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Maxine Kumin: 'History Lesson' and 'Saying Goodbye'

Courtesy of Poetry Foundation

Pulitzer-Winning Poet Maxine Kumin passed away yesterday at age 88. Here, two poems by the poet from The New Republic archive.

History Lesson

You were begotten in a vague war.
American planes ran their fingers
through the sky between truces as your daddy crossed parallels
to plant you as bald as an onion
in 1954. 

Two years later you sailed
you think you remember
on a converted troopship full
of new wives and wet paints while
the plum puts of your mother’s eyes
wobbled and threatened to come loose. 

After that there were knots
in your father's GI work boots
and the sounds of night robbers
ransacking the rooming house
cantering up the staircase
to his delicate Korean lady. 

You were six years into English subtitles
when they whisked her away in a bedroll
of lipstick and false eyelashes. 

Before the disaster there are omens.
Comets come, the geese lay bloody eggs
and some old crone hacks open
a still-born lamb to read its entrails.

In this case, the landlady tattled
alarm and sent for the cops. 

She boiled saltines in blue milk
a whiff of scald that still gags you
until they came with red wristbones
and let you play games with the handcuffs
all the way to the stale clothes of state schools
the lysol washrooms and the tin tray suppers.

It is true that we like down on cowflops
praying they'll tum into pillows.
It is true that our mothers explode out of the snowballs of dreams
or speak to us down the chimney
saying our names above the wind 

or scrape their legs like crickets
in the dead grass behind the toolshed
tapping a code we can't read.
That a man may be free of his ghosts
he must retum to them like a garden.
He must put his hands in the sweet rot
uprooting the turnips, washing them
tying them into bundles
and shouldering the whole load to market.

Saying Goodbye

We kissed in the car in
the Howard Johnson parking lot
while the french fries, pale
as erasers in the take-out box,
oiled each other's wet sides
and the bland magnesia milkshake belched secretly under its straws.
The slats of the aqua cupola
were sharply watchful.
A thin sleet salted the orange roof.

At that time a swollen woman,
her hair in pink snakes heavier
than Medusa's, cornered herseld
in the phone booth and worked
at the holes of the dial.
She spoke. Her alarm was a dumbshow
of large gestures and she heaved
herself out as from an executions
and started down the state highway,
the young girl inside her running.

The telephone dangled on its cord,
hapless as a shoe swayes by its laces,
and the howler signal sang
until it entered our own mouths.