September 5, 2009

Review by Mike Maggio

STILL TO MOW
by Maxine Kumin

W.W. Norton
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10110
ISBN 978-0393333145
2007, 96 pp., $13.95
www.wwnorton.com

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor (“For Maxine Kumin, ‘Writing Is My Salvation’”), Maxine Kumin describes her disappointment in Denise Levertov for shifting from her superbly lyrical poetics in favor of writing poems that dealt with political and social issues. Levertov’s poetry at the time, during the late ’60s and early ’70s when the Vietnam war was raging and the Civil Rights Movement was reaching its peak, was beginning to focus on issues of war and social justice. In the interview, Kumin states: “I thought Denise Levertov was wrong to write political poems, that she would lose her lyrical impulse.”

Now, in her latest collection, Still To Mow, Kumin has done what Levertov did back then: she has written poems that speak to the issues of our day, in this case the Iraq War and the travesties, including torture, extraordinary rendition, etc., that have followed in its wake. “I’ve changed my mind,” she says n the same interview of these overtly political poems. “I didn’t write my poems because I wanted to, they were wrung from me. I had to write them.”

Not that Still To Mow is a purely political collection: there are poems about nature, about her dog, Virgil, poems that hark back to her growing up during the depression or that deal with old age and death. All of which are written with the utmost economy, with a lyricism that belies some of the subject matter that Kumin delves into, most of which is previewed in the very first poem, “Mulching,” as if it were written to be an introduction—a lyrical summary of sorts—to the book:

Me in my bugproof netted headpiece kneeling
to spread sodden newspapers between broccolis
corn sprouts, cabbages and four kinds of beans

prostrate before old suicide bombings, starvation,
AIDS, earthquakes, the unforeseen tsunami
front-page photographs of lines of people

In this poem, the very essence of the book—the lyricism, the horror, the shock and the sheer beauty—is condensed, eloquently and succinctly, and the reader is prepared, ever so subtly, for what is still to come or, as the title states, still to mow.

Like Levertov, Kumin writes with ease and clarity, in a verse so pure that the reader feels lifted up to the ethers, even when the poems explore violence and torture. These lines, for example, from “Extraordinary Rendition,” flow so smoothly that they surprise the reader when violence comes into play:

Only the oak and the beech hang onto their leaves
at the end, the oak leaves bruised the color of those
insurgent boys Iraqi policemen captured

purpling their eyes and cheekbones before
lining them up to testify to the Americans
that, no, no, they had not been beaten…

Similarly engaging are these lines from “Please Pay Attention as the Ethics Have Changed,” where the enjambment creates a subtle tension against the easy, conversational rhythms of the poem:

The exact number of ducks, however, is wanting –
this is canned hunting

where you don’t stay to pluck
the feathers, pull the innards out. Fuck

all of that. You don’t do shit
except shoot.

Kumin writes with an understated formalism. She writes in couplets, tercets and quatrains, shaping her poems into stanzas that seem natural and unforced. And while she does not often resort to overt rhyming, her poems are filled with assonance, with echoes and sounds that resonate throughout the collection, beginning with its very title.

It is no accident that Kumin is a Pulitzer prize-winning poet. Through her sixteen books of poetry, she has honed her craft into a carefully defined, precise yet variegated palette that is on full display in Still To Mow.

In her Christian Science Monitor interview, Kumin says that poetry must be both engaging and satisfying to the ear: the subject matter must speak directly to the reader and the underlying music must resonate. “Where,” she asks, “in the line is a gasp?” Still to Mow will keep you gasping from the very moment you open its pages.

____________

Mike Maggio has published fiction, poetry, travel and reviews in Potomac Review, Pleiades, Apalachee Quarterly, The L.A. Weekly, The Washington CityPaper, Gypsy, Pig Iron, DC Poets Against the War and others. He is the author of Your Secret is Safe With Me (Black Bear Publications, 1988), Oranges From Palestine (Mardi Gras Press, 1996) and Sifting Through the Madness (Xlibris, 2001). His newest poetry collection, deMOCKcracy, was published in June, 2007 by Plain View Press. He has an MFA from George Mason University and is currently working on a novel.

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