“first rubythroat / in the fading lilacs”: Maxine Kumin’s “Whereof the Gift Is Small” from And Short the Season

Whereof the Gift Is Small---poetry, Maxine Kumin, poem of the week, poetry discussion, flowers, nature

Last week, I had the pleasure of reading And Short the Season, the last collection by Maxine Kumin (1925-2014). Usually I try not to read late collections until I’ve read a few early collections for reference, but I couldn’t pass up this beauty when we stopped in at Island Books in Rhode Island last month.

IMG_0019In the collection, Kumin writes about her New Hampshire farm, politics, the seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish, and the approach of death. These poems, simultaneously elegant and earthy, made me want to pick up Kumin’s selected poems.

Today’s poem, “Whereof the Gift is Small,” refers to and quotes from a sixteenth-century sonnet often called “Brittle Beauty”  by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. (As you can see, Kumin also took the collection’s title from this poem.)

Here’s Surrey’s sonnet:

Brittle beauty, that Nature made so frail,
Whereof the gift is small, and short the season;
Flowering to-day, to-morrow apt to fail;
Tickle treasure, abhorred of reason:
Dangerous to deal with, vain, of none avail;
Costly in keeping, past not worth two peason;
Slipper in sliding, as is an eel’s tail;
Hard to obtain, once gotten, not geason:
Jewel of jeopardy, that peril doth assail;
False and untrue, enticed oft to treason;
Enemy to youth, that most may I bewail;
Ah! bitter sweet, infecting as the poison,
Thou farest as fruit that with the frost is taken;
To-day ready ripe, tomorrow all to-shaken.

(Carol Rumens has an excellent write-up of the poem in The Guardian.)

In “Whereof the Gift Is Small,” which opens And Short the Season, Kumin takes Surrey’s theme—that beauty is not only frail and transitory, but maybe even dangerous—and softens it considerably. Surrey, the last person executed on the orders of Henry VII, died at 30; “Whereof the Gift Is Small” appeared in print in 2011, when Kumin was past 80. True that beauty is swift to fade, she writes with the benefit of those extra fifty years; true that there’s “a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart / on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm / him underground.”

But look, she seems to say, at the texture and richness of nature’s brief beauty; consider the beginnings made out of ends: the rubythroated hummingbird in the “fading lilacs,” the alyssum (an annual, usually cream-colored, that smells like honey), the bee in the bleeding heart (a flower that looks like its name), the green of the new grass eaten by the living horses. Consider the “bluets, violets,” the “little flecks of buttercup on my sneaker toes.” These delicate flowers (all of them small, or composed of very small petals bunched together) are a rainbow of color, and like a rainbow, short-lived.

While the speaker’s “wet feet, wet cuffs” and her sneakers suggest (to me, anyway) a child outdoors at first light, soaked with dew, the poem’s last line—“brittle beauty—might this be the last?”—reminds us that the speaker is no child, that this season, this gift, could be the last whose shock of color she witnesses, and versifies.

What poems are you reading this week?

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4 thoughts on ““first rubythroat / in the fading lilacs”: Maxine Kumin’s “Whereof the Gift Is Small” from And Short the Season

  1. What a lovely edition. No wonder you took the plunge!

    I’ve been dipping into some Olive Senior poems, in anticipation of reading her new novel, The Pain Tree. But, overall, I was reading more poetry before summer struck. No matter, it’ll swing back into the stacks before long!

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