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'The Pawnbroker's Daughter' Tells Us How to Write Well and Live Beautifully

Maxine Kumin's final memoir is painfully brief, but like all her work, ever lyrical.

The Pawnbroker's Daughter

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Length: 161 pages
Author: Maxine Kumin
Price: $25.95
Format: hardcover
Publication date: 2015-07

The Pawnbroker’s Daughter is poet Maxine Kumin’s final work, a memoir clearly written in during her final days. When she died in 2014, at age 88, Kumin’s health had been declining for some time.

Those readers familiar with Kumin’s life story and her mastery of the written word sense that frailty; The Pawnbroker’s Daughter feels rushed. There are moments that long to be fleshed out, that cry for more time. Yet even in this sketchy state, Kumin’s writing is compelling and as always, lyrical.

Born in 1925, Kumin was the youngest and only daughter in a family of well-off, largely assimilated Jews. Her mother, a classically trained pianist, anxiously avoided any behaviors associated with lower-class Jews. No lapses into Yiddish or gesticulating with the hands were permitted in her home.

Yet Kumin’s father, Pete Winokur, was a highly successful pawnbroker who left school at 13. Even as his income financed a lifestyle of live-in servants and nights at the symphony, Kumin’s mother could not abide the negative stereotypes associated with her husband’s profession. She told people her husband was a "broker".

During the '30s, Kumin’s father began receiving letters from European relatives. All begged for help he could not give. One night Kumin found him in the dining room, letter in hand. Her usually jovial father was weeping.

"They will all die, he said. This will be the pogrom to end all pogroms."

An excellent student, Kumin’s intelligence proved a social deficit until she entered Radcliffe, where she flourished. In April 1945, she met Victor Kumin. Victor, an Army sergeant, was unable to tell his new girlfriend he was working at Los Alamos, helping to develop the Atomic Bomb. They did, however, tell each other everything else.

The couple’s 575-letter wartime correspondence survives. Kumin quotes heavily from it, offering readers insight into a long-ago time and the minds of two idealists in love. Theirs was a courtship conducted by pen, flying hotel visits (Kumin has written elsewhere they were not virginal newlyweds), and a quick marriage.

The Kumins set up postwar housekeeping in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Two daughters arrived quickly. Pregnant with her third child, happily married to a supportive husband, Kumin nonetheless longed to write seriously. Describing herself as "chafing at domesticity", she continues: "Deep down I longed to be one of the tribe but I had no sense of how to go about gaining entry."

A subscription to The Writer and the purchase of Writing Light Verse cracked the door to publishing. So did joining the Boston Center For Adult Education Poetry Workshop. There Kumin met mentor John Holmes and dear friend Anne Sexton. Although Kumin’s famous friendship with Sexton is not detailed in The Pawnbroker’s Daughter, she’s written candidly about it elsewhere. See Always Beginning, a fine collection including essays "October 4, 1995" and "For Anne at Passover". Each lays bare the experience of losing your best and most gifted friend. When that friend is famous, the loss is magnified thousandfold, for her death draws an unending stream of intrusive public scrutiny.

In a 1958 letter to her mother, Kumin wrote a half-humorous, half-hysterical, all-too-recognizable description of working motherhood with its crazed, impossible schedule. Rain, sick children, doctor visit, housework. Job interview, vomiting child. No babysitter, find neighbor. Market, shop, cook dinner. Entertain husband’s business associate. And so on.

Even as Kumin strove to run her household, she was well aware of the misogyny and racism pervading the arts. She recalls a 1967 Poetry Society lf America dinner where Robert Lowell toasted Marianne Moore as "the nation’s best woman poet." Whereupon Langston Hughes rose her in defense, toasting Moore as "the nation’s best Negro woman poet."

Kumin herself was no stranger to activism: "As early as 1971 I confronted ethical issues in my own poetry."

These poems usually took aim at the military-industrial complex, though animal and human rights were never far from Kumin’s thoughts. In 1998 she resigned from the Board of the American Academy Poets over their lack of diversity. A lifelong vegetarian, she agonized guiltily over her fish consumption, preferring the contents of her vast garden.

Of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Up Country: Poems of New England, Kumin not only didn’t believe she’d received it, "I was truly afraid I would never write again."

Kumin of course did write again. The Pulitzer conferred professional respect, vaulting her into a world of paid poetry readings and teaching gigs. In 1961, the Kumins inherited $10,000. This, in combination with Kumin’s newfound professional gravitas, afforded the couple fiscal freedom. Both were chafing at suburban life’s confines. Maxine struggled with childrearing, housekeeping, and an endless round of dinner parties where "wives outdid one another with inventive hors d’ouevres and cocktails of grenadine and pineapple juice." Victor was contending with a stressful job. He found the socializing equally shallow. In 1961, the couple bought a derelict New Hampshire property.

Restoring the "Old Harriman Place" took decades, but the Kumins, who moved there permanently in 1976, thrived on the challenge. Dubbing their home PoBiz Farm, they sheltered abused horses, lots of dogs, and assorted humans. Long before Jane Smiley drove her fans berserk with horse mania, Kumin was bedding down in her freezing barn, nervously attending mares about to foal.

The couple dredged out a pond and created an enormous garden whose output, canned, pickled, and frozen, fed them the year round. Kumin wrote extensively of a life happily spent horsekeeping, gardening, canning, and reveling in the natural landscape.

The Pawnbroker’s Daughter ends suddenly, with the freak 1998 riding accident that nearly killed Kumin. Yet to broach any criticism of Kumin’s final work would be cruel. For Kumin’s weakest work is still a fine thing, and losing her is painful. Read The Pawnbroker’s Daughter but please, read her entire oeuvre as well, for an education not only in how to write well, but how to live beautifully.

Maxine Winokur Kumin



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