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The Longing to Be Saved

dreamed around 1980 by Maxine Kumin

"The Longing to Be Saved" [is based on] a series of recurrent nightmares while I was housed in a motel in Fayetteville, Arkansas, one February...

When the barn catches fire
I am wearing the wrong negligee.
It hangs on me like a gunny sack.
I get the horses out, but they
wrench free, wheel, dash back
and three or four trips are required.
Much whinnying and rearing as well.
This happens whenever I travel.

At the next stopover, the children take off
their doctor and lawyer disguises
and turn back into little lambs.
They cower at windows from which flames
shoot like the tattered red cloth
of dimestore devil suits. They refuse
to jump into my waiting arms, although
I drilled them in this technique, years ago.

Finally they come to their senses and leap
but each time, the hoop holds my mother.
Her skin is as dry and papery as a late onion.
I take her into my bed, an enormous baby
I do not especially want to keep.
Three nights of such disquiet
in and out of dreams as thin as acetate

until, last of all, it's you
trapped in the blazing fortress.
I hold the rope as you slide from danger.
It's tricky in high winds and drifting snow.
Your body swaying in space
grows heavier, older, stranger

and me in the same gunny sack
and the slamming sounds as the gutted building burns.
Now the family's out, there's no holding back.
I go in to get my turn.

Although the resolution seems appropriate to the poem and solves the puzzle of the title, it baffles me as much now as it did during the composition. How could I dream myself running back (much as the horses do, in the opening stanza) into the flaming house? And are we allowed to astonish ourselves with a poem's closure? These questions must go unanswered.

NOTE

"The Longing to be Saved" was originally published in Kumin's The Retrieval System, and also appears (along with a dozen other poems incorporating dreams) in Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief. She won a Pulitzer for Up Country. I think she earned it.

--Chris Wayan--



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