On a fall day in New York City I left a poem in Central Park . . .
poem is on bench under orange sign
Women and Horses
by Maxine Kumin
“After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.”
After Auschwitz: after ten of my father’s kin—
the ones who stayed—starved, then were gassed in the camps.
After Vietnam, after Korea, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan.
After the Towers. This late in the life of our haplessly orbiting world
let us celebrate whatever scraps the muse, that naked child,
can pluck from the still-smoldering dumps.
If there’s a lyre around, strike it! A body, stand back, give it air!
Let us have sparrows laying their eggs in bluebird boxes.
Let us have bluebirds insouciantly nesting elsewhere.
Lend us navel-bared teens, eyebrowed-and-nose-ringed prodigies
crumbling breakfast bagels over dogeared and jelly-smeared texts.
Allow the ablebodied among us to have steamy sex.
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.
—and a sister-poem in Chelsea on the back of a bike—
by Anne Porter
In honor of Eugene Atget, photographer of Paris
From the time of a long-ago war that destroyed only far-away cities
I remember a Sunday walk with the littlest of our sons.
The vomit of Saturday night was wet in the doorways,
No one was up, First Avenue empty and gray,
So we turned a corner to stare at the three bridges,
Great webs of stillness over the East River.
On our way home, passing the locked-up shops
We saw one window heaped with tarnished lamps
Guitars and radios and dusty furs
And there among them a pawned christening-dress
White as a waterfall.
When I was visiting my son in New York City a month ago, I had no plan to pair “Women and Horses” and “Wartime Sunday.” They were just two poems I happened to have in my purse. But looking at them now nuzzled up together in the same post, I feel vindicated in my matchmaking skills which have sometimes been undervalued by my near and dear.
To be sure poets Anne Porter and Maxine Kumin are an odd couple. One was a devout Catholic, the other a secular Jew. One travelled in bohemian circles (that would be the Catholic), the other lived quietly in the countryside. But both witnessed massive destruction in their lifetimes: the Great Depression, the Holocaust, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War 9/11, and all the wars up until 2011 when Porter died at age 100. As mothers and poets during roughly the same time period, they have common ground and much to discuss.
Where they meet-up in these poems (if we can continue the dating metaphor) is in the question, “How do we go on?” In the face of a dark and degrading past, as Kumin puts it, how can there be a nevertheless? For Kumin the muse is the answer and for it’s Porter grace, but grace and the muse are close relatives if not twins. (As a child Kumin went for a short while to a Catholic school next door to her house so I suspect the idea of grace wasn’t foreign to her.)
Finding vomit on a doorstep (wet, fresh vomit) and the still-smoldering dumps everywhere in our haplessly orbiting world would surely drag us down to despair if that’s all we could see. But in the ruins are wondrous things, great webs of stillness: old ladies playing bridge, teenagers reading at breakfast, a christening gown white as a waterfall in a pawn shop window. For those with a discerning eye, grace—call it art if you want—abounds and renews the world again and again.
The particular form of grace, that is, what makes things new again, is not the same for these two poets nor for each one of us. That in itself is a marvel to revive the glummest soul.
As I was pondering this I came across an excerpt from a Nabokov essay:
“In a sense we are all crashing to death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so distant from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”
And here we have uncovered the attraction between these two poems: To wonder at trifles no matter the imminent perils is, for Nabokov and for Kumin and Porter, the highest form[s] of consciousness.
I’ll re-print bios of both poets from past posts.
Poet Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925. She went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, and swam competitively there. She took a seminar with novelist Wallace Stegner, and his criticism of her work discouraged her from writing poetry. For a long time she wrote poems privately.
As a mother of young children, Kumin took a poetry class at an adult education center. There she met poet Anne Sexton. The two mothers, both at home, became close friends and stayed close up until the day of Sexton’s suicide. Together they wrote four children’s books. (The books were illustrated by Evaline Ness, wife of FBI agent Eliot Ness, the inspiration for the “Untouchables” television show.) Kumin was first published at age 36, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly prize, and most of the big honorifics a poet can receive.
She and her husband Victor, a chemical engineer who worked with Oppeheimer on the atomic bomb*, had three children and lived on a farm in New Hampshire where they raised organic vegetables and bred horses. At age 74 Kumin almost died in a horse driving accident. She broke her neck, ribs, and punctured a lung but recovered and continued to write poetry into her eighties.
She’s often compared to another northeastern pastoral poet—she’s been called the feminist Robert Frost. But after reading some of her poems and marveling at her non-writing daring-do, I’m starting to think of her as a feminist Ernest Hemingway: physical, fearless, unembellished.
She died in 2014 at age 88.
*Victor Kumin refused to continue work on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was threatened with court martial but in the end was honorably discharged. For a full account of his fascinating story, link here.
* * *
Anne Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry. Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83. Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written. And she is the sweetest most adorable poet I’ve ever encountered. Watch this video to get an idea. (Best line: she opens a letter and says, “Oh, from the Pope.”)
Born in Boston to a wealthy family, she attended Bryn Mawr and married the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter. (A favorite of mine. Link to his work to see for yourself.) Their marriage was not an easy one. He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine. Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had a liason of her own.
Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.
Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband. I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right. She died in 2011.
*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”
For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.
For a review of her most recent collection of poems, link here.