Friday, February 21, 2014

Poetry Friday -- Remembering Maxine Kumin

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Doug Wheller

On February 6, one of my all-time favorite poets died. Plain-spoken, New Hampshire farmer and horsewoman Maxine Kumin will never write another poem.

It pains my heart to be reminded that all life and all art are finite. And yet, in spite of every ending, we go on. We came from this earth and we will return to the earth the handful of minerals we have been loaned for our brief time here. We go on because we are and always will be A Part Of It All. And the art we leave will live on in strangers' hearts; our words will change lives without our knowledge or consent. We go on.

The Excrement Poem
by Maxine Kumin

It is done by us all, as God disposes, from
the least cast of worm to what may have been
in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor
of considerable heft, something awesome.

We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are.
I think these things each morning with shovel
and rake, drawing the risen brown buns
toward me, fresh from the horse oven, as it were,

or culling the alfalfa-green ones, expelled
in a state of ooze, through the sawdust bed
to take a serviceable form, as putty does,
so as to lift out entire from the stall.

And wheeling to it, storming up the slope,
I think of the angle of repose the manure
pile assumes, how sparrows come to pick
the redelivered grain, how inky-cap

coprinus mushrooms spring up in a downpour.
I think of what drops from us and must then
be moved to make way for the next and next.
However much we stain the world, spatter
it with our leavings, make stenches, defile
the great formal oceans with what leaks down,
trundling off today's last barrowful,
I honor shit for saying: We go on.

A New Yorker postscript to Maxine Kumin's life is here.
The "Sonnets Uncorseted" mentioned in the article are here.
And Short the Season: Poems is scheduled to be released on April 7, 2014.

Karen Edmisten is hosting the Poetry Friday roundup this week.


  1. What a beautiful tribute you wrote, Mary Lee. And what a startlingly lovely tribute Ms. Kumin wrote to excrement. "I think of what drops from us and must then
    be moved to make way for the next and next."

  2. Anonymous10:17 AM

    May her words be remembered and shared.

  3. She will definitely be missed. Thanks for your wonderful words and for posting this poem, which I hadn't seen before. BTW, have you read The Food Poet's recent tribute to Ms. Kumin?

  4. I share your sadness of your succinct sentence: She will never write another poem. You chose a perfect one. I just taught Charlotte's Web, and pointed out how much Wilbur loves dozing in manure, and that's part of White's vision of the beautiful life cycle. And I'm so glad you let us know about a new volume coming up. That is good news.

  5. Thre'es infinite wisdom in this poem, and this essential thought:
    I think of what drops from us and must then
    be moved to make way for the next and next.
    Thank you for honoring Maxine Kumin, Mary Lee.

  6. I, too, was saddened by Maxine Kumin's death. She was such a humble and wise poet. Case in point this poem. Who else could write so eloquently about shit and even use the word shit in it.
    I do love your message, too. "our words will change lives without our knowledge or consent. We go on."

  7. Mary Lee,
    I had never seen this poem, and I didn't know that she had died. Thank you so much for letting me know of both, and for the wonderful tribute to her.

    There are so many memories of hauling garden carts of the neighbor's horse manure to the compost pile, trudging up the gravel lane, crunching slowly against the groaning weight, with the sure knowledge that the raspberries would be happy, and the tomatoes, too, from what the horses couldn't use anymore.

    "the least cast of worm to what may have been
    in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor
    of considerable heft, something awesome."

    Something awesome, indeed.

  8. Thanks for the heads up about her posthumous collection. I'll write up an order card on Monday. Those of us in NH who were lucky enough to have seen her on more than one occasion around the state, appreciate what she did for us all.

  9. I imagine she would be pleased with all the words written for her in these past days, including yours, Mary Lee. Lovely to think about, the pleasure of all that shit does for us, a secondhand gift. When we had horses, I loved that my kids could learn that. We went to a stable, but they had to clean their own stalls. Thank you!

  10. We go on indeed! Thanks for this tribute, Mary Lee.

  11. from the New Yorker piece you linked to: "Grief is always selfish, a complaint to the gods about what has been taken from us, but the loss I feel surprises me."

    How often I have felt this when a beloved artist dies ... the knowing that we will never hear a new word from him, or her .... a lovely tribute, Mary Lee.

  12. Always wished I could have met her...she was quite a lady! And this poem shows what she did so well: taking the everyday of rural life and not necessarily elevating it, but honouring it. She will definitely be missed.

  13. Oh, she will be missed. Thank you for this poem today and for telling us about her last collection.

  14. Anonymous7:30 PM

    What a lovely tribute, Mary Lee. Thank you so much for sharing.

  15. Mary Lee- thanks for sharing your tribute and THIS poem. "We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are." In a poem about poop, she finds beauty and truth. I look back on poets I have loved who have died, like Maxine and beloved Jane Kenyon, and as I return to their work, it's like starting a conversation at mid-point. If I'm listening closely enough, I will catch a new phrase or fixate on a poem I have glossed over before. While Maxine may never write a new poem again, I can root one of hers down into the soil of my mind, letting it thrive and grow from memory and in that way part of her stays alive.


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