Feminist Friends Forever: Met and Unmet.

Maxine Kumin died last week at age 88. In her typically thoughtful obituary, Margalit Fox highlights Kumin’s long life as a poet, teacher, mother, and friend.

Although I never met Kumin, I did correspond with her briefly when I edited an interview she had done with Diane Middlebrook about Anne Sexton in the early 1980s. Diane―who had been a friend of mine, though not at the time―was researching her biography of Sexton, and spent several hours with Kumin, discussing her relationship with Sexton. It was a famous friendship between two famous poets who met early in their careers.

In the late 1950s Ms. Kumin enrolled in a local poetry-writing workshop, where Ms. Sexton was also a student. They became such close friends, and such close readers of each other’s work, that each installed a dedicated phone line in her house on which to call the other. When writing, they left the receivers of the hook; the moment one finished a poem she would whistle into the open line, and the other would come running to hear it, a system that proved a supremely effective forerunner of instant messaging.

KuminDWM

Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin at a meeting of the John Holmes workshop.

Sexton’s suicide in 1974 was shattering for Kumin, but she went on writing poetry, as well as essays, novels, short stories, children’s books, and a memoir.

Diane envied the friendship, and so did my friend Carolyn Heilbrun. Carolyn had admired Kumin for years and would have liked to write a book about her. Kumin demurred. Carolyn described her admiration for Kumin in “Unmet Friends,” an autobiographical meditation from The Last Gift of Time (1997).

For me Kumin has been a woman, vital to my sixties, whom I know in a way no biographer or friend can know her: she is her poems and essays, and what I choose to make of them. At its simplest level, she is what I might have wished to become but never could; her life seems to me a very heaven, intermingling animals and poetry.

During my brief email correspondence with Kumin, I learned that she and Carolyn had dinner together at some point in the Village. Carolyn, moreover, blurbed Kumin’s 2000 memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond: “Here is a singular story of survival, an earthly miracle wrought by family devotion, gardens, horses and guts. A compelling read.” I was astonished to learn that Carolyn had finally met her unmet friend.

What we don’t know about our friends!

I (stupidly) did not save our emails, so I cannot recall exactly what Kumin told me about their encounter. Kumin did say, however, that she had been intimidated by Carolyn’s erudition. Since Carolyn had committed suicide not long after that meeting, I asked Kumin whether Carolyn seemed depressed. She said yes.

Toward the end of the obituary, Fox observes that Kumin’s work asks how, how “can one weather the losses life’s course makes inevitable?” For Kumin the answer “lay in the promise of continuity from generation to generation.” And in closing Fox quotes from a poem inspired by one of Kumin’s grandchildren.

So here is where Carolyn’s beliefs diverged dramatically from Kumin’s: Carolyn’s grandchildren, it would seem, did not help her deal with the kinds of losses she had to have felt when she decided to leave the world. Her fantasized identification with the poet ended there.

Are biological generations our only buffer against loss? Without children and grandchildren, I have come to think, or at least hope, that friends themselves―especially our younger friends―also offer that promise of continuity and solace. The value of friendship between women is one of feminism’s most precious gifts, even if in the heat of debate we sometimes forget just how precious it is.

What I Don’t Want to Remember

There are lots of jokes about forgotten anniversaries, usually to reprove husbands who have forgotten the anniversary of their marriage. I have forgotten my own wedding anniversary numerous times, much to the chagrin of my husband. But an anniversary I would rather not remember is the date of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide. Today, October 9 as I write, is the anniversary of my friend’s suicide. Actually, it was a Thursday not a Wednesday, but I guess the date is more to the point, though the day seems more real. Carolyn believed in routine, and Thursday was Susan Heath.

I was in England when Carolyn’s great friend Susan Heath called with the news. Thursday was their designated day for dinner, and when Susan arrived at the building for their date she discovered the body. “The journey is over,” Carolyn wrote in the only note we know about, “Love to all.” Carolyn had left little to chance and she had counted on Susan to have the strength to survive the experience.

41Qb2iDjtVLToday I was teaching poems by poets Carolyn loved and admired, even if she had occasional minor quarrels with them―Rich and Sexton. Reading poetry today in the digital age is a heightened experience since we can look at and listen to poets reading their poetry. While looking at the YouTube menu, an interview between Diane Middlebrook and Anne Sexton caught my eye. I couldn’t resist making the students listen to Diane’s voice―we had just read her wonderfully explanatory essay “What Was Confessional Poetry?”―and it seemed appropriate to listen at least briefly.

Slipped into my copy of  Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe, was a fax from Carolyn: CGH to NKM, dated March 19, 1998. It was the closing stanza of “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” Beneath the poem Carolyn had handwritten a quotation from The Second Sex in which Beauvoir creates the metaphor of the amazing woman that Rich seems to reprise when she writes–“as beautiful as any boy/or helicopter.” Beauvoir’s prose: “she is a helicopter and she is a bird.”

These two friends loved poetry and both are dead, Carolyn by suicide in 2003, Diane from cancer in 2007. Sexton’s suicide links Carolyn and Diane in my mind. Carolyn was an attentive reader of suicide; so was Diane, since she had also written the biography of Plath in her relation to Hughes.

Suddenly, there I was in the classroom looking at bright young faces and feeling very far away, in a place where death was all too real. I did not mention the anniversary to the students because it would not have been an anniversary for them; they had nothing to remember.

For over 20 years, I had dinner with Carolyn. Tuesdays. As each week passes, I remember that I’m not having dinner with Carolyn, or as my husband used to say, “having Carolyn.” That day of the week always seems empty to me.

I’ve picked up the weekly dinner with Victoria Rosner, who had also been Carolyn’s student. Carolyn almost always dines with us.

I wish Carolyn had not felt so alone. I wish she had let time catch up with her. Today she’d have been 87. It’s not, I think now, that old.