Our Farm, My InspirationPrint
How a weekend getaway became a poet’s muse
By Maxine Kumin
December 6, 2013
Mornings, from my desk, I have a clear view of the paddock and, beyond it, the first of five intersecting fields. Every morning, finding them empty comes as a fresh surprise. The grass is green. No horses graze. No dogs are busily sniffing to check what may have passed through in the night. Along the stone wall that leads uphill to our farmhouse, the daffodils are in full bloom. Above the farmhouse our ambitious vegetable garden is restarting. The pond that replaced a marsh gives back the reflection of white pines that encircle it. We have grown old here. My husband, Victor, is 92, and I recently turned 88. All six of our rescued dogs are gone. Our alpha mare lived to an ancient 35. Eight foals were born and raised in our hand-built stable. This is the world we came to as flatlanders, where we found good neighbors and where we grew to be true New Englanders.
Now, as I look back over the poems I have written in the past 50 years, I see how many of them are set in the landscape of the farm. While I also wrote lyrical poems about family, ancestors, and Jesus, and sociopolitical rants against the use of torture, indefinite detention, and Guantánamo, much of my work is rooted here.
In 1961 we were restless parents living in a modest Cape Cod cottage on a handkerchief-size lot in Newton, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. Caught up in the demands of three kids, ages 11, nine, and seven, what we needed was some sort of country retreat not more than a two-hour drive away. And then $10,000 dropped into our laps. Half of it was passed down to me in an inheritance from my grandmother. Almost simultaneously the other half came to Victor when his mother died. On a drizzly fall Saturday, we drove up to see a real estate agent in New Hampshire, and the search began.
My mother was appalled. She had grown up in the country outside Radford, Virginia, then a sleepy small town. Now she lived in a suburb of Philadelphia. Dressed in evening clothes, she went to symphony Saturday nights. She had Theatre Guild of New York tickets and attended every Broadway play that opened in Philadelphia. She shopped, she met friends for lunch at chic restaurants, she played bridge. Cocktail and dinner parties were common diversions. She had a live-in couple who cooked and cleaned and a gardener who tended her roses. Why, she demanded, did we want to sequester ourselves from the vibrant social and intellectual life greater Boston offered? What was wrong with us?
I couldn’t tell her how I felt. The words stuck in my throat. Even if we had had the income to sustain it, I desperately did not want my mother’s life. It represented everything I abhorred, from the weekly manicures of her long red nails to the latest coffee-table display of art books, many of their pages uncut. I was teaching two English composition classes part-time, chauffeuring the children to and from the dentist, to their lessons on violin, cello, and clarinet, and dealing with the day-to-day hazards of housekeeping. The lost socks, the white blouse that has turned pink from proximity to a never-before-washed red sweatshirt. The missing dog leash, followed by the errant dog. And the endless Saturday night dinner parties where wives outdid one another with inventive hors d’oeuvres and cocktails of grenadine and pineapple juice. I could have been a case study from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, not to be published for two more years.
On the surface my mother looked content with her role as wife and mother, a queen of leisure, but I knew she had once aspired to a career as a pianist. As I wrote in a poem called “Life’s Work,” she told me she had been “at eighteen a Bach specialist / in a starched shirtwaist / begging permission to go on tour / with [a] nimble violinist … and my grandfather / … saying no daughter of mine …” had forced her to abandon her dream. The following year she eloped with my father. I understand why I had to have the white-gown nuptial complete with Lohengrin’s Wedding March. I am still struggling to understand why she wasn’t more sympathetic to my own ambition at that time.
I was trying to become a serious female poet in a male-dominated field. The reigning poets were T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Randall Jarrell, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop, not a mother among them. None writing lines like these from “Nightmare”:
This dwelt in me who does not know me now,
where in her labyrinth I cannot follow,
advance to be recognized, displace her terror;
I hold my heartbeat on my lap and cannot comfort her. …
The first cell that divided separates us.
My first book, Halfway, had recently been published in a print run of 1,000. Three hundred copies would be sold. The rest would eventually be pulped. A first book was all too often a first and last; I needed space to be able to get on with my declared vocation. Victor, educated as a chemist, had worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory during World War II. He was holding down a demanding job as a consulting engineer with a Boston firm, and he too needed quiet space between the Monday-through-Friday pressures. He shared my restiveness with the social expectations of our suburban life, the weekends of enforced exchanges with other couples with whom we had little in common. After the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, he had refused to continue assembling atomic bombs at Los Alamos even though he was threatened with court-martial. (Nothing came of the threat.) As a civilian he remained active in the antiwar effort. While stationed in the mountains of New Mexico during the war, he had learned to ski. He looked forward to finding a base for returning to this sport and introducing our kids to it. The youngsters themselves saw a weekend hideaway as an exciting place to bring friends. We needed to find a little cabin in the country. Possibly with a brook. Possibly with a sunny patch for growing our own tomatoes. Without neighbors, no matter how kindly, who could see into our windows on either side.
My father, who had always also been a flatlander, was equable. He cautioned us only not to buy land on a hill. I didn’t remonstrate; I knew that New Hampshire was full of hills, but I let the matter drop. That fall the real estate agent patiently drove us up hills and down dales. A house on a pleasant pond was surrounded by other houses. One beside a brook abutted a gravel pit where trucks churned in and out. A charming cottage on the outskirts of a town felt, well, too suburban. After the first snowfall we suspended our search.
The following spring we resumed the hunt for what Victor had begun to call the Hope Diamond. We rejected two more possibilities before the agent turned off the state road, swung through our first-ever covered bridge onto a dirt road, and after a mile made a right-hand turn onto another that appeared to be barely one car wide. “I don’t have a key to this place but you can look around and see what you think,” he said. My neck hairs were rising.
The road curved steeply uphill for almost half a mile, then came to a dead end between an old white farmhouse and a massive barn with a haymow. The house roof was missing many shingles. Half of the massive barn sagged in on itself. Before we opened the car doors I knew we had found our diamond.
To look into the farmhouse windows, we had to fight our way through a dense growth of blackberry brambles. Tree saplings warred with a thick stand of lilacs that sprawled along the stone wall separating the road from what had once been a front lawn. The back of the house looked out on forest in all directions. The downhill side of the barn opened onto a barren patch that might have been a turnout area for livestock. Behind the tumbled-in back end of the barn, the remains of a small stony pasture were visible. I suddenly realized there were no other houses on this nameless road. No sound of vehicles in the distance. No voices. The silence filled with bird calls.
I didn’t know it just then, but this poem, “Country House,” was brewing. It opens,
After a long presence of people,
after the emptying out,
the laying bare,
the walls break into conversation.
Their little hairlines ripple
and an old smile
crosses the chimney’s face.
We came back the next day with the agent and a key. The property, known locally as the Old Harriman Place, had stood empty for six years. An artist and his wife from New York owned it. They had divorced and were anxious to sell. Several dead birds and more than several dead mice lay scattered about. The birds, the agent told us, had probably flown down the two chimneys. Field mice, he shrugged, were part of country living. He suggested a cat was in order. Yes, it had running water, fed by an underground pipe from a well behind the house. Two wood stoves were the sole heating source. Victor, ever the engineer, headed for the cellar, agent in tow. Meanwhile, I scouted the layout of the rooms.
All the wide-board floors had been painted dark red. A broad wainscoting that ran along two sides of the living room was painted a creamy white. The kitchen contained a sink and an ancient stove. A small lavatory was tucked behind the kitchen. Wide boards framed the hall vertically all the way up to the second-floor ceiling. They too had been painted off-white. Three bedrooms opened off the upstairs hall, as did a serviceable bathroom. There was a tub but no shower. Serviceable enough, I thought. I knew the house was old, but I didn’t appreciate its antiquity at that point. What was inside held little interest; what attracted, even thrilled me was the landscape, the huge shagbark hickory trees, the forests of white pine and hemlock, ragged bits of open land surrounded by birch saplings. We were in a different world, one, it now seemed, I had always been looking for.
Arrangements were made to bring a civil engineer colleague of Victor’s to look the house over. The asking price was $13,000, but we could make an offer. How much land came with the house and barn? A hundred and twenty-five acres, more or less. (The acreage turned out to be considerably less, but we were able to augment it over the years.) The house dated back to 1800. Miles of stone walls dotted the woods, evidence of what had once been sheep pastures. The cavernous second-story haymow and remnants of leather halters suggested an era of dairy farming had succeeded the sheep. A little one-room structure had probably been used as a springhouse to keep the milk cans cool.
That summer we made an offer. The owners made a counteroffer. There was another round between the artist, now living in Mexico, and our agent. It was early fall before the Old Harriman Place, RFD 1, Joppa District, became ours for $11,500. We began to come and go weekends all through the winter, as further described in “Country House”:
… Field mice coast down
a forgotten can of bacon fat.
Two clocks tick themselves witless
where the exhausted doors
now speak to their stops,
four scrubbed stones of common quartz. …
They are gone,
those hearty moderns who came in
with their plastic cups and spoons …
torn between making over
and making do.
At their leavetaking
the thin beds exhale.
The toilet bowl blinks,
its eye full of purple antifreeze.
We started learning bits of its history. The springhouse, commonly placed over a natural spring or creek, was vital because electricity had not come up the hill until the end of World War II. The well that fed the house was a shallow, hand-dug hole. After the papers were signed, the agent took Victor aside. “You’ll need to have a proper well installed first thing,” he said. I am happy that he was wrong. Fed by a spring that spurts from a crevice in the rock at the very bottom, the well has withstood periods of drought that dried up our neighbor’s—yes, we had one neighbor half a mile away. Elderly, loquacious, he had lived there all his life, working at the local sawmill. On the first day he came calling, he stooped down and handed me an odd pointed object. It was my first porcupine quill. I had no inkling of the hundreds of these I would encounter, the needy dogs we would take in, and the vet bills we would accrue for quill removal.
Henry was destined to become the fictional hero of my numerous Henry Manley poems, beginning with the following excerpt from “Hello, Hello Henry”:
My neighbor in the country, Henry Manley,
with a washpot warming on his woodstove,
with a heifer and two goats and yearly chickens,
has outlasted Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill
but something’s stirring in him in his dotage.
Last fall he dug a hole and moved his privy
and a year ago in April reamed his well out.
When the county sent a truck and poles and cable,
his daddy ran the linemen off with birdshot
and swore he’d die by oil lamp, and did. …
walked up … shy as a girl come calling,
to tell me he has a phone now, 264, ring two.
It rang one time last week—wrong number.
He’d be pleased if one day I would think to call him.
Hello, hello Henry? Is that you?
He remembered well the old dairy farm. Times the cows got loose and he helped round them up. Times the farmer was short-handed and he helped with the early-morning milking. He explained that the big three-storied barn, built into the side of the hill to take advantage of the slope, also provided shelter from the wind. What would many years later become a walk-in horse barn with six stalls had served as the pit for cow manure. He pointed out the trough, now boarded over, through which the dung had been shoveled. The second story once held a season’s worth of fodder. Before this space was eventually reincarnated as an apartment in 1976, we found stacks of homemade picture frames and several muddied oil paintings. Our artist predecessor had held painting classes there at one time.
Henry told us the porch that ran across the front of the house had been glassed-in during the 1930s. Later, we would dismantle part of it to allow the sun to brighten the pine-paneled dark living room. Invited to tour the house, our sage of yesteryear told us that the wide-board floors were pine and could be sanded down if we didn’t like the red paint. Red was a traditional color for floors and the outsides of barns because it wore well. The living room wainscoting was also pine, king pine, according to Henry, although he couldn’t account for the name. (A little research revealed that in 1761 King George had claimed sole rights to all pine trees in the New World that exceeded 24 inches in diameter. This dimension was later revised downward to 12 inches, a restriction that came to play a part in the outcry, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”) Henry pointed out that the wide vertical boards on the walls in the hall had been hand planed. Peering closely, we could see uneven striations left by the tool. These boards too could be stripped back, a herculean task undertaken 15 years later. In the attic we inspected the roof beams, whole chestnut-tree trunks, some still with bark on them. One beam was mysteriously notched in groups of fives. Henry suggested this was a way of keeping count of something stored here, something that wouldn’t be harmed by freezing. Possibly butternuts, a popular winter treat when he was a boy. Sadly, the butternut trees—also known as white walnut—were dying off, victims of a fatal canker, as the chestnuts had before them.
That first fall, we acquired the habit of leaving Newton as soon as the Friday supper dishes were cleared away. Our dog Caesar positioned himself in the front hall where our bags were piled, making sure he wouldn’t be left behind. Stalwart campers, we settled into the unheated farmhouse on spare mattresses. Living conditions were spartan, but that didn’t matter. There was so much to explore. We found half a dozen cellar holes along the rangeway that once climbed above our house all the way to the next town. It had been a stagecoach road with kiss-me-quicks, level places to halt the team and allow the horses to catch their collective breath. Now the way was barely wide enough for humans to pick along in single file. Stunted apple trees grew close by some of the cellar holes. Where the forest canopy permitted, several of the early settlements displayed stands of lilacs. Daylilies proliferated wherever there had been people. Over the years we transplanted dozens of daylily roots to line the stone wall leading up to our farmhouse.
Digging in cellar holes became a favorite diversion for our kids. After spending the night in sleeping bags on the living room rug, Danny and his friends, sometimes five or six of them, would go out and excavate these cavities, turning up pottery shards, medicine bottles, and in one site, presumably a cobbler’s shop, the lasts of many different sizes of shoes. Over time the boys also proved to be a welcome source of free labor, hacking down brambles, hauling dead logs out of the woods to be cut up for winter burning, and lugging the dump-load gift of railroad ties from an abandoned line into position for the paddock we planned to attach to the barn.
Exploring the other side of town by car one rainy day, we spotted a pasture full of Shetland ponies. Eleven-year-old Judith, already in love with horses, had spent a month the preceding summer living with the daughter of one of my old college friends and learning how to ride. We stopped to admire the nimble ponies and were warmly received by their owner. The farm wasn’t limited to ponies; there were several riding horses as well, and they were available for trail rides. The owner’s daughter, Liz, provided lessons in a capacious outdoor ring that her husband, Ted, had erected. My own passion for horses reawakened, I began to take riding lessons over the ensuing months. Soon, Victor joined me. Guided by Liz, we began to enjoy riding the many trails on that side of the mountain.
Liz was planning to take in half a dozen girls the following summer. Judith’s fate was sealed. The group would live in a cabin that was just then being built out beyond the ring. Each girl would have a suitable horse or pony of her own for the season. Our friendship with Liz and Ted developed. Ted had restored and enlarged their old downhill barn, not unlike our own. The tough little ponies had free in-and-out access to the underneath area, much as we envisioned that the eventual transformation of our manure pit would provide for possibly two horses. (One winter there were to be seven. Like Liz, I found it hard to say no to hard-luck cases.) I remember that she took in somebody’s unwanted donkey and turned him out with the ponies. They all nestled together under the barn without incident until the donkey brayed. Alarmed ponies sprayed out in all directions.
That first summer of riding camp, Judith had a very pretty chestnut pony equally at home in harness and under saddle. They made a fine pair. In the fall Judith was able to join the local pony club that met weekends. The chestnut pony had been leased and would soon have to be returned to her owner; Liz and I began to haunt various horse auctions in the vicinity. It was her eagle eye that spotted two good-size dappled gray ponies a Maine farmer had bought for his sons. The boys preferred tractors to equines, and their father was eager to unload the geldings as a pair. Victor was on board with buying a pony; when I came in that night after probably three earlier forays, he was already asleep. He woke up long enough to ask, “Did you buy a pony?” but heard only the first part of my reply, “No. I bought two.” In the morning he learned that we were now owners of Star and Dusty, approximately four and five years old. Dusty proved to be a talented jumper and placed in enough local shows and gymkhanas to plaster Judith’s room with ribbons. When we went trail riding, I outfitted Dusty with our one saddle, and she rode Star bareback.
And then it snowed. Of course it had snowed in Newton year after year, but this New Hampshire snow was deep, silent, reverenced. It gave rise to “The Presence”:
Something went hard and slow
over our hayfield.
It could have been a raccoon
lugging a knapsack,
it could have been a porcupine
carrying a tennis racket,
it could have been something
supple as a red fox
dragging the squawk and spatter
of a crippled woodcock.
Ten knuckles underground
those bones are seeds now
pure as baby teeth
lined up in the burrow.
I cross on snowshoes
cunningly woven from
the skin and sinews of
something else that went before.
Virtually every pickup truck sported a plow nose. Cars went by with skis attached to their racks. Snowmobiles buzzed along the woods trails. The town kept our road open, but because it was steep and narrow and involved negotiating two curves, it could be plowed only by the grader, a monstrous apparatus. Only one special town worker was permitted to operate it. The stone wall on the barn side of the road loomed perilously close, as if asking to be dislodged. Frequently a few stones lay strewn against the shoulder and had to be set aside till spring.
Victor organized the family skiing expeditions. We lived within easy reach of three ski areas that offered lessons and bargain rates for season’s passes. The kids mastered the beginners slope in no time; Jane, our oldest, was especially adept. I struggled to graduate from the awkward but safe downhill snowplow to the more graceful stem turn, and then to the elegance of parallel skiing, carving U-turns across the slopes. No one else in the family incurred any injuries, but in my fourth season, executing a parallel turn over a mogul on the last run of the day, I fell and fractured my left leg. It was set at the local hospital by the doctor on call, a dermatologist. By the time we returned to the city that night, my toes had swollen to large purple orbs. My leg had to be reset by an orthopedic surgeon in a Boston hospital.
That first spring we had begun to refer to our weekend and holiday outings as going up-country. (I had no premonition that Up Country would become the name of my fourth collection of poems and go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.) One chilly April day we tramped around a swampy area a hundred yards above the house that was full of yellow flowers. They were my first marsh marigolds. When Henry called them cowslips, “The Vision of Sir Launfal” came back to me. I had memorized James Russell Lowell’s poem in grammar school, and here it was: “the cowslip startles in meadows green.” That it was an edible plant, and that the leaves, boiled in a change of two waters, were commonly served as a spring tonic, was another piece of country lore. But no one at supper would eat the dish, and even I had to admit it was bitter. My experiments with nettle soup and milkweed in all three stages—sprouts, buds, and pods—fared no better. But fiddlehead ferns were a success.
Victor was not thinking about cowslips. After inspecting the marsh from an engineer’s perspective, he got in touch with the New Hampshire soil conservation agency to discuss the possibility of digging a pond on the site. An actual private swimming hole would add sparkle to our Hope Diamond. A surveyor from the agency arranged for four test holes to be dug to see if the area contained any underground springs. It did. After all the trees had been cut and the marsh was cleared, excavation began the following summer. I remember trudging uphill with a cold beer for the bulldozer operator every noon for eight days. As the pond, two-thirds of an acre, neared completion, Ray conferred with us from his dozer. The drawings called for a six-foot-wide flat boulder to be removed from the shoreline. Ray suggested leaving it in place as a diving rock. For safe entry he would scoop out a hole 10 feet deep in front of it. We agreed. Thirty years later, I described it in “Summer Meditation” as
the great rock
that is always dark
on its underside
the one I used to dive
from, aiming to come up
in the heart
of a cold spring
time after time
into the fizz
of lime-green light.
It took the rest of the year for the pond to fill. To my astonishment the water level rose exactly to the red stakes the surveyor had placed around the perimeter. Victor was gratified but not surprised; he had a scientist’s faith in precision that I lacked. By the following summer we’d had a truckload of sand delivered and were requiring every swimmer to spread 10 shovelsful before diving in. Soon we had a beach broad enough for a few folding chairs.
The day that Ray brought his bulldozer down the hill to load onto a flatbed trailer, he stopped at the house to talk to Victor. The well behind the house sat on a downhill slope; it seeped underground about 50 feet, then emerged in a damp circle. Ray proposed scooping this area out as a bonus to provide an emergency water source. It had never occurred to me, though it may have to Victor, that we were half a mile from a usable stream and a mile from access to a town hydrant. We’ve never, heaven forfend, needed this fire pond but are grateful for its presence. From late March till late summer, however, we are so noisily serenaded by tree frogs that we have to close the windows on that side of the house. Total cost for Ray’s eight days of digging: $1,800.
The pond above the house became the epicenter of our up-country haven. Our customary attire was come-as-you-are, an abandonment I celebrated much later in “Skinnydipping with William Wordsworth,” which opens,
I lie by the pond in utter nakedness
thinking of you, Will, your epiphanies …
Fair seed-time had my soul,
you sang; what seed-times still to come? …
I lay my “Prelude” down under the willow.
My old gnarled body prepares to swim
to the other side. Come with me, Will.
One sultry July day, a Nobel laureate in science who had audited a poetry course I was teaching once a week at MIT paid us a visit. We invited him to join us in a cooling dip. “One thing, though,” Victor cautioned him as we walked to the beach. “We generally swim in the nude.”
“My wife is Swedish,” he cried, tearing off his clothes.
A contest developed: Who would swim earliest in spring? Danny on a dare jumped in one St. Patrick’s Day. Who would be the last one in the fall? I won this on an unrecorded late September afternoon.
… naked, pale
I slip between
back in the muck
of womb while
there goes mr. big
trailed by mrs. big
darting in synchrony
Every other year Victor restocked the pond with brook trout; no fisherman himself, he didn’t want to lose them all to river otters in one fell swoop. Only once in its 50-year tenure has the pond entertained a family of Lontra canadensis. Spectacular swimmers, they were great fun to watch, but Victor was ambivalent about them. He had similar mixed feelings about the perennial great blue heron who posed like a statue on the dam, interrupting his seeming trance from time to time only to snag an unsuspecting fingerling, salamander, or frog. And then there were the kingfishers who took great exception to our presence and swept back and forth over our heads, berating us with their rattling call. A wide assortment of dragonflies in paintbox colors fluttered and swooped past all summer. Spring and fall we were visited by migrating waterfowl, from mallards and mergansers to occasional wood ducks. There was always something to watch and exclaim over. Toward winter we kept the sand raked so that we could tell when our resident moose had strolled past, leaving his enormous twin half-moon hoof prints for us to admire.
Wild turkey tracks were commonplace all over the farm. In season, mother turkeys would lead parades of their 10 or 12 fluffy little ones. Many, even most of these, would be picked off one by one by predators. Nature, red in tooth and claw. Reading about their mating habits, I stumbled on the term that opens “Discrete Activities”:
The cloacal kiss between turkeys
seemingly awkward, still
makes more turkeys.
the wild flock courses
across the manure pile
a trail of poults in tow
to peck the redelivered seeds. …
Clear-cutting two acres for the pond had also opened up a flat sunny spot for a vegetable garden. I had never grown anything more ambitious than a few store-bought petunia plants, but now I began to pore over catalogs and pamphlets about raising carrots and beets and green beans, onions and leeks and parsnips from seed. Jane was an enthusiastic participant. As we gradually grew more sophisticated, learning how to start seeds indoors in flats, then hardening them off first on the porch, then on the terrace, finally conveying them up to the garden at the appropriate time, she took over most of the tedious transplanting and weeding. But the first year we lost much of our produce to what proved to be a wily adversary, the woodchuck. Not one woodchuck, a creature we had never encountered before, but an extended family, a colony of rapacious nibblers and diggers. The hardware store owner advised chicken-wire fencing. He told us to bury it a foot deep. First we discovered that the soil was full of stones we learned to call New England potatoes. Then we discovered that the average woodchuck can tunnel under 12 inches of chicken wire overnight. Next, he suggested cyanide bombs. Inevitably, “Woodchucks” became the title of a poem that opens,
Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.
We turned into killers, adept with the .22, not just that one season. Not quite true; I never learned to shoot, but some of our visitors and occasional handymen did. It took three years to reduce the woodchuck population to only rare sightings. As the vegetable garden expanded, we installed raised beds and improved the soil year by year with compost and aged horse manure. We rebuilt the fence several times as it rusted, and ran a top board around the perimeter for reinforcement. One of our latterday caretakers built an actual gate to replace the makeshift stile we had been climbing over. One year we installed plastic tubing to irrigate the rows by gravity flow from the pond but had to abandon this method as little salamanders kept getting stuck in the channels. When we added an adjoining raspberry patch and started growing our own sweet corn, it became prudent to rig a double-strand electric fence that we energized when the berries ripened and the corn tasseled. It effectively said Keep Out! to raccoons and deer. Our garden became so fecund that we eventually bought a second freezer to contain the quantities of veggies and soups we put up for the year. But the real reason for our success lay with the byproduct of our horses, described in this excerpt from “The Excrement Poem”:
We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are.
I think these things each morning with shovel
and rake, drawing the risen brown buns
toward me, fresh from the horse oven, as it were, …
And wheeling to it, storming up the slope,
I think of the angle of repose the manure
pile assumes, how sparrows come to pick
the redelivered grain, how inky-cap
coprinus mushrooms spring up in a downpour. …
[T]rundling off today’s last barrowful
I honor shit for saying: We go on.
It was the dailiness of tending an ambitious vegetable garden that captured me, “the rich assortment of birds trilling on all / sides of my forest garden” where I spread “sodden newspapers between broccolis, / corn sprouts, cabbages and four kinds of beans,” as described in “Mulching.” My 40-by-40 plot of black gold with its orderly raised beds gratified me much as attending the weekly Philadelphia Orchestra concerts in evening dress must have gratified my mother. “How can I help but admire the ever perseverant / unquenchable dill /… waving its lacy banners / where garlic belongs or slyly invading a hill / of Delicata squash— / how can I help but admire such ardor?… Let me laud onion that erupts / slim as a grass stem / then spends the summer inventing its pungent tulip.” I wrote those lines in “An Insider’s View of the Garden” and declaimed at the end, “O children, citizens, my wayward jungly dears / you are all to be celebrated / plucked, transplanted, tilled under, resurrected here. … For all of you … / I plan to spend the rest of my life on my knees.”
The Old Harriman Place lodged deeper and deeper into our psyches. With a hired helper Victor undertook to cordon off the tumbled-in downhill side of the barn foundation to allow for a safe run-in space for future horses. A paddock went up with fence posts composed of those railroad ties. We had recently met a retired Swiss couple who lived a mile away in a farmhouse dating back to the 1700s that they had painstakingly restored. When they paid us a call just as the top boards of the five-foot-tall paddock fence were going up, the husband, Rudi, exclaimed, “My Gott! What you gonna keep in dere, elephants?” We hastily readjusted the dimensions.
Rudi and Margrit became not only our good friends but the source of counsel on everything from how to kill a porcupine—“chust step on his tail and hit him on the head with a two-by-four”—to the best local electrician and plumber to call. Rudi walked with Victor to the far corner of what eventually became our outermost pasture, the Elysian Field, and showed him our mutual boundary—“you begin here,” he said, pointing backward, “and I begin dere,” pointing forward. Margrit loved inviting our daughters for her famous hot chocolate drinks, and as soon as we had our own horses, they encouraged us to ride the woodland trail they had cleared between their property and the strawberry farm their cousin owned at the top of the rangeway. Margrit would stand at the back door of their house and wave as the horses and riders crested the hill, trotted by the site of the old mill, and came into view. It was Margrit who told me that 10 years earlier, Henry’s privy had been demolished and an indoor bathroom installed by Rudi. It was not the kind of thing Rudi would mention; he was just being a good neighbor.
We were still only weekenders and vacationers, though we agreed that at some point we would give up the house in Newton, move up-country, and live there year-round. I was more than ready. Victor, knowing a daily commute to Boston was impractical, held back. He didn’t want me to live alone from Monday to Friday; if we converted the second floor of the barn to an apartment, we could rent it to tenants of our own choosing. We began to look for a builder.
Meanwhile we had supper with Liz and Ted and their three kids on an occasional Saturday that had been full of horse activities; sometimes they came to our farm. Judith had practically moved in with them. She remembers one late afternoon after barn chores when Liz invited us all to join them. I had replied, “We’d love to. But I have six knockwurst. What shall I do with them?” “Oh, just bring them with you,” Liz said. We left. Judith stayed to help. She found Liz rooting around in the big freezer in the pantry and asked, “What are you doing?”
“Your mother is bringing six friends and I’m trying to figure out what to feed them.”
I thought about this dialogue long after. I thought about the rigid formality of Saturday night dinners in Newton, the polished silver candlesticks, the ironed tablecloths, the fancy desserts, and how seamlessly and graciously Liz’s invitation had been extended. Our Monday-through-Friday schedules were rigorous; Victor commuted to Boston to the engineering firm. Sometimes he traveled to assay projects in North Carolina or Texas. Two afternoons a week I taught two freshman English classes at Tufts University just outside Boston, one to dental technicians, the other to phys ed majors. (This was the ’60s. I was a woman and deemed intellectually unfit to instruct liberal arts students.) Mornings, once the kids were off to school, I hurried through housework to my desk where I worked on poems. My fellow poet Anne Sexton and I read drafts to each other over the phone. We were gradually getting published in the major magazines. Despite the general dismissal of women’s poetry as merely domestic, each of us now had three books to our credit.
When the phone rang in April of 1973 with news that I had won the Pulitzer Prize for Up Country, I was incredulous; someone was playing a cruel hoax. The caller identified himself as a reporter for the Associated Press. Two Boston television news stations arrived soon thereafter. The phone rang again and again. The Boston Globe dispatched both a reporter and a photographer. I was stunned by the publicity. Winning was wonderful, but it filled me with anxiety. Being in the limelight terrified me. It was well known that fame often led to writer’s block. At that moment I dreaded the paralysis I was certain awaited me. Would I ever write again? As soon as I could, I fled to the farm. There I took Candide’s advice to cultivate my garden and started the season’s first crop of frost-hardy chard, lettuce, and spinach. I dug compost into the soil, raked, gathered bucketsful of stones, raked again. Once I had dirt packed under my fingernails, I recovered my equilibrium. The poems inched back in their own time.
(Maxine Kumin will conclude this essay in the Spring issue of the Scholar.)
Maxine Kumin won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and was the Library of Congress poet laureate in 1981-82. Her 17th collection, Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010, won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 2011. She died in February 2014.