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A few weeks ago, I discovered that the website of Maxine Kumin, now of blessed memory, collects the poems and an essay that Kumin wrote about Anne Sexton. The two were close friends and poet-comrades at the time of Sexton’s death. The poems are probably dog-eared in my copies of Kumin’s various collections; I had read most of them previously. I had never read all the poems together. It was heady—and sad, beautiful—and heartbreaking. The Kumin-Sexton friendship has always fascinated me: the intimacy of the two women and the challenge that Kumin faced, living on after the loss of her friend, confidante, and colleague. Grieving Sexton seems easier than appreciating the flinty determination required of Kumin to live on. In the end, Kumin demonstrated the power of a long and productive life.
Robin Becker dedicates her new book, The Black Bear Inside Me, to Kumin and her husband, Victor. Becker’s eighth book (not including the gorgeous art chapbook Venetian Blue), The Black Bear Inside Me is a collection that employs the full strength of Becker’s poetic gifts and that illuminates the most profound of human emotions.
Like Becker’s entire body of work, The Black Bear Inside Me is fundamentally about grieving and living on. Grief is both explicit and implicit, written and inferred. Becker mourns a science teacher who died at the age of ninety-eight in a beautiful elegy. The poem, dedicated to Maria D. Peters travels the world through natural history, ending with Peters’s father begging a Jewish scientist to leave Germany in 1935. In another poem, a mother is mourned in the “whir” of a hummingbird. Alex, a bird, with “the emotional life of a two-year old / human child” dies. Each night, he would say each night, “I love you. See you tomorrow.” This parroted statement highlighting the tension between life’s permanence and its brevity. Poems about dogs, present and old, then sick and absent, gather their power by resisting the sentimental, paring down to the human—and canine—elemental. Each poem maps the complex spaces of loss and memory, illuminating the vitality of loss in defining the human condition.
Becker returns to the theme of her Lambda-award winning collection, All-American Girl, with a poem about her time riding horses as a preadolescent. “The Collection of the Canter” revels in wordplay riffing in multiple meanings of class, exploring learning and social hierarchies. Becker writes,
Saturdays we trailered to shows, entering classes
where I came to understand class as the father who rises
at five to pack hoof pick and shedding blade. My father
didn’t see the point, came late, wore white loafers.
Ultimately, in the poem, Becker becomes the Cantor of these cantering years, singing her story as a young Jewish woman, riding horses, waiting to belong.
One of the delights of The Black Bear Inside Me is the discovered kinship with the aging straight people. In the opening poem, “Clearing,” Becker writes of her neighbor Harvey, “on his tractor for the first / cutting of the summer”. She appreciates the hawkweed and daisy picked earlier this morning as the meadow is leveled. In her earlier poem, “The New Egypt,” mowing is a rich metaphor for human relations with the land. In “The New Egypt,” mowing evokes the poet’s connection to her father and to Judaism; in “Clearing,” mowing marks the passage of time, the inevitability and pleasures of aging. The poem concludes, “To live in the present they say become a fern / a prism a membrane through which time mows.”
In “Men as Friends,” Becker wryly notes, “I have a few which is news to me[.]” The humor in these poems is soft and pleasurable, punctuating the weighty issues the poems raise. The poem continues enumerating male friends, including Tom who “drops by in the morning with his travel / mug my mother would call it a coffee klatch[.]” Harvey appears “soft-spoken” and enjoying “long pauses in conversation[.]” At the end, James, a Marine, “mostly hunts and fishes” and “in trout season leaves, in my fridge, two rainbows[.]” Camaraderie, discovered unexpectedly with these men, is both human and humane.
Becker’s poetic notes of humanity harmonize with Kumin who Becker invokes with the dedication. Kumin’s presence is powerful not only through the dedication but with the shared sensibilities of both poets. Becker, ultimately, is a poet like Kumin: over time she produces a rich body of powerful poetry. In addition to the spectral presence of Kumin and Sexton in this collection, Adrienne Rich’s work inflects Becker’s poems. I turned to Becker’s book, after reading the tome of Rich’s Collected Poems. Sixty-two years of poems gathered in over 1,200 pages. The book reminds me of what a towering figure Rich is, poetically and intellectually, for poets and writers working in the second half of the twentieth century. The magnitude of Rich’s work manifests physically in the Collected Poems. These poems by Becker carry the imprint of Rich’s work, her thought, her generosity, and her life.
Like Kumin and Becker, I have read Rich’s poetry page by page, book by book. The work of a poet unfolds slowly. Word by word. Line by line. Poems bound in slim volumes. Volumes like The Black Bear Inside Me. Poems in single collections, like this one, are both deep and pleasurable; these poems are delightful, surprising, touching, and meaningful. Joy and pleasure emerge in volumes of poems like this one. The power of a poet emerges over a lifetime, however, in the collections of work across books—as in Rich’s Collected Poems and in Kumin’s work about Sexton. Robin Becker’s work is equal in power and authority to both Rich and Kumin. The Black Bear Inside Me is one collection to enter Becker’s work. Begin here, work backward. Then wait. In the final poem of The Black Bear Inside Me, “The Fix,” Becker describes a gasket rigged “to stop the leak in the water tank” and the “mechanical gods who say wiping their hands it’ll hold for now[.]” It’ll hold for now. The Black Bear Inside Me will hold for now, “stretching elastic. . .to reach at least next week[.]” The larger volume of her work, the Collected, the Selected, the profound heft of Becker’s poetic power, will draw a line from Rich and Kumin. It is yet forthcoming. It’ll hold for now. I love you. See you tomorrow.
The Black Bear Inside Me
By Robin Becker
University of Pittsburgh Press
Paperback, 9780822965244, 72 pp.