Reading Maxine Kumin in quarantine solitude, I’ve found something familiar in the way little details come alive when larger, flashier things have fallen away. Kumin is known for quiet, observational poems, and “Winter’s Tale,” published in The Atlantic in 2009, is quiet both in style and in subject matter. “Even from my study at the back of the house I can hear an orange drop upstairs,” she writes. Her memory of planting that orange tree many years ago, when the sprouts “shot straight up like pole beans” and rain made “pockmarks like mattress buttons” in the snow, is as vivid as if it happened yesterday.
“Life was bleak and sweet” in those days, Kumin recalls, and her poem itself balances on a knife’s edge of joy and sorrow. There’s a sadness when she says, “I don’t let myself think back to those winters.” But she does think back to them, and the care she takes in attending to those details tells the reader that something in this memory is cherished. Kumin was known to say that every poem is an elegy—a lament for something lost, something that was beautiful. In a time of great loss, when the world we’ve known has disappeared, she reminds us that the act of recollecting can be a source of beauty in itself.