The Retrieval System

Maxine Kumin and I go way back.  She came to talk to my English class when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, probably almost 40 years ago now.  Mostly I remember that there was something vaguely subversive about her and that my English teacher was excited and proud and nervous.

I liked whatever it was the poet-lady read to us, and I remembered her visit.  Years later as an undergraduate in Cambridge, Massachusetts I frequented Groliers, the poetry book store.  When I tried out (unsuccessfully) for The Advocate, the literary magazine whose alumni included TS Eliot and e e cummings, it was a book of Maxine Kumin’s poetry that I reviewed for them: her then recently-published The Retrieval System.

At the time, I thought I understood it.  Perhaps I liked it, sensed its authenticity perhaps, but no, I really didn’t get it.  Not the way I do now.

The Retrieval System came out when Maxine Kumin (who died earlier this year at the age of 88) was about 50.  She was reflecting on the suicide of a close friend, the growing-away of her young adult children, the memories of her deceased parents, the changes in her body, and what it was like to still be married.  Now I get it.  For her, animals were the retrieval system that recalled for her the people who had left her life:

“For example,
the wethered goat who runs free in pasture and stable
with his flecked, agate eyes and his minus-sign pupils
blats in the tiny voice of my former piano teacher…“

In honor of all those whose young adult children are coming home for the holidays and whose deceased parents are not, I offer these two gems from this collection.

Changing the Children
Anger does this.
Wishing the furious wish
turns the son into a crow
the daughter, a porcupine.

Soon enough, no matter how
we want them to be happy
our little loved ones, no
matter how we prod them
into our sun that it may
shine on them, they whine
to stand in the dry-goods store.
Fury slams in.
The willful fury befalls.

Now the varnish-black son in a tree
crow the berater, denounces the race
of fathers and the golden daughter
all arched bristle and quill
leaves scribbles on the tree bark
writing how The Nameless One
accosted her in the dark.

How put an end to this cruel spell?
Drop the son from the tree with a rifle.
Introduce maggots under his feathers
to eat down to the pure bone of boy.

In spring when the porcupine comes
all stealth and waddle to feed on the willows
stun her with one blow of the sledge
and the entrapped girl will fly out
crying Daddy! or Danny!
or is it Darling?
and we will live all in bliss
for a year and a day until
the legitimate rage of parents
speeds the lad off this time
in the uniform of a toad
who spews a contagion of warts
while the girl contracts to a spider
forced to spin from her midseam
the saliva of false repentance.

Eventually we get them back.
Now they are grown up.
They are much like ourselves.
They wake mornings beyond cure,
not a virgin among them.
We are civil to one another.
We stand in the kitchen
sIicing bread, drying spoons,
and tuning in to the weather.

My Father’s Neckties

Last night my color-blind chain-smoking father
who has been dead for fourteen years
stepped up out of a basement tie shop
downtown and did not recognize me.
The number he was wearing was as terrible
as any from my girlhood, a time of
ugly ties and acrimony; six or seven
blue lightning bolts outlined in yellow.
Although this was my home town it was tacky
and unfamiliar, it was Rabat or Gibraltar
Daddy smoking his habitual
square-in-the-mouth cigarette and coughing
ashes down the lightning jags. He was
my age exactly, it was wordless, a window
opening on an interior we both knew
where we had loved each other, keeping it quiet.
Why do I wait years and years to dream this outcome?
My brothers, in whose dreams he must as surely
turn up wearing rep ties or polka dots clumsily
knotted, do not speak of their encounters.
When we die, all four of us, in
whatever sequence, the designs
will fall off like face masks
and the rayon ravel from this hazy version
of a man who wore hard colors recklessly
and hid out in the foreign
bargain basements of his feelings.