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Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Sunday, April 22, 2007


This week as the tragic situation unfolded at the Blacksburg, Virginia campus of Virginia Tech, and the death toll scrolling across the news reports climbed even higher, I just happened to be re-reading Maxine Kumin’s Jack and Other New Poems, a book that includes a piece titled “Historic Blacksburg, Virginia.” Although this particular poem remarks upon reminders of past racism in that part of the country (“The lavatory sign still reads / Colored on one side and White / on the other”)—an era of attitudes thankfully no longer prevalent for the area, as indicated by the diversity of the names on this week’s list of victims and by the faces of the professors interviewed—most of the rest of the book addresses issues of life and death that appeared appropriate reading at this time and deserving of some comment.

When encountering Maxine Kumin’s poetry, one can sometimes become lulled by the steady and resolute direction of her unpretentious sentences. Whether guided by traditional forms and a regular rhyme or filled with the more relaxed sense of free verse, Kumin’s work normally ends up engaging the reader as she steers the content toward a determined end. Even the patterns in her poems, deliberate meditations on nature or mortality and dramatic pieces reflecting personal or political perspectives, rarely seem very surprising and are hardly suspenseful. Yet, this poet’s usually careful control of language and overriding tone frequently prove persuasive enough to enlighten and enrich.

With Jack and Other New Poems, her fifteenth volume of poetry, Kumin continues to offer work similar to that which has delighted readers for decades, especially since her Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection, Up Country, in 1973. This new book begins and ends with sonnets, yet even in her more formal poems she manages to present a relaxed or informal voice, one with a lyricism that invites listeners and a rationale that reassures readers. Now in her eighties, Maxine Kumin often maintains a lively and engaging monologue in which one witnesses a mixture of her wisdom and her wit.

The wisdom arrives from a lifetime of observing the relationship between humans and nature. Like Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop, Kumin has learned the lessons provided by elements in her environment. Although at times expressing herself in the urbane and sophisticated language one might associate with the Philadelphia or Boston of her early years, she now clearly seems more a product of rural New Hampshire, the location which she adopted as her home in the mid-1970s when she and her husband bought a farm for breeding horses.

Indeed, the title poem of this book refers to one of those horses named Jack, which the poet recounts letting go in 1980 “to a neighbor I thought was a friend,” only to learn later that the horse had been sold “down the river” to others. The speaker concedes she still feels remorse: “Every year, the end of summer / lazy and golden, invites grief and regret.” In the most haunting lines of the piece, the poet records: “my guilt is ghosting the candles that pale us to skeletons / the ones we must all become in an as yet unspecified order.”

With this poem, Maxine Kumin conveys one tone that carries through the collection, a persistent and continually gathering realization of loss or absence, an increased awareness of one’s own mortality. In a poignant poem titled “Last Days,” the speaker begins by informing readers about her sustained long-distance friendship with a dying college classmate even after so many years have passed since their student days at Radcliffe: “We visit by phone as the morphine haze / retreats, late afternoon, most days. / Our mingled past is set against the pinhole lights / of cars cruising the blacked-out streets.”

She remembers those times when these college friends, along with two others, would be “ironing our blouses with Peter Pan collars / to wear on dates with those 90-day Wonders, / ensigns in training for the Second World War / in the Business School across the Charles River.” Before the close of the poem, the speaker recalls: “Now BJ is gone, and Hettie. You have, they say, / only days.” As the friend faces her final journey, the poet knows she would like to offer as much assistance and comfort as she can: “I want to go with you / as far as the border. I want to support you.”

“Women and Horses,” perhaps the most dramatic work drawing on death and loss, opens with an epigraph (“After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric. Theodore Adorno”) followed by a litany of horrific events in history experienced during the poet’s lifetime: “After Auschwitz: after ten of my father’s kin— / the ones who stayed—starved, then were gassed in the camps. / After Vietnam, after Korea, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan. / After the Towers.”

As one might expect from Maxine Kumin, she wishes to counter the catastrophes created by her fellow humans with an art that asks us to view anew this “haplessly orbiting world” in which we find ourselves: “If there’s a lyre around, strike it!” The speaker recognizes the death and destruction she has beheld over the decades, and she cannot deny the “dark and degrading past” from which we will never escape; however, she rejects the notion in the Adorno quote, and instead requests more poetry, asks for work that hails life: “let us celebrate whatever scraps the muse, that naked child, / can pluck from the still moldering dumps.”

This spirit appears natural for a woman who not too long ago miraculously survived a near-fatal accident when a horse bolted during a carriage-driving incident. She appreciates each day and savors what life has to offer, especially in the form of nature’s gifts. Indeed, she relishes life of any kind, and some of her poems address inhuman behavior towards animals. In “Which One,” the speaker inquires about who “discarded in a bag // —sealed with duct tape—in the middle of the road / three puppies four or five weeks old.”

Elsewhere, the poet notes damage that occurs simply from the conflict created when humans or animals trespass on one another’s terrain: “a deer / that chanced the metal barrier / —unforeseen by Darwin—between nature / and the internal combustion engine / lies on its side, burst open” (“Requiem on I-89”). However, even here, the speaker notes the cyclical pattern of life and death in nature as crows peck at the protein of the deer’s carcass: “such sated caws, such croaks of sorrow.”

Perhaps Maxine Kumin’s constant examination of issues concerning life and death becomes enhanced by her admission in “Getting There” that she is an atheist. In another poem she lightly writes: “Where any of us is / going in tomorrow’s reckless Lexus is / the elemental mystery.” As one who does not believe in God or, apparently, an afterlife, Kumin may place greater stake in the conditions of the life we have in this world. She also may have a different determination about the ultimate meaning of death as her poetry bravely prepares the speaker for the deaths of others, but also for her eventual end: “I want to sing / of death unbruised. / Its smoothening. / I want to prepare for death’s arrival / in my life” (“Summer Meditation”). She concludes: “If only death could be / like going to the movies. / You get up afterward / and go out / saying, how was it? / Tell me, tell me how it was.”

Throughout this collection, though one may not be startled by the content in individual pieces, the cumulative effect of the works from start to finish does quietly astonish. Maxine Kumin’s poetry is at its best when it amazes with its subtle structure and calm voice, allowing for the clarity of her wisdom accompanied by a fair amount of wit. At times, the poems do lose the strength evident in her formal poems or freer pieces with short lyrical lines. In works like “Appropriate Tools: An Elegy and Rant” and “The Jew Order” Kumin lengthens her lines and loosens the syntax of her sentences to the point that they read almost as prose, sometimes shifting from wisdom to didacticism and missing the delicate impact her more compact poems deliver. In addition, her informal plain-spoken voice occasionally slips into words that seem too cute for the content, as when she writes the first three lines in the following from “Summer Meditation”: “there goes mr. big / the brookie / trailed by mrs. big / wispy silhouettes / darting in synchrony / past the deep pool.”

Nevertheless, Kumin’s few persona poems that assume stronger voices obviously not her own may be included among the most striking pieces in this collection. “Inge, in Rehab” vividly describes a desperate and defeated woman with an eating disorder (“It hurts at first / sticking fingers down your throat. / Vomiting’s an art.”), whose normal body functions have been damaged: “I haven’t bled since I was sixteen.” She has taken to shoplifting as well, anything she can get her hands on, and confides to readers her social worker’s advice: “I need to / learn to love myself / but it’s too late for that.”

In “The Rapist Speaks: A Prison Interview,” another potent persona poem, Kumin reports the recommendations to women by a rapist about how to avoid becoming his victims: “A woman with buzz cut / makes a lousy target. // I look for something I can nail— / a braid, a ponytail— // and loose clothes that rip.” This poem seems even more eerie and unnatural since its disturbing message is written in rhyming couplets leading through the poem toward the confirmation that this stalking rapist can now only be satisfied by killing his victim: “but life went from bad to worse. / Now I need to use force. // This time I had to kill to come. / Got enough? Take your notes and go home.” This perceived need of a stalker to kill seems to weigh especially heavily again in the wake of the last week’s revelations about the killer at Virginia Tech.

Elsewhere, Kumin writes about the 2003 news story concerning “the demented father / who murdered his children and buried them somewhere / along I-80.” In the poem, Kumin declares that since her Radcliffe freshman readings in a “Bible-and-Shakespeare course”: “Sin. Good. Evil. Obedience. How to get saved from Hell have travelled around with me.” Literature has been her guide, perhaps something to comfort her through times witnessing inexplicable acts of humans.

In “Women and Horses” Maxine Kumin correctly contradicted Adorno’s statement that poetry could not be written after incidents of deep tragedy. In fact, literature communicating wisdom about life and death may matter most at such moments. Coincidentally, I must acknowledge most of Kumin’s poems in this volume provided for me some small but necessary comfort during the recent week’s social narratives in which all were seeking for themselves the right responses to senseless violence or evil actions, a difficult period in which everyone seemed to be hoping to find an enlightened and insightful understanding about the value of life in the presence of death spoken with wise words that might guide us forward.

Kumin, Maxine. Jack and Other New Poems. Norton, 2005.

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