On the Farm


In autumn of 2012, we published a lovely memoir by the poet Maxine Kumin about a romance that began with a blind date in 1945, when she was a junior in college and he was an Army sergeant on furlough. The date went well,  followed by a period of separations punctuated by passionate rendezvous, ending 14 months later with their wedding. The love letters she and Victor wrote in those months had turned up in the attic of their farmhouse after half a century, and Maxine made good use of them in her tribute to a marriage  still going strong. A few months after that memoir appeared, she sent us another about the life she and Victor had made in New Hampshire on what they came to call PoBiz Farm—the name refers to the poetry business, which had begun to generate income after she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1973. In this memoir, Kumin uses her often-autobiographical poems to track their active and eventful years in the country. The piece was so long that we decided to run it in two parts; the second part appears here.

Memoirs are valedictory in nature, and Kumin’s are a clear summing-up of her life as a wife, mother, friend, poet—as a woman who had lived passionately and thoughtfully. A major collection of her poems was entitled Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief. Allen Freeman, the editor at the SCHOLAR who worked with Maxine, had no inkling just how brief the time left to her was. She died in February at the age of 88. Victor and their three children survive her.

Her memoir in this issue focuses on the animals she and Victor loved and cared for. Mares foaled eight times in their stable, and six rescue dogs lived and died on the farm. In the memoir, as in her poems, these animals are given fond, vibrant tributes. Maxine’s delight in them as individuals makes me wonder what she would think of our cover story on what writer James McWilliams calls the “omnivore’s contradiction”—the recognition that agricultural animals deserve to be raised humanely and the hesitation to go a step further and consider whether they also deserve not to be eaten. One of Kumin’s poems, “Family Reunion,” alludes to a “home-grown pig … we fed and bedded for a year, / then killed with kindness’s one bullet / and paid Jake Mott to do the butchering.” Decades before Michael Pollan’s The Ominivore’s Dilemma helped launch the movement to oppose agribusiness, the Kumins understood its principles. To live for years in the country is to know “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” as Kumin acknowledges, quoting Tennyson. Still, Maxine’s daughter Judith says her mom stopped raising animals for food on the farm years ago. I bet she would have sympathized with the farmers in McWilliams’s piece, so remorseful about the animals they raised, and butchered, with such care.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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