Kirby on Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin’s new volume, “Where I Live: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010,” was released today. In Sunday’s NYT Book Review David Kirby called the book a “deeply satisfying collection,” discussing the poems loosely by type (“political poems,” “war-is-wrong poems,” poems that “measure the passage of years.”)

I was struck to see some of the resonances between poetic tendencies that Kirby touches on and the issues that Kumin discussed, almost forty years ago, when visiting Pearl London’s New School seminar. Towards the beginning of the review, for instance, Kirby writes: “[T]here are a few nature-is-holy poems: agreed, so let’s move on to something more tantalizing.” Kumin has long been known as a writer of “nature poems,” and when speaking with London she reacts against the facile description of her as a pastoral poet:

When you say someone is a pastoral poet, it’s almost pejorative, isn’t it? I mean, it’s saying, this is somebody who writes about God, nature, butterflies, and little brownies who come and drink the milk you put out for them.

To class modern poetry as pastoral, or as “nature-is-holy,” is to dismiss it outright. Many of the new poems in this collection are replete with natural imagery (the “tumult of red oak seedlings,” an “azure day,” the “wake-robin trillium / in dapple-shade.”). And while many of them are unapologetically in awe of nature, they are not unclouded; the titular and opening poem of the collection describes a solitary walk through pasture and forest, but ends with the lines, “Almost from here I touch / my mother’s death.” Kirby lauds Kumin’s Emersonian ability to find “points of contact between two different things, leading to some new and unexpected thing,” and even in her “nature-is-holy” poems she seems to do that, recalling “ovoid scat” and “beech tree sprouts” side by side as a means of introducing the subject of loss. As Kumin remarked in her conversation with London:

The only reason for writing so-called nature poems or pastoral or antipastoral poems is because you are looking constantly to find out the human’s place in this order of things. Anything that invites reflection becomes a point of departure. That’s what the nature poems do over and over.