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November 10, 2007

In Deep: Country Essays by Maxine Kumin

How many writers have led lives of sustained contentment? How many personal essays express happiness and fulfillment in almost every line? Wouldn't such consistency bore readers? Not necessarily. Maxine Kumin's In Deep: Country Essays draws us into a happiness as varied as beauty. She has married herself to her plot of New Hampshire woods, her immense garden, her horses, and her farmhouse. Her essays revel in the dignity of labor that follows the seasons, in curious and succulent language, and in the hard-earned bounty of a New England farm. In Deep has a loose, eclectic feel. It rambles between jubilant descriptions of the way horses move, journal entries, affectionate ruminations on Thoreau, and a disquisition on the parallels between poet and mule. Her affection for the homey and oldfashioned shows in the following passage:

On the opposite wall a framed poster advertises the virtues of the Andes stove, a porcelain monster foursquare on its black bowlegs. Makes poor cooks good and good cooks better, reads the unabashed slogan. Not an extravagant claim, its unvarnished declarations suits this country kitchen. Nothing fancy takes place here.
The same cannot be said for her prose, which is often fancy. Kumin has an elegant, precise, pedantic style. She addresses us warmly in the mode of the traditional familiar essay, a kind of Oxford parlor talk. When her parlor talk treats of muck and mules, she takes a mischeivous pleasure in the dissonance. She likes to juxtapose the rustic with the cultured within a sentence, like "My favorite kitchen artist is a cookstove artist with birch and poplar chunks in the maw of his old ironsides." "Maw" takes us back to Beowulf; "Old ironsides" is jaunty Mark Twain vernacular.

Kumin finds the most amusing dissonance, however, within her own person. In her bib overalls, she comments that her son "would prefer a mother who dressed in matching beige sweaters and skirts and a single strand of pearls." She has discovered her place in life as a born-again farm matron as well as a New England establishment poet. As a result, she can take play with the rhythms and precise diction of formal prose without taking the prose or herself seriously.

My father, an incorrigible fungophobe, did not want to hear my favorite chapter of the book, "Mushroom Hunting." Nevertheless, I read excerpts aloud on a recent plane ride to Los Angeles. As my father likes witty and peculiar language as much as he dislikes mushrooms, he did not stop me. I read, "Attractive, showy, as seductive as the jacket of a trashy novel and displaying to the uninitiate all desirable mushroom qualities, the amanita nods its cap throughout the growing season." I read, "Among mycophagists (mushroom eaters), toadstool is considered a cruel epithet to be disavowed along with various other racist and sexist expressions." I read, "Should you cut open the thick-skinned scleroderma, its purply black inner flesh will repel your appetite, but even this bitter old bird is not dangerous." My father grimaced and smiled.

Kumin refuses to preach, and she doesn't seek out mystery as much as other nature writers do. She is too busy melting the ice in her horses' drinking troughs and picking spaghetti squash. She is too busy marveling over the names and natures of funghi like "chicken-of-the-woods," the spiny-toothed "pig's trotter," and the "horn of plenty (otherwise known as the trumpet of death)." She relishes the particular, not for what it implies about the cosmos, but for itself. She writes, "Without religious faith and without the certitude such faith brings, I must take my only comfort from the natural order of things." Few of her readers find ourselves as rooted in the world as she is in her farm. We catch a glimpse, in her essays, of what physical contact with a place and its creatures over many years might feel like.


Beth said...

Anna, I really enjoyed your review of Maxine Kumin's book. It sounds like the writing will combine the comfort of country living with an experience of some amazing language, a combination I find very attractive. I intend to read it.

DianeSchuller.com said...

From the review you've given (very well done) plus the excerpts provided, it sounds as though Kumin is British. They have a much more solid grounding with language, and often with wit. I'll have to look for this one -- thanks!

Diane, Sand to Glass

Kerry said...

Maxine isn't an author that I have come across before. Thanks for the review of her book. I shall see if I can locate her work in the UK.