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A short while ago I sent out a poem by James Dickey, "The Bee," which was
about maleness, about fathers and sons, about being a jock, about the
continuity of life.  Here is a poem by Maxine Kumin which might be called a
polar opposite, since it deals with friendship that borders on sisterhood,
since it is about women, since it deals with death rather than life.  Both
poems, opposite as they are, focus on the ongoing relations between human
beings and the importance of those relations. 

 

Before we embark on the poem, let me provide its context.  Anne Sexton, the
brilliant early feminist poet, was perhaps Kumin's closest friend.  They had
met at a poetry workshop when both were suburban housewives discontented
with the lack of direction in their lives.  Over several decades they worked
together - each writing poems very different from the other - as colleagues
in the shaping and revision of their poems.  Sexton, a 'confessional' poet,
had difficulties and breakdowns, extensive psychotherapy and bouts of what
we might in an unprofessional way call madness.  Throughout these years
their friendship endured.  

 

Each week they met together over lunch.  On October 4, 1974, after one such
lunch, Anne Sexton went home and killed herself by asphyxiation, carbon
monoxide poisoning, in her garage. 

 

The 'you' in this poem is Sexton.  The events in the second stanza are those
of October 4, 1974.

 

 

How It Is

      Maxine Kumin 

 

 

Shall I say how it is in your clothes? 

A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.   

The dog at the center of my life recognizes   

you've come to visit, he's ecstatic. 

In the left pocket, a hole. 

In the right, a parking ticket 

delivered up last August on Bay State Road.   

In my heart, a scatter like milkweed, 

a flinging from the pods of the soul. 

My skin presses your old outline. 

It is hot and dry inside. 

 

I think of the last day of your life, 

old friend, how I would unwind it, paste   

it together in a different collage, 

back from the death car idling in the garage,   

back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,   

reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish   

into a ceremony of sandwich, 

running the home movie backward to a space   

we could be easy in, a kitchen place 

with vodka and ice, our words like living meat. 

 

Dear friend, you have excited crowds 

with your example. They swell 

like wine bags, straining at your seams.   

I will be years gathering up our words,   

fishing out letters, snapshots, stains, 

leaning my ribs against this durable cloth 

to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.

 

            The poem is a memorial to and remembrance of the poet's
relationship with her deceased friend.  It is an unconventional form of
elegy. It celebrates the deceased, but focuses primarily on the grief of the
survivor, on what that grief feels like "a month after your death."

  

            Before looking at the poem's content more closely, let's notice
two things, its versification and its verb tenses.  Technical, I know, but
they are a way into the poem.

 

            First, the use of rhyme.  Although it may read like it is
largely in free verse the poem like the blazer which is its ostensible
subject has a shape, here provided by rhyme.  That rhyme is more extensive
than we at first perceive: jacket/ecstatic, hole/soul and the slant rhyme,
Road/milkweed in stanza one.  In stanza two, paste/unlaced, collage/garage,
fish/sandwich, space/place.  In stanza three the s's provide slant rhymes
linking the first five lines (crowds/swell/seams/words/stains) and a strong
slant rhyme concludes the poem in lines six and seven (cloth/death).
Alliteration further binds the final two lines: 'r' in ribs/durable/blazer,
'b' in "blue blazer" and the very strong 'd' of durable/dumb/death.

 

            Second, the verb tenses indicate that the stanzas are in the
present, past, and future tenses.  Stanza one is about the present.  The
present tense describes the speaker donning the blazer that was once her
belonged to her friend: is/recognize/presses/is.  

 

Stanza two is a re-envisioning of the past, starting in the present
("think") and moving to the past through a tense that a grammarian would
call the future unreal conditional.  That is, for those of us who are not
grammarians, the poet reimagines the past by using the verbs 'would' and
'could'.  The past not as it was, but as it would or could have been.

 

The final stanza begins with the past tense - "you have excited crowds,"
moving to the present as "crowds.swell," only to end up in the future tense:
"I will."  Although the final line is about putting on the blazer, something
the speaker has done at the opening of the poem, it refers to the future of
putting on that blazer in a more metaphorical, and at the same time more
real, sense.

 

            Back to the beginning of the poem, where the speaker starts with
a question about her existential condition as she puts on her friend's blue
blazer.

 

Shall I say how it is in your clothes? 

A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.   

 

            The speaker then provides us with concrete details.  Her dog
sees the jacket and responds to it, as if Sexton were still alive.  In
dog-think, the clothes do make the man, or in this case woman.  "The center
of my life"?  The dog, her daily companion, yes: but this phrase also points
us towards the center of her life that is no more, is no longer present.
The blazer is there, on her shoulders, covering her arms and chest.  But
while the speaker fills the jacket, what she feels throughout the poem is
emptiness, absence.  The line about the dog makes, by ironic contrast, the
emptiness visible.

 

The dog at the center of my life recognizes   

you've come to visit, he's ecstatic. 

 

Kumin then details the jacket, what it feels like to have put it on. 

 

In the left pocket, a hole. 

In the right, a parking ticket 

delivered up last August on Bay State Road.   

 

These lines emphasize the emptiness by fortuitous synecdoche (a part
standing for a whole) :"a hole".  Another emblem of  absence, the past that
no longer has relevance in the ongoingness of the world: that "parking
ticket," unpaid, will now never be paid.  Again, there is irony: the mundane
past is retrieved only by happenstance, and without effect.  The significant
past, that which the speaker must retrieve, will be the subject of the
second stanza.  

 

The link between the first and second stanzas occurs as the concrete gives
way to the symbolic, rendered through a simile:  

 

In my heart, a scatter like milkweed, 

a flinging from the pods of the soul. 

 

The imagery warrants scrutiny.  Since her friend's death, Kumin's heart is
in a state of dispersion.  Her heart is compared to a milkweed pod that
splits and is caught by a fall gust[1]. What the pod contained is now
scattered to the winds, light feathery elements dispersed into the air.   So
too is the poet's heart dispersed, without its center (despite the reference
to the dog). The poet puts on the blue jacket, a thing of substance, and
feels at her core like she is disintegrating, like her heart and soul are no
longer single, substantial, coherent.

 

            What does she experience, precisely, as she puts on that
tangible and recognizable jacket and considers her inner inability to hold
things together?

 

My skin presses your old outline. 

It is hot and dry inside. 

 

Clothes shape themselves to us[2].  The poet can feel her skin pressing the
outline that her friend's body impressed upon the blazer as we might imagine
a moulting crab's body shaping its new shell.  What is gone - clearly, Anne
Sexton - is still present in not just the outline of the jacket as Sexton's
former physical presence shaped it but also in the poet's life and
remembrance; at the same time, Sexton's body and presence to which Kumin was
once so close, is now absent.  It is not Sexton who occupies the jacket any
longer.  She is gone, dead, absent.  The dryness points to, I think, the
aridity which has followed her absence from the speaker's world.

 

Inside the jacket is a desert climate, inhospitable to growth, indicative of
what has deserted the jacket, and the poet as well.  There is something
unsettling about the proximity of the outline and the inside in these two
lines.  

 

            Let us recapitulate.  The poet asks herself if she can
articulate what it is like to inhabit her friends clothes.  Her dog thinks
the poet's friend has returned, the pockets contain the detritus of a life
(that parking ticket) and an emptiness (that hole), her heart and her soul
feel dispersed and fragmentary, her skin presses into a shape that reflects
- like that hole in the pocket - what is gone, she feels hot and dry.

 

            The second stanza commences with memory and how the past could
have been different.  Could have been.  But wasn't, as the third stanza will
make clear.  This second stanza claims to be based on collage.  But is also
based on film ("unwind it").   How can this be?  Well, the stanza proceeds
in the poet's memory as if it were a home movie played backward.  It. is
based not on the collage it at first  refers to, but on a home movie[3].
Which can be played backward.  Which should be played backward given the
terrifying conclusion which, undesired, is its culmination.  Although we
know, as the poet knows, that time in actuality does not move backward.

 

I think of the last day of your life, 

old friend, how I would unwind it, paste   

it together in a different collage, 

 

I had difficulty at first figuring out why it was a collage and a movie,
figuring out how it could be both.  But the juxtaposition is not so strange:
what the stanza does is play the last moments of Sexton's life backwards,
but it does so as a series of images.  And because the images are in a
different chronological order - "backward"-they feel pasted together.  

 

            The home movie begins:

 

back from the death car idling in the garage,   

back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,   

reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish   

into a ceremony of sandwich, 

running the home movie backward to a space   

we could be easy in, a kitchen place 

with vodka and ice, our words like living meat. 

 

"Back from the death car" needs no gloss: it was both the instrument of
Sexton's carbon monoxide asphyxiation, and the vehicle which carried her
forward to her death, unmoving in actuality but moving her towards the
absence the poem struggles to deal with.  (It was also, in some sense, her
coffin.)

 

            But we might pay attention to the next line, "back up the
stairs, your praying hands unlaced."  The poet imagines her friend praying
as she moves toward her death, and the moments before her prayer, when
perhaps the desire to end her life was pushing her to descend the stairs and
turn on her car's motor and the full awareness of what she was about to do
had not come to consciousness[4].  The death urge is succeeded by an
awareness of the momentousness of her impending death.  The backward movie
reminds us of what must have happened: descending, Sexton turns towards God.


 

Then, comic relief, an ironic setting for the tragedy: the tuna fish
sandwich, disassembled as she bit into it and chewed it is made whole in the
backwards-running movie.  It is reassembled into "a ceremony of sandwich,"
the speaker's first tribute (there will b e two more) to their friendship,
to the ceremonial aspect of their weekly meetings.   The ceremony?  A
secular communion, eating as they reminded themselves of friendship and
poetry.

 

For that "running the home movie backward" takes the speaker back to "a
space we could be easy in," a space of friendship, sharing, a
quintessentially domestic (and woman's) space, the kitchen.  

 

Not that even in the kitchen, with food and friendship, the world could be
held at bay.  There was vodka, to dull the pain, "vodka and ice."  But what
they consumed, what they devoured, was words, "like living meat," the shared
commitment they had to writing about what they had experienced, about what
they had to say, about how to say what must be said.  "our words like living
meat."  Those words are both the words spoken often by the living - the
substance so often of a friendship built on conversation - and the words of
their poems, where each was the critically conscious reader of the other's
emerging verse.  Words of friendship, words of poems: the "living meat" of
their weekly communion in the kitchen over lunch.  

 

The final stanza begins with a call to her friend, a reassurance - such as
must have assuredly punctuated those weekly lunches - that her work mattered
and made a place for itself in the world:

 

Dear friend, you have excited crowds 

with your example. 

 

That line, as I have mentioned, is in the past tense.  The next line
indicates that the phenomenon, Sexton's poetry and her life moving crowds of
people, continues in the present.  

 

They swell 

like wine bags, straining at your seams.  

 

I am not sure about the simile.  It indicates the continuing and growing
reception of Sexton's verse and the struggles she shared with her readers;
the simile also indicates the cost there was to Sexton of having to lay her
inner self, her troubles, her pain, before the world, as she - for now she
and not the audience is the wine bag - 'strains at your seams.'  Swelling
admiration, motherhood (surely there is an allusion to pregnancy, and
perhaps to the gestation of poems), alcohol (it is a wine-skin, after all):
a synopsis of Sexton's life is in that comparison.  

 

I will be years gathering up our words,   

fishing out letters, snapshots, stains, 

leaning my ribs against this durable cloth 

to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.

 

            The poem ends in the future tense.  At first it is factual.
After death, there is the detritus of life to be sorted: "words . . .
letters, snapshots, stains."  Note that in the second stanza she has already
arranged a brief collage of "snapshots."  Here the poem acknowledges that
the work will continue for "years."  That "gathering up" is begun, not
ended, by this poem.

 

            I am struck by the "stains," which reverberate because it refers
to the marks on the blazer (surely there are some) to the episodes of excess
and despair and mania that her friend endured, to the stain on the speaker's
life - the  ineradicable stain of her friend's absence from the world and
from the domesticity of that kitchen and from her life-to-come[5].

 

I love the ending of this poem.  It is, as I have written before, sometimes
very hard to end poems successfully.  Not here.  The final lines are a
memorial to their friendship and a recognition of the finality of death.

 

                                   I will be years.

leaning my ribs against this durable cloth 

to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.

 

In those final lines, the speaker is struggling to come to terms with
Sexton's death.  She must inhabit it, and discovers that the death, like the
blazer (only more so) is "durable."  It lasts.  (The origin of the word is
from the Latin durare, to last.)  It is not the blazer which lasts -
although it has lasted beyond Sexton's death - as much as what it
symbolizes, death.  And it will take years - and years and years - for the
speaker, Maxine Kumin, to put on the "dumb blue blazer of your death" that
she so easily slipped into in the second line of the poem. 

 

For the blazer is dumb, without speech.  So is our recognition that loss is
durable and in fact life-long.  The poem, which speaks about the absence of
her friend, ends in silence, in that "dumb blue blazer of your death."

 

A poem is more than the sum of its parts.  If we step back from this poem,
which in some ways we do by re-considering the last line, "["I will be
years"] trying to learn how "to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death,"
we see that the poem is a trying-on poem, a poem about trying on the
actuality of her friend's death.  Putting on Sexton's blazer is both reality
and symbol: it takes years, years, to inhabit the emptiness (as the blazer
is empty without Sexton in it) that has been so horribly bequeathed to
Kumin.  

 

We must wear the fact of mortality - not in the abstract, but in the actual
loss of those we love who are now dead - for a long time before we can carry
it on our shoulders without the  massive emptiness which results from our
awareness of death and its consequent loss.  Unlike other things in this
world, loss moves us but does not speak to us.  It is "dumb."  As in silent,
as in without reason.

 

We each have lines of poems or texts - for some, it is lines from Seinfeld
or a movie or song - that stay with us, help us make sense of life and our
experience of it.   Sometimes life never quite makes sense, but these lines
may give it form, which is something we can intuit even if, even when, we
cannot make sense of things. Funerals and wakes give form even as meaning
may not be available, giving shape to death and loss, putting a grief which
is inchoate and dumb into a container which holds it, even if the container
cannot entirely contain it.

 

For me, and this is probably why I love this poem so much, that last line
resonates: the difficulty, the extended, effort "to put on the dumb  blue
blazer of your death."

 

 

 

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_________________________

Huck Gutman

Professor of English

Department of English

The University of Vermont

Burlington, VT 05405

 


  _____  

[1] It is worth recalling that milkweed pods ripen and split in fall, and
that the poem commemorates the death of Sexton at the beginning of October
and the month succeeding when Kumin tries to comprehend what that death
means.  The season of milkweed pods ripening and bursting..   

[2] I have written previously about one of Pablo Neruda's great late odes to
everday things, his "Ode to a Tomato."  Another of the great odes is called
"Ode to My Suit," and deals with this very subject.  In it Neruda writes,



I am shaping you,
poking out your elbows,
wearing you threadbare,
and so your life grows
in the image of my own.

 

[3] We are far from the days of home movies: today it is all videos, whether
taken by a camera or a smartphone.  The strange, humorous game of home
movies, playing them backwards through the projector so the world is both
familiar and strange, is probably not as common a phenomenon as it was when
the poem was written.  The humorous aspect of backwards-projection, and the
tragic circumstances Kumin is relating, give this stanza great power, I
think, a power which can be felt in the absurdity of the sandwich
reassembling itself.

[4] The first poem, "Rowing," of Sexton's book The Awful Rowing Toward God,
contains these lines:

and now, in my middle age,

about nineteen in the head I'd say,

I am rowing, I am rowing

though the oarlocks stick and are rusty

and the sea blinks and rolls

like a worried eyeball, 

but I am rowing, I am rowing,

 

[5] Note, too, that "stains"  rhymes with "strains."  Those strains were
stains.  But the stains are in this sense not marks of imperfection as they
are the tangible record of experience in the world, which for Sexton so
often were the strains of living.