The Pawnbroker’s Daughter: A Memoir
By Maxine Kumin
W.W. Norton & Company, 176 pages, $25.95
In her poem “Sonnets Uncorseted,” Maxine Kumin bemoans the sexist attitudes that constrained 20th-century American women poets. Immersed in motherhood and domesticity, she confesses to having been “Terrified of writing domestic poems,/… anathema to the prevailing clique of male pooh-bahs[.]”
In her case at least, the pooh-bahs did not have the last word. Kumin, who died in 2014 at the age of 89, would triumph over her terror and produce distinctive conversational verse drawn from everyday experience. A 1973 Pulitzer Prize confirmed her achievement, and many other awards would follow.
In plainspoken prose, “The Pawnbroker’s Daughter,” her posthumous memoir, describes Kumin’s career arc and helps contextualize her poetry. It is a slight book — five overlapping biographical essays rather than a fully realized memoir — but it is nevertheless a useful introduction to the poet and her work.
We learn that the Pulitzer brought Kumin teaching and lecture gigs, enabling her success in what she calls “the poetry business.” That success supported the renovation of Pobiz Farm, the ramshackle New Hampshire retreat that in 1976 became her fulltime home. And the rural landscape, with its foliage, animals (both wild and domestic) and small neighborhood dramas, would in turn inspire much of her poetry.
The only previously unpublished piece in the memoir is the first, covering Kumin’s childhood in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Its title, “Need Money? See Pete. Recollections by the Pawnbroker’s Daughter,” refers to the advertisement that Kumin’s pawnbroker father placed on matchbooks.
Kumin describes her German Jewish mother’s ambivalence toward her husband’s lucrative “Shylockian” occupation, as well as his Russian Jewish origins. As was typical for their generation, the Winokurs (Kumin’s maiden name) prized assimilation into middle-class American society, but also remained vigilant to Jewish social hierarchies. Kumin says that schoolmates occasionally taunted her with anti-Semitic slurs.
Kumin’s father insisted on a public school education for his four children. But Kumin, the youngest and the only daughter, was able to attend the “far superior” public schools in suburban Elkins Park for a modest tuition payment. There she remained a social outsider, but acquired mentors and a love for Latin and English.
Kumin’s family, though never devout, lit Sabbath candles, celebrated major Jewish holidays — and hid a Christmas tree on their upstairs landing. Rejected by Wellesley, Kumin matriculated at Radcliffe College, where, she reports, “my parochial Jewishness fell away.”
At Radcliffe, she was fixed up on a blind date with an army sergeant and Harvard graduate named Victor Kumin. The attraction was instantaneous and enduring, and her second essay, “Love in Wartime,” consists largely of extracts from their re-discovered wartime letters.
While she was working on her senior thesis, he was at Los Alamos, secretly working on the atomic bomb. Their letters, which passed through government censors, expressed their longing for each other, for a fairer society, and for the war’s end. After his military discharge, and her graduation, they were immediately married — and never wrote to each other again.
The final three essays bear more directly on Kumin’s poetry. Like many women of the era, she says, she “chafed against the domesticity in which I found myself.” Her first poetic efforts were light verse that she could compose in her head during household tasks. Before one such poem was published in the Saturday Evening Post, her husband was obliged to present a letter from his employer certifying that it was original. (It is not clear how the employer would have known.)
Attitudes toward women in poetry changed only slowly. Kumin’s Pulitzer, for her fourth collection, “Up Country: Poems of New England,” accelerated her acceptance. Many of its poems derived from her experiences on “the craggy, hilly, overgrown property” in New Hampshire where she was raising and riding horses, reclaiming pastures from forests, adopting stray dogs and planting a vegetable garden.
Though Kumin could turn polemical, producing horrified poems about the Bosnian war and America’s recourse to torture in Iraq, the farm remained her most consistent source of inspiration. Poems such as “The Presence,” describing tracks in the snow (“Something went hard and slow/over our hayfield”), elicited comparisons to Robert Frost.
Kumin memorialized the farm’s constructed swimming hole and a diving rock in a poem titled “Summer Meditation.” In the memoir, the family tradition of skinny-dipping gives rise to one of her best anecdotes. When a Nobel laureate was visiting, Kumin writes, Victor warned him of the practice — a caution that turned out to be superfluous: “‘My wife is Swedish!’ he cried, tearing off his clothes.”
Kumin’s particular devotion to horses is a frequent refrain. In one vivid passage, she describes sleeping in the barn beside expectant mares, “spreading my sleeping bag on top of the sawdust pile and hanging a trouble light from a hook over my head so that I could read between dozing and waiting for the first restless sounds made by a mare going into labor in the adjoining stall.”
In a tribute to the poet May Sarton, Kumin writes of the need to make a smooth upward transition when shifting a horse to a faster gait. The concept becomes a metaphor for change. Contemplating the fate of her farm after she and her husband are both gone, she writes: “It’s the upward transition that holds me fast,” the hope that the place “will again fill with horses” and “some unwanted dogs will be welcomed here and know love.”
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein