STARRED REVIEW
July 13, 2015

A treasured poet on life, love and writing

By Maxine Kumin
Maxine Kumin, who died last year at 88, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, essayist and children’s book author who served as U.S. poet laureate and bred horses on her New Hampshire farm. Kumin’s memoir, The Pawnbroker’s Daughter, comprises five essays, four of which first appeared in American Scholar and Georgia Review. These charming recollections will now reach a wider readership in book form.
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Maxine Kumin, who died last year at 88, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, essayist and children’s book author who served as U.S. poet laureate and bred horses on her New Hampshire farm. Kumin’s memoir, The Pawnbroker’s Daughter, comprises five essays, four of which first appeared in American Scholar and Georgia Review. These charming recollections will now reach a wider readership in book form.

As the title signals, Kumin’s father was a pawnbroker, and her mother was a music teacher. The family was Jewish, but lived in the largely Protestant Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown. To add to the odd-man-out scenario, young Maxine attended Catholic grammar school. When she left home for college at Radcliffe, her “parochial Jewishness fell away.”

On a blind date in the final days of World War II, she met Victor Kumin, a young engineer who was working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. After some wartime separation and a few hard-to-arrange trips to the Southwest, the couple began a long, enduring marriage. After early years in Boston, they moved to their rural retreat, which Kumin named Pobiz Farm in a wry reference to the “poetry business” that was occupying her time.

Within this skeletal framework of a life, Kumin writes luminously about the everyday episodes that often found their way into her poems. The Pawnbroker’s Daughter has a comfortable rhythm, a feeling that one is sitting and hearing these quotidian details firsthand from the late-in-life Kumin, perhaps while foraging for mushrooms alongside her in the woods or by the fire on a winter’s day. Heartening rather than elegiac, this endearing volume is a lovely last expression of a formidable writer’s art.

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