The Pawnbroker’s Daughter: A Memoir
To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964
by Maxine Kumin
Norton / 2015, pp. 160, $25.95
The Less-Invisible Jew
by Benjamin Ivry
The recently published posthumous publication, The Pawnbroker’s Daughter: A Memoir, draws attention to the powers of endurance of the American Jewish poet Maxine Kumin (1925-2014). The Yiddish word for strength, koyach, might have been the middle name of Kumin, a skilled swimmer and horsewoman who battled back after a near-fatal carriage-driving accident at age 73. As described in her 2000 memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery, even the direst moments sparked reactions worthy of a Jewish mother: “While I am pinioned flat on my back, I am almost as black and blue with grief and guilt for causing anguish to my family as is my torn body.” Her athletic appearance in early photos scattered through The Pawnbroker’s Daughter remind us of the Bess Myerson era of Jewish beauties. So sporty and presentable was Kumin that at age 18, she was offered a job as a swimmer in a touring production of Billy Rose’s Aquacade. Her participation was nixed by her father, the prosperous pawnbroker of her book’s title. Instead, she would find prolonged gratification in writing, running a New Hampshire horse farm and raising a family.
The full scope of Kumin’s writing, including novels, essays, short stories and children’s books, tends to be overlooked, just as her poetry is not widely read. Part of the reason may be that her personality still overshadows her publications, and her honors, including a stint as U. S. Poet Laureate, may be cited more often than her work. Further, there are some misunderstandings about the role of Judaism in her poetic achievement.
In an essay for the Jewish Women’s Archive, poet Jessica Rosenfeld asserts that in Kumin’s poems, her Jewish background is “practically invisible.” An entry in The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States by Yiddish and Jewish studies professor Kathryn Hellerstein concurs, finding only “occasional” exploration of Jewish themes in Kumin’s work. Yet in a 2010 article published in Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal, Lois Elinoff Rubin, an associate professor of English at Penn State University, sets the record straight. She argues that a considerable amount of Kumin’s poetry, like her memoir, is preoccupied with Jewish identity. One of her most celebrated poems, Woodchucks, describes attempts to eliminate a garden pest with awareness of her role as exterminator:
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 shoe-horned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub basement out of range.
Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.
[…] If only they’d all consented to die unseen
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.
A non-Jewish poet would likely not have drawn parallels to the Holocaust in quite this sotto voce manner. Inattentive readers of Kumin’s poetry, referring to her rural themes, mocked her as “Roberta Frost,” an insult to both Kumin and Robert Frost. Kumin’s best poetry finds moral messages in rural life, without assuming the faux cracker-barrel philosopher stance and godly pose unique to Frost. She was always aware of being a Philadelphia-born Jewish pawnbroker’s daughter. Nor have more seriously intended critical comparisons to Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell been helpful for understanding Kumin. Like any poetic talent, Kumin must be seen as unique and on her own terms, not according to some prefabricated idea about a group or class of poets.
Kumin’s sporty energy, willpower and resolve differ from the neurasthenia of Bishop and the latter’s asthmatic, alcoholic, tormented existence. The optimism and exuberance of Kumin are unlike poets tormented by madness (Lowell) and suicidal impulses (Sexton, Plath). Kumin enjoyed a happy marriage for more than six decades with Victor Kumin, an engineer who helped build the atomic bomb at Los Alamos and still lives on their New Hampshire farm. Her uncanny balance and poise, especially for a poet of her generation of disastrously abbreviated literary lives, revise the image of poet as loser. A doughty feminist, Kumin wrote about her evolving views. Early in Kumin’s career, John Ciardi, poetry editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, stated that he would love to publish one of her poems, but he “published a woman last month.” It took a while before the unfairness of this reasoning struck her. The Pawnbroker’s Daughter contains passages describing growing pains:
“To be a Jewish child in Germantown in the thirties was sometimes difficult. On bad days, older kids chased us downhill from school yelling Christ-killer! In class, a schoolmate might mutter I don’t want to sit next to a Jew… [My mother] was driven wild by any of us gesticulating in the course of a conversation. ‘Don’t talk with your hands,’ she hissed. ‘You look like an immigrant.’ Until I was in my teens I believed that only Jews used gestures or stood close enough to breathe on each other as they conversed.”
There were also episodes of social ostracism in the Catholic school that she attended for a time because it was located next door to the family home. Still, Kumin implies that her pathway as a Jewish poet was notably smoother than as a female writer. Interviewed by the poet Enid Shomer in the Winter 1996 issue of The Massachusetts Review, Kumin listed male poets who inspired and encouraged her:
“When I was an undergraduate, I was really seized by Karl Shapiro’s poems. In a way, [Howard] Nemerov continued that tradition of taking on the most mundane facts (storm windows, vacuum cleaners) and exploding them into poems. I greatly admired Howard. He was a pal of my desk for many many years. He commented, often acerbically, on poems of mine in process and I was happy to have the comments.” In speaking of exceptions to the general attitude of machismo in U.S. poetry, Kumin points out that “[Anthony] Hecht adored Alicia Ostriker’s work and said so. Nemerov praised several young women poets. Stanley Kunitz has been a bulwark for young women, from Maxine Kumin to Marie Howe on down. There’s a whole list of women who could pay homage to Stanley Kunitz.”
More typical was the admonition from the Iowa-born author Wallace Stegner, who taught Kumin creative writing at Radcliffe and jotted on her tyro efforts: “Say it with flowers, but for God’s sake don’t try to write poems.” This rebuke silenced her as a poet for more than a decade. Eventually she persisted, and produced such multi-layered poems as Nurture:
[…] I am drawn to such dramas of animal rescue.
They are warm in the throat. I suffer, the critic proclaims,
from an overabundance of maternal genes.
Bring me your fallen fledgling, your bummer lamb,
lead the abused, the starvelings, into my barn.
Advise the hunted deer to leap into my corn.”
As much Emma Lazarus as Florence Nightingale, alluded to in the above lines, Kumin combined a Victorian spirit of back-to-nature with sometimes heavily clotted writing of the Pre-Raphaelites. Kumin’s verse could seem prosy at times, naturally enough given her profound interest in novels. At Radcliffe, she wrote an honors thesis, “Amorality and the Protagonist in the Novels of Stendhal and Dostoevsky.” Kumin’s best work, whether in prose or poetry, invites attention to how she assumed her heritage while striving to transcend categorizations.
Posterity must one day evaluate Kumin’s literary legacy on its own merits, separating the wheat from the chaff. More than a memoir or the seemingly inevitable biography further focusing readers’ attention on her life and away from her works, a small volume of selected writings—including some of her neglected prose—would be a helpful guide.
Benjamin Ivry is the author of a poetry collection, Paradise for the Portuguese Queen. Among his works is a biography of Rimbaud and many articles and translations on poetry, music and the arts.