My 10-year old Boxer, Otto, and I have a ritual in which the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin plays a central role. The ritual is enacted during our annual late-spring pilgrimage to a farm owned by generous friends in a profoundly underrated portion of upstate New York. Along with Otto, the main players in the rite are the dozen or so frogs who reside in the pond that lies just steps away from the farm-house. The ceremonial text is Kumin’s wonderful poem “Custodian,” from her book Nurture, published in 1989.
The annual custom commences just as soon as we arrive. Once Otto is relieved of his leash and I of my shoes, we make our way down to the pond with me well-worn copy of Nurture in hand. There, Otto circumambulates the water’s edge, gently disrupting the concentration of each and every frog, one after the other, until all have been evicted from their cozy spots in the sun to wait it out in the water before calmly kick-stroking back to the muddy shore. As Otto conducts this painstaking effort, I stand, barefoot in the mud, reading Kumin’s “Custodian” aloud.
I read it partly by way of apologizing to the frogs--formal recognition that our presence here brings a certain amount of inconvenience to them. I read it partly as an invocation to the pleasures of being outdoors, dog and woman sharing the day, free of our urban fetters. I read it because saying poems aloud when out-of-doors is, for me, one of life’s greatest pleasures--all the more so when the poem is so perfectly suited to the occasion, simultaneously reflecting on and enlarging it.
As you’ll see in the sampling of work presented here, reflection upon and enlargement of the occasion--be it feeding the many creatures in one’s care or recounting the life story of a much-loved Dalmatian--are important aspects of Maxine Kumin’s writing. The author of more than a dozen books of poetry, the most recent of which is The Long Marriage, Kumin has also published four novels, a collection of short stories delightfully titled Why Can’t We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings?, over 20 children’s books, and four books of essays, including Women, Animals, and Vegetables, in which her essay “Mutts” appears. Animals of all kinds--dogs and horses frequently among them--populate much of Kumin’s work, which may be seen, at its essence as an ongoing treatise on empathy.
The annual ritual enacted by the pond in upstate New York with the Help of Maxine Kumin’s poem is, for me, a way of honoring the importance of poetry, the arrival into nature and the beautiful ways of dogs and other animals. And, like Kumin’s “Custodian,” the ritual celebrates ritual itself--continuance, inevitability, the endless cycles of living as passing away, “the taking and letting go,” as Kumin puts it, “that same story.”