‘How it is’ by 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.

This poem was written about the poet Anne Sexton, after her suicide in 1974. Maxine Kumin was a contemporary and close friend of Sexton.

How it is is the first poem that I have read by Kumin, and it struck me particularly because, although it is about a poet that I admire enormously for her craft, here we see grief for a friend — for someone who had holes in her pockets, got parking tickets, and chatted over “vodka and ice in the kitchen”. This is a poem not for a literary myth or persona, but for a real person — a “Dear friend” — and it is this quality that makes it most interesting and touching for me.

The poem begins and ends with Anne Sexton’s “blue blazer”, and I think this has great significance. Kumin writes that she wears it “a month after your death”, and that it is full of memories (the holes and parking tickets mentioned above.) I think that the image of her donning this blazer could be read to represent Kumin donning the literary clothing and habits of her friend; she writes poetry to inhabit the world that Sexton did, in an attempt to retrieve something of what she has lost.

In the second stanza, Kumin imagines an attempt to ‘rewind’ time, past “the last day of your life”, to a time when her old friend was alive. She runs “the home movie back to a space/ We could be easy in”. Interestingly, this space is the kitchen, with “vodka and ice”. I love this image of  the two women chatting at a kitchen table, drinking vodka, their words “like living meat”. The conversation is their sustenance — and more than that — it is alive and exciting.

The final verse acknowledges the public reaction produced by Sexton’s act of suicide: “you have excited crowds/ with your example”. Kumin’s response to this phenomenon is fairly dismissive, though it seems to show some contempt, too. She describes these crowds as swelling “like wine bags, straining at your seams”. This image gives me the impression that Kumin is resentful of there being a form of ‘grief’ from a public who did not know the ‘real’ Anne Sexton, but that she is also nonetheless a little fearful of their changing Sexton in some way (“straining at your seams”).

Maxine Kumin tells us that she will be “years gathering up our words” — piecing together the real memories of her friendship. Perhaps it is difficult to remember the true voice of her friend, Anne, when the voice of Sexton’s poetry is so present, powerful and enduring. At the end of the poem, she puts on the “dumb blue blazer of your death”. This image is one that I find incredibly moving, firstly because there is anger here. By calling Sexton’s death “dumb”, Kumin is expressing her anger at an act that seems so incredibly futile — her suicide was “dumb” because it said nothing — all it did was silence her. And perhaps Kumin puts on the blazer because she does not want the poetry, but rather the voice of her friend. The blazer is empty — “dumb” — it cannot speak with Anne’s voice. Although Sexton lives on through her poetry, the person is gone, and it is that person who Kumin grieves in this poem.

AnneSexton

8 thoughts on “‘How it is’ by Maxine Kumin

  1. I recently found out an old friend of mine had passed at a very young age. It had happened a few years ago, but we had grown a part and I was unaware it had happened until I an ran into an old acquaintance. For me, these are the lines that really get to me:
    “I think of the last day of your life,
    old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
    it together in a different collage”

    You can’t help but think what might have been.

    Also, thank you for stopping by The Cracked Chronicles and leading me to your lovely blog. I love poetry, but I have a hard time keeping up with it as part of my regular reading. I look forward to being a regular reader of yours!

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