Likes, Twenty-Five Years Ago

Jean-Louis Barrault and Arletty
Jean-Louis Barrault and Arletty, in Children of Paradise

A group of us friends used to get together most weekends to cook (well, Mel cooked, we sous-chef’ed if he let us) and share things we liked. One time when it was my turn, I chose Marcel Carné’s “Children of Paradise”/”Les Enfants du Paradis*” with the luminous Arletty (Garance) and Jean-Louis Barrault (Baptiste). Part of the magic was thinking about it being made on the streets of Paris – and Nice — during the Occupation. I had somehow rented an incredibly bulky and heavy large screen projection TV – how Jack and I got it into the house, what video store had the rare tape, I have no idea —  but our little group sat spellbound for 3 hours in the flickering light of the crackly print, those achingly beautiful actors, and 19th century Parisian theater.

At least in that case, the pleasure seemed to be in direct proportion to the difficulty, what it took to actually be able to see that movie on a big screen in our living room. Amazon Prime it wasn’t. It felt like a miracle.

Of course most of the evenings were easier, just putting a CD in the player or passing out some Xeroxed poems. Listen, one of us would say. Just listen! And, being good friends, we would. What pleasure to introduce my smart, curious friends to something I’d privately cherished. And equally to be introduced to what was theirs. Each of us had our special enthusiasms, the artist or movie or writer or musician whose name we’d written in a private, special book we could now open for people who might not come away equally smitten, but, for a few hours after a good meal, would give – give – their full and, I believe, loving attention.

Why, I wonder now, did that act seem so intimate, an offering of a part of oneself, and its receiving a gift?

Of course (another of course), there’s nothing to stop this from happening now. Just because I can rack up Likes about world disasters, human cruelty, cute animals, idiot politicians, beautiful photos, the small and large successes of friends, in the course of a desultory Saturday afternoon, doesn’t mean there can’t be that other thing. Much of what’s been shared online by people I care about, or am learning to know about, has enriched me, and I wouldn’t give it up. But a piece of myself, a piece of you? I don’t know.

And even as I write this, I fear I have slid into a false dichotomy, a cliché perhaps as easy as that online click, a sentimental and unnecessary nostalgia.

But heck – If you didn’t already know of it, I have now shared “Children of Paradise” with you – one of the greatest movies ever made!

*Re Children of Paradise: Roger Ebert’s 2002 piece is a good introduction, though James Agee’s contemporaneous review has the excitement of discovery, and Agee’s vivid human presence – there was a person who shared his enthusiasms, and his disdain. Best film critic ever, invented modern film criticism. Agee on Film – Another “like.” Oh boy.

Maxine Kumin: Still and always, essential

I wrote this last February (2014) on the Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature blog, but have been reading Kumin again recently and was again blown away by her vivid presence, the essentialness of her being, and of course her poems, and wanted to share this short appreciation here for people outside the “vet med and lit” world. 

This isn’t the first Sunday morning I’ve gone to my study and begun the day by reading Maxine Kumin – a way to settle into poetry and its capaciousness, to revive my own faith in possibility, to meet a companion able to face and understand – everything. But this is the first Sunday morning without the sure sense of that companion being not only on the page but out there, on the farm in New Hampshire, in a work shirt and jeans, going up to the barn to feed the horses or back in the kitchen cutting bread. Of course she could have been somewhere else, doing something completely different, but the immediacy and intimacy and intelligence of the life on the page always seemed paired with a real woman thinking and feeling and moving in the world. Eighty seven? Eighty eight? To the granite of New Hampshire, what are years?

The first book I take off my shelf today is the first one I bought, The Nightmare Factory, black and blood-red. Later works would have a little less of the nightmares, lovers, and turbulence, with an enrichment of the rest, all here in 1970: horses, pastures, family, history, pain, friendship, place, humor, love; a physicality of form masterly in the service of its subject, passion and coolness at once.

I had known about the special phone line the best friends, Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, had had installed, but it took yesterday’s New York Times obituary for me to learn that they kept the connection open while writing, each in her own house, until one would whistle that a poem was ready to read aloud. What must it have been like to lose that open line, that ear; that whistle, that voice? Kumin took a long time to tell us, honoring her friend by not writing soon or easily. And still, even with the poems and the memories, the friendship seemed to stay private and personal,  theirs.

When Elizabeth Stone and I put together our course inveterinary medicine and literature, it was thrilling to remember the Amanda poems, and it was thrilling to “teach” them. Teach? They taught themselves. They taught us. On the day we introduced them, the 3 or 4 “horse” people in the class who had tolerated the domestic house animals we began with suddenly sat up and leaned forward, as if a window had been opened. And it had – the fresh smell of hay, the pungency of boots and saddles, as present in the room as our seminar table and notebooks. They were hearing what they knew, but probably did not know could be said in words:

We sit together.
In this time and place
we are heart and bone.
For an hour,
we are incorruptible.

“Amanda Dreams She Has Died and Gone to the Elysian Fields”

In veterinary school, horses are in the “large animals” group. In the Amanda poems, the largeness is fully there, in all its grace, mystery, and weight. If we did nothing else for our students, we gave them an introduction to Maxine Kumin and poems they can turn to for solace and renewal throughout their lives.

Turning to Selected Poems, I realize that any animals-and-literature course could make its entire syllabus out of Kumin. Poems, essays, someone as alive to horses, cows, moose, swan, bears, as to Paris and martinis, war and playing Monopoly with a grandson. Kumin explains it in “Sleeping with Animals”:

“loving my animals too much
letting them run like a perfectly detached
statement by Mozart through all the other lines
of my life…”

Why not? The whole of life.

The New York Times obituary ends with the last lines of the last poem in Selected Poems: 1960-1990, “A Game of Monopoly in Chavannes”, and they are a knockout:

His lower lip trembles, this luxury of a child
who burst naked into our lives, like luck.
Our sole inheritor, he has taken us over
with his oceanic wants, his several passports.
I will deed him the Reading Railroad, the Water Works,
the Electric Company, my hotel on Park Place.
All that I have is his, under separate cover
and we are the mortgaged nub of all that he has.
Soon enough he will learn, buying long, selling short
his ultimate task is to stay to usher us out.

But I’d prefer to end my Sunday morning with the last verse of a different poem, “Itinerary of an Obsession” (epigraph “Just remember that everything east of you has already happened. – Advice on a time-zone chart”), and a glimpse of where she might be, and what she might be doing, now, as she wrote to her friend:

Years pass, as they say in storybooks.
It is true that I dream of you less.
Still, when the phone rings in my sleep
and I answer, a dream-cigarette in my hand,
it is always the same. We are back at our posts,
hanging around like boxers in
our old flannel bathrobes. You haven’t changed.
I, on the other hand, am forced to grow older.

Now I am almost your mother’s age.
Imagine it! Did you think you could escape?
Eventually I’ll arrive in her
abhorrent maribou negligee
trailing her scarves like broken promises
crying yoo-hoo! Anybody home?


Maxine Kumin’s Academy of American Poets page

A very nice, human remembrance by Philip Schultz in the New Yorker shortly after Kumin died

Working It Out

This winter the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers sent out a call for writings on the topic of “the labors of women” for a May reading at the Sandisfield Arts Center. I realized this would give me the opportunity to put into words a long overdue appreciation of the landmark book by Sally Ruddick and Pamela Daniels, Working It Out: 29 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk about Their Lives and Work (Pantheon, 1977).

Below is what I wrote, and read in May, thanks to the Berkshire Festival’s call, and especially thanks to its founder, Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez for conceiving of such a resonant theme (check out Jenny’s excellent blog, Transition Times: Writing to Right the World) and Susie Crofut for bringing the Festival to Sandisfield. The event was terrific, varied, powerful – hope to say more about it when the Festival posts on it.

Working It Out: 29 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk about Their Lives and Work

A poem for Sara (Sally) Ruddick, Feminist philosopher, 1935 – 2011

Twenty-three faces look out from the book’s cover,
young, earnest, marked with intelligence and hope.
Twenty-three women struggling with a simple thing:
To sit down at a desk, stand at an easel,
lean over a laboratory table, and surrender
to their own, original thought –
To the work.

Why was it so hard? Didn’t they have it all –
education, babies, husbands willing to “help” —
And still so hard to close the door, for an hour
or a day, close out the willing husbands,
the babies following with alert, expectant eyes,
the kind, bemused professors that had called them “bright”
but not quite known what to do with them.

And even more, why so hard, once the door closed,
once every obstacle was lifted, to lay claim
to the empty page, blank canvas, forbidden realms
of their teeming minds? Why the deep, inexplicable
paralysis, this “acute pain of worklessness”?

One by one, each of them worked through
that pain in these pages. Read them
and you will see a generation
coming to life in its work, coming to serious,
womanly work embedded in their lives,
work and pleasure not enemies,
but joined.

Sally ends her essay (“A Work of One’s Own”)
saying simply, elegantly, “I turned,
as I had learned to do,
to other women.
We put together this book.”


So this was how: twenty-three women facing the pain
with courage and fear, and making the claim together.

Thirty-seven years, Sally, Pamela, Adrienne, Evelyn,
Virginia, Alice, Catherine, Naomi, and the rest,
and we still need your book,
still need to hear those voices, still need
to see you working it out
for us, at any age,
and for the work still before us.


Here is the cover of the book, with all the wonderful faces:


You can find a dog-eared copy of the book on Abe Books for a few dollars, and you can read Sally’s essay, “A Work of One’s Own” at a site established by her family as a living memorial. (Much gratitude to them for the site, absolutely necessary.) Take a look, on that site, for example, at “New School Courses” if you want to see the range, daring, and sheer vitality of one of our era’s most original, generous minds.

Working It Out: 29 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk about Their Lives and Work
A collection of essays edited by Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels, published 1977, Pantheon.
Sara Ruddick (Editor), J. Green (Contributor), Alice Walker (Contributor), Tillie Olsen (Contributor), Pamela Daniels (Editor), M. Young (Contributor), Adrienne Rich (Contributor), M. Thornton (Contributor) , C. Sears (Contributor), N.V. Mengel (Contributor), Catherine.R. Stimpson (Contributor), Evelyn Fox. Keller (Contributor), M. Schapiro (Contributor), C. Gilbert (Contributor), M. Stevens (Contributor), D.G. Michener (Contributor), Virginia Valian (Contributor), C.Y. Yu (Contributor), A. Lasoff (Contributor), K.K. Hamod (Contributor), A. Rorty (Contributor), N. Weisstein (Contributor)