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The Thirties Revisited

dreamed late 1970s by Maxine Kumin

It starts with the clothes-prop man
who is driving his stickload of notches and points
down the streets of my childhood. His horse
knocks from side to side on Lincoln Log joints
and the feedbag sways at the rear
dribbling its measure of oats.
It's the thirties again, that dream. I'm assigned
to remember laundry lifting like ghosts
on the propped-up lines where step-ins blush,
the cheeks of trousers fill, and skirts
open their petals in the washday wind.
But why just now must the horse go lame,
drop in the shafts and be left behind
struggling, struggling so to rise
that blood pours from his nose?
Why is he shot
on this Monday noon of my queer pinched life
as I watch from the parlor window seat?

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me
went down to the river to bathe.
Adam and Eve got drowneded
and who do you think got saved?

My father's bootlegger has just driven up
from Camden with a case of Cutty Sark
for the demon whiskey lovers.
My uncles move in upstairs with their beebee guns.
They're out of work.
God has a peephole even under the covers.
Squirrels fall at first light out of the pin oaks.
My brothers, short-pants man to man,
tie them in knots like old socks
and salt them away in the garbage can.
I'm the squirrel girl.
After everyone leaves for school or town
I sneak the poor burst darlings down
to the garden bed for a burial.

On the way back, muddy, I stop for a drink
at the kitchen faucet, wash up, hear
the amber bottles whistle through me clear
as scatter shot, then do
what the Almighty tells me to:
I pour my daddy's whiskey down the sink.

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Tight
went to the movies one dark night.
Adam and Eve had an ice-cream cone
and who do you think got lost coming home?

Now I am ten. Enter Mamselle,
my mother's cut-rate milliner.
She is putting her sore eyes out in the hall
at thirty cents an hour
tacking veils onto felt forms.
Mamselle is an artist.
She can copy the Eiffel Tower
in feathers with a rolled-up brim.
She can make pyramids out of cherries.
Mamselle wears cheese boxes on her feet.
Madame can buy and sell her.
If daughters were traded among the accessories
in the perfumed hush of Bonwit Teller's
she'd have replaced me with a pocketbook,
snapped me shut and looped me over
her Hudson seal cuff, me of the chrome-wire mouth,
the inkpot braids, one eye that looks
wrongly across at the other.
O Lady of the Chaise Longue,
o Queen of the Kimono,
I disappoint my mother.

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Flat
went to the push-nickel automat.
Adam and Eve had nickels to spend
but who do you think got left in the end?

Two more years of Kaltenborn's reports
and Poland will fall, the hearts
of horses will burst in a battle with tanks.
Soon enough the uncles will give thanks
for GI uniforms to choose
and go off tough as terriers to dig their holes.
Warsaw will excrete its last Jews.

My father will cry like a child.
He will knuckle his eyes, to my terror,
over the letters that come from the grave
begging to be sponsored, plucked up, saved.
I hoard tinfoil, meanwhile.
I knit for Britain's warriors.
This is the year that my mother stiffens.
She undresses in the closet giving me
her back as if I can't see
her breasts fall down like pufferfish,
the life gone out of their crusty eyes.
But who has punctured the bathroom light?
Why does the mattress moan at night
and why is nothing good
said of all the business to come
--the elastic belt with its metal tongue--
when my body, that surprise,
claps me into my first blood?

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Dead
coasted down Strawberry Hill on a sled.
Adam and Eve fell off in the mud
but who do you think got covered with blood?

--Maxine Kumin--

"The Thirties Revisited" was originally published in Kumin's collection The Retrieval System. Along with many other poems incorporating dreams, it's also in Kumin's Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief (1982). She won a Pulitzer Prize for Up Country. All her work is concrete, personal and forceful; some critics have flamed Kumin for her sometimes savage opinions. I admire her.

--Chris Wayan--

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