Before I’d ever read a single word of Maxine Kumin’s poetry, she was, in my mind, linked with horses. In the anthology where I first encountered her work, there was a picture of Kumin standing next to a horse and a dog. All the other photos in the anthology were of solitary poets– some sober, some silly, some sad– but all solo. Except for Maxine; there she was sticking out, in contrast to the other writers, by quietly posing with other living creatures. The picture showed a woman concerned with “the dailiness of farm life and farm death.”
In one of her recent poems, Maxine Kumin further explores these connections (to the land, and to her animals), and their loss. Check out “Whereof the Gift Is Small” which appeared in the December, 2011 issue of POETRY Magazine, and begins:
And short the season, first rubythroat
in the fading lilacs, alyssum in bloom,
a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart
on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm
him underground. Wet feet, wet cuffs,…
Since Kumin (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Ruth Lily Prize) is a poet who gracefully leans against received forms fairly often (she’s been called “Roberta Frost” by critics), it’s no surprise she has an admirer in Ted Kooser (former US Poet Laureate), who dedicated one of his recent poems to her.
Kooser’s “A Jonathan in Spring” was published in the Fall 2011 issue of The Kenyon Review, around the same time as Kumin’s “Wherof the Gift is Small,” and both are meditations on mortality, aging, acceptance, bees, and– yes– horses! It begins:
An apple tree may live about as long
as a horse, and our old Jonathan,
now rickety and lame with foot rot,
must surely be close to its end, but today
it leans into yet another March,
wheezing with bees…
And then it turns to a beautiful description of apples that grow from said tree, which we’ll skip here in the interests of that ticking clock. But the poem continues with a kind of measured defiance in the face of death, or perhaps more simply– a recognition of the continuation of life:
and there in the dewy, leafy grass
lie those familiar, rusty harness bells,
and as they drop around us we can hear
the youthful sound of galloping.
I don’t know any of the personal details that may’ve gone into the making of these poems, or to what extend their authors correspond with one another, but since they were published around the same time, and since I encountered them in the same week, I like to think that Kooser has written his own elegy for the horse buried and swarmed by beetles in Kumin’s poem. Her poem concludes by asking about such “brittle beauty,”– if “short the season,” then “might this be the last?”
Kooser answers: yes, and no– affirmably.