Up Country by Maxine Kumin; Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath
by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in the New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1972.
Read together, these two excellent books cause us to ask ourselves one of the riddles of life: Why is the experience of one human being so vastly different from that of another? Why, in two sensitive, intelligent, gifted women poets should the energies of art be so differently employed? Where one discovers in nature a “presence” of “something else that went before” (Kumin in “The Presence”), the other discovers a helpless “blue dissolve” and shadows “chanting, but easing nothing” (Plath in “Winter Trees”). Where one does not shy away from “populating symptoms” or from the stunning horrors of a physical world gone into error, the other acquiesces to the symptoms, the horrors, “the shriek in the bath,/The cloak of holes” (Plath, ”Purdah”) and seems perversely to honor them, to insist upon them, to refuse to make any judgment that might transpose the mysteries of nature into an adult, human art.
Maxine Kumin’s book acknowledges its debt to Thoreau, though in my opinion Kumin’s poetry gives us a sharp-edged, unflinching and occasionally nightmarish subjectivity exasperatingly absent in Thoreau. The most valuable, because most powerful, statements of the transcendental experience are those rooted firmly in existence, however private or eccentric. We are ready to believe Miss Kumin’s energetic praises of nature, her insistence upon her own place in it—”we teem, we overgrow . . .we are making a run for it”—because we have suffered along with her the contraction of the universe to a child’s nighttime horror of bats, her occasional despair, her speculations upon forms of mortality in an old burying ground. When, in the book’s final poem, she states firmly that “We have our own constants” and “To be reasonable is to let go,” we are fully prepared to believe her. The experience of “Up Country’s” 42 poems is dramatic and visionary, but above all convincing.
The setting is rural New England, but the imagination is boundless. Miss Kumin gets into the mind of a hermit whose dog has been sprayed by a skunk (“Skunk is the mother bed, the ripe taste/of carrion, the green kiss”), she amuses us with an old handbook of “simplex” (home remedies for ailments), she dramatizes mud (“An army/of lips works in its own ocean”), she effortlessly condemns the eating of meat, she takes us through a distinctively feminine/female experience of temporary loss, in which we hear not Anne Sexton’s voice so much as the common, universal woman’s voice that Sexton so powerfully dramatizes in her own way. Any group of poems that deal with nature is more or less committed to the honoring of cycles, the birth/death/birth wheel, the phenomenon of creatures giving way to creatures, “the pond’s stillness . . . pocked with life” (“Creatures”), yet no poem really repeats another’s theme, and it is a formidable feat for Miss Kumin to have attempted such a variety of points of view, none of them strained or artificial.
A typical success is “Turning To,” in which love forces the poet to think of Death “in these connections”— and to imagine herself and her lover as frogs. They must die, presumably, but “Meanwhile/let us cast one shadow/in air or water” . . . “Let us turn to, until/the giant flashlight/ comes down on us/and we are rammed home on the corkscrew gig/one at a time/and lugged off belly to belly.” “Up Country” demonstrates beautifully how the transcendental vision is really the vision of imaginative existential life, available to anyone who seeks it.
“Winter Trees” is Sylvia Plath’s last collection of poems, most of them contemporary with “Ariel” and “Crossing the Water”; the single most powerful work in the volume is “Three Women,” a radio play set in a “Maternity Ward and round about,” though all of the poems—those that are obviously not-quite-finished as well as those that are technically perfect—have that exquisite, heartbreaking quality about them that has made Sylvia Plath our acknowledged Queen of Sorrows, the spokeswoman for our most private, most helpless nightmares. Though we move on, as we must, to the inevitable next-phase of our personal and collective existence, we are nevertheless reminded of the horror we have somehow experienced, as children, as adults-not-quite-freed-of-childhood, whenever we read any poem of Plath’s. Her poetry is as deathly as it is impeccable; it enchants us almost as powerfully as it must have enchanted her. To break the spell we need only read another poet—let us say, for instance, Maxine Kumin; but, perhaps, this is the one thing Sylvia Plath herself could not do.
“Winter Trees” contains 24 poems in addition to the radio play, and many of them are comparable to the best poems of “Ariel.” All take us through a personality-disguised-as-the-world, in which the terrifying question is asked: “Is there no way out of the mind?’ (“Apprehensions”). There are tentative replies to this question, but all are burdened with their own kinds of terror. In “Mystic,” the poet speculates upon the possibility of being “seized up” by God “Without a part left over,/Not a toe, not a finger,” and finds this “remedy” inhuman; in “For a Fatherless Son,” the poet acknowledges her child’s temporary innocence, but warns that “You will be aware of an absence, presently” and seems to anticipate her own death—”One day you may touch what’s wrong—The small skulls, the smashed blue hills, the godawful hush.” One of the mothers in “Three Women” seems to achieve a kind of salvation, through childbirth, but Plath is surely not this woman who fearfully limits herself only to “meditate upon normality” and who wills—horribly—her new-born son “to be common” and not exceptional. Plath is closer to the woman who, having lost her baby, asks herself, “What is it I miss? Shall I ever find it, whatever it is?”
Both Sylvia Plath and Maxine Kumin would passionately affirm Thoreau’s declaration “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” And both have investigated thoroughly the relationships between the self and the otherness of both an external environment and an interior, bewildering depthless world of the psyche. Yet one book affirms life; the other affirms death. We are ultimately mysterious to ourselves, as much as we are to one another. But perhaps we may say, hopefully, audaciously, that the “winter trees” of our experience make up one part—but only one part—of the “up country” of our time.
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.
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