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Left Wanting More : WOMEN, ANIMALS, AND VEGETABLES: Essays and Stories, By Maxine Kumin (New York: W. W. Norton & Company: $25, cloth; 299 pp.)

November 06, 1994|Christopher Merrill | Christopher Merrill is the author, most recently of "Watch Fire," a collection of poems from White Pine Press

Why do poets turn to prose H. Lawrence shuttled back and forth between poetry and prose, one genre feeding the other in his search for aesthetic and spiritual meaning. Elizabeth Bishop, ever alert to formal innovations, discovered in her short fiction new ways to confront the harshest facts of her own autobiography. And Joseph Brodsky suggests that Marina Tsvetetaeva's prose enabled her to expand "the possibilities of language," mitigating the isolation central to the experience of any great lyric poet.

There are, of course, less noble reasons to trade dancing for walking, as Paul Valery might have put it, including the need to pay the bills, a craving for a larger audience or simply the desire to keep busy between poems. This last is what seems to govern a significant portion of Maxine Kumin's new collection of essays and stories, "Women, Animals, and Vegetables." "But it is good for poets to undertake prose from time to time," she writes in "Have Saddle, Will Travel," an essay about the hazards faced by an avid horsewoman on the poetry circuit, "and it is good for the rider to adapt to a different way of going."

The author of 10 volumes of poetry, including "Up Country," for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and seven previous books of prose, in much of her new collection Kumin celebrates the simple life she has fashioned over 30 years on a farm in central New Hampshire. A tumbledown house and 200 acres "magicked" her and her husband when they first saw it. "Innocence protected us from appreciating the enormity of the restoration we were about to undertake," she admits. "We were young and eager and almost totally ignorant of country ways." "Women, Animals, and Vegetables" reveals how well-schooled they have become in farm life. "I am a transplant whose new roots go deep," she says proudly.

Kumin describes the pleasures of raising and riding horses, of gardening and mushrooming, of learning how in the country "Things have a way of balancing out(.)" She has a poet's virtues: an eye for detail, an ear for graceful phrasing and an aphoristic bent--"Foraging for mushrooms has its own visceral pleasures: We reap where we did not sow, paper, mulch, or water." This is a book many readers will find companionable.

Others, though, will consider her essays, many of which were written to order, to be too short and occasional in nature to fully satisfy, while the stories read like notes toward fictions--and predictable ones at that. Only in "Jicama Without Expectations," her longest and most ambitious essay, does Kumin offer a sustaining vision of her rural experience. She takes us through a year on the farm, and the result is delightful. "All is as workable as Latin grammar," she says of her garden, which yields 800 pounds of produce: "amo, amas, amat among the brassicas; hic, haec, hoc in a raised bed lively with parsnip foliage." She discovers at every turn reasons to rhapsodize--sleigh rides, first light, "geese going over, baying like beagles in the dawn sky." And when she concludes the penultimate paragraph with a quote from Stanley Kunitz--"What do I want of my life?/More! More!"--readers may wish for the same from her own work.

Kumin has wisely chosen to include, by way of epigraph, one of her best recent poems, "The Word." Riding in the October woods, she and her horse surprise a doe. "Come back! I want to call to her," the poet cries, wishing to tell her that when she feeds birds they perch on her arm, "permitting (her) briefly/ to stand in for a tree(.)" And some mornings a vixen lets her "observe the education/of her kits"--a gift for which Kumin is profoundly grateful, for she knows the "word" the fox uses to command her young is the same one she is "searching for."

Its sound is o-shaped and unencumbered,

the see-through color of river,

airy as the topmost evergreen fingers

and soft as pine duff underfoot

where the doe lies down out of sight:

take me in, tell me the word.

Kumin's readers will mourn the absence of that word in the essays and stories of "Women, Animals, and Vegetables"; in her poem they will find it is a vital and mysterious specter.

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