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Poetry of the postindustrial pastoral


At Public Books, Allison Carruth reviews two recent US poetry books that portray a less idyllic side of rural North America. In Adrienne Su’s Living Quarters and Maxine Kumin’s And Short the Season, the rural US is shown as a place of loss and decay that nonetheless maintains key connections to the global economy. Here’s an excerpt of the review:

It is here that Kumin and Su seem most kindred, as poets who weave together everyday and intimate experiences with geopolitical and geological timelines embedded in the places from which they write. Both write about losses that locales variously conceal and carry, albeit profoundly different kinds of loss. For Su, the relationship of loss to locale is a quotidian and intimate one connected to middle age: a recognition that “living quarters” accumulate losses that are, like the volume’s depiction of Carlisle, at once ordinary and difficult to sum up with clichés. The losses in Living Quarters are those of divorce and sickness, but they are also those of a garden wintering over or going to seed. Put differently, Su’s poems bring to life common heartaches, bodily aches, and disappointments by locating those experiences in a richly textured sense of place. In contrast, the losses Kumin links to particular locales are extraordinary and even theatrical—from the tragedy of injustice and inhumane treatment at Guantánamo to Kumin’s own heightened sense of aging on her New Hampshire farm.

The differences between Living Quarters and Short the Season crystallize in their respective final poems, which in each case explicitly address the ultimate loss of death. Su concludes Living Quarters with an elegy to a black Dickinson student who drowned in 2009 while, poignantly in light of the volume’s earlier reference to Hurricane Sandy, working on hurricane relief in Guatemala. Conversely, it is Kumin’s partial blindness and anticipated death that occupy the brief closing poem of And Short the Season. Titled “Allow Me,” the poem pays homage to John Milton (an all-too-famous poet who went blind) before turning to Kumin’s mortality. The last poem of her last book, “Allow Me” ends with an intimate echo of prior poems that depict climate change as a chaotic death knell for the planet, imagining the end of one life in one corner of the world: “But who gets to choose this ordered end / Trim and untattered, loved ones at hand? / —Allow me that day.”

Both volumes thus end with a nod to lyric poetry as a literary mode of individual, locally rooted contemplation turned often toward loss. But while Kumin’s final poem concludes with an inward reflection on death nostalgic at once for elegiac poetry and agrarian life, Su’s elegy turns outward: in this lament for the death of a young Dickinson student in Central America, Living Quarters underscores the planetary network and complicated cultural, economic, and political ties that bind locales like Carlisle to the larger world.

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