Arts & Leisure

Book review: ‘Walk With Me’ by Madeleine Kunin

The release of former three-term Vermont Governor Madeleine May Kunin’s second collection of poetry, “Walk With Me,” is nothing short of an invitation the reader has no choice but to accept. Stepping into the pages, we are caught by the meanderings of the lines, the ebbs and flows of the images, and the inclines and gentle rolling undulations of the stanzas. In the scope of her book, Kunin is not simply taking us on a journey of language, but holds our hand as we crawl into a soft, cushioned space of the poet’s authenticity and vulnerability. For 126 pages, we see the world from the end of a line cast far out on the horizon. From this place we are invited to gaze back in bittersweet remembrance and appreciation of a life filled to the brim with intention, warmth, confusion, loss, heartbreak, and growth.

As readers we rise and fall with the rhythm of Kunin’s language. Throughout the collection we are guided through mazes of the speaker’s memory, finding solidarity in raw, acute moments yet still left on an edge of peeked mystery and nostalgia:

She, must have been / around my age, pretty, / Her leg raised high / to step inside. / The boy at her side / shut the car door / behind her. / A girl, a boy, a car, at night. / Alone, in the dark / my mother frowned. / I held my breath. (Catskills)

We sit with the moments she sat with, bathes in, the ones she still wishes to have. On the brink of 90 years of life, Kunin opens up the possibility of aging as a privilege, introducing the joy of simplicity. Short poems scattered throughout the collection highlight this notion.

Cover (p. 38)

I am swathed in fantasies

when I pull the duvet

up to my chin.

I enjoy them

like ice cream. 

Kunin is honest about her fear of life coming to a close, and acknowledges the plethora of consequences that come with old age from navigating a shifting body and mind, losing love, and feeling utterly alone. But while these realities are expressed, Kunin does not grovel in their depths. Instead, darker emotions are paired with expressions of lightness as seen in the tenderness of A Hand at My Back. Kunin writes:

There was a hand at my back / when John was alive. / I felt it. / I was loved, / I was saved / from my own footsteps, / his matching mine… I remember how free I felt / letting go. / Having been loved / made me brave. (A Hand at My Back)

We recognize the moments of newly found joy, simple pleasures, fresh and surprising romance, the constant of her relationship with her children, and the connection to place as a grounding element.

A New Love in Old Age (p. 87)

A new love

in old age.

How can that be?

I am young

open to him surprised at myself,

saying yes, yes

like Molly Bloom

wearing hyacinths

in my hair.

Walk With Me” is an expression of life filling up. Life may have a timeline, a termination. But what is held in the bucket of living — the first times and mistakes, the growing up and getting old, the falling in and out of love, the laughter and the tears — is what Kunin chooses to cherish. Her poems illustrate that the contents of living are rich and jumbled, thick like stew. Appreciating its taste, its texture, is what makes existence meaningful. Kunin asks herself to slow, to match the pace of winter: So many more grays ahead. / Don’t hurry. / This is your life. / Chew your food slowly. / Look at your footprints in the snow. (Only in December)

And while “Walk With Me” largely deals with the concept of aging, the poems in this collection do not speak to a single audience. Kunin examines what it means to be a mother in Mother-Daughter (We talk like girlfriends, sometimes. I forget she’s my daughter, when / we share small secrets / about the women and men / who bump into our lives.), the importance of finding community in various outlets in Women’s Lunch, the complexities that accompany sitting alone with the self, and the challenge of navigating life’s transitions in I Look at Photos of Myself. Importantly, Kunin’s work speaks to a greater theme of loss, expressing an intimate relationship with it. In her poems, she plays with scales of loss from the loss of a family heirloom pin to the larger acceptance of death and losing sense of self as expressed in Aunt Berthe’s Pin. 

Kunin inquires what it means to live a “good life,” and wonders if her time on earth has served a purpose. In doing so, the range of the poems in the book highlight the unique definition of self-purpose itself, illustrating the complexity in defining the state of simply being. Kunin shows that finding purpose in life is not an end goal, but rather a continual process, one she still contemplates on the eve of her 90th birthday:

I went to the plant nursery today / to breathe garden growth / and feed on pinks and reds and gold… My thoughts are inward, downward, until I take my shovel / scoop earth, / and dig my way out. (Soil)

Only by slowing down, breathing in the surround, may we find peace with ourselves and a greater appreciation for the changing tides of our own bodies, psychologies, relationships, and realities. So open the door, step outside, hold hands, and laugh. Fill up your bones with the biting wind of a Vermont afternoon in March, and feel your middle expand with the warmth of an old friend’s embrace. Feel it seep into your skin and smile.

Ending (p. 112)

I would like to probe deep,

write about life and death,

the meaning of existence.

I should have the answers

by now,

when the end is so near.

I procrastinate.

I tell myself

there is still time

Maybe tomorrow

Or the next day

Or the day after that

to write about the meaning

of life,

The meaning of my life.

Have I made a difference?

Have I been kind?

Have I dropped a coin

into a beggar’s hand?

Will I be remembered,

and by whom?

For What?

I’m too tired

No more deep questions, please.

Maybe tomorrow,

Or the next day

Or the day after that.

Haley Hutchinson studies creative writing and psychology at Middlebury College (class of 2023.5). She currently works as an editorial intern at Green Writers Press and has previously worked for New England Review and Stone Pier Press.

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