Reading and Writing Place and Experience
By Adrienne Su
Maxine Kumin’s poem “Encounter in August” describes a standoff between gardener and black bear over a crop of beans:
Inside the tepee that admits
sunlight to the underpart
he stands eating my Kentucky Wonders.
Downs pod after pod, spilling the beans,
the ones I’d saved for shelling out
this winter, thinking soup
when he’d gone deep, denned up.
The speaker stands ten feet from the bear and watches him devour her beans. The bear doesn’t notice her while he polishes off the season’s yield. The danger to the gardener goes unstated; mainly, we feel her indignation and loss. The encounter ends with the bear’s oblivious departure and the speaker’s effort to make peace with what has happened:
At last he goes the way the skunk
does, supreme egoist, ambling
into the woodlot on all fours
leaving my trellis flat and beanless
and yet I find the trade-off fair:
beans and more beans for this hour of bear.
For years I loved this poem, along with many others by Kumin; they fed my vision of her home in New Hampshire, Po-Biz Farm, and the surrounding area. From “Taking the Lambs to Market,” I imagined Amos the butcher; from “Nurture,” I saw stray animals warming themselves by Kumin’s fireplace; from “Woodchucks,” I imagined Kumin struggling to protect her vegetable garden from devastation by woodchucks. In 2009, Kumin came to Dickinson College, where I teach, which gave me two precious days to talk with her about poems and life. “Encounter in August” was one of the poems I brought up.
“That one really happened,” she said. “That was a real bear. It actually ate the beans from my garden.”
Although I was pleased to know this, on some level I was disappointed—not in this poem, but in the fact of its being exceptional. If this one was notable for being true, then others were invented, or partially invented. Amos the butcher might be Jonas or Peter; it was possible that no one on Po-Biz Farm had ever shot a single woodchuck. Even as I routinely urged students to alter facts for the sake of a poem’s success, and did so myself, I had been unwittingly reading Kumin’s poems as literal truth. Knowing that they might be fabrications did not diminish my regard for the poems, but discovering that I had somehow counted on their realness revealed that I had, over time, become attached to a person who was and was not the real Maxine Kumin.
This was as it should be, of course. “What really happened” is never the point. There’s the life, and there’s the work; the latter does not owe accuracy to the former. But still, I wanted the Maxine Kumin who was sitting next to me at dinner to be the Maxine Kumin who had lived in my readerly imagination for all of my writing life. My selfish desire to meet this fantasy person counted on her to exist as her words had led me to believe. (I’m sure there are parallels in online dating, but that’s another essay.)
In the end, however, the disappointment was fleeting. Kumin’s poems have such a close resemblance to Kumin’s life that whatever is fabricated in them fits nicely into the larger picture of who she was. At Dickinson she spoke earnestly and with humor to a student audience about the situation depicted in her poem “Looking Back in My Eighty-First Year”: reflections on her real-life decision, as a young woman, to turn down a fellowship to do literary studies in France, and instead settle down with the man she remained married to for the rest of her life. She talked with touching candor about her friendship with Anne Sexton, her beloved horses, her beloved dogs. Certain people and animals make it into her poems in the same spirit in which they existed in real life; whether or not the facts were exact, this was the kind of correspondence that made sense.
Robert Frost’s “Birches,” one of the first Frost poems I knew, evokes a rural landscape where snow and ice routinely weigh down branches. About the birches, the speaker observes:
Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Then he imagines a boy raised in that landscape expertly swinging on the branches:
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer.
The poem goes on to describe the precision with which such a boy, uncorrupted by urban or even small-town entertainments, handles the branches, having taught himself in verdant solitude just how far up and out to climb without breaking them. Then the poet declares: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches. / And so I dream of going back to be.”
This is only one of many Frost poems that mark him as a New England poet, but unlike many of the others, this one strongly implies that the speaker, like the boy he imagines, grew up there, ignorant of alternatives. Having no one to play with, he has always played with birches. He seems to be such a longtime native of this place that he hasn’t thought to imagine what another childhood might have looked like. That the birches are “his father’s trees” suggests, also, that his family has been here and nowhere else for generations.
Thus was I surprised in 2003 when, heading to Frost’s house in Franconia, New Hampshire, now known as The Frost Place, for a summer as poet-in-residence, I began looking at Frost’s life where previously I had looked only at the poems, and found out that he was from San Francisco. True, his relocation to New England had taken place when he was still a boy—age eleven—and his father had come from a New England family, but Frost had by no means grown up “too far from town to learn baseball.” Frost’s mother was from Scotland; his parents had met in Pennsylvania. Frost’s native landscape hadn’t seen much in the way of the snow and ice-storms in “Birches.” If he had in fact acquired such excellent birch-bending skills, it would have been in early adolescence, with full awareness that he wasn’t in San Francisco anymore.
I was surprised, but not betrayed – not even annoyed. Learning this felt similar to the little surprises that arise in the study of food: corned beef and cabbage do not constitute a normal meal in Ireland; tomatoes aren’t native to Italy; no one eats General Tso’s Chicken in China (except now, on occasion, as an American import). Our notions of authenticity are often manufactured by marketing people, or based on some arbitrarily timed snapshot of what happens to inhabit a particular culture at a particular moment. Why should a poet’s identity be any different, given that a poet, like a restaurant or tourism board, is packaging an identity through a body of work?
A child of immigrants, I took heart in seeing Frost as a kind of immigrant to New England. It meant—his father’s family notwithstanding—hat a person from elsewhere could become a local there, in the public sense if not in the neighborhood. And surely his having come from somewhere else gave him the perspective it would take to portray New England in such credible, memorable detail. The boy who’s been swinging from birch branches all his life doesn’t know what’s extraordinary about it because he’s never known a life in which he didn’t swing from birch branches. Thus the outsider poet creates the sense of place and, by being widely read, the place itself. Again, the self created by the poems doesn’t have to match the self who lived the life, although, as with Kumin, the multitude of resemblances enhance verisimilitude. Kumin herself is often compared to Frost as a portrayer of New England life, lived close to the earth. And lest we forget, Maxine Kumin came from Pennsylvania.
Several years ago, the poet Nick Carbó, guest-editing an Asian-American issue of the online journal MiPoesias, asked me and a number of other Asian-American poets for poems on the theme “I Will Not Love You Long Time.” I had nothing lying around that fit the theme, so I figured I’d better write something. In any case, I found the prompt irresistible. It evoked for me the many family members—mostly older—whose English was that of a non-native speaker, but whose phrasing in English sometimes made for more effective statements than the grammatically correct version would. I’m convinced that, just as Frost and Kumin’s non-New-England beginnings surely sharpened their perceptions of New England, my relatives’ non-English-speaking beginnings gave me an understanding of English that I would not have had if I’d grown up entirely among native speakers of it. Hearing things said in nonstandard ways illuminated the standard ways and suggested that there were alternatives to “correct” language. I liked, also, the idea that anyone who says, “I will not love you long time” is simultaneously admitting love for the addressee and declaring the imminent end of that love. It’s a breakup statement at once decisive and vulnerable. Its grammatical awkwardness adds a layer of difference, conveying that the “I” and “you” come from different cultural backgrounds, and that both their love and their estrangement transcend these differences. Another thing that remains unknown is who left whom: the “I” might be reacting to having been left, or the “I” might have made a decision to leave, despite residual feelings of attachment.
I had no idea that the line was a reference to a scene from “Full Metal Jacket,” in which a Vietnamese prostitute approaches two white American GIs with various lines in broken English, among them “Me love you long time,” nor that “I will not love you long time” had become a slogan among Asian Americans fed up with sexual stereotypes of Asian women. But all of that worked out fine with the poem I ended up writing, “Sestina,” in which the speaker addresses a man who has said whatever he needed to say to get her to sleep with him, then run for the hills. I relished playing with the language, which is how the poem became a sestina, its repetitions intended to reflect the human tendency to justify decisions we may know to be poor. I gave the speaker a Chinese grandmother who, like my own grandmother, lived in Communist China throughout the speaker’s life and died before the speaker, an American, could visit or even emerge from childhood. The speaker mentally consults the grandmother for advice throughout the brief relationship, but of course the speaker has to invent the grandmother and provide the grandmother’s replies herself, in deliberately broken English. As the speaker tries to navigate the emotional fallout, she finally admits that the grandmother is a fiction and she is on her own:
The real grandmother—
who knows what she would have wanted?
Maybe she would’ve said, This time
different; for this man, first-sight love;
maybe she abhorred the limits of ancient wisdom
on female joy. So I took you at your word.
Now I’m putting words in my grandmother’s
mouth again, vessels for wisdom that’s wanting:
Tell bad man, I will not love you long time.
I think of the poem as depicting a commonplace experience—who hasn’t misjudged a relationship or cast about for what an unavailable confidante would have said?—and not anything in particular about my own life. I don’t think of my own life as interesting enough to be of consequence on the page, except insofar as episodes that seem to come from my life can shed light on someone else’s life. And on one level, I cringe to think that someone reading the poem might take this to be an actual recounting of an experience, because it’s fiction and I want it to be understood that way, except that it also isn’t, because it’s true to what I know and understand about negotiations between the sexes in a “liberated” society, both generally between women and men but also particularly between Asian women and white men—as well as between Asian-American women and traditional Asian attitudes toward women, in this case represented by an imagined grandmother.
On another level, though, I think I’ve accomplished what I set out to accomplish when a reader thinks it’s real. It means I’ve created a credible speaker and situation, and persuaded someone to believe in the integrity of the story. Some poems, like “Encounter in August” and “Birches,” invite the reader to believe that the poet is the speaker, and as reader I’ve taken them up on it and derived more pleasure from the poems thanks to that credence. My effort in “Sestina” makes a similar invitation, much as I’d prefer not to seem like this speaker. If this means that I have to go around seeming to have been an idiot at least once, so be it: I’m not writing in order to seem virtuous or wise, but to be believed.
Adrienne Su’s fifth book of poems, Peach State, is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2021. You can visit her website here and follow her on Twitter @AdrienneSu