On Thursday, February 6th, 2014, I took my poodle Ike to the groomer. I had plans to meet the Girl Scout Moms group for dinner at a local Chinese place. I probably spent some time writing. If I didn’t do the dishes, I felt guilty about it. Also, unbeknownst to me, I lost my favorite poet.
I went to Wheaton College in Norton, MA. Among all of the venerable and majestic colleges I’ve seen in New England, Wheaton is the prettiest. Beautiful old trees. A duck pond with a little Grecian temple. Brick-and-ivy dorms with gables and ells galore. I was happy there. Briefly.
My mother and I spent our first and last Mother’s Weekend together that fall. Mom and I listened to Margaret Atwood’s keynote. We walked arm-in-arm, as we love to do, around the pond. My baby sister was only four, so I knew how lucky I was to have time alone with my mother. It was a dream.
Nothing happened to my mom. It was my wonderful dad who got hurt. I won’t go into detail, but a couple of weeks after Mother’s Weekend, he was hit by a drunk driver. He became quadriplegic and ultimately, in the fall of my senior year, died.
Apart from my friends, I thought no one knew. I’m older now. I realize that everyone knew. My professors. My advisors. The administration. Everyone.
My family had been one of “those families.” My parents were deeply in love and loved their five children. We loved them right back. When Dad was injured, it was as if the whole world had been slapped across the face. I understand how people freeze when faced with a terrible situation. We didn’t know what to do. No one knew what to do.
I wish I had more pleasant memories of Wheaton, but I don’t. It was a dark and confusing time for me. I wasn’t myself at all. Almost nothing made sense.
Maxine Kumin’s poetry was an exception.
My freshman English professor was delightfully old-fashioned. Professor Edwin Briggs called his wife,”my beloved consort.” He read the whole of BEOWULF to us in Old English. He asked us to memorize and recite poetry. I often chose the work of Maxine Kumin.
Her plainspoken voice and practical turn of mind appealed to me. Like me, she loved and wrote about horses. Her JACK is a heartbreaking tribute to a long-lost horse. I remember learning AFTER LOVE (Brave Prof. Briggs! How awkward it must have been sometimes!) and I remember learning ALMOST SPRING, DRIVING HOME, RECITING HOPKINS. I found in Kumin’s words the stubborn resilience I knew lay dormant in me. Don’t get me wrong–I was a walking, talking disaster–but I smiled a genuine smile when I read her poetry.
As often happens, I didn’t read her work again for twenty years. When we finally came back to Boston, I saw her name by chance in a brochure for a poetry reading (tonight!) in Harvard Square. I found childcare and raced in but missed her. Another reading was canceled due to bad weather. She was getting older, I knew, and had once been seriously injured in a carriage-driving accident. Why would she chance it? I thought about writing to her, but decided against it.
Maxine Kumin left us on Thursday, February 6th, 2014.
It’s okay. It’s okay because I know, although we never met, we had a relationship. She was the poet. I was the reader. She knew I was out there, reading her words, remembering her words. She was right.
After her carriage accident, Maxine Kumin’s head, like my dad’s, was bolted into a brace called a halo. It’s a horrific contraption, very medieval, but when you need one, you need one. She was one of the lucky few that emerge from the halo able to walk again, to write again, to stroll out to the pasture to give an old horse an apple. I’m tremendously grateful for that.
So goodbye to the friend I never met. Thank you for offering words that made sense when nothing else did.