Someone must have prevailed upon Maxine Kumin to write her memoir, because there is nothing riveting about it. At best it is mildly interesting. The title is catchy but really not germane to her conventional story. She grew up in Philadelphia during the 1930s, the daughter of a German Jewish mother and a Russian Jewish father, although she emerged from her tradition an agnostic.
To be sure, growing up Jewish in Germantown was sometimes difficult in those anti-Semitic times, but her childhood and adolescence were largely uneventful.
She went to Radcliffe after being rejected by Wellesley. (There was still a quota system for Jews among leading colleges.) She joined the swim team and in her junior year went on a blind date with Army Sgt. and Harvard graduate Victor Kumin, whose job, she would learn much later, was to help develop the atom bomb. Long excerpts from their courtship letters follow. She graduated cum laude. Not long after she turned 21, they married.
She read a lot of poetry, especially Gerard Manley Hopkins and A.E. Housman, and wrote "at least a hundred lugubrious romantic poems." But her first published poems were light verse. She saw print in all the leading newspapers and journals. For one poem, published in the Saturday Evening Post, she "was required to provide a letter from [Victor's] employer certifying that my poem was original. … In the '50s women, along with people of color, were still thought to be intellectually inferior, mere appendages in the world of belles lettres."
In 1957 she took a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education and gained a mentor in Tufts University Prof. John Holmes and a close friend in fellow student Anne Sexton.
Her first book, "Halfway," sold just 300 copies. Needing a space "to be able to get on with my declared vocation," she and Victor moved from suburban Boston to a ramshackle farmhouse in New Hampshire, which they spent years repairing and sprucing up. Despite her duties as mother to three children, housewife and part-time teacher, she managed to publish a poetry collection every three or four years. Her fourth collection, "Up Country," won a Pulitzer Prize, and she later became U.S. poet laureate.
In this book, Kumin writes a straightforward, plain-spoken account of her life, with nary a poetic flourish. Unfortunately, there's little insight into what makes her tick or how her poems took shape.
They are rooted in her work as vegetable gardener, adopter of shelter rescue dogs and breeder of horses. The book doesn't really sing until the final essays about the personalities of individual animals. Here, too, she reproduces long excerpts from her poems about them. Those last pieces make the book worth reading.
Brigitte Frase is a Minneapolis critic, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian citation for excellence in reviewing.