- Jack and Other New Poems, and: Dear Ghosts
The poems in Jack and Other New Poems, Maxine Kumin’s fifteenth collection, possess the same kind of dignity as the book’s namesake, a horse described as “calm as a president’s portrait.” Throughout the volume, Kumin uses spare, unadorned lines and language to puncture our assumptions about the supposed dignity and nobility of death by underscoring their inherent absurdity. The speaker of these poems is wise enough to recognize her complicity in the world’s daily cruelties, and she fearlessly attempts to distribute the burdens of knowledge and bearing witness more equally. In these poems, even the natural world is denied as a source of uncomplicated solace, and the poems’ sonic resonance is the only certainty available. “I oversee the art of dying—art / is what we try to make of it,” remarks the speaker in “Magda of Hospice House,” a poem that very well could serve as an ars poetica for the entire volume.
The speaker of “Summer Meditation,” in the book’s second section, forces herself to acknowledge that her interactions with nature are not as innocent as she might prefer to imagine. Her morning trip to the bathroom results in the deaths of several insects, and she purposely kills several more in her garden: “Killing before / breakfast // and killing after,” she muses. The arrival of her winter hay supply further disrupts her image of idyllic rural life when she remembers what makes this year different from those previous: one of the men has a son in Iraq. She responds: “I want to sing / of death unbruised. / Its smoothening.” Eventually, however, she is forced to confront the impossibility of such a task:
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.
The world of this book is a dangerous one. Small animals and elderly relatives are abandoned, governments endorse genocide and preemptive [End Page 186] war, and always, the speaker attempts to separate herself from the world’s transgressions and discovers that she cannot. “I look for you wherever I go,” concludes the speaker in “Which One” as she contemplates who among her neighbors is responsible for leaving bags of puppies and kittens near the roadway. She may not ever find the guilty party, but the suspicion is sufficient to change how she relates to the world around her.
Throughout the volume, Kumin demonstrates her gift for combining the extraordinary and the mundane as she mines the connections between current events and the archetypes of fairy tales. The final section of Kumin’s book, which consists of elegies and praise for other poets, includes a moving poem in memory of Stanley Kunitz. However, the most powerful elegy in Jack is written in anticipation of the speaker’s own death. In “The Burners, the Buriers,” the speaker catalogues the instructions various writers have left for the posthumous disposal of their work. After considering Kafka, Henry James, Dante Rosetti, and several Russian writers, she concludes, “Everything I leave behind me, hold fast. Keep dry.” The urgency of the final line coincides with the book’s major theme: in a world in which what we know of death is necessarily inexact and provisional, it is foolish to waste even one attempt, no matter how imperfect, to communicate with those we love.
“Time / to admit the limitations of death as / admonition,” writes Tess Gallagher in “Not a Sparrow,” a poem from the first section of Dear Ghosts,. This collection, her eighth, appears fourteen years after the publication of Moon Crossing Bridge, a book of elegies for her husband, Raymond Carver. As its title suggests, Dear Ghosts, is deeply concerned with questions of grief and mourning, which gradually are revealed, in Gallagher’s deft lines, to be the primary questions of life as well. In each of the book’s seven sections, poems with complex narratives are intermingled with shorter pieces that function like Zen koans, reminding us that the questions we cannot answer are often...