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Maxine Kumin, “Radford, Virginia 1904

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“My Golden Hour” public domain via Picryl

Radford, Virginia 1904

The god of chance plucked this kodak print

from a caved-in box of lost ancestors

born in the blear of the Hapsburg twilight.

My mother’s three youngest brothers balance

astride her father’s prize Saddlebred

the mount most favored by Civil War generals:

Grant, Stonewall Jackson, and Lee.

The muscular stableboy, shirtsleeves rolled

cap cocked back on his head

two generations up from slavery

hooks a casual finger under the halter

to show that this horse does not need to be held.

Grandfather, now the proprietor

of the fusty drygoods store on the square

drives his highstepping bay down the narrow

dirt roads out of Radford, but only on Sunday

afternoons, so as not to offend the churchy.

There goes the jew, they say of his clatter

nothing remarking the forty-day crossing

his father made, fifty years ago

to escape being pressed into Metternich’s army

or his plod heading south out of Baltimore

pack on his back, an itinerant peddler.

Forgotten, the uniforms that he stitched

for the Confederates, the nest egg he lost.

Nothing deploring the gradual fade

of the smooth-gaited Saddlebreds

long preferred on Southern plantations

now being displaced by the horseless carriage

making its shaky uncertain way

on a new road surface called macadam.

Three little boys on a statuesque horse

while Radford is linked by the telephone

—Bell calls it “the harmonic telegraph”—

to Lynchburg and Blacksburg and Roanoke

and soon enough the world.

“Radford, Virginia, 1904” is included Kumin’s 2014 collection, And Short the Season, below. Read more about Maxine Kumin’s career and works here.

My Response to “Radford, Virginia 1904”

Read the poem and decipher for yourself before you read my ideas!

Radford, Virginia is a small town in the southwestern part of the state, not too far from where Virginia becomes Kentucky and Tennessee and as far as I’m concerned, part of the west. But I’m from a family that, while not well to do, arrived in Virginia 400 years ago and stayed put. So what do I know?

The unexpected part of this poem is, of course, that the main character is Jewish, so he’s a part of the community and the culture, in fact, he should be a leader. He owns the store, and he gave his all for “the cause” (the lost Confederacy), but he doesn’t get credit for it. He’s still nothing more than “the Jew” (that Kumin wrote, “the jew”).

And then there is the presence of the stableboy, “two generations up from slavery”. He seems more a part of things than the grandfather. But then, ironically, by the end of the poem, the grandfather seems more a part of the locale than the speaker and the others spoken for, as they are connected with the rest of Virginia (and these are all small cities) and the world.

I’m not sure I know exactly what to make of this poem without more exploration, other than I like it, but it seems to me that the turning point is the formation of compounds in the 6th and 7th stanzas when Kumin writes “drygoods” instead of “dry goods” and “highstepping” instead of “high stepping”. Those two words, to me, evokes the repressed tension in the scene that on the surface, is peaceful, methodical and nostalgic.

Ironically, the poem hints that this world is forgotten, and the speaker is sad about it, yet she calls the instrument of this change, “the harmonic telegraph”. Now Bell no doubt was using the term “harmonics” as a technical term, but poetically, the word sounds like “harmonious”.

On the surface, the forgetting of the past is what disrupts the “harmony” of the past, but the grandfather and the stableboy represent a different point of view that hints that leaving the past behind is not a bad thing.

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