The majority of poetry readers—even the most voracious of us—have gaps in knowledge about poets we’ve been meaning to experience, poets we know we’ll appreciate, but for reasons that evade us, we have not gotten around to. For me, Maxine Kumin falls into this category, and her eighteenth book of poems, And Short the Season, has inspired me to visit her abundant body of work. Accompanying my vacancy is a bald guilt and regret—I should have read the Kumin’s poems long ago. My one bittersweet solace is that I am sure I will return to Kumin’s work, for she is a master: the clarity with which she weaves her lines, her acoustical complexity, and her evocative resonance have already taught me how to write better poetry.
And Short the Season, the title taken from early sonnet innovator Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s “The Frailty and Hurtfulness of Beauty” in pre-Shakespeare Renaissance England, is a beautiful collection, and its five sections begin with the rich, nearly Hopkinsian “Whereof the Gift Is Small,” a phrase that extends Kumin’s connecctions to Howard’s Renaissance poetry and reveals her formal range and mastery of sound:
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
him underground . . .
Kumin’s poem becomes bittersweet as its opening acknowledgment of fecundity gives way to chthonic transformations of horses, creatures she held dear. The poem questions the gift of life, but deepens the motif by ending with a nod toward the transitory nature of human perception and the inevitable end to all life.
Kumin’s concerns are not limited to mortality. In poems such as “The Path, the Chair,” the narrator takes a walk, recalling Hazlitt, Coleridge, and Wordsworth—especially the latter and his long strolls, during which he “humm[ed] his lines as long as his feet / could hold the rhythm on the path,” a meta-statement about metrics, of course, but a line that vectors seamlessly into the narrator’s own traversal through her farmland, a landscape partially wild, partially manicured, but one so beautiful that it becomes a kind of cathedral, or even a heaven, in which Kumin worships with a Heaneyesque felicity—“My resting place, from which I watch / the rhubarb swell, the peas inch up, / the early spinach break through clods.” The worship is in the saving of the farm, this microcosm of flora and fauna, this ecosystem Kumin and her family spent forty years to create:
the restored fields,
the rescued dogs, the ancient horses
named Genesis and Deuteronomy,
Eden, Praise Be, Hallelujah, and the farthest field. . .
our catholic homage to an afterlife
we like the thought of but don’t believe in.
Pieces such as “Our Mantle” deal with environmental concerns, and the poem is all the better for its inclusion of the word “petrichor,” or the scent that rain makes on parched earth, one my favorite words. Indeed, much of Kumin’s work centers on the Earth and its myriad forms and pairs a diction luminescent and unrestricted. For example, in a poem called “Indian Pipes,” a piece that orbits those strange, white, dangerous-looking plants otherwise known as ghost flowers, Kumin writes, “when the white wraiths grew among bitter russulas / and lactarias, mycorrhizal with numinous trees,” a line that resembles others in this book, wherein science is conflated with the mystical.
Kumin’s book is best read in several sittings. Her vision does not indicate fragmentation so much as a deeply complex mosaic of the personal and the political, the “natural” and the man-made worlds. Poems range from pieces about gardens to Liz Taylor, from doghouses to William Carlos Williams. I keep returning to these poems, as no matter their subject matter, no matter their form, the poems in And Short the Season all telescope outward to embrace the universal while dwelling in empathy and human experience.