Dear J. [poet friend I went to grad school with at Pitt back in the 1980s and haven’t seen since],
Remember when you and I and D. went to hear Maxine Kumin and … don’t tell me, I’ll remember her too … at Carlow College? I think it was winter. Maybe early spring. Maybe fall. We had coats. We were reading the program beforehand and whoever wrote it referred to Kumin’s “masterful handling” of themes and D. bristled at that malecentric language. She and her bristly hair were on my right, and I think you were on my left. Or maybe she was between us.
It was a memorable evening. Fun to see two poets enjoying each other while reading their own work. I think it was part of the Madwoman in the Attic series. (Was that a series, or something else?) Who was the other? Younger, darker hair, poised but playful, wrote formal verse … I think she has a book about reading poems. How to Love a Poem? How to Read a Poem? I think the cover’s in muted green and tan. I think maybe I have it. I’d really like to remember her on my own though.
I don’t remember anything they read. I didn’t have any of their books to get signed. Later I heard Allen Ginsberg in the same space. I was complacently reading away in the reading room in Hillman Library (who was that room named after? I still remember the sunny afternoon I discovered Rick Bass‘ Oil Notes and, well, all the cliches. Fell in love with it. Was smitten. Wanted to possess it. Wanted to eat it and write like that. Not the Heinz reading room. But it was named after somebody.) and waited too late to head over there. They’d locked the doors because the place was already overfull. Some of us went around, tried to find other entrances. Maggie Anderson was inside and we exchanged a look. I felt a longing that was much more than wanting to get inside to hear Ginsberg. After the crowd outside dwindled, they did open the doors and let a few more in. I was one of them.
I don’t remember much that he read, but I remember sitting on steps on the aisle between the seats. He played the bongos at some point. Really. He read, with delight, some William Blake poems. I remember being alternately caught up in the magic “usness” that some readers are able to pull off with an audience, and shifting position because sitting that way made my back hurt. Mostly I remember talking to Maggie in the lobby and telling her how much her poems about the death of her parents (poems about her dead parents? poems about being alive in a where her parents were not?) had meant to me. “They’re still around. They’re still around,” she said. “Sometimes they’re busy.”
Not Marge Piercy. Not Jane Kenyon. Not Jane Hirschfield. Is she Catholic? Mary someone? Not Mary Gordon. Not Mary Karr. I keep thinking Jane.
Not Lucia Perillo.
I see the book now, the next to next to last one on the bottom shelf of my poetry bookcase, with the books about reading and writing poetry. Its jacket is tan and white and black, with a red strip down the spine. I’m not letting myself get close enough to read the words. Something about ten poems? Why do I keep thinking the word love is in there? Are those books alphabetized by author? Then it would be past the middle …
Peacock! Molly Peacock.
Now I’ll let myself look. How to Read a Poem … and Start a Poetry Circle. Hardback, found on sale somewhere for $4.98.
I’m going to have to look the room up. And then I’ll have that “Of course!” forehead-slap feeling and wish I’d waited and had the satisfaction of retrieving it on my own. I think it had two syllables, stress on the first. It was on the northwest corner of the library, two walls of windows, the western wall longer, therefore sunwarmed in the afternoon, therefore a good place for the luxury of a brief chair nap. The shelf I found Oil Notes on had new arrivals, I think. It was a browsing shelf, a serendipity shelf. It was a medium-colored wood—oak, maybe—and about waist height. Only two or three shelves. Perpendicular to the doorway and the western wall. Oil Notes was on the north side.
OK, I’m looking it up.
The Alldred Room. That’s it. I wouldn’t have remembered that. Apparently the Alldred Collection of popular fiction and nonfiction is now housed in something called the Cup & Chaucer Cafe.
Anyway, on this snowy morning the day after Maxine Kumin died, I am remembering what I choose to remember as a snowy evening, back when Pittsburgh seemed the center of the literary universe and we were all being young writers together. (And I’m wondering, did the mostly young people who work the wire desk at the newspaper recognize her name yesterday? Did they know to put her in today’s Noteworthy Deaths? They ask us older folk sometimes, not exactly in these words, “Was this someone?”)
I seldom think of you without hearing you read “She is the last of my ancients,” the first line of your poem about your grandmother dying. Do you still have that poem? Could you send it to me? My mom had died around that time, and my dad died not quite six months ago, and I have one ancient left, my 91-year-old great-aunt in Pittsburgh, whom I did not spend enough time with when I lived there. I think I’ll call her today.
P.S. How are you?
I have a little Kumin on that shelf too. Here’s her poem that was chosen for The Best American Poetry 2002.
When mother was little, all
that she knew about flying was what
her bearded grandfather told her:
every night your soul flies
out of your body and into
God’s lap. He keeps it under
his handkerchief until morning.
Hearing this as a child haunted me.
I couldn’t help sleeping.
I woke up each morning groping
as for a lost object lodged perhaps
between my legs, never knowing
what had been taken from me or what
had been returned to its harbor.
When as a new grandmother
my mother first flew cross-country—
the name of the airline escapes me
but the year was 1947—
she consigned her soul to the Coco-
then ordered a straight-up martini.
As they landed, the nose wheel wobbled
and dropped away. Some people screamed.
My mother was not one of them
but her shoes—she had slipped them off—
somersaulted forward. Deplaning
she took out her handkerchief
and reclaimed her soul from the ashen stewardess.
That night in a room not her own
under eaves heavy with rain
and the rue of a disbelieving daughter
my mother described her grandfather to me:
a passionate man who carried his soul
wedged deep in his pants’ watch-pocket
a pious man whose red beard had never seen scissors,
who planted his carrots and beets
in the dark of the moon for good reason
and who, before I was born,
rose up like Elijah.
Flew straightaway up into heaven.
— Maxine Kumin
And a little something from Molly Peacock:
A life’s work is always unfinished and requires creativity till the day a person dies.