Maxine Kumin’s death, a year ago this month, was a loss felt deeply by the poetry community. Her final book, And Short the Season, was published the year she died, and is a beautiful meditation on the close of a life.
In this final collection, Kumin explores nature, death, loss, and what it means to live as a poet. Her stunning formal abilities are on full display as well: the music of her meter and rhyme is subtle, yet almost perfect throughout. Kumin maintains her sensibilities as a New England poet, painting the outdoors with the eye of a naturalist. The first poem in the collection is one of my favorites, beginning
And short the season, first rubythroat
in the fading lilacs, alyssum in bloom,
a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart
on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm
Kumin’s choice of natural detail is powerful: she suggests creeping mortality even before we come to the gelding’s grave, using the rubythroat and the bleeding heart to call to mind the violence inherent even beneath the serenity of nature. The season is short, the lilacs dying already, the life of the horse long since ended. This is Kumin’s gift throughout the collection: the quiet, yet steady, focus on the ephemerality of our own world. We see it especially in the final section of the book, in poems like “Going Down” and “Just Deserts.” Here it is the violence not of nature alone, but which humans have inflicted on the natural world, that haunts her:
Despite outcries of purest angst
dikes won’t save the playing field
so blow a kiss to this drowned world.
The gods have spoken: yield.
These final poems are some of the starkest in the collection. Here is a poet who visualizes herself not only on the brink of her own death, but on the brink of the collapse of the earth as she knows it through climate change. Kumin puts into words the sneaking fear felt by all who have seen our fragile worlds come crashing down in wind or flood.
Woven into the natural world of the book is also, of course, a very human element. Kumin reminds us of her rightful place in the canon, writing about poets from Sexton to Ginsberg to Williams. I especially love the series “Sonnets Uncorseted,” in which she writes about what it was like to be a woman poet of her generation. She nods to forebears from Margaret Cavendish to Virginia Woolf to Emily Dickinson, and writes fondly of her friendship with Anne Sexton. Describing the male poets of her generation, Kumin says
…if a poem
of ours seemed worthy they said, you write like a man.
When asked what woman poet they read, with one
voice they declaimed, Emily Dickinson.
Saintly Emily safely dead, modern
women poets dismissed as immature,
their poems pink with the glisten of female organs.
Much has changed since then: Kumin revels in the ambitious female writers of today, the MFA programs and small presses that give an alternative outlet to poets whose voices veer from the traditional. For woman poets today, Kumin’s blessing is something to hold onto.
And of course, And Short the Season is Kumin’s last book. Thus it is tinged with the sorrow of the dying, with the profound loss felt by the reader upon coming to the last page. There will be no more, the poet seems to say. Her short final poem is a sort of goodbye:
Sudden and quiet, surrounded by friends
–John Milton’s way–
But who gets to choose this ordered end
Trim and untattered, loved ones at hand?
–Allow me that day.
Kumin bids her reader adieu; she is off to join the ranks of the other historically great poets: Milton, Dickinson, her friend Anne Sexton. We are lucky to have had this last book. It is a masterfully realized goodbye from one of our most important poets.