Surprises by Maxine Kumin & a Tribute
by Maxine Kumin from “Nurture” published by Penguin Books, 1989.
This morning’s red sun licks dew from the hundred
California peppers that never set fruit in
my Zone-Three garden. After fifteen summers
of failure why this year do I suffer
the glut of inordinate success? They hang
in clustered pairs like newly hatched sex organs.
Doubtless this means I am approaching
the victory of poetry over death
where art wins, chaos retreats, and beauty
albeit trampled under barbarism
rises again, shiny with roses, no thorns.
No earwigs, cutworms, leaf miners either.
Mother’s roses climbed the same old latticework
trellis until it shattered under their weight
and she mourned the dirtied blossoms more, I thought,
than if they’d been her children. She pulled on
goatskin gloves to deal with her arrangements
in chamberpots, pitchers and a silver urn.
I watched, orphan at the bakeshop window.
It took all morning. Never mix species
or colors, she lectured. It cheapens them.
At the end of her long life she could reel off
the names of all the cart horses that had
trundled through her childhood, and now that I
look backward longer than forward, nothing
too small to remember, nothing too slight
to stand in awe of, her every washday
Monday baked stuffed peppers come back to me
full of the leftovers she called surprises.
When you’re a young poet starting out- this title still applies to me today- both tentative in your line breaks and brash in the conflicting belief that everything you write is good or hingeing on drivel, rhythm is found in repeated drafts and revisions.
One sultry summer in New Hampshire I had the privilege of landing in the living room of poet Maxine Kumin whose dog, Rosie trotted quietly from person to person, trying to make sense of all these new friendly fixtures in her familiar space. We each brought a poem to read aloud and Maxine gave us feedback on them, as well as talking a bit about her own writing process. To look back on this experience now and give it its full due is something that has taken several years to comprehend.
It can happen that in writing or photography or painting or singing or whatever form of creativity you pursue regularly, you get stymied by a cutting comment. Perhaps the discouragement comes from a keen desire for perfection that is not easily gained and does not come fast enough so you move on to something else assuming if it can’t be perfect, then, why bother? Working your way through negative feedback can be bristling and paralyzing. It can be said that the idea of “thick skin” applies to just such a circumstance. Take comfort in “Surprises,” then, as Kumin says, “After fifteen summers /of failure why this year do I suffer / the glut of inordinate success?”
It happened tonight that a writer whose work I admire shared a past experience of presenting written work to a colleague who tore it apart. I asked her how she got past that experience, to which she responded, I didn’t write for three years. It may seem extreme, but I get that impulse 100 percent. I also understood (and so did she) that the need to write eclipsed the quagmire that what’s written might not be good or perceived as being any good by someone else. We write because we must, right?
Maxine Kumin passed away February 7th at home in New Hampshire. I would envision her last moments to be what we would hope for anyone we care for- that they are spent with those they love encircling her bed. In learning of her death, I burrowed down again in her story and poems.
At a young age, she started writing poetry and has remarked that, “I didn’t stop writing poetry just because Wallace Stegner said I was a terrible poet. I went underground.” Thus began a friendship and writing workshop practice I always admired after Maxine and poet Anne Sexton met at the Boston Center for Adult Education in the 1950s. That the two of them workshopped poems on the telephone showed a diligence and created within me a desire to find a kindred spirit with whom I could share my work. This friendship between two prolific poets and their ability to figure out how to work on the work underscores the importance of community (even a community of two) for writers used to the solitary act of sitting at a desk typing away. It also inspired a friend of mine and I to attempt to bridge the great divide from Alaska to California to workshop poems using whatever technology is at our fingers.
Maxine’s love for animals is seen in the richness of detail of many of her poems. That she won a Pulitzer prize and is also known for her activism on behalf of women’s rights and minorities only adds to the importance of her vast body of work. A pink post-it note skims the top page of her poem “Surprises” in the book, “Nurture.” It seems a fitting poem to share at such a time as this. The story she tells is one that is universal and timeless. Why is it that sometimes when we court success, it does not come calling and other times when we couldn’t expect it, it comes? I think of her comment of looking “backward longer than forward, nothing / too small to remember, nothing too slight / to stand in awe of” and find her essence encapsulated there. Just as unscrewing the top of a red pepper can yield a surprise of stuffed proportions, in “Surprises,” she reminds the reader to be prepared for the things to come that can’t be expected. Her generosity and kindness live on through her poems and the indelible mark she left on so many young and old poets’ lives personally. While I met her just one time, she showed real grace and a passion for the written word that spurs me on. Rest in peace, Maxine.