Three American Women Poets: Maxine Kumin, Cecilia Woloch, Sharon Olds

Maxine Kumin with her beloved horses.
Maxine Kumin with her beloved horses.

After recent events in America, I felt I needed the comfort of some thoughtful women poets, who can uplift and inspire us with their words and their lives.

Maxine Kumin: Jack and Other New Poems

Maxine Kumin has been one of my heroines from way back, when I wrote poetry the first time round, in high school. Her trademark close observation of nature life is often humorous, with just a tinge of fear and wonder at the power of nature, its bounty but also its indifference. She has sometimes been described as a ‘regional pastoral poet’, but her themes seem universal to me, although they often start from personal experiences of farming life. The poem ‘7 Caveats in May’, for instance, describes her dog chasing a bear up a tree and no patrol car being available to help, so she has to ask her neighbour to poke the bear to come down (without tearing apart the dog). The cheeky redpoll birds are described as ‘highwaymen’, intimidating ‘your year-round faithfuls away from the feeder’, yet Kumin notes with tenderness how charming they are ‘in their little red yarmulkas’.

Of course, nature always leads humans to awareness of their own mortality, especially when beloved animals (horses and dogs) die, yet leave their ghostly imprint upon us. The almost unbearable pain of farewell from her beloved old mare Broody, who had a good life, yet the indignity which follows death is always present, no matter how quiet and gentle the passing away itself is.

If only death could be

like going to the movies.

You get up afterward

and go out

saying, how was it?

Tell me, tell me, how was it?

From the Poetry Foundation website.
From the Poetry Foundation website.

Kumin must have been a delightful person to know, her poems often feel like a personal conversation, with brilliant moments of insight, yet always elegant, restrained, making you work to understand what lies below the carefully constructed and balanced surface. Yet there are personal touches too, like this charming reference to her fellow poet Stanley Kunitz:

Luck of the alphabet,

since 1961 we’ve leaned

against each other, spine

on spine, positioned thus.

Upright or slant, long may we stand

on shelves dusted or not

to be taken up by hands

that cherish us.

Of course, this being Kumin, firebrand and feminist, the poems are not just inward-looking, but expertly mix the lyrical with the political. Particularly striking is the poem ‘Women and Horses’, which asks how poetry and beauty is still possible after the experiences of Auschwitz, Vietnam, Korea, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, after the Towers’ (you can imagine which twin towers this refers to). It is an exhortation that the only way forward is to allow freedom and beauty rather than seek to constrain life, even if the result is messy.

Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables. Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest. War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder, we can never break free from the dark and degrading past. Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel as a meadow over which women and horses wander.

Cecilia Woloch: Carpathia

I’d never heard of Cecilia Woloch before but the title of this collection appealed to me, since a good part of the Carpathian mountains are in Romania. However, it turns out that the poet is referring to the Polish portion of the Carpathians, which is where her family originally came from. She instantly appealed to me, with her nomadic lifestyle and her poetry outreach work in prisons and schools, as well as collaborations with visual artists and theatres.

Growing up in rural Kentucky as one of seven children, she pens a beautifully tender ode to her parents, the love they have for each other and their family, entitled ‘Why I Believed, as a Child, That People Had Sex in Bathrooms’. Here she is on You Tube performing it.

Poets always seem to find it easier to write about sad things and troubled times, but Woloch has the knack of happiness. She captures perfectly the dizzying moments of falling in love, with the breathless listing of key moments, the repetitions, the simplicity of language:

And hadn’t you kissed the rain from my mouth?

And weren’t we gentle and awed and afraid,

knowing we’d stepped from the room of desire

into the further room of love?…

And were we not lovely, then, were we not

as lovely as thunder, and damp grass, and flame?

Her poems evoke a special kind of tenderness, a profound understanding of the less than perfect situations or humans. In the tour de force of a poem which is the pantoum Le Jardin d’Isabelle, she describes a woman being invited to the home of her lover and his wife. This is a love triangle without rancour or bitterness, although it addresses the shattering of illusions. But the language conveys so much richness, flowing, shimmering brightness, that it feels ultimately uplifting.

Sharon Olds: The Wellspring

Sharon Olds in The Daily Mail.
Sharon Olds in The Daily Mail.

I’ve admired Sharon Olds since I discovered her when she won the TS Eliot Prize (the first American to do so) for her collection ‘Stag’s Leap’, which described her abandonment and the breakdown of her marriage. There is nothing she does not address fearlessly and in a very feminine way (strong, feisty feminine way) in her poetry – family, politics, inner life, but I’d never read a whole collection by her. As the name indicates, ‘The Wellspring’ is about the female experience in its entirety: from the mother’s womb, to childhood and sexual awakening, to motherhood and learning to let go, to mature love. It’s full on instantly recognisable moments too, yet always with a surprise twist: a father smiling triumphantly at a daughter who comes last in a swimming race ‘almost without meanness’; the bonding between brother and sister both wearing braces, like a tribe sharing a sibilant language with its ‘orthodontial lisp’; love-making in narrow beds in college.

It’s a very sensual description of the body and emotions – fully-charged eroticism counterpointed with tenderness, humour and wonder at the miracle of giving birth to something so profoundly other. This is poetry which speaks directly to the emotions rather than being a tricky intellectual puzzle, which is exactly what the poet intended. I particularly liked the bittersweet feeling of no longer being needed, so eloquently described in the poem about the smashing (mercy killing) of the cow butter-dish, marking the end of motherhood.

wellspringSome critics have complained that her poetry is too accessible (while others usually complain that poetry has become too difficult and unappealing), but I think she is popular without becoming populist, and has the perfect balance between the personal and the universal. Many of her poems start off with a funny moment and then rapidly change into something far more serious and poignant, with a real wind of loneliness blowing through it, as in her poem ‘Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil’. I’ll have to share it with you in its entirety, as it would be a shame to cut off any part of it.

In the strange quiet, I realize
there’s no on else in the house. No bucktooth
mouth pulls at stainless-steel teat, no
hairy mammal runs on a treadmill–
Charlie is dead, the last of our children’s half-children.
When our daughter found him lying in the shavings, trans-
mogrified backwards from a living body
into a bolt of rodent bread
she turned her back on early motherhood
and went on single, with nothing. Crackers,
Fluffy, Pretzel, Biscuit, Charlie,
buried on the old farm we bought
where she could know nature. Well, now she knows it
and it sucks. Creatures she loved, mobile and
needy, have gone down stiff and indifferent,
she will not adopt again though she cannot
have children yet, her body like a blueprint
of the understructure for a woman’s body,
so now everything stops for a while,
now I must wait many years
to hear in this house again the faint
powerful calls of a young animal.

Sharon Olds seems to be getting more and more honest and uncompromising in her examination of the female body and ageing, according to the critics, in her latest book ‘Odes’. I feel myself attracted to it already…

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Two very different books for a change (and a break from my usual crime or other gruelling subjects): memoirs and poetry.

www.wien.gv.at
http://www.wien.gv.at

Hilde Spiel was a highly versatile Austrian writer and journalist (from a highly integrated Jewish family), who fled to London in 1936 (after the assassination of her beloved university lecturer Moritz Schlick). Her diary of her trip to Vienna in 1946 as a correspondent for the British Armed Forces was originally written in English but was later edited and published in German as ‘Rückkehr nach Wien (Return to Vienna).

This is a very poignant and thoughtful report of a city changed beyond recognition by bombs and defeat… and yet unchanged in many ways (some good, some bad). [All translations my own.]

I must learn everything anew. The cold mouldy stone smell of Viennese houses… the unrelenting stare of the housekeeper… the suspicious, unfriendly smile that was there before the Nazis and will always be there.

hilde spielSpiel refrains from sentimentality. She is clear-sighted and precise in her description of everyday heroism and cowardice, of opportunism and the complicated relationship between the victorious Allies and the local population. She talks to a Count and Countess, who now live in their crumbling little palace in the Russian Sector. They tell her about the day the Russian army descended upon their property, camped in their garden with fifty horses, shattered all their crystal and raped their female servants. The author understands their feeling of helplessness, but cannot help thinking:

Nevertheless, the two of them have lived for seven years side by side with barbarians. Only… their own barbarians were smooth-tongued, able to converse politely about Goethe and Mozart, with good table manners, agreeable hosts and guests, polished, elegant and thoroughly European. Yet they did far worse things behind prison walls and camp fences than the rape of helpless women. It’s only when the barbarians take on their eastern, unvarnished and shameless form that the Count and Countess realise the degeneration of the present day.

This trip is of course also an opportunity for self-reflection. To what extent can we ever go home to that place where we have been happy in the past, when we have changed and the place too has changed in a different way? Who wins in the battle between heart and mind? How much of our true selves do we have to hide or abandon when we become immigrants and have to abide by the rules and cultural mores of our adopted country?

 

I fear that my centre of gravity is somewhere above the skies of Europe, drifting in a cloud above England, Austria, Italy, France, simultaneously attracted and repelled, never really coming down in any of these places… I will have to test again and again where my true home is.

returnViennaSpiel once said that she could never have worked without England, but she couldn’t live without Vienna. Yet, even as she enjoys a few musical performances at the temporarily re-housed Vienna Opera, she wonders:

Is there anything in this city still alive and contemporary, something I can admire unreservedly, that is not soaked up in the past like a sponge …?

Bonus tidbit of information that I discovered while reading the book is that Hilde Spiel spent the first ten years of her childhood on the street next to the one where I spent mine and had a similar near-Catholic experience in the very same little parish church (which is featured on the cover of the English language edition of her book).

For an additional book review and information on how to get hold of this fascinating book, see here.

 

 

sonnetsThe second book is a collection of 101 Sonnets published by Faber and Faber.  Poet, writer and musician Don Paterson curates this eclectic collection of one of the best-loved and most popular verse forms in the Western world, often with witty asides about each poem. For instance, about Elizabeth Daryush’s Still Life:

The best breakfast every described, though the end of the poem you want to go at it with a cricket bat. It’s hard to know exactly where the poet stand on all this, but we can perhaps sense her disapproval in the pampered insularity of the scene. I hope.

I had no idea there were so much breadth and variety of modern sonnets, from Seamus Heaney’s beautifully controlled ‘The Skylight’ to Elizabeth Bishop’s unconventional two-stress lines to Douglas Dunn’s blissful description of a summer of ‘Modern Love’. A volume to treasure and dip into, again and again. (And yes, that explains my own two recent sonnet attempts.)