Jun. 6, 2003

Morning Swim

by Maxine Kumin

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"Morning Swim," by Maxine Kumin from Selected Poems 1960-1990 (Norton).

Morning Swim

Into my empty head there come
a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom

I set out, oily and nude
through mist, in chilly solitude.

There was no line, no roof or floor
to tell the water from the air.

Night fog thick as terry cloth
closed me in its fuzzy growth.

I hung my bathrobe on two pegs.
I took the lake between my legs.

Invaded and invader, I
went overhand on that flat sky.

Fish twitched beneath me, quick and tame.
In their green zone they sang my name

and in the rhythm of the swim
I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.

I hummed "Abide With Me." The beat
rose in the fine thrash of my feet,

rose in the bubbles I put out
slantwise, trailing through my mouth.

My bones drank water; water fell
through all my doors. I was the well

that fed the lake that met my sea
in which I sang "Abide With Me."

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet, novelist, and children's author Maxine Kumin, born in Philadelphia (1925). She won the Pulitzer Prize for a book inspired by her New Hampshire farm titled Up Country: Poems of New England (1972). In college, an instructor handed back comments on her poetry that read: "Say it with flowers, but for God's sake don't try to write poems." She didn't, for a long time, until she got serious about it again in her 30's, in the middle of her third pregnancy. She said, "the grit of discontent, the acute misery of early and uninformed motherhood worked under my skin to force out the writer." She met the poet Anne Sexton, also a homemaker with children, in a community writing workshop and they supported each other as close friends. Maxine Kumin said, "Until the Women's Movement, it was commonplace to be told by an editor that he'd like to publish more of my poems, but he'd already published one by a woman that month ... this attitude was the rule rather than the exception, until the mid-sixties.

It's the birthday of two international writers who don't translate very well into English: French poet and dramatist Pierre Corneille, born in Rouen(1606), and Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin, born in Moscow (1799). Pierre Corneille's tragic play Le Cid (1637) is considered the most important in the history of French drama. Aleksandr Pushkin's works, including the long poems Eugene Onegin (1833) and Boris Godunov (1831), formed the basis of two famous operas, but aren't known as epic poems. Vladimir Nabokov, who never spent more than six years on a novel, spent twelve years translating Eugene Onegin from the Russian.

It's the birthday of novelist Thomas Mann, born in Lübeck, Germany (1875), one of the greatest German writers of the twentieth century. He wrote the novels Buddenbrooks (1900), Death in Venice (1912), and his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain (1924), set in the years before World War I, in a tuberculosis sanatorium on a Swiss mountaintop. Then, in 1929, he won the Nobel Prize. He said, "A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." When World War I broke out Mann wrote Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (1918) in support of the authoritarian state. But when Hitler rose to power Mann, along with his Jewish wife, became an exile in Zurich, and he changed his political views. His German citizenship was revoked and Mann moved to America in 1938 and he wrote of Germany, "What will it be like to belong to a nation whose history bore this gruesome fiasco within it, a nation that has driven itself mad, gone psychologically bankrupt …."

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