In her own words: Poet Maxine Kumin on growing up and settling down
In this second installment, Maxine Kumin talks about her parents and her upbringing, the origin of her love for animals and her move with her husband Victor to New Hampshire from a Boston suburb.
I am an unregenerate atheist. There will be no afterlife. I have felt that way since I was 16 years old.
I look at this terrible world, and I feel such sorrow for where we are politically and socially. It is worse than it’s ever been. I’m filled with despair, because I see holy wars taking place. Now it’s going to be Christians against Muslims, Muslims against Christians, against Jews. It’s so scary to see the right-wing Christian evangelicals and the right-wing Islamists – we’re going to see Armageddon. We’ll all be dead then, but I have kids and grandkids.
World War II was a necessary evil, and I don’t think any war we have fought since then meets that criterion. I first learned about the Holocaust as a teenager. I can still see my father at the dining room table weeping, reading these letters from perhaps relatives back in Poland or people who had the same last name begging him to sponsor them. And I don’t know how many he sponsored before he couldn’t sponsor any more.
My father was a very moral man. He was a secret philanthropist during the Depression. He bought this broken-down old house for the postman. He did a lot of quiet things like that. But he had a lot of dicta. One thing that outraged him was when women drove from Philadelphia to New York City to shop. He thought you must spend your money where you earn it. He also said, “Early to bed and early to rise, and you never see any of the regular guys.”
He encouraged intellectual achievement. He was not happy when I started swimming seriously. I swam for the Women’s Athletic Association when I was in high school. I went to downtown Philadelphia to work out in the Broadmoor pool, where we had our practices. I’d come home late, and my hair would be wet. As I sat eating dinner, my hair would drip onto the tablecloth or the plate. He was appalled by that.
His thinking was: What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing thinking of a career as a swimmer? That was the summer Billy Rose established the Aquacade, and I was invited to join. I would have traveled, and we would have been chaperoned, and I would have been earning a hundred dollars a week, which was a fortune, and he forbade it.
I desperately wanted to please my father. I adored my father, and my father adored me in his way. He admired everything I did intellectually. It was thrilling that I published a book while he was still alive. My first book came out in 1961. I doubt that he read the poems, but he could hold the volume, and that was important. I had published a couple of children’s books by then, and he could see that I was going to have a career as a writer. I think that was pleasing to him.
I’ve just written this little poem called “Immutable Laws,” and it starts with all the things I learned from my father. I remember him admonishing me, “Never buy land on a slope. It will turn out to be worthless.” We bit down hard on a derelict dairy farm on a slope. But he was an urban person; he knew nothing about the country or country land.
My mother and I were so diametrically opposed. She was so horrified when we moved here. She had grown up in Radford, Va., a one-horse town, as she would have said, on a sort of a semi-farm, where they raised chickens. She had struggled to get away from that. They were the only Jewish family in town, although she played the organ for the Methodist church by the time she was 15. It was an ecumenical arrangement. They were well liked.
The problem for my grandfather was finding suitable Jewish husbands for his daughters. He had five daughters. They were all sent north, my mother to Philadelphia, where she attended the music conservatory. She had a gift, but of course she was never permitted to realize it. And there she met my father.
She spent her entire life being upwardly mobile in terms of everything – the people she associated with, the cultural events she attended, especially her couture. She saw her life as one of privilege in which she was cosseted. If we went shopping, she had a favorite salesperson at this store and that store, and she would say to me as an aside, “Isn’t it terrible the way she has to work for a living?” I think she would have been so bewildered by the women’s movement. It just was so foreign to her way of thought.
And here she has a daughter who’s sitting here in sweat pants. That was how different we were. I fought hard to become an individual and to break away from that. It was only at the end of her life that she softened and accepted our way of life. She went down to the barn with me and spoke about the horses of her childhood.
We had a succession of dogs when I was a child. When I was about 8 or 9, I had my first real contact with horses. I began to take a riding lesson every week for a dollar. I just fell in love with horses. I was 40 before I had horses of my own, but I knew that was where I was going somehow.
I feel totally accepting of my horses, and they totally accept me. I’m interested in whatever communication we are able to make – nonverbal communication with animals. Recently I went to see my grand-foal in Henniker. It’s Deuter’s sister’s baby, and I had Deuter’s mother – she was a horse we rescued. So that was the third generation, a beautiful little colt – boy, is he handsome. I felt some small bond there when he saw his mother, Eden. I hadn’t seen her since she was 7 or 8.
I remember so well the first time Victor and I saw this farm in November of 1962. We had honeymooned not far from here, up in East Andover. We had each inherited $5,000 from a grandparent and decided to look for a place around here that we could use as a camp. A Realtor showed us exactly three places, and the third one was this.
The minute we started up the hill, I got goose bumps. I knew that whatever was at the top, that was what I wanted. The roof was wrecked, and the farmhouse was full of dead animals, and the back half of the barn had fallen down. It had once been an old dairy farm. It had been empty for six or eight years.
A young artist and his wife had tried to bring it back. He was trying to make an artist’s studio out of the barn. He left a lot of really dreary oil paintings behind. And it was for sale for a song. I think they were asking for $13,000, and we bought it for $11,500. We were almost within our budget.
From the start, I knew this was it, but I don’t know why I knew it. I loved the isolation. I loved that it was at the top of a dead-end dirt road. It was everything that living in suburbia was not. I knew somehow that I wanted a place that would be like a little island on top of a hill. It was not the most practical thing. We could afford it, so we bought it.
We did have to put a new roof on it pretty darn quick. There was an old Sears Roebuck pump that sort of provided water. It often kicked out, and you had to go down and you had to know where to tap it to get it to go back on again. The place did have plumbing and electricity. It also had blackberry briars so dense that you had to part them to see into the windows. It was totally overgrown. There was no cleared land.
I was looking for peace and quiet. I was looking to have a relationship with the land – we did have a little handkerchief back yard in Newton, and I did have a petunia plant and a tomato plant, and we did have a lovely maple tree. But to come up here and see huge trees – of course, it wasn’t green in November, but you could just see the potential.
At first it was just a place to get away, a weekend place, vacation place – a week in the spring, Thanksgiving up here. Then it became seductive, and I kept coming up earlier and staying later, and I started a garden. Pretty soon we had a couple of horses and foals for the summer. We took riding lessons, and our daughter Judith got more and more involved. Pretty soon, Judith was spending every spare moment over at the animals. She got into horses, and I was re-infected.
When we first moved here, everything outside was strange and wonderful. The first porcupine quill – I had never seen a porcupine quill. I had never seen wild berries that you could just go pick and eat. And wild mushrooms – that was an enchantment. Everything was an enchantment, but it was also an awful lot of back-breaking labor.
The first thing we built was this paddock so that we could accommodate the rented horses. Rudy Ingold was our neighbor then, a wonderful neighbor. We had a back trail that would wind from the top of this hill all the way through their property and come out just about on their front lawn. Rudy came up while we were building it. Ted Young was helping Victor. They were using from the old railroad. The bars were probably 6-foot high, and Rudy said, “My God, what are you gonna keep in there? Elephants?”
That was our approach. We were so terrified that we’d do something wrong and a horse would get loose.
So that was the beginning, and then we added pasture after pasture after pasture. That first summer, we had the pond dug. A wonderful guy from Belmont came and dug every day. It was his idea not to take out that big rock out there, to leave it. It was real deep out in front of it, and it would be safe to dive.
Once we were established here, and I was examining everything about me so closely, I had more subject matter, so I was writing more intimately about what I saw and what I felt. And little by little the language that I used changed. It became less academic and less Latinate and more muscular.
People see something and say all the time, “Now that’s a poem!” I never see it that way. That’s not how I get my poems. What I’ve experienced may make its way into my poems, but it’s not what generates a poem. I take what comes. I don’t prepare for a poem. Something seeks me out, and then I check it out, and then I work on it. Then I set it aside and come back to it and redo it.
Poems always start with some kind of inchoate sensation or line or image or rhythm. I follow it blindly. And lots of times they don’t work out. Those are just still births. I’m not like Edgar Allan Poe, able to plot out the whole poem.
I’ve reached an age where I think about death a lot. Mortality is much more of a topic in my poems. But all my memories of this farm are sustaining. The sense of place here is so important to me. I can’t see myself ever anywhere else, and I’m hanging on to it as tightly as I can.
UPDATE: This column was updated on Sept. 16, 2013, to correct two names.