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Poet’s Corner

Jack

And Other New Poems

Maxine Kumin

W.W. Norton: 112 pp., $23.95

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Maxine KUMIN’S fierce connection to the Earth and to the lives of animals, to plain style and to her themes of peacemaking and remembering, make “Jack” a deep intensification of all that has come before in her work:

It isn’t gunfire

that wakes me

but the rat-a-tat-tat

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of hickory nuts raining

on the tin roof

of the trailer barn.

Still, this new volume gives the reader a perspective so broad and yet so stripped down, a voice so bold and unstinting, so filled with “elegy and rant” (as she characterizes one of her poems) that we recognize the weight of legacy on the page itself. (“Everything I leave behind me, hold fast. Keep dry.”) Kumin is fearless, untroubled by fashion, stubborn, political, emphatic, concise and, at times, brutal. The (preserved) segregated lavatories in “Historic Blacksburg, Virginia” (designated Colored and White) require that the visitor end up “pissing down the same foul hole.” Or from “The Rapist Speaks: A Prison Interview”: “This time I had to kill to come. / Got enough? Take your notes and go home.”

And nothing quite prepares us for her poem “The Jew Order” -- a startling revisionist moment involving Ulysses S. Grant and the poet’s high school history class -- in which Grant’s 1862 proclamation out of Oxford, Miss., “expelling all Jews as a class from Union territory” is witnessed by the young blacks and Jews in the mostly white classroom. (Lincoln “revoked the Jew decree / the same month he signed the Emancipation.”)

An elegy for the century I was

born in

And outlasted somewhat to my

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surprise.

An elegy for the two world wars

between which

I was born ...

“Let us celebrate,” says Kumin, “whatever scraps the muse, that naked child, can pluck from the still-smoldering dumps.” Her muse is the survivor, the last scavenger-angel. The poet W.S. Merwin was exhorted by his teacher, the legendary John Berryman, to get down on his knees everyday to a more familiar muse. Yet both visions of the giver of inspiration -- waif and all-knowing goddess -- link Kumin and Merwin’s very different volumes and the spirit of inquiry informing them.

*

Migrations

New & Selected Poems

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W.S. Merwin

Copper Canyon: 516 pp., $40

The publication of W.S. Merwin’s selected and new poems (the press kit calls it a “distillation of the best poems from a profound body of work with a selection of distinctive new poems”) is one of those landmark events in the literary world. The word “distillation” seems hardly apt, when one thinks of the immensity and complexity of the body of this poet’s work -- the selection process will inevitably seem to some degree arbitrary, and the aesthetic argument built from that process inevitably compromised. Indeed, this volume offers no introduction -- the poems stand alone: statements in themselves.

It is certainly true that Merwin is one of the great poets of our age, and the simple acknowledgment of that fact seems to be, in some ways, the organizing principle here. It is with new and remembered delight that the reader recognizes poem after poem and feels the power to evoke a time inherent in each -- not just the “time” of the poem itself but the decades of changing consciousness coursing behind the words. The reader witnesses Merwin’s natural sagesse and compassion as a poet gradually transforming itself into an ecology, an integrated vision and a profoundly articulated politics of the environment. This is just one of the startling transformations that takes place as we read these unforgettable, grieving poems. From “For a Coming Extinction”:

Gray whale

Now that we are sending you to

The End

That great god

Tell him

That we who follow you

invented forgiveness

And forgive nothing

It may be enough, in Merwin’s case, to read the book simply to honor the fulfilled prophecy --

This must be what I wanted to

be doing,

Walking at night between the

two deserts,

Singing.


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