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Hunger, Hope, and Nurture: Poetry From Michael Ryan, the Chinese Democracy Movement, and Maxine Kumi


ISSUE:  Summer 1991

The writers under consideration have widely varying cultural assumptions, temperaments, and styles. However, entwined within the variegated surfaces and subtleties of their work there exists a similar archetypal conflict: love and lucidity against the agencies of death and despair. For Maxine Kumin, a writer deeply involved with the family and with celebrating the natural world, the conflict is often with those who would compromise the biosphere. She opposes them with an armed innocence and an impulse to nurture. For the Chinese poets, the Cultural Revolution has been their plague, countered by an astonishing, courageous hopefulness. For Michael Ryan, violence originating primarily in the family crucible boils over into the present to be cooled only by the insightful poise of art.

Ryan’s God Hunger (Penguin, $9. 95 paper) contains a poem called “The Past,” in which the personified title character barges into a domestic scene and ransacks the house. While the narrator sympathizes with the victims, he affirms the raid’s inevitability, “There was no life without it anyway.” Nearly all Ryan’s poetry dramatizes psychic extremity, often in terms more intimate than “The Past,” but always at a distinctive psychical distance. The themes of God Hunger make a grim list—cruelty, madness, the suffering of innocents, soul-destroying incommunication between marriage partners, the “defeat at the bottom of the self”—but Ryan transforms darkness with fully meditated lucidity. The poems are not inflicted upon the reader, as they might have been were he a less mature and masterful poet. They blend pathos with cold, Yeatsean detachment, passion with calm. Even when the worst sort of news from the past gets resurrected, one often shares with the poet a form of relief, the form which sudden insight brings to spiritual darkness.

However painful, experience is the source of icons that serve as soul-saving focuses for Ryan’s meditation on the absolute conditions of the present, insofar as those conditions can be divined by someone who has lost a settled belief. In the chilling narrative poem, “Not the End of the World,” which opens God Hunger, a bird flies into the speaker’s wood stove. When it emerges, “twisting its neck like a boxer / trying to shake off a flush punch,” he places the still-groggy bird outdoors where other birds surround it and peck away in order to rouse or, perhaps, annihilate it. After the bird collapses with its forehead resting on the ground, the speaker leaves; he says he is anxious to get on with his writing, but we know he also feels threatened by the bird’s display of weakness. He rationalizes his departure with the stoic nostrum, “Birds die, we all die,” but, a minute later, he returns, only to find the birds, and much more, have vanished:

       the circle they had made
now made a space so desolate
that for one moment I saw
the dead planet.

In the name of a kind of negative sublimity, this conclusion makes a shocking leap. We might want to deflect the jolt of the “dead planet” by saying it only proves what the poet says about himself in a later poem: “Lapsed Catholic Still Sees through the Lens of Religion.” Surely, however, this is precisely Ryan’s point of departure, his donée. “Not the End of the World” is a poem which is given to apocalyptic thinking, just as Ryan is given to God hunger, though not given over to it. When a vision of a lifeless earth flashes on the screen, it might be a prophetic glimpse into the future of the globe, but it is also consciously presented as a personal projection—of the speaker’s guilt and fear.

Ryan’s lapse from Catholicism has landed him in the ragand-bone shop of the heart. And his poems explore with astringent will the frightening places there, where the daimonic originates. The daimonic in the form of the poet’s father looms as an awful figure, deformed by the cruelty of his upbringing. The best we can say about him is that he provides the impetus for two of the strongest poems in the volume. In “Milk the Mouse”—which, by the way, is a deft villanelle enacted, like the rest of Ryan’s many formal poems, as a meticulous, unobtrusive act of devotion to tradition—the poet describes how, as a youth, he was abused by his father, who would pinch his finger until he’d screech like a mouse. The father construes such cruelty as pedagogy; and his son’s screech is the sort of weakness that must be extirpated “because the world will run over a weakling.” The father keeps chanting, “Be strong Be tough.” In retrospect, the poet makes psychological sense of the abuse, but such understanding does not mean he is free from its deformations:

Be strong Be tough! It was my father speaking

To himself, of course, to the child inside him aching,
not to me. But how can I not go when he calls me over
to pinch my pinky until the mouse starts squeaking
Be strong Be tough? It is my father speaking.

The question the poem raises at the end is perhaps the cardinal moral and psychological issue haunting God Hunger: how does one avoid obeying voices that suddenly become unburied from a repressed past? Or, to borrow a characteristic phrase from another Ryan poem, how can one escape becoming “the mouth for some cruel force”?

One response, delivered by “Switchblade,” the most striking and perhaps the strongest poem in the volume, involves reexperiencing, at the highest pitch of clarity and intensity, the origins of discontent. In “Switchblade,” Ryan takes an incident that might otherwise have caused only a groan or shudder and transforms it, through highly resonant simile, into something terrifyingly beautiful. The poem concerns a two-part ritual practiced on certain Sundays when the poet’s father was not too ill from drinking. In the first part, the father would assemble his children, exhume his three violins, polish them, play them, then re-inter them—until such time as he would again find the energy to let his musical past back into the poisoned present.

Ryan’s description of the ritual resurrection of the violins is rendered in unforgettable figurative language:

They looked like children in coffins,
three infant sisters whose hearts had stopped for no reason,
but after he rubbed up their scrolls and waists
along the lines of the grain to the highest sheen,
they took on the knowing posture of women in silk gowns
in magazine ads for new cars and ocean voyages,
and, as if a violin were a car in storage
that needed a spin around the block every so often,
for fifteen minutes he would play each one.

The violins are compared to corpses, to silken sophisticates, and then to automobiles unleashed for 15-minute spins. These spins are preceded by a tortuous “eon of tuning,” making the whole, vaguely necrophilic activity almost unendurable for the children, especially for the speaker’s younger self, who is only waiting for what comes after the violins have been put away and the other children have left. Then the son gets to see the father resurrect an id-monster:

he’d sneak into his pocket and ease the switchblade
onto the bare table between us,
its thumb-button jutting from the pearl-and-silver plating
like the eye of some sleek prehistoric fish.

I must have known it wouldn’t come to life
and slither toward me by itself,
but when he’d finally nod to me to take it
its touch was still warm with his body heat
and I could feel the blade inside aching
to flash open with the terrible click
that sounds now like just a tsk of disappointment,
it has become so sweet and quiet.

The modulation of the weapon’s “terrible click” to a “tsk of disappointment” is masterfully precise, and a good deal more hopeful than the conclusion of “Milk the Mouse,” where the cruelty of the past retains its potential capacity not just to influence, but to determine, the present. In “Switchblade,” the fascination and terrror have putatively been metamorphosed into disappointment, though we may have reason to doubt how sweet the memory really is and how quiet the effects of the father’s sadistic histrionics upon the child.

Nearly a third of the poems in the volume concern love relationships, almost all of which are haunted by unresolved conflict or monadic incommunication. Though they confront fear and emotional impotence, there is not a weak poem in the group. In fact, it would seem that the poet’s most creative reprise to the father’s commands, as described in “Milk the Mouse,” is to become strong, as a poet. One of ways in which God Hunger gains its strength is through unobtrusive communication with a supra-parental authority, the poetic tradition. Though Ryan prefers a communicable complexity to a display of his erudition, virtually all his poems can be seen in relation to the English romantics as well as to Yeats, Frost, Auden, and Larkin. Like his forebears, Ryan quite consciously remakes the pastoral tradition. In his poems about disrupted love, he buffers pain with aesthetic celebration, sometimes of human, but more often of natural, beauty. “Moonlight,” for example, opens by praising a particular quality of light:

It silvers the lawn,
its off-white wash tingeing
these hours alone,
frozen dewdropped grassblades
an army of sparklers
I would love like Walt Whitman
to insinuate myself among.

The poet sympathizes with Whitman’s radical pastoral desire to merge with nature, but finds himself able only to praise, not surrender. Ryan’s work often dramatizes the fate of a frustrated ecstatic, one who hungers, at a distance, for both natural beauty and God. In “Moonlight,” the immediate cause for the intensity of that hungering is a fight the speaker has had with his wife. We leave him walking toward the maple tree under which they were married. As the tree looms, “flaring its black skeleton against the sky,” he approaches, “praying for no more words between us / that are killing everything.” In this way does the poet pray, and hunger.

Just preceding “Moonlight,” implicitly paired and contrasted with it, is “Pedestrian Pastoral,” a witty and much less dire vision of the poet’s relation to nature. During a walk, he encounters three animals who provide him with a privileged interval of pure in-seeing. He marvels at a squirrel’s dexterity as it vaults “ten times its pulsing length / and come[s] down running on a branch / thin as a popsicle.” In a different mood, he savors the incongruity of a groundhog, run over by a car, that nonetheless holds “one perfect paw in the air / as if summoning a partner.” Finally, his focus falls upon the breath of a “gorgeous shaggy white cow.” Her “black nose breath puffs / vanish and appear” in a way that reminds him of a “Don’t Walk” sign. He walks anyway, as close to the verge of ecstasy, to Whitmanian insinuation, as his agnosticism and unquenchable reserve will allow him to go:

         But I do walk
happily in this mild Virginia winter

unable to feel absolutely sure
I won’t be here forever
almost like this, a pure observer,
for once oblivious

to the spurs of ego and desire
that—whatever death is
or is not—could be paradise
to finally do without.

The abstract idiom Ryan employs here is justified by the tangibility of what precedes and by that idiom’s meticulous poise, its complex interplay between line and syntax, its fidelity to Socratic self-scrutiny and, therefore, to Socratic ignorance.

Ryan’s most characteristic strength is his double consciousness. There is a self in Ryan’s poetry with imaginative access to a vantage beyond ego and desire. Sometimes that self shudders in a void; sometimes it disports in mute calm; always it provides a provisionally transcendent perspective on the insatiable promptings of the body and mind. The poem “The Gladiator” objectifies this double consciousness with uncommon dramatic clarity. The poem is a meditation on a priapic tintinnabulum excavated from Pompeii. The phallus of the figure is larger than the rest of his body and it curves back upon him, taking the shape of a mad dog’s head and threatening to destroy him. This contrast would supply tension enough to sustain a poem fueled by a less complex sensibility. But Ryan keeps meditating and notices that the gladiator’s face is not embattled; instead, it “radiates a madonna’s calm” as it gazes beyond “at some miracle invisible to us.” The figure maintains this gaze even as the sword in his right hand is poised to decapitate the dog. And Ryan notes another twist: the dog is not merely furious; it is “gorged with anguish,” an anguish “it would kill everything to end.” This wisely tragic tableau—which has been etched so suggestively on a musical instrument probably used in erotic rites—prompts the poet to consider its import from two vantages. He wonders if the figure is monitory, dramatizing a moment of recognition in the face of an incipient catastrophe or, alternatively, if it is therapeutic, showing us how the properties of art can be used for exorcism, if not transcendence:

Is this the punishment for being a man
who woke to see the evil he had become?
Or the defeat at the bottom of the self
exactly imagined, banished
by the sexual ritual of the bells?

Although “banished” is a peculiarly peremptory metaphor here, “The Gladiator” nonetheless ends with a pair of highly suggestive questions that go to the thematic heart of God Hunger. In the wake of the gods, Ryan is concerned to explore the limits and potentialities of art to illuminate, if not alleviate or redeem, human futility and suffering. In Ryan’s poems, art does not undo the past, but flashing knives do turn to flashing metaphors.

II

Michael Ryan often seeks perspective on the events of this world by imagining them in relation to unalloyed being or unalloyed nothingness. Though existence allows him only the briefest unmediated contact with such realms, something “beyond all this” serves him nonetheless as a reference point or putative telos. The poets in the extraordinary anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry from the Democracy Movement, A Splintered Mirror (North Point, $10.95 paper) also see doubly. All mundane events, whether they be acts of defiance or walks in the garden, are shadowed by the quasi-absolute claims of Maoism. The atmosphere is so repressive that the mere expression of the quotidian becomes an act of defiant hope.

There are seven poets in the anthology—Bei Dao, Duo, Duo, Gu Cheng, Jiang He, Mang Ke, Yang Lian, and Shu Ting, the latter being the only woman represented, and the only one translated by Carolyn Kizer. Donald Finkel, himself a poet of some distinction, is responsible for translating the rest. If idiomatic clarity, pungency of image, and variety of tone are qualities of the originals, then Kizer and Finkel, and their collaborators, have done fine preservation work in their art of transformation.

These members of the Democracy Movement have been labeled the “misty” or “obscure” poets, somewhat misleading terms deriving from a government critic’s complaint about this poem by Gu Cheng:

Image

The sky is grey.
The road is grey.
The buildings are grey.
The rain is grey.

Out of the dead grey void
two children walk,
one bright red
and one light green.

Given our knowledge of the joys of life during the Cultural Revolution, there is not much misty about this poem, unless it is the precise implications of the shades “bright red” and “light green.” It requires no esotericist to divine that colorful children are images of new life and that “grey” connotes the de-chromatized atmosphere of Maoism at its most perverse.

Perhaps in 1980, when “Image” was published, Gu’s insulated critic could not quite recognize his shade in the mirror or could not believe he was reading anything as audacious as a blanket aspersion cast upon the regime he served. The critic was, however, correct to suspect what he could not afford to understand, and he was right to believe that any poem not overtly devoted to the ideals of the revolution is, implicitly, a challenge to those ideals. But in permitting “Image” to be published, Gu Cheng was given a grudging inch and soon he was claiming the cosmos. In a longish poem with the swaggeringly provocative title “Capital “I,”” he dilates like Whitman or Mayakovsky, and explicitly identifies himself with everything from atomic particles to “all humanity”:

A cold gleaming joy, a rising shimmer of heat,
sends me galloping across mountains
as if across a keyboard,
each step raising sudden echoes,
Bright sunflower petals fall like random notes,

the melody dispersing like some imperial family
at the end of a long grey corridor of space and time.
Gaping, I inhale the sun. It leaves on the sky
one pale thumbprint called the moon.

The ebullience of this passage is counterpointed elsewhere in his poems by despair, which Gu can express with great restraint or with flamboyant bitterness, as is the case in “When Hope Comes Back”:

The evening’s shaken out the waves,
folded one hapless mast neatly in two.
Flounder swim imperturbably,
uninvited, through the skull of a ship.
Gleaming like coins, their eyes recall
an army of shopkeepers.

There’s nothing left.

What lifts these lines above desperation is wit. Evening, just innocently tidying up, wreaks havoc on a ship. Meanwhile flounder, preoccupied by material gain, swim through deathlines s. This might pass for anticapitalist rhetoric, but more likely it is a sneaky criticism of how self-interest blinds people to suffering, even in a people’s republic.

Gu indulges his penchant for critique but, as Donald Finkel points out in his introduction, what surprises Western readers is the millennialist tendency not just of Gu but of all his compatriots. Perhaps because the Cultural Revolution was so hellish, hope surges through these poems like an aphrodisiac. After the speaker intones, for the fifth time, “There’s nothing left,” another voice, that of hope, personified in his sister poet, Shu Ting, whispers, “There’s more.” And not just a little more, either, but the possibility of heaven on earth:

“There’s more. More.”
The world will wake at daybreak, fully grown.
His eyes will flash a grown-up smile. Yes.
Outside, the sun will anchor in the harbor.
The East will redden, blushing, little by little.
She’ll have caught sight of the world
and fallen in love like a schoolgirl.
The dripping bush will be crowned with flowers.

Gu does not give his whole sensibility to this atemporal fantasy. He concludes with an ironic modulation: “Hope’s back./ What more can I ask?” In English at least, this question reads as rhetorical, though it clearly is not, especially after the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Tiananmen also casts its retrospective shadow on other poems, written, one presumes, during the thaw. “When I blink” ironically mimics the self-criticism of a would-be true believer who is bedeviled by images of horror whenever he happens to blink. He looks at a fountain, blinks, and it becomes a snake; cheerful red blossoms become “a steaming pool of blood.” The solution for such “”hallucinations”,” a term which he sarcastically surrounds with quotation marks, is to try to do the impossible, stare without blinking.

All the poets in the anthology were anxious that the hallucinations would become real once again. In “Yesterday,” an unusually explicit poem, Gu refers to the Cultural Revolution as a dead black snake now swarmed over by ants, “debating how / to circumvent / the second coming.” When the fears of the second coming were realized, these poems changed along with everything else in China. For example, “Memory,” a lyrical lament by Bei Dao, another leading Misty, describes the repression of the past during, one supposes, the Cultural Revolution. The past survives only as shadows, shunted whispers, and a guitar. The end of the Democracy Movement unfortunately makes the poem utterly contemporary, once again:

On the wall
a hanging guitar
sounds dimly

like rigging lights
whispering together
on quiet water.

In a skillful double-termed comparison, Bei compares memory during the cultural revolution to guitar music whose range has been so squelched that it resembles music played at its natural volume only as nocturnal rigging lights resemble a ship illumined by sunlight.

Bei Dao does not pussyfoot to avoid alerting official ears. In his landscape, “Lamps glow on prongs of steel”; “Wolves prowl among people turned to trees”; “The scoundrel carries his baseness around like an ID card./ The honest man bears his honor like an epitaph.” Bei can be Poundian in his coruscating anger, but Pound believed that art and, then, strong-men, were The Answer to cultural disruption, while Bei hearkens back and appeals to a faith in human decency. In the poem “Let’s Go,” this faith is expressed with simple but expansive confidence:

Let’s go,
dry leaves blowing down the valley,
homeless, singing.

Let’s go,
moonlight on river ice,
 overflowing.

Let’s go,
watching the same patch of sky,
hearts drumming in the dusk.

Let’s go.
We know by heart
the way to the fountainhead.

Let’s go
down the road, strolling through drifts
of scarlet poppies.

This pastoral series of invitations omits the machine in the garden and, thus, affronts orthodoxy. It may be that the fourth stanza offends worst of all because it not only invokes an heretical fountain of renewal but also implies everybody knows “by heart” how to get there.

A third member of the Misties, the remarkable Shu Ting, clearly understands how to reach the fountainhead. And she has not had to learn the way by heart, for her heart is itself both the way and the fountainhead. She writes love poetry, poetry full of passionate commitments. Although Shu has many moods, her basic impulse is extravagantly affirmative. Banished painfully to a rural village during the Cultural Revolution, she nonetheless expresses the sort of untrammeled idealism that might, under other circumstances, have made her a true believer. As it is, she is the only poet in the anthology (except Mang Ke, now under arrest), who still resides in China. If she had not been victimized by the Revolution, Shu’s ideal of self-abnegation, as expressed in the opening stanza of “Gift,” might have proved useful to the Maoist cause:

My dream is the dream of a pond
Not just to mirror the sky
But to let the willows and ferns
suck me dry.

I’ll climb from the roots to the veins,
And when leaves wither and fade
I will refuse to mourn
Because I was dying to live.

Shu acknowledges grief and suffering and criticizes the inhumanity of industrialization, but she refuses despair and dreams of the opportunity to be devoted to something larger than herself. In response to a particularly glum and absolutist poem by Bei Dao, entitled “All,” Shu affirms the persistence of a saving remnant:

Not all trees are felled by storms.
Not every seed finds barren soil.
Not all the wings of dream are broken,
nor is all affection doomed
to wither in a desolate heart.

While this passage and others implicitly acknowledge a cultural devastation, the poem itself ends by affirming the spiritual necessity of hope:

It won’t all end in tears and blood. . . .
Hope is a burden all of us shoulder
though we might stumble under the load.

One wonders how heavily her burden weighs upon her today.

On the basis of Kizer’s and Finkel’s selections, her masterpiece is “A Singing Flower,” a long poem of Sapphic intensity. In it, she identifies herself with the singing flower, or the principle of a courageous, loving, and committed will-to-fruition. Some of the things she says might, in other contexts, sound like orthodox commitment to the Four Modernizations; for example, the speaker at one point becomes a marathon runner who represents her nation and who, therefore, has “no right to rest.” Shu also addresses “Mother China” and says that, if the bullets fly, let her die first, and let no one weep afterward. Though she makes comments that could be coopted for totalitarian politics, Shu would prove an unruly functionary.

One of the first things the poem does is to request permission to dream, dangerous enough in itself, but especially so when she reveals her desire not only for an “ancient windbell,” but also for a Christmas tree, ice skates, and a magic flute. As if her taste for bourgeois baubles were not subversive enough, she also asks for quiet, for a chance to dream, for unrestricted poetic license and for unreined eros, four highly heterodox modernizations.

Given her characteristic mix of idealism and iconoclasm, it is not so surprising that Shu has become a highly popular poet. It is, however, remarkable that she twice won the National Poetry Award, in 1981 and 1983. But that was then, a point in time when officials evidently felt it would be more costly to silence her than let her speak. At present, one suspects there is little or no arena for her to express her most fundamental commitment as a poet and a human being:

No matter how the great chorus seems to drown me,
You will hear my singular voice.

If we needed more proof about the importance of context for understanding literature, then Shu’s vow provides it. If Shu were an American, her vow would seem vainglorious; in the present critical climate, it would also be taken as evidence of her bourgeois individualism and her ignorance about the death of the author. Yet our knowledge that Shu is a woman who participated in the Chinese democracy movement, and who risked her life to make her anticollectivist stand, makes her vow shine with integrity and courage.

III

Maxine Kumin labors under no immediate threat of being silenced for political reasons. But this has not tempted her to complacency. She has not had to look far in the modern world to discover ample cause for concern, ample provocation to resist evil and stupidity. In Nurture (Viking, $8.95 paper), Kumin focuses more strongly than ever on the animals passing from our lives. Nurture addresses the elemental subjects of birth, death, love, sex, the family, and violence but, as often as possible, it does so within the context of Kumin’s longstanding concern for the welfare of animals. She mentions in the opening poem that a critic has accused her of suffering “from an overabundance of maternal genes.” Her implicit response to this rather patronizing remark is that she agrees, and vows to suffer harder.

In a way that is not utterly unlike Shu Ting’s “singing flower,” Kumin claims for herself the role, or vocation, of nurturer. While its focus extends well beyond the animal world, Nurture gives animals pride of place. References to creatures from the natural world, usually mammals, appear in all 33 poems, although in one, a city poem, the flamingo is plastic. The first section, 13 poems, takes the fate of animals as their exclusive subject matter, though not always as their theme. Kumin touches on the subject of animals that are suffering, extinct or on the brink, animals that are struggling to reproduce, and animals that serve as playthings and foodstuff for humankind. Her list of concerns resembles the agenda of the Animal Welfare Institute, and Kumin at times bluntly criticizes instances of failed stewardship or human racism toward the natural world. In “Repent” she condemns the capture of killer whales for our amusement at marine parks, invoking as support a dictum of Immanuel Kant that “stupidity” is “caused by a / wicked heart.” In “Thoughts on Saving the Manatee,” she describes the depredation of the Manatees’ habitat—the choking effect of six-pack collars and the cutting effect of pop-tops—and then presents her “quick and humane” modest proposal: drop the pretense of our interdependence and simply proceed to “serve up the last few as steak marinara.”

Driven by outrage and empathy, “Repent” and “Thoughts on Saving the Manatee” are fine polemical poems; they do not hide their designs on us. Witty and well made, they are not detached, highly qualified meditations on the intrinsically tragic nature of existence. It is not that Kumin rejects such a vision—in fact, some of her best poems, “In Warm Rooms, Before a Blue Light,” and “Catchment,” convey it—but she simply won’t restrict herself to accepting in the short term what in the long term seems inevitable: a massive loss of diversity in the biosphere. In the face of such loss, Kumin celebrates the stunning, compelling fact of birth. “Sleeping with Animals” describes the poet’s vigil outside the stall of her “vastly pregnant” brood mare. One part of her acknowledges that, for a woman in her sixties, sleeping in a mummy bag on the floor of a stable is evidence of imbalance, of “loving her animals too much.” But it is just-such an imbalance or, rather, overabundance that she embraces as her “covenant,” her sacrifice. As both the content and the quality of the poem indicate, she is immensely rewarded for her sacrifice, by sensory and spiritual renewal. The vigil becomes an occasion for observation and reflection:

I in my mummy bag just outside her stall
observe the silence, louder than the catch
in her breathing, observe gradations of
the ancient noneditorial dark; against
the open doorway looking south, observe
the paddock posts become a chain gang, each
one shackled leg and wrist; the pasture wall
a graveyard of bones that ground fog lifts and swirls.

Images of bondage and death impinge upon the manger and upon the poet’s mind, prompting her recollection that, in seven previous vigils, two foals did not survive.

If death quickens her senses, and intensifies the signals from the muse, the imminent appearance of new life affords a holy communion, an interval of pure being:

Restless, dozy, between occasional coughs
the mare takes note of me and nickers. Heaves
herself up, explores the corners of
her feed tub. Sleeps a little, leg joints locked.
I shine my light across the bar to watch
the immense contours of her flanks rise and fall.
Each double-inhale is threaded to the life
that still holds back in its safe sac.
What we say to each other in the cold black
of April, conveyed in a wordless yet perfect
language of touch and tremor, connects
us most surely to the wet cave we all
once burst from gasping, naked or furred,
into our separate species.

Poets and mystics habitually invoke silence as the condition where, given psychic readiness, the gods descend, or ascend. The spiritually minded have long meditated on the paradox of trying to evoke the quality of such silence through language. While the phrase “wordless but perfect” might have been left unsaid, Kumin’s dramatization of communion with the mare is nonetheless a vivid evocation of what may be borne and re-born in silence.

If Kumin had not called her book Nurture, it would have been as accurate, though less kinetic, to title it Communion. The former implies action, the latter a condition of being, though in Kumin’s work they often come to the same thing. She wants, she craves, at-onement, and if she cannot get it in fact, she’ll have it in imagination, as in the poem “With the Caribou,” which begins with a series of exotic wishes. The speaker wants to ride a reindeer-driven troika at “the top of the world”; she also wants to speak passionately on behalf of the caribou at a meeting in the Yukon. When she goes on to say that she wants to talk to the Caribou themselves, so as to become a fellow-traveler, the gulf between her and the animal world closes and she becomes a caribou, or at least a migratory animal. She handles this metamorphosis with such deft wit that it seems almost natural:

               I want to advise the species
to set up new herds, to mingle and multiply,

else how can I hurtle with them across the Kobuk River
at Onion Portage, be caught up in the streaming
 southward,
the harsh crowding of antlers uplifted like thousands
of stump-fingered arms? I’m slithering backward in time to
the Bering land bridge, awash at high tide, I cross over
nibbling down to Nevada, down to New Jersey,
I rejoice to be circumpolar, all of us
on all fours obeying the laws of migration.

This poem shows a youthful, not to say primeval, spirit as it travels backward in time, reinvoking connections with our mammalian heritage as wanderers. In other poems in the volume, Kumin is equally “tribal,” as she puts it, but the focus becomes her family.

“On Reading an Old Baedeker in Schloss Leopoldskron” springs from a trip to Austria partly designed to reconnect with the origins of her grandfather, a Jew who emigrated and avoided the holocaust. She reads the old guide book, visits old Jewish quarters hoping to see his double walking the streets. But when she visit an Austro-Hungarian venue that had been taken over by the Nazis, she reverses her purpose and, thus, paradoxically fulfills it. In Nazi headquarters, it is not his presence but his absence she craves, a banishing that brings his fate intensely to mind: “Never look back, Grandfather./ Don’t catch my eye on this marble / staircase as wide as the ‘gasse / you lived in.” The ugliest fact in history obtrudes upon her desire for communion, but true to her vocation in this volume, Kumin will not let her connection resonate on a purely negative note. Searching for “a thin line of comfort. . .a weight-bearing bridge” to her grandfather, she settles for feeding stale bread in the rain “to the swans / in their ninetieth generation.” Feeding the swans does not enact the vicarious cross-generational déjà vu she’d hoped for, but it is a generous and touching gesture nonetheless, and one which allows us to see how nurturing others also serves her as solace for the depredations worked by the passage of time.

Kumin has always written well about her family, with a mixture of love, unsentimental piety, and almost parabolic detail. Nurture contains perhaps the longest, and most ambitiously inclusive, of these family poems, “Marianne, My Mother, and Me.” It plays brief invocations of the major events of this century off against some turning points in the life of the three women mentioned in the title. Given its scope, the poem, even at six pages, is highly selective and impressionistic, a self-conscious sprint, which keeps us outside the sensibilities of the two elder women. But such distance has thematic relevance. Kumin’s relationship to her mother is never directly dramatized, and her attitude is a bit chilly. Marianne Moore, whom Kumin never met, elicits a good deal more pathos from the speaker than does her mother. The most heartfelt, and precise, moments in the poem describe Moore’s paradoxical presence and absence from Kumin’s life as an undergraduate:

                              ”We
must be as clear as our natural reticence
will allow,” [Moore] announces. Rapturously

I try this statement on a like a negligee
that’s neither diaphanous nor yet opaque.
Crisp lyrics from her quirky intellect
flare across Modern Poetry Survey
where she’s sandwiched between Pound and Ransom.
But not once in my four years as a Cliffie,
humble in Harvard Yard, do I find that phantom
I long for, a woman professor, trailed by her covey.

Reticence as a virtue and as a form of self-repression are themes in the poem. Moore becomes a victim of her shyness. While her correspondence with the Ford Motor Company and her appearance in Life magazine make her, briefly, a cultural icon, it is mainly as a curiosity, a belated Victorian, outside history.

Despite these distances, Kumin, at the end of the poem, reverts to rhyme in order to assert kinship with both her mother and Moore:

            I claim them both as mine
whose lives began in a gentler time and place
of horse-drawn manner, parlor decorum
—though no less stained with deception and regret—
before man split the atom, thrust the jet,
procured the laser, shot himself through space,
both shapers of my alphabet.

While in this conclusion Kumin owns her influences, it seems clear that the members of the previous generation serve her both as cautionary and as exemplary models. Nurture serves notice of Kumin’s intention not to become irrelevant, not to stand outside history, not to abandon her interior life and her thirst for communion, not to stop nurturing.

The great strength of Kumin’s poetry remains its capacity for intimacy. And yet what gives her intimacy its poise is exactly what she has inherited from her two mothers, a sense of grace and an element of reserve. Two closing examples I hope will make this clear. “The Bangkok Gong” describes the visit of someone Kumin loves deeply. The visitor, who goes unidentified, leaves her with a small gong. The speaker hangs the gong on her doorpost and, at the end of the poem, says just this:

Some days I
barely touch it.

Almost shyly, but to great effect, she implies a struggle for restrained equilibrium in a way that only intensifies the sense of loss and the desire for re-connection. The abundance of her longing comes through all the more clearly because of its litotes-like understatement.

A similarly restrained expression of strong emotion occurs in “We Stood There Singing.” The poet is motoring in Switzerland with her daughter and grandson. They stop at a store, and when it becomes clear the boy needs his diaper changed, the proprietress invites them into her bedroom. After the boy is changed, the Swiss woman embraces and bounces him and soon the three women find themselves singing le ban roi Dagobert. About this moment of female intimacy and joyous solidarity with new life, Kumin comments:

We stood there singing.
I remember
that moment of civility among women.

The very flatness of diction and spare straightforwardness of syntax absorb a great charge of emotion. Most interestingly, Kumin sees this scene as an instance of “civility,” a word with much greater currency among members of her mother’s generation than today, but a word which Kumin wants to renew and expand so as to include a generosity ready to break out into spontaneous high-spirited song. We may be thankful for Maxine Kumin’s fiery civility.

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