JOY AND THE COSMOS


Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems, Lorna Goodison
[124pp Carcanet 9.95]
Jack and Other New Poems, Maxine Kumin
[112pp Norton $13.95]


Two poets who between them span the planet and never fail to interest: Lorna Goodison and Maxine Kumin are both highly experienced and successful poets. So, are these two new books up to the mark? Let's see.

Goldengrove  begins with a clutch of new poems, before representing her previous collections with well-chosen highlights. The opening poem sets the tone immediately. Its fifteen lines take on the appearance and feeling of a sonnet, without the sense of artifice which can be a danger of this form. It has something of the quality of Larkin's 'Days' while remaining positive and somehow feminine:

     On love lane, the chemist and dispenser
     changes each day into a fresh clean gown
          ('Balm')

Only what is being dispensed here is love potions. The poem is exquisitely sensuous, using words like 'unguent' and 'aromatic atoms'. Goodison makes magic with words and one falls under her spell with delight.  Next follows a sequence based on a powerful and charming character, Cassamere, drawn from 'a narrative by W. H. Hinson. The persona in the sequence is his apprentice, which is a perfect choice for an observer. The sequence reads like a verse novel, as we are shown the biography of the character in the most delightful way, using wonderfully precise words, which charm every bit as much as the character himself:

     He rewired black holes that shone forth like in the ages
     when they were fully occupied by our sky guardians
     who had looked down and seen those wicked ships
     and descended to crouch with us on our rough passage.
          ('Fireworks')

Goodison here smoothly moves from the topic of the poem, which contains other wonderful things, like a reference to Blake ('the stars threw/ down their spears from the Heavens over Blue Mountains') to the collective memories of slavery, in one masterful movement setting up resonances which move us all the more profoundly by being understated, without a trace of special pleading or sentimentality. She creates or recalls people who move us by their dignity and love, such as, in 'Rock of Ages', the woman who plays the organ in church:

     Come Sunday, she sits straight-backed
     adjusts her gold-framed spectacles,          
     sight reads and plays the pipe organ
     for common prayers who whisper behind her back,

     but never to her face set like flint.

The stanza break here is beautifully used to create a sense of shock. We are drawn into the poem, as we want to hear what they could possibly have to say against this brave and upright woman; the story we hear is about her faithless husband, yet it marks her with shame. By the end of the poem, she has become Christ-like, suffering for his sins. Yes, the new poems do measure up, and they fill the reader with a hunger for more Lorna Goodison, and so, on to the rest of the book, where there are no disappointments but plenty of golden moments. People still figure highly, and there are poems about music (as well as references to music embedded in many of the poems), travel, art, history and philosophy. I will be reading this book for a long time and suggest you should too. It's the perfect introduction to this important and deeply compassionate poet.


Jack is Kumin's fifteenth collection, and is rather a lovely thing, printed on thick cream paper, with a stunning painting by Wolf Kahn on the cover. These poems are more loosely strung than Goodison's; they have that relaxed conversational style so characteristic of contemporary American poetry. Kumin often chooses not to punctuate, just using line breaks to structure the work, and she is also fond of lists:

      Fox on his back in a hole
      snake eyes in the walls asleep
      grubs shellacked in their coils
      sap locked tight to the pith
      roots sucking a hollow tooth
       a brown and pregnant bear
      leaf-wrapped like an old cigar...

This is the central stanza in 'Fox on his Back', a lovely poem in homage to Theodore Roethke, based on the idea that the winter is to remember love. She also loves fables and fairy stories. 'Widow and Dog' tells a story about how a widow welcomes animals into her life and begins writing poetry, to console herself. The language in it is beautifully kinaesthetic and onomatopoeic:

      Autumn fell on them in a joyous rush. The first
      needles of hard frost, the newly sharp wind, the final
      sweep and swirl of leaves, a swash of all day rain

It can also be seen that Kumin is a splendid nature poet, as well she might be, living in New Hampshire which Frost was so delightfully inspired by in his turn. In fact, the similarity with Frost can be striking in several places.

Another poem I enjoyed, and I am often too lazy to read long poems, but this one draws you in so completely it didn't feel like a long poem, is 'The Brothers'. It uses the story of Chang and Eng, the famous conjoined twins, as a fable about sibling animosity, interweaving the two stories, the twins and the persona's brothers skilfully, sustains it using a simple three lines per stanza form, until a bleak ending is reached:

      Their widows are condemned to dine
      on plattersful of hate to the end.

This ending is immediately super-ceded by a happy one, in which 'the brothers die like Chang and Eng/minutes apart', which reconciles the two broken branches of the family. It's an excellent narrative poem which really provokes thought. There's a memorable and touching poem about a phone call with her dead father, to which I keep returning. It is totally unsentimental, even funny, yet it ultimately moves one completely. They almost start to argue, just as fathers and daughters do, and he gets on to his hobby horse about not buying land on a hill. It's just so honest and perfectly evokes the relationship.

The title poem is another poem of loss; this time for 'a big-nosed roan gelding' she 'let go' to a friend who 'sold him down the river'. This reference to the slave trade works well here because the sense of betrayal is so strong, and is also implies the horse was sold to cruel new owners who worked him to death. The poem is an elegy for him in which she consoles herself by wondering if he remembered his last winter with her, even when he was 'alone' in a 'rough stall'. The book ends with a beautiful love poem, which simply considers the small everyday survivals the very essence of love:

     If these are Virginia and Leonard, are they not
     also you and me taking up the coffee
     grinder or scraping bits of omlet free
     for the waiting dogs who salivate and sit?

    
Never to say what one feels. And yet
     this is a love poem. Can you taste it?

Kumin's collection is full of such delights, as is Goodison's. So, yes, these two books preserve the poets' reputations and add to them. Two very different poets in terms of techniques and voice, but both compassionate and full of love, character and sense of history. Both collections celebrate the resilience of humankind and the endurance of love.

         Angela Topping 2006