Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How It Is - Maxine Kumin

HOW IT IS



Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you've come to visit, he's ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
delivered up last August on Bay State Road.
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.

I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
it together in a different collage,
back from the death car idling in the garage,
back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,
reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish
into a ceremony of sandwich,
running the home movie backward to a space
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.

Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
like wine bags, straining at your seams.
I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.


---Maxine Kumin


Maxine Kumin's How It Is


Desperation—which at its base is fear—motivates us to do things we normally wouldn't even consider. Rational thought scurries away like a child's ball disappearing down a street sewer. Limits shrink and everything is possible...at a cost. In Maxine Kumin's How It Is the cost has already been charged and the poem's speaker, unhinged by grief, is desperate to revisit a recently deceased friend. The sorrow and longing are so intense that she resorts to trying on her friend's clothes. We do strange things when we lose someone we love, but they're not strange within that moment. These desperate acts are what we have at our disposal; they may not bring our loved ones back, but on some level we gain comfort—and if we're very fortunate—understanding.

There's no beating around the bush in this poem; Kumin makes sure we know the path she'll follow with a definitive first line: “Shall I say how it is in your clothes? / A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.” Eerie and indeed desperate, the poem's speaker puts herself into her friend's physical confines as a means of conjuring her, or at least a fleeting connection. When the speaker's dog recognizes these clothes and grows “ecstatic” we see his enthusiasm as innocent and lively—the exact emotions our speaker lacks. The nuances of life—“In the left pocket, a hole. / In the right, a parking ticket”—may appear minuscule, but they startle us out of our grief with pressures of reality. Before moving forward, Kumin is sensitive to her heart, feeling “a scatter like milkweed, / a flinging from the pods of the soul.” This grief will not go gently and so she pushes herself with the untamed fuel of desperation. “My skin presses your old outline. / It is hot and dry inside.” Kumin describes the action with the emotionless precision of a scientist writing a lab report.

After one stanza of trying on her friend's clothes, and essentially trying on her former life, our speaker unravels more of the intricacies of her friend's life. She starts with her final day, thinking “how I would unwind it, paste / it together in a different collage.” As counterintuitive as it might seem to soften death, which normally is as malleable as cement, Kumin slices scenes from her friend's final day as if they are warm slices of pie. This way she is able to create art in dying. Her friend doesn't end in “the death car,” but starts with it “idling in the garage.” Her “praying hands unlaced” find themselves put back to work “reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish / into a ceremony of sandwich.” The good parts of life return in “a space / we could be easy in, a kitchen place / with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.” Never has there been a more fitting adjective than “living;” just as meat is the dead flesh of an animal taken in by humans for sustenance, it provides new life to Maxine Kumin. Undoubtedly what she finds is not real life, but remember that Kumin is desperate for any more time with her friend, any at all.

By the time we reach the final stanza Maxine Kumin has gone to great lengths to measure how life was for her friend. With this fresh knowledge, she presses on with a message for her deceased friend—a gritty tribute born out of experience. Kumin declares “Dear friend, you have excited crowds / with your example.” Because of their friendship, Kumin knows “I will be years gathering up our words, / fishing out letters, snapshots, stains.” Their time together has left her with an immense collection of emotion, a mansion of moments that she'll explore for the rest of her life. If these treasures aren't enough to stir her memories to vividness, we already know that she is not afraid of desperation. If all else fails we can expect to find Maxine Kumin “leaning my ribs against this durable cloth / to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.” Who can blame her? To have one more moment with a lost loved one nothing seems outlandish or crazy; desperation actually seems sane.

3 comments:

Folky1 said...

This is one of my most favorite poems. I enjoyed coming across it here. I also discovered some poems that I was not familiar with here and want to thank you for creating this blog. I am enjoying reading your essays about the poems, as well.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Hello Folky1, How wonderful is this poem! On each reading I feel it creeping inside of me with it's spirit of loss and regret, but it also brings the bittersweet resolve to preserve a connection of friendship and love even after death. Thank you for reading my blog and please stop back in April 2010 for new poems and essays.

All the best,
Matt

Anonymous said...

For those of you not in-the-know: this poem is an elegy about Kumin's dearest friend and collaborator Anne Sexton who killed herself in this very fashion.