Maxine Kumin wrote ‘How It Is’ commemorating her friendship with Anne Sexton. They first met in 1957, and their relationship lasted till the death of Sexton in 1974. Kumin wrote this piece after her death. In this poem, Kumin talks about an old blue jacket of Sexton that is a token of the days they spent together. This personal poem taps on the intimate feelings of Kumin for Sexton. Besides, it also highlights the poet’s contribution.
‘How It Is’ by Maxine Kumin commemorates the friendship of the poet with Anne Sexton and revolves around a blue jacket of Sexton.
Kumin’s persona addresses this poem to her dear old friend, Anne Sexton. Throughout this piece, she shares how she feels while wearing her friend’s old jacket. The first stanza captures the speaker putting on the jacket. Her friend’s dog becomes ecstatic to see the jacket. She discovers the things kept in her pockets and shares how her heart aches for her dear one’s absence.
In the second stanza, the speaker tries to ruminate upon the memories of their friendship. She meditates upon a number of things starting from her friend’s car to the rooms where her scent still lingered. In the last stanza, she describes how great her friend was. Her poetic voice won hearts. After her death, the speaker tries to jot down her remnants while wearing her “dumb blue blazer.”
You can read the full poem here.
Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
The dog at the center of my life recognizes
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.
Maxine Kumin’s poem ‘How It Is’ examines the feelings of the poet for her old friend, who is no more. Her friend is none other than the best-known confessional poet Anne Sexton. They were close friends for a couple of years. Kumin was the only person who had seen Sexton before she committed suicide in 1974. Before her untimely death, she communicated with Kumin often. Scholars believe that Sexton had a significant impact on Kumin’s poetry.
The first line is directly addressed to the old acquaintance. Kumin’s persona enquires how she feels wearing her friend’s clothes. She put on her blue jacket after a month of her death. Even her favorite dog felt ecstatic to notice her wearing Sexton’s jacket. In this way, she describes how even her dog felt happy to have the old smell around it.
She searched through her pockets and found a parking ticket on the right. It was from last August collected on Bay State Road. The discovery of this ticket acted like a remembrancer to the speaker. It made her drown in her mellowing thoughts. She describes her feelings by the image of the milkweed. The way it stirred in her heart felt like someone just flung the little pods of her soul.
Furthermore, she could feel her friend’s outline on the jacket. It made her feel warm at the same time, dry. The memories of her old friend kept flooding in her mind. It made her feel uplifted. Yet, she felt sad for her absence.
I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.
In the second stanza of ‘How It Is,’ the speaker describes the last day with her old friend. She finds fit words to paint the thoughts of that day. Here, Kumin uses a metaphor of a “collage” to compare it with a combination of memories.
She imagines the day she spent with her friend. Everything is clear to her. She could see the car idling in the garage. On that day, she prayed in her room upstairs. After the prayer, they are together.
While unwinding the old things, the speaker tries to relive the day with her dead friend. She assembled the bits of bread and tuna fish. Then she father’s them together to form a ceremonial sandwich in her thoughts.
Besides, they saw the home movie on that day while having vodka with ice. The words they spoke to each other are beautifully compared to “living meat.” Her words are as lively as fresh, raw meat. These are still unrefined and kept safe in her mind.
Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.
The last stanza begins with a tribute to the dead poet. While she was alive, her words mesmerized the readers. Their praise swelled like wine bags. It might have made her friend feel uneasy. She hints at this fact by the phrase, “straining at your seams.”
The last few lines become impassioned. They are filled with the speaker’s longing for her friend. She hyperbolically remarks that she would need years to gather her words. She would look for their old letters, snapshots, and stains in order to relive those days.
As she put on her jacket, she felt like her ribs were against the durable cloth of their friendship. She describes this clothing as “the dumb blue blazer of your death.” It is said so because it reminds the speaker of her friend.
Kumin’s ‘How It Is’ is a free-verse lyric written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. Here, the speaker is none other than the poet herself. She uses her persona in order to share her intimate thoughts about her friend. Besides, the text consists of three stanzas. The first stanza is the longest one containing a total of 11 lines. The following ones have 10 and 7 lines, respectively. Being a free-verse poem, there is no specific rhyme scheme or meter. However, Kumin uses a number of internal and slant rhymes in a few instances.
‘How It Is’ showcases the use of the following literary devices that make Kumin’s thoughts more appealing to readers.
- Rhetorical Question: The poem begins with a rhetorical question. This question is asked directly to the speaker’s friend that concerns her feelings for her friend.
- Anaphora: It occurs in the fifth and sixth lines of the first stanza. These lines begin with the same phrase, “In the …” It is meant for the sake of emphasis. It also occurs in lines 4-5 of the second stanza.
- Simile: This device is used in “In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,/ a flinging from the pods of the soul,” “our words like living meat,” and “They swell/ like wine bags.”
- Metaphor: The phrase “pods of the soul” contains a metaphor. Here, the emotions of the speaker are compared to pods. In the last stanza, “blazer of your death” also contains this device.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “flinging from,” “like living,” “snapshots, stains,” etc.
Maxine Kumin’s ‘How It Is’ is written in memory of the poet’s old friend, Anne Sexton. In this poem, she talks about how she feels while wearing her friend’s old jacket. It reminds her of the last day they spent together.
The poem was first published in 1976, two years after Anne Sexton’s death. It appeared in Maxine Kumin’s collection of poetry Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief.
This poem includes the themes of friendship, memories, death, longing, and love. The main idea of the poem revolves around the poet’s feelings for her dead friend.
Here is a list of a few poems that showcase similar themes present in Maxine Kumin’s poem ‘How It Is’. You can also explore Anne Sexton poems.
- ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ by Robert Service — This poem is about a speaker’s friend, Sam McGee, who died in the prospect of gold.
- ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls/No Man is an Island’ by John Donne — In this poem, Donne explores the themes of life, death, and the human condition.
- ‘For Annie’ by Edgar Allan Poe — This piece is dedicated to Poe’s Platonic friend Nancy Locke Haywood.
You can also explore these best-loved poems about friendship.