Tag Archives: feminism

‘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.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Applicant’ by Sylvia Plath

First, are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt.
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit—-

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that ?
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk , talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

This is a poem that I felt a great connection to when I was still at school, and I thought about it today as I was preparing some job applications and decided to blog about it on here.

I love how this poem puts the reader in the position of the applicant in an interview; we are being forcefully interrogated by the speaker and the tone is extremely arresting. There seems to me to be a strong commentary on the role of women in society here. Plath’s context was England (and the US) in the late 50s and early 60s, but I think that this commentary is just as relevant for our Western society today.

First, the speaker asks whether we have various disabilities, such as “a glass eye”, “false teeth”, “rubber breasts” or a “rubber crotch”. The speaker wants to know if our physical body functions properly. This, to me, evokes the idea that women need to be aesthetically pleasing if they are to be ‘marketable’ or ‘desirable’. Women also need their reproductive faculties (hence the questions about the rubber breasts and crotch) to be considered valuable in the modern society/ a good wife etc.

When the speaker discovers that our (the applicant’s) hand is “Empty”, they offer us a hand to fill it, “to bring teacups and roll away headaches” — to “do whatever you tell it.” We are asked if we will marry it. This is a very bleak view of marriage, to say the least. But I think that Plath is satirising a commercially-orientated society here, and particularly adverts; for example, the speaker is really ‘selling’ this idea of marriage as they say “it is guaranteed/ To thumb your eyes shut at the end and dissolve of sorrow” . And of course, when it says “we make new stock from the salt” it becomes certain that this is a commercial transaction.

It is not just women who are trapped in this bleak, materialistic society with its approach to marriage, though I think the main commentary here is about women. The speaker notices that we, the applicant, are “stark naked” and tries to sell us a suit. We are asked if we will “marry it.” Here it is clear that marriage means nothing but an investment in the society being satirised here. I love the use of advertising language here, saying ” It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof/ Against fire and bombs through the roof”.

Continuing with the idea of marriage, we are guaranteed that the “living doll” being sold here will be “silver” in twenty five years, and “gold” in fifty. “It can sew, it can cook/ it can talk, talk, talk.” Of course, this is incredibly demeaning to women, but this is how Plath chooses to portray her society, and how she perceived the reality to be. I think that it is a really effective poem, and I love the way it is addressed to the reader.

Here is a link to a recording of Sylvia Plath reading the poem herself. I really love her voice and the way she reads this. Also, I think her accent is amazing!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh