STILL TO MOW is the sixteenth volume of poetry from Maxine Kumin, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate. The title comes from John Gardner’s statement in an old Yale Review: “When you look back there’s lots of bales in the field, but ahead it’s all still to mow.” Kumin, who has weathered more than her share of both good and bad harvests, looks back on all that a lifetime well-lived has reaped. She also looks ahead toward what is still to be accomplished. Her new volume is a lament for our rapidly spoiling natural world, an outcry against injustice, and a psalm to the Earth and all creatures — a book of warning and great love.
The first section largely presents the poet’s signature nature, farm, and animal poems. The next two sections concentrate on current topics, including poems of torture and personal family events. The final section, “Looking Back,” is the strongest, and it begins with the sumptuous poem “Ascending.” Kumin writes: “The grapes just forming are green beads / as tight on the stalk as if hammered into place.”
Each word in “Ascending” is also hammered tightly in place. The last image is of an elderly couple, “one holding the ladder, one ascending.” In one lyric gesture, Kumin summons the central idea of the speaker’s marriage and impending mortality, and the greater theme of redemption. The rest of the fourth section looks toward that most difficult, yet inevitable, question — who will go first, who will be left behind?
Kumin addresses mortality with the same ferocity directed toward the reality of torture and environmental atrocities in previous sections. In the book’s final poem, “Death, Etc.,” the speaker and elderly mate pose before a willow, a tree she describes as “hollowed by age and marauders” but:
still leafing . . .
still housing a tumult of goldfinches.
We try to hold still
and smile, squinting into the brilliance.
The parallel is clear. And although she is talking metaphorically here of the elderly couple, she is also talking about our world.