Everything Reminds Me of Moby Dick: Maxine Kumin


Maxine Kumin, engraving by Barry Moser.
Maxine Kumin, engraving by Barry Moser.

It came to my attention while skimming the Women’s Review of Books that poet Maxine Kumin had died (nearly a year ago). I know nothing of Kumin’s work but this memorial piece by Robin Becker reminded me of something:

The humor here belies the relationship Kumin negotiated with her own impulse toward reverence. The paradise of animals, family, farm, friends, and garden suffices, though the diction and language of prayer–to gods of fate?–undergird many meditations

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. In “My Life” (from The Long Marriage [2003]), she writes

O wasteful heaven, Jewel of the Just!
Placeless heaven full
of disorderly remembrance, come,
come in while my life is taking place.

That, my fellow Jonahs residing in Melville’s bellied brain, reminded me of this:

“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whencesoe’er I came; wheresoe’er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights.”

And in the paragraph following that bit of the poem “My Life,” Becker offers this on Kumin’s work, “Throughout her books, an edgy preoccupation with veneration inflects Kumin’s decidedly irreligious worldview.”

Woodcut by Barry Moser
Woodcut by Barry Moser

If you’ve been here before, you can likely guess what that put me in mind of–right, right, Hawthorne’s journal entry of November 1856 recording the last time he and Melville would see each other:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before — in wondering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

Why does everything remind me of Melville’s Moby Dick? Because it’s the only book I’ve read multiple times, with near-devotion, and listened to on audiobook for hours and hours on dog-walk after dog-walk. Which is to say, it lives in me. Any word Melville used I can find in other books and poems…”placeless power” did it here, resounding with “placeless heaven.”

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