tastemakers and status jockeys tend to ignore: one
neither difficult (because highly figurative, allusive, multilayered) nor
terse and formal (with every syllable required to justify itself). Such
seemingly less self-conscious verse shares many qualities with prose. It
is often casual in tone, conversational, even chatty, full of events and
descriptions of human quirks and quiddities. It resembles a newspaper
column rather than the more academic work of a Richard Wilbur or a Jorie
Graham (to take two ends of a completely different spectrum). Though
written in lines, it does not sound like poetry: there’s often no discernible meter, and if an
occasional rhyme pops up, it’s there for decoration, not structure, and
doesn’t distract you from the matter at hand. This is the sort of poem
that appears frequently in Maxine Kumin’s Jack
and Other New Poems.
It’s as if this old hand at formal verse had contemplated the recent
ascendancy of Billy Collins or Mary Oliver and decided theirs was a
success (and a technique) worth emulating. A reader of Jack
frequently encounters lines like these describing two of Kumin’s
highschool classmates who got married :
I’d ever seen either one of them since
Cheltenham High but remember thinking when
I saw the wedding notice what an unlikely pair:
she in her pageboy bob, queen of the front row,
chewing forbidden gum, passing notes, swivelling
to aim her triggered breasts at the multitude,
he the louche bad boy in the back row of every class
quick with the smartass right answer spoken out
of turn, shirttail untucked, sardonic lip curled even then.
it’s not quite a walk in the park. The scene quoted is recalled from
sixty years ago, evoked by a phone call from the “louche bad boy,” now
in an assisted living facility in Castine, Maine. His wife has refused to
leave Philadelphia. Kumin recalls their mutual Latin class, where they
studied lines from Virgil—after an “excess of love,” Dido mourns
Aeneas’ departure and says, “I have lived, I have run to finish the course / that fortune gave me. I
go to the dark, go gladly.” And Kumin sums up, “Let him yearn, in
Castine, Maine. No mercy on his head.”
The ideas in this poem do not really snap into place. They rattle around
and knock against each other. The juxtaposition of the historical and
literary archetypes beside the one-time highschool sweethearts is fanciful
but not really convincing. Certainly there’s more here than casual
reminiscence and gossip, yet it’s not clear how the old classmates
should be regarded—are they tragic figures, as the reference implies, or
just ordinary people who never understood themselves? Do Virgil’s words
really have relevance here or are they merely an association triggered by
recollection of the shared Latin class?
Conversational as they may be, poems like this are not quite
straightforward, but neither are they exactly beguiling. The reader
looking through Jack for something comfortable and inspiring may be brought up short
by a plethora of deaths (of animals and people), fornicating insects,
sickness of many kinds, people eating babies, horse entrails, puppies
sealed in a bag with duct tape, kittens flung from a moving car,
impenitent confessions of a rapist, and the mind of a demented man who
murdered his children. It is as if Kumin were forcing herself—and the
reader—to gaze at the ghastliest details of life in order to ward off
any sentimental affection for our lot. Can there be a kitsch of horror?
Some readers may not be quite as shocked by the bare statement of these
grotesqueries as she wants them to be; they may respond, “Yes, but what
do you make of this?”
Take the poem called “Inge, in Rehab,” about a young woman afflicted
with bulimia. The first-person narrative starts with an echo (or parody)
of Sylvia Plath—“Vomiting’s an art”—and goes on to catalogue
other components of the syndrome: cessation of menstruation, an urge to
shoplift. Then, having rejected the advice of a social worker (that most
abused of professionals), the speaker declares, “I will puke. / I will
barf like a dog . . . / who heaves it, then goes / back to the same old
carcass.” Some self-knowledge, perhaps still obscure to the speaker, is
implied here: some suggestion that the “same old carcass” stands for
something both horrible and endlessly fascinating. But the poem really
gives us nothing to go on, and we’re left feeling pity, helplessness,
and perplexity. Which is pretty much the way most of us start out when our
attention is drawn to such an unhappy individual. In short, the poem
brings us neither wit nor grace nor illumination, only a hand on the lapel
shaking us and saying: “Look—isn’t this awful, isn’t this sad?”
Yes, yes it is.
Yet by throttling back just a little, Kumin sometimes achieves a
paradoxical increase in power. In a poem called “Historic Blacksburg,
Virginia” she focuses on a seemingly minor detail: a reversible lavatory
sign in an old railroad caboose, reading “White” on one side and
“Colored” on the other. Making effective use of both full rhyme and
half rhyme, the poem toys with the irony that both sides of the sign
applied to the same mobile privy:
Whoever entered had to flip
his designation right side up
then brace against the track before
unbuttoning back to the door
and pissing down the same foul hole.
language is colloquial but without extra words. With such economy the poem
manages to capture both the absurdity and the vileness of the Jim Crow
More often the poems in this book waver between assurance and mere
assertion, between insight and coincidence, as if they were notes for
other poems yet to be written. In “Summer Meditation” Kumin speaks
with notable frankness:
I want to sing
of death unbruised.
I want to prepare
for death’s arrival
in my life.
I want to be
an advanced thinker—
the will, the organ donation,
the power of attorney—
but when my old
dead horses come
running toward me
in a dream
healthy and halterless
—Gennie, Taboo, and Jack—
I take it back.
is saying life has too strong a hold on her, even in dream, especially in
dream. It is a sentiment nearly everyone can recognize and subscribe to.
Whether this poem advances our understanding of our mortal plight or
crystalizes it in definitive form—that is the question each reader must
ask; but many may feel the language has not attained permanence, the
thought has not moved beyond a diary entry to reach some insight that will
stay with a reader.
Kumin is at an age when many friends and family, as well as dogs and
horses, have gone on ahead into the “undiscovered country,” and both
animals and humans reappear in dreams and meditations. Others are even now
waiting their turn. She visits by phone with an old friend “as the
morphine haze / retreats” and notes,
have, they say,
only days. I want to go with you
as far as the border. I want to support you
this side of the douane
your two cats curled like commas beside you
as the barrier lifts and you drive on through.
spite of the rhyme (which is seen rather than heard, because some of the
would-be rhyme words are unstressed syllables in the sentence), and in
spite of the metaphors, the phrasing of this passage, like that of the
poem as a whole, is not chiseled and definitive, but casual. It is like a
letter from a humane and sympathetic friend, to be read with a wistful
smile, then put away in a drawer.
Whether or not artfully crafted, the poems are imbued with a generosity of
spirit that can hardly fail to endear Kumin to her readers. Her title
poem, “Jack,” about one of her favorite horses, is written in loping
loosely metered tercets that create an atmosphere suitable to the
invocation of memory:
How pleasant the yellow butter
melting on white kernels, the meniscus
of red wine that coats the insides of our goblets
where we sit with sturdy friends as old as we are
after shucking the garden’s last Silver Queen
and setting husks and stalks aside for the horses . . .
thinks of her two remaining horses and reminisces about their
predecessors, especially the “big-nosed roan gelding, calm as a
president’s portrait,” whom she “let . . . go / to a neighbor I
thought was a friend,” who “sold him down the river.” Did Kumin sell
the horse, give him away, or merely pasture him out on loan—she
doesn’t say, but somehow she knows herself to be complicit in this loss:
. . . my guilt is ghosting the candles that pale us to skeletons
the ones we must all become in an as yet unspecified order.
Oh Jack, tethered in what rough stall alone
did you remember that one good winter?
human and equine loneliness and mortality are wrapped up in this elegy and
made vivid. It is not that the poem itself, as a formal statement, becomes
memorable and incisive, but rather that Kumin’s own feelings are so
strong and clear that we cannot and would not withhold sympathy.
The value of a book like this is that it forces us—critics and casual
readers alike—to ask what we seek in a book of poems. The broadminded,
generous, and permissive answer is that different people seek different
things at different times, and therefore every style of poetry has its
place and its proper audience. But that is unsatisfactory and
insufficient. Poetry can achieve much more than Kumin gives us with many
poems in this book, and therefore both readers and critics are entitled to
object to the weaker pieces, especially because she has demonstrated, and
continues to demonstrate, considerably higher powers.
Sometimes these shine through—just often enough to remind readers why
they were drawn to her in the first place. In “Key West” she reverts
to her casual meter, roughly iambic, the line-length varying
unpredictably, the rhymes catching up just when you think they won’t, to
describe the seamy underside of the city, as far removed as possible from
the high contemplative mode in which Wallace Stevens treated the same
place. A mangy performing dog, a wino seeking drink money, inept street
musicians, and a woman, “an all-but-brain-dead soul, once beautiful,”
offering to sell kittens in a baseball cap. They all seem equally without
malice and without hope. But the poem is a low-key indictment of a society
in which people, whatever their faults or their desserts, must live like
this. And by extension, those of us who allow this scene to exist are
They get by any way they can,
panhandling up and down Duval.
You can’t go any farther south than this
and still claim you’re an American.
The last lines are not a geographical truism but a statement that Americans have “gone south,” have failed, in allowing such squalor to persist. It’s not a great poem, but it is well constructed, earnest, indignant, and worth a hearing. This is, in a way, an indignant book, exhaling muted fury at the passing of fine things.