Through our first-ever covered bridge, up a steeply curving dirt road, we suburbanites came with three children to an abandoned farm. Here, where I grew as a poet, we became true New Englanders, with a vegetable garden, a pond, a barn full of horses, and a succession of shelter dogs.
How much my life had changed since that fateful drive in 1961. Now, having won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1973, I metamorphosed into a recognizable name. Invitations came my way to give readings, teach a class, be poet-in-residence for a week, a month, a semester. I could pick and choose. Travel expenses were reimbursed and honoraria paid; suddenly I was in business, the poetry business.
That same year my husband, Victor, found a contractor willing to undertake the dicey job of shoring up the barn foundation so that we could use the whole space. Before then, we had room only for two mares leased for riding and, over one summer vacation, two of a neighbor’s weanling foals unrelated to the mares. The entire underpinning of unwieldy boulders that had shifted and rolled loose was to be replaced with poured concrete.
It was heavy work and slow going. We almost lost the contractor and the barn when one section collapsed while he was on the job. We also had a new well dug to serve the barn and an apartment we planned to build on the top floor. This enabled the contractor to run a water line through the rear wall into the narrow space that would serve as sawdust bin and grain room. (We were to experience a thousand regrets over the ensuing years that we hadn’t insulated the line. Every time it froze, one of us would have to squat, sometimes for more than an hour, holding a hair dryer aimed at the faucet.) A year later we had six rustic but serviceable stalls, all built by Victor and a hired hand. Two of them are extra large for foaling, and a narrow stall at the back was designed to hold sawdust to be used as bedding. The arrangement left a 20-foot-wide rectangle allowing the horses free access in and out. A friend named it the motel lobby. Another friend made a sign that still hangs on the lip of the haymow facing the house: pobiz farm. For a couple of amateurs who had so much to learn about breeding and raising our own horses, the farm was a costly indulgence. The poetry business helped to support it.
Victor and I put our suburban Boston house on the market and early in 1976 became permanent New Hampshire residents. For more than a decade we had camped out with our three children in the farmhouse. Now we left the comforts of central heating for wood stoves, dependable wattage for frequent power outages due to storms, and shades in every window, as well as downstairs curtains, for a wide-open lifestyle. Drafts blew in around the loose windows. There were windy gaps between the baseboards and the floor. We had an RFD address, a mailbox at the foot of the hill, a phone with a party line. At our first primary election in the town hall, we requested Democratic ballots, which had to be hastily hunted up; we survived unscathed in what was then a staunchly Republican district. We now owned two mares and had taken in a homely roan gelding named Jack who had broken out of his lonely nearby quarters several times and gone wandering in search of equine companionship. A careful fellow, Jack always stayed on the edge of the county road, as his footprints attested. Since one of our mares had been bred, we would soon need a second mount for our initiation into the new sport of competitive trail riding. Jack’s owner was happy to part with him.
Our local trail riders association sponsored a 25-mile event describing a circle on the other side of town. As in a road rally, there was a window of time within which participants had to finish. Horses were judged on their general fitness at completion. We were hooked. Over the next 11 years, our weekends from May through October were spent on trail rides—one to three days in duration and 25 to 100 miles long—all over New England. Our stalls filled, indeed overfilled. One year Jack lived contentedly in the motel lobby. In the poem “Jack,” I described him as
… Wise old campaigner, he dunks his
hay in the water bucket to soften it, then visits the others
who hang their heads over their Dutch doors. Sometimes
he sprawls out flat to nap in his commodious quarters.
What I found rewarding about this sport, as opposed to the show world of dressage and jumping, was how naturally the horses took to it. They were being used in accord with their basic instincts, moving in a group—willing, well-behaved athletes outfitted with lightweight saddles and simple snaffle bits. I attended seminars on horse care, breeding, and foaling and signed up for clinics on the horse-whisperer methodology that is gradually replacing Wild West bronc-busting techniques.
Victor and I went for long rides to keep our horses fit, exploring the Mink Hills on dusty, overgrown trails to a settlement that once warranted a schoolhouse—all long gone. The dogs went everywhere we went. In “Gus Speaks,” our second Dalmatian tells his own long-lived story.
I was the last of my line,
farm-raised, chesty, and bold.
Not one of your flawless show-world
I ran with the horses, my darlings.
I loped at their heels, mile
for mile, swam rivers they forded
wet to the belly. I guarded
them grazing, haloed in flies.
Their smell became my smell.
Now I lie under the grasses
they crop, my own swift horses
who start up and spook in the rain
without me, the warm summer rain.
We bought a used horse trailer and spent weeks teaching our horses how to go calmly in and out. We bought a truck outfitted to pull a trailer. We spruced up the springhouse to serve as living space for a summer horse girl and were deluged with aspirants. Our first horse girl had just graduated from Dartmouth, where she had been captain of the equestrian team. She brought her own horse with her and left us a year later to get married. The horse girl position eventually morphed into farm caretaker. Our present caretaker Susannah (Suzy) Colt had been our horse girl in 1983; she left us to go to law school, spent several productive years representing women in domestic abuse cases, and came back to look after the farm and its aging inhabitants.
Our first foal was born in 1976 to a mare who had been used in a cocaine drug scam, confined for six months in a trailer. We bought her from the slaughterer for 30 cents a pound and bred her to an undersized Arabian stallion with a clubfoot. The stud fee was $50. That foal, Boomer, lived to the august age of 35. She had a successful career as Victor’s 100-mile horse before we retired her to use as a broodmare. The first foal, named Praise Be, led to this poem of the same name:
Eleven months, two weeks in the womb
and this one sticks a foreleg out
frail as a dowel quivering
in the unfamiliar air and then
the other leg, cocked at the knee
at first, then straightening
and here’s the head, a big blind fish
thrashing inside its see-through sack
and for a moment the panting mare
desists, lies still as death.
I tear the caul, look into eyes
as innocent, as skittery
as minnows. Three heaves, the shoulders pass.
The hips emerge. Fluid as snakes
the hind legs trail out glistering.
The whole astonished filly, still
attached, draws breath and whinnies
a treble tremolo that leaps
in her mother who nickers a low-key response.
Let them prosper, the dams and their sucklings.
Let nothing inhibit their heedless growing.
Let them raise up on sturdy pasterns
and trot out in light summer rain
onto the long lazy unfenced fields
Having a foal in the oven shortens the winter better than anything else. Nothing takes the bite out of a New England February like the daydream of a new youngster on spindly legs racing across the pasture in midsummer. We prepared well in advance, filling the narrow stall at the back of the barn to the brim with green pine sawdust. The reason for my vigilance was a stillbirth with no one in attendance many years ago. Afterward I realized that from our bedroom I had heard a kick in the barn but didn’t rouse myself to investigate. Presumably the caul over the foal’s nose never ruptured, and the bewildered first-time mother didn’t intervene. Some things we can never forgive ourselves for.
Traditionally, a week before due date I moved down, spreading my sleeping bag on top of the sawdust pile and hanging a trouble light from a hook over my head so that I could read between dozing and waiting for the first restless sounds made by a mare going into labor in the adjoining stall. Victor had rigged an intercom so that I could call him; he could pull on sweatpants and boots and get down to the barn in 90 seconds. He was calm and sensible. I was invariably in a state of exalted terror, focused on all the things I learned at clinics that can go wrong. Our vet was almost an hour away. Even though I’d never had to open them, I had a package of sterile, elbow-length plastic gloves ready. A squirt bottle of iodine was at hand to sterilize the umbilicus. The mare was wearing an old leather halter we kept for this occasion. (Unbreakable nylon halters are accidents waiting to happen.)
I had learned to doze through snuffling and snorting sounds, arisings and lyings-down, and how to come abruptly awake at the final unmistakable sounds of beginning labor. But there’s more to it than that, aspects I have tried to describe in this excerpt from “Sleeping with Animals”:
Nightly I choose to keep this covenant
with a wheezing broodmare …
who grunts in her sleep in the vocables
of the vastly pregnant ….
I in my mummy bag just outside her stall
observe … gradations of
the ancient noneditorial dark ….
What we say to each other in the cold black
of April, conveyed in a wordless yet perfect
language of touch and tremor, connects
us most surely to the wet cave we all
once burst from gasping, naked or furred
into our separate species.
Most mares foaled at night; probably in their undomesticated state they took advantage of the cover of darkness. But one of our mares delivered her foal in midmorning out in our farthest field, surrounded by the rest of the herd. By the time we found her, she was back on her feet, it was raining, and Jack was trying to lick the foal dry. We had to make several trips to remove the terribly curious nonparents from the vicinity. Then we led the gentle quarter horse mare across five acres of pasture and down a craggy hillside to the barn. The hours-old baby bopped along merrily, unfazed.
In the winter of 1979, I rescued another horse. Medas Genesis—I called her Gennie—was a Standardbred who had failed at the track. She had been confined in a space just wide enough to turn around in, and when she came to us, she had barely enough muscle left to walk into the trailer. A month later I took her with me to New Jersey, where I was teaching a poetry workshop at Princeton for a semester. I boarded her at a 600-acre estate half an hour from the university where she shared an enormous pasture with a dozen Welsh ponies. Every morning I taught my seminar and every afternoon I drove out to ride Gennie.
This experiment was so successful that in 1981, when I was appointed U.S. poet laureate, I took five-year-old Boomer with me to Washington. At six every morning I drove against the flow of traffic to Potomac, Maryland, where Boomer was the queen of three adoring hunt club geldings. (No live foxes were involved; the club dragged an artificial scent.) I fed the foursome, mucked out, rode my mare, and made it back to the Library of Congress by 11.
Finding a temporary home for Boomer in the D.C. area was serendipitous; the preceding August at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, I had met a psychiatrist poet-wannabe from Potomac. He and his wife had an empty box stall and an eight-acre field just 30 minutes from Capitol Hill, and he offered it in exchange for my help with his manuscript.
It had taken me years to screw up the courage to accept a position on the Bread Loaf faculty. I was simply too intimidated by the big names. It was my good fortune that the director, John Ciardi, persevered with his invitations. I became a staff member in 1969, returning half a dozen times to spend two weeks in mid-August meeting and making some lifelong friends. Well before my time, Robert Frost himself was a frequent visitor at the staff house. His presence there was mythic and inspired this imaginary encounter in “The Final Poem”:
… don’t sit
there mumbling in the shadows, call
yourselves poets? All
but a handful scattered. Fate
rearranged us happy few at his feet.
He rocked us until midnight.
Reaching for the knob of his cane
he rose and flung this exit line:
Make every poem your final poem.
The mountainous woods around Bread Loaf were superb for foraging for wild mushrooms. I had already earned a reputation as a mycophagist when assistant director Sandy Martin and I were observed raising a ladder on campus to bring down a good array of oyster mushrooms growing on a tree. On rainy days Ciardi would tap his glass at lunch and announce, “The Witch of Fungi will lead a mushroom walk at three p.m.” In Treman House, the staff retreat where faculty convened for preprandial drinks, we sautéed our chanterelles and oyster mushrooms to accompany our martinis. A goodly amount of drinking went on later in the lubricious evenings as well. Bread Loaf was known in some circles as Bed Loaf.
Foraging for mushrooms had attracted me years before we first glimpsed our farm. What fascinated me was nature’s bounty, the chance to reap where you did not sow. I took a course offered by the Boston Mycological Society, found mushroom books in the local library, and eventually collected a dozen handbooks to contrast and compare pictures. I knew enough to obey two cardinal rules: never mingle species and never pick any mushroom with white gills—the underpart of the cap—for fear of unknowingly gathering the destroying angel, deadliest of the Amanita.
The first mushroom we actually ate was the shaggy mane Coprinus, sometimes called the lawyer’s wig, with delicate gray gills that turn black and melt—deliquesce—as the fungus ages. It was plentiful and proved serviceable, if not outstanding, for soup. Guests from the city were wary; would they or wouldn’t they? Eating wild mushrooms was exotic and dangerous. We persevered. By midsummer clusters of yellow flutelike chanterelles appeared along the woods roads and were even more visible from horseback. We treasured them simply sautéed or in omelets.
By September mushrooms were everywhere in the forest. Oyster mushrooms growing on dead or dying trees became our favorites. One afternoon, while I was riding with a friend, a rich clump growing well above our heads came into view. I dismounted and held both horses’ bridles while my companion stood up on her saddle like a circus acrobat to pluck the tree clean. We picked and enjoyed the distinctive yellow-orange sulfur polypore known as chicken-of-the-woods, as well as half a dozen other mushrooms. In “The Dreamer, the Dream” I described Armillaria mellea, where the dreamer comes
upon great clusters of honey mushrooms
breaking the heart of old oak
a hundred caps grotesquely piggyback
on one another, a caramel mountain
all powdered with their white spores
printing themselves in no notebook
and all this they do in secret …
lumbering from their dark fissure
going up like a dream going on.
Since species tend to regrow in the same locales year by year, we triumphantly reaped annual crops where we had not planted, tended, or tilled. Alas, the prized morel has turned up only once despite our ardent searches.
Another crop we hadn’t tended grew in heavy clumps around the back of Henry Manley’s house. (Henry, an elderly former sawmill worker, lived half a mile away.) I described it in “Extrapolations from Henry Manley’s Pie Plant”: “[t]he stalks as thick as cudgels, red / as valentines, a quarter-acre bed.”
He told us to help ourselves. When I took him a juicy rhubarb crisp, he allowed as how it wasn’t half-bad. But just as heavy frosts overtook the mushroom season, Henry Manley, too, succumbed. First he moved in with neighbors who looked after him in exchange for his Social Security check. Then, as he grew frailer, a place was found for him in a nursing home, where he died after three months. His untended house had filled with porcupines and dry rot and had to be razed. The new property owners, Bonnie and Gary, first constructed a big two-story barn; the box stalls suggested that they intended to have horses. While they built a modest new house on the exact footprint of the old, they were living in a trailer with two young daughters, a dog, two cats, and a parakeet. Their vet asked them to take a four-month old mutt he had been ordered to put down; its owners had confined the puppy to a second-story porch all day and complained that when they came home from work, he was too hyper to deal with. Bonnie and Gary took him in but the trailer felt very crowded. Would we?
He was part spitz, part a jumble of other breeds, his name was Joshua. Amiable Gus, our resident dog, folded the puppy in like a playtoy, even tolerating having him hang onto his jowls as they ran downhill behind us when we set out on horseback. Every day Joshua revisited his prior digs, trotting back home with a talisman from Bonnie and Gary’s barn: a child’s rubber boot, a currycomb, a mangled halter (by then the family had acquired a Shetland pony), once, to my initial horror until I could see it wasn’t human, a big baby doll. His finest hour came when he trudged uphill with a pair of ice skates tied together. Lugging them by the laces, he progressed 20 feet, then set his burden down to catch his breath, then proceeded doggedly. After that, a door was installed at the top of the steps leading to the barn storage area.
Gus and his littermate Claude had come to us two years after we made the final move to PoBiz Farm, and they ran together like a pack. The only way to keep them on the premises was to chain one of them at a time, and this made us all unhappy. We gave Claude to a poet and his wife, who subsequently gave him away; I never heard what Claude’s ultimate fate was. That guilt haunts me as does Jack’s, from the poem that bears his name.
That spring, in the bustle of grooming
and riding and shoeing, I remember I let him go
to a neighbor I thought was a friend, and the following
fall she sold him down the river. I meant to
but never did go looking for him, to buy him back
and now my old guilt is flooding this twilit table …
Although Gus had thrived as an only dog, he tended to hang out with the horses. He and Joshua got on well together, but they never showed any impulse to bond as a pair and wander off without us. We were startled and then alarmed 12 years later when Gus disappeared. We put ads in the local lost-and-found columns, hung posters downtown, alerted everyone we knew that he was missing. I had a nagging worry I kept to myself: that winter a trapper had requested permission to set traps on our land. I had refused but perhaps none too politely. Two weeks later I spotted, floating on the far side of the pond, what I at first mistook for a white birch log with black markings. It was Gus’s body. I pulled off my shoes, waded in the chilly April water fully clothed, then swam to his drowned form and tugged him back to the dam. His body was perfectly preserved. There were no marks of a trap, no visibly broken bones. He might have been frogging and had a heart attack, the kindest death I could imagine for him. Victor was in Texas that week. Bonnie and Gary came up the hill and helped me dig a grave on the berm of the pond where Gus had been the “Custodian.” It was a sweet memory, but I wept over every shovelful.
Enter our spotted dog.
Every summer, tense with the scent of them
… he stalks his frogs … an old pensioner
happy in his work.
Once every ten or so pounces
he succeeds, carries his captive north
in his soft mouth, uncorks him on the grass,
and then sits, head cocked, watching the slightly
dazed amphibian hop back to sanctuary.
Over the years the pond’s inhabitants
seem to have grown accustomed
to this ritual of capture and release.
They ride untroubled in the wet pocket
of the dog’s mouth, disembark in the meadow
like hitchhikers, and strike out again for home …
A few weeks later I went to New York to attend the annual banquet of the Academy of American Poets, where I was getting an award. Each table had eight place settings; one stood empty at our table. After the opening remarks and fruit cup, Stanley Moss, the poet and publisher of Sheep Meadow Press, arrived breathless and somewhat disheveled. Driving down the West Side Highway from Riverdale, he had seen a
collarless dog loose in traffic and watched it narrowly avoid being struck several times. He pulled over, leapt from his car, yanking his belt loose as he pursued the dog. The captive was in his car, parked just down the street.
Between the main course and dessert, my editor at Norton and I trooped out with Stanley to see what he had rescued: a big, skinny dog, part German shepherd, possibly part collie, was contentedly curled up on the back seat. He had to be neutered, wormed, given rabies and distemper shots, and treated for severe dehydration. Stanley and his wife Jane paid all the vet bills but found they could not make peace between their old dog and the newcomer. Would we? Once he was fit to travel, the Mosses drove up to New Hampshire with him. It was my turn to do the naming; years ago Victor had named the two barn cats Abra and Cadabra when I had lobbied for the Dickinson sisters Emily and Lavinia. I chose to name our new dog Rilke because he had been rescued by the angels that lurked in the poet’s poems. Rilke instantly attached himself to Victor, forming a lifetime bond. He was polite and accepting of family members but barked at any vehicle or pedestrian who came up the hill, including meter readers, UPS drivers, and propane gas deliverers. Although he never growled, that black face conveyed a certain menace to strangers.
Our next needy dog came by way of our son’s childhood friend. On a driving vacation with his wife in Xochiapulco, Mexico, they had taken in a small bedraggled terrier type, smuggled him back into the States, hid him in their no-pets-allowed apartment while they were house-hunting, only to be betrayed by a neighbor. Another late-night phone call: Would we?
Xochi proved admirable and easygoing. Both he and Rilke learned after one expensive encounter with a porcupine to keep their distance from all quilly pigs. Some dogs, our vet explained, go back immediately to do battle and can never be cured of the desire for revenge. We had to return a miniature dachshund to our equine vet after one hefty bill for quill removal; she found this little bundle of ferocity a new home with a fenced back yard.
We were used to 60-pound dogs who thumped their way into or out of a room; Xochi padded about as noiselessly as a cat. He moved from rug to chair to sofa to bed. Down! We drew the line at beds. But the life of “this part rat terrier, part / the kind of dog who lives in a lady’s lap” came to a very sad end after only six years with us. He was attacked by a visiting dog, and although the three bites looked minor, by evening Xochi seemed troublingly lethargic. Medical crises, whether human or animal, invariably occur after office hours. We drove to the nearest emergency vet clinic 20 miles away and paid $100 up front before any evaluation took place. After a physical exam followed by x-rays determined this was indeed a minor incident, we paid another $200 and drove home. The vet said she had given Xochi a light tranquilizer so that he could have a good sleep. I sat with him on the couch as his breathing slowed. He died an hour later in my arms. The attending vet insisted he must have had a preexisting condition and offered to perform an autopsy. We declined. The bitter taste this incident left in my mouth remains to this day.
We didn’t know there were to be two more canine rescues heading our way. A hound dog was next. Virgil had had a hard history. His first owners had taken him in from Death Row, a kill shelter in Pennsylvania. The second adoption went sour for reasons unknown and he was turned over to a different shelter. This time he had pulled the dog walker down the front steps of a Brooklyn brownstone and broken her jaw. The midnight phone call asked, Would we? We didn’t especially want another dog so soon after losing the little guy who says, in the last lines of his sonnet “Xochi’s Tale,” “I dwell in heaven but without the wings,” but how could I resist one bearing a poet’s name? A city apartment was no place for a young hound dog; he needed space to run. The first time we opened the farmhouse door and invited him out he looked back at us in disbelief. Then he took off, nose down, across the pastures. After letting him out early every morning, we could hear him baying in the distance, making ever-wider circles around the farm, using his own built-in GPS. Virgil had his own sonnet, which ends,
He longs for love with all his poet’s soul.
His eyebrows make him look intelligent.
We save our choicest food scraps for his bowl.
What I said about no dogs on beds was not quite true. After a nearly fatal carriage-driving accident in 1998, I could no longer navigate the steep, uneven staircase to the second floor. Victor hired an architect to design an addition to the back of the house for me, a modern bathroom with stall shower and a combination study and bedroom. Once I moved into my new quarters, Virgil took possession of my twin bed butted up against Victor’s.
I don’t remember how we learned about the plight of Rosie, a 14-pound bundle of self-sufficiency, who was found with a human corpse and a dozen other dogs in the small town of Decatur, Tennessee. She came north steerage class in a tractor-trailer full of stacks of dogs in crates. We were told she had a slight heart murmur; only weeks after she arrived, she was diagnosed by our own trusted vet as being in congestive heart failure. She was 10 years old and had spent her life either in a crate or on the concrete floor of a kennel, and knowledge of that helped us deal with the harsh reality that she might die at any minute. In actuality, this homely little mutt with bat ears and an anteater nose had three good years to race across the pasture, dabble in the pond, go fearlessly in and out of the horses’ stalls while they were eating, tell Virgil where he could sit, and assume command of the household.
I have never been able to keep our animals, their births, eccentricities, and deaths, out of my poems. About a year after her lungs filled with water and Rosie was struggling to breathe, the vet euthanized her in my arms. We brought her home to take her place in the growing graveyard of overloved horses and dogs. My grief for this joyful life cut short surprised me with its intensity. Two years later I was able to assume her voice.
shriven: to have obtained absolution
Now that I’m gone perhaps they’ll forgive my sins—
those times I woke in the night and trotted
downstairs to relieve myself—not only of urine—
on the guest room rug; they’ll allow me the junco I caught
and swallowed whole except for a last indigest-
ible feather; grant me the chipmunk that followed,
its tail protruding, until with a final gust
I managed to get it down, harshly swallowed.
Aren’t these mere peccadilloes compared to my gifts?
When green beans were topped and tailed wasn’t
I there to search and destroy the stray bits?
I was the secret snorkeler, the pointy-nosed peasant
who served under the table at meals, who leapt
into laps at leisure, or performed when the cue was given,
rolling over and over, delighting the guests.
Wasn’t I ever the darling? Tell me I’m shriven.
Victor and I reached an unspoken agreement that we wouldn’t take in any more waifs after Rosie. Just keeping PoBiz Farm up and running—stalls and pastures mucked out, fences in good repair, dead trees chainsawed and stacked, garden composted, planted, and tended daily—required extra help. The poetry business was in full swing, which meant I was spending a lot of time away from the farm. We hired a wonderful quasi-Buddhist caretaker who stayed with us for four years before retiring. His successor was Kevin, a former state policeman who, in addition to his many skills with guns (translation: porcupine eradication), chainsaws, and machinery in general, was a comfortable companion on horseback. By then Boomer had been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, a disorder of the pituitary gland common in older horses, and deemed no longer safe to ride. My good friend, the journalist and author Ann Jones, needed a home for her aging white gelding named Sailor, a bombproof horse who would stand directly under sheets of snow cascading off the barn roof while the others flew out to pasture in terror. We were happy to offer him a home. Kevin would boost me up from the mounting block to Sailor’s broad back, he would swing onto Deuter, the horse I loved and who came so close to ending my life in the freak driving accident, and we would go for a decorous half-hour walk-and-trot.
From 1998 on I suffered constant neuropathic pain but learned to live with it; at least I was back in the saddle for a few years. Then Deuter’s nosebleeds began. Losing him to cancer of the sinuses was devastating. I had seen this handsome chestnut gelding into the world 26 years ago when “he staggered to his feet / with only a few false lunges in the predawn black and suckled / in small audible gulps from his warm mother.” Now “I stood with him feeding / him apple slices slowly slowly making them last … when [the vet] shot the syringe full of pentobarb into his vein … He dropped / with a thud, a slain king … the taste of apple wasting in his mouth.”
Only two horses remained. Our needs had changed; we needed someone capable of taking on regular housekeeping chores along with the daily horse care, the garden and seasonal mowing. Kevin was ready to retire. We parted friends, and Suzy, newly retired from lawyering, returned to the farm.
In 1991 I was asked to provide an entry for a Festschrift in celebration of the poet May Sarton’s 80th birthday. It seems even more apt today than it did when I composed it in my youthful 65th year.
When I think of growing older—suddenly, one is sixty, then, incredibly, seventy, miraculously, eighty!—I think of a term equestrians use to describe changing from one gait to a higher one. It is called making an upward transition.
Mid-autumn, when the weather turns brisk, our horses can’t seem to make an upward transition without inserting a buck or two. We avoid using the word canter that incites, and fall back instead on a code. As a hill approaches, one rider may say to another, “Would you like to watermelon up this?” We hope to depart from the trot in a seemly manner, as bucks are quite contagious, horse to horse.
Certainly our human desire is to make all our upward transitions in a seemly fashion. We need neither code words nor euphemisms. When we hurt, we hurt. When we fall sick, we name the disease. And when we can get from day to day with some relish, we deserve to congratulate ourselves.
It’s the upward transition that holds me fast. I make a point of looking across to the pobiz farm sign on the front of the haymow. What do I want for it after we’re gone, all but 30 of its 200 acres conserved with the New Hampshire Forest Society? I don’t expect it to be handed down in the family; the grown children have other lives, other responsibilities. But my hope is that the farm will again fill with horses. That some unwanted dogs will be welcomed here and know love. That the ghost of Boomer, whose great age let me almost think her immortal, will return where she
… gleams like a waxed
uphill to pasture,
I try to imagine
the sweet tasseled fields
the blind glass of midnight
to summon the others
the little herd will
close around her absence,
the way they’ll go
on grazing, mouths slobber-
full of the last clover.
This concludes an autobiographical essay by Maxine Kumin, who died February 6, 2014, at the age of 88. The first part, “Our Farm, My Inspiration,” appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of the Scholar. Kumin’s most recent essay collection, The Roots of Things, was published in 2010.
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