December 11, 2018

The other side of Maxine Kumin

I think there were always two Maxine Kumins wrestling for space inside of her. 

In her new memoir, “The Pawnbroker’s Daughter” (W. W. Norton), the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who died last year at 88, allows us to see only certain parts of her. There is the feeling throughout the book of a polished presentation of self. It is not that I doubt Kumin’s charming recollections of her wonderful marriage and children. Nor do I question her ecstatic affection for all forms of wildlife, particularly her beloved horses. I am certain she took great pleasure in the many years she spent on her 200-acre farm in New Hampshire, where she became one with the land, toiling relentlessly while raising her family and writing. It is even easy to imagine Kumin as a budding feminist before we had the words for such desire.

Kumin’s poetry touched many areas. She wrote poems about the simple joys of living that are peppered with references to the splendor of the natural world and her wish to live in harmony with it. She wrote about her husband, Victor Kumin, a scientist who graduated from Harvard and who was involved at Los Alamos in the development of the nuclear bomb. He seems to have been a natural companion for her; they were both blessed with resilient spirits, good health and respect for each other’s resolve. 

Kumin also wrote poetry about the world outside her farm, particularly her disgust with America’s hawkish policies during the George W. Bush years that aligned her with the left. But in this memoir, some readers may sense that there was something else hiding behind her seeming invincibility; something she didn’t want us to see.

There is a precious, telling photograph of a young Kumin in the book. She looks 4 or 5. It is the standard picture of a little girl all dressed up in frilly white, her hair perfectly curled. But Kumin’s pretty, young face is marred by a ferocious scowl, and one guesses that this little girl had already decided she would refuse to dance prettily around anyone else’s expectations of her. This would help her with her mother, with whom she shared a somewhat contentious relationship. 

Kumin grew up the daughter of a Russian Jewish pawnbroker in Philadelphia who had a large successful store in the Black section of town. She was the youngest of four, the only girl, and her father treated her with consistent tenderness. Her mother was of German-Jewish origin, and came from one of the few Jewish families in Virginia. She was a refined and elegant woman, but a distracted and critical mother. She would chastise Kumin for speaking with her hands, and was dismayed by the little girl’s refusal to succumb to her mother’s standards of proper feminine dress and behavior. Kumin, however, was infatuated with her mother’s beauty and remembers watching her leave each evening to go out with her father while gorgeously dressed in an “evening cape of black velvet, its full length sprinkled with what looked like multicolored nonpareils.” She remembers her mother’s shame regarding her father’s profession. She would tell Maxine to list her father’s occupation at school as “broker,” instead of “pawnbroker,” because of the stigma she feared it would bring them.

Kumin’s family practiced a watered-down version of Reform Judaism. She spent her first years attending a Christian school because it was next door to her family home. She left for public school in second grade when the teachings about Jews became uncomfortable for her. 

There is a moving recollection in the book that is shattering: Kumin remembers coming home as a young girl as “news of the concentration camps had sifted into the Jewish community” and finding her father bitterly crying with some crumpled letters in his fist.

When he finally spoke to her, he whispered, “They will all die. This is the pogrom to end all pogroms,” which left Kumin mortified at the fate that might have befallen them if not for a mere accident of geography. Still, one senses that for Kumin, being Jewish was merely a part of her identity rather than a defining theme.

Kumin graduated from Radcliffe in 1948, married young and started her family. The demands of early motherhood were difficult for her. She wrote poems when she could, but the concentration required for her work was eaten away by the daily demands of motherhood. She expresses this frustration in an ironic letter to her mother in 1958 that is filled with pathos: “Just call me Mrs. Pepys. Up sooner than betimes; dryer broken, youngest out of underpants. All underpants soaking wet on line. Pouring. Ten minutes of earnest persuasion, no one would know he was wearing old baby pair, no one would see. Find plastic bag to protect violin case. (Pouring harder.) Write check for violin teacher. Overdrawn? Live dangerously; payday Wednesday. Find cough drops for the middle child. Middle child coughs anyhow. Girls depart. Youngest watching Captain Kangaroo. Make beds, get dressed, car pool late for youngest, writer later for appointment.”

Motherhood was erratic and had its own timetable (as did her poetry, which she often wrote in traditional form with exacting patterns of syllable count and rhyme). She writes of her exasperation with early motherhood:

“This dwelt in me who does not know me now, / where in her labyrinth I cannot follow, advance to be recognized, displace her terror; / I hold my heartbeat on my lap and cannot comfort her / The first cell that divided us separates us.”

But Kumin remained vigilant and signed up for a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education and left her children in the care of others for a few hours each week. It was here that she met Anne Sexton.

At first glance, there is nothing about their subsequent 17-year intense friendship that makes any sense. On the surface, they seem polar opposites. Sexton wrote explosive self-immolating poetry that couldn’t have been more different from Kumin’s restrained work. Sexton was a drug addict and an alcoholic and suffered from continual mental disturbances that sent her reeling from one psychiatrist to another, making many of them her lovers. Sexton was beautiful and cunning and manipulative and self-indulgent. And needy. 

Kumin was earthy, stable, centered and independent. Yet these two women became fast friends. They set up a private phone line in their respective homes and kept the receiver off the hook during the day so they could whistle to one another when they wanted to chat or laugh or share their work; each nourished by the feedback offered. They did not compete with each other, and were close with each other’s children. They never went out as a foursome with their husbands because, Kumin insists, it just didn’t work out. They had lunch several times a week, even on the day Sexton finally succeeding in killing herself (she had tried many times before). Kumin shared all of this years ago with Diane Middlebrook, Sexton’s biographer, and added that she still isn’t certain why they were so close. They even took great pleasure in sharing hats and jewelry and dresses, amused by the fact that they wore the same dress size.

So what were they really? It is tempting to speculate. Were they soul mates in a parallel universe of their own creation? Lovers? I have no idea. Kumin told Middlebrook that she was helped by Sexton, who showed her that the “cerebral really needed a strong admixture of the visceral.” I am not certain what that really means, but it sounds like doublespeak for an energized passion she felt when she was with Sexton that she perhaps had trouble fully feeling when she was with anyone else. And part of me wishes she would have written something about that!