Maxine Combs (1937-2002)

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Maxine Combs (1937-2002) was a novelist and poet who wrote five books: Listening for Wings (2002), The Inner Life of Objects (2000), Swimming Out of the Collective Unconscious (1999), Handbook of the Strange (1996), and The Foam of Perilous Seas (1990). Publishers Weekly called her novel The Inner Life of Objects “intellectually and spiritually provocative.” She taught English at American University for four years, at George Mason University for nine years, and at Howard University for one year, and was also affiliated with the University of the District of Columbia in multiple spans of years. In 1988, Combs won the Fiction Prize in the Larry Neal Writers’ Awards Competition, which was sponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She served as Fiction Editor of the Antietam Review, an annual journal of literature and photography. Combs enjoyed using metaphors to transcend the normal in her works.

From file in Gelman Library AND DC Writers’ Homes: Beltway Poetry Quarterly:

written by Word Works intern Monica Root, September 2013, edited by Kim Roberts, December 2013

In August 2014 Elisavietta Ritchie added this more personal biography:

A lovely greeting card of a Japanese screen with a hillside of purple iris of staggered heights against the gold just slipped out of Maxine Combs’ HANDBOOK OF THE STRANGE, with her hand-written note to me, dated July 24, 2001, and her brand new nine-line poem, “Delicate Creatures.” It was Maxine who was delicate. She was fighting yet another variation of the cancer that had invaded her slender body some five years before, and was about to return to Johns Hopkins Hospital for radiation of “some spot on my liver…Hope nothing worse…I’ve been scribbling a little, paragraph here, a paragraph there, paragraphs not necessarily connected. My thought is that in time connections will be discovered. Or forged…Love, Max”

All the connections! Between paragraphs and people…The love.

Maxine Combs joined my poetry workshop, which began at the Writer’s Center then moved to Macomb Street, as my student, but it was soon obvious that she knew much more about poetry and American poets than I. She was, in fact, teaching literature at various universities in the District, Georgetown, Howard, eventually the University of the District of Columbia, and had published articles on such figures as Charles Olsen. She never lorded her erudition over us, but shared her curiosity about many subjects, whether whimsical ideas or quotidian banalities or occult matters.

She had not, however, dared to publish her poems, and the little I was able to do for her was to encourage her to try. Journals began to accept her poems, as they did of other workshop members, while our workshops were evolving into a Tuesday poetry group and a Thursday fiction peer group which met around our expandable dinner table. Workshop participants bonded, and friendships evolved and would continue for years whether I was in town or not.

We created The Wineberry Press to produce our ten-poet anthology, FINDING THE NAME, in 1983. When one little compilation of Maxine’s poems was accepted as a broadside or brochure which turned out to be a shoddy print job, we put together a thin chapbook which our nascent Wineberry Press also published as SWIMMING OUT OF THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS: POETRY AND OTHER STORIES. And forward she went, to see journals and bigger presses publish individual pieces and more full manuscripts of her poetry and fiction. She won the Larry Neal Award for Fiction and the Slough Fiction Award.

Our lives and interests and publishing adventures overlapped. Thus Dougald MacMillan, publisher of Signal Books which put out three of my books, was enthralled by Maxine’s writing and in 1995 published her HANDBOOK OF THE STRANGE. Billeting Dougald in the Baby Room, we held the launch at Macomb Street. In 1999 Calyx published THE INNER LIFE OF OBJECTS. Meanwhile she became poetry editor of Antietam Review, which our fellow poet and writer Ann Brewer Knox edited. We went to Laurel Racetrack to bet on Martin’s horses, all three named after Maxine’s books.

And of course we all critiqued each other’s manuscripts, not daring to send even a love letter before it was vetted.

Our gang of fellow poets and writers shared not only the joys of writing, teaching and loving, but concerns about health, packrat partners, and troubled children who needed special schooling. We held weekend workshops in our crumbing farmhouse by the Patuxent River, and above all, triumphal book launches and celebrations. With Elizabeth Follin-Jones and Mary Edsall, Maxine and her husband Martin Bernstein threw a wedding reception for us in garden of their house. When we headed to Canada for over five years, returning for a few days only every few months, the workshops resumed or continued to meet, often at Maxine’s.

And when at various stages of her cancer, Maxine was largely confined to her house, we all visited. Toward the end, Ann Knox and I compiled and Wineberry Press published a little chapbook, LISTENING FOR WINGS, following Maxine’s instructions for a cover photo of a swamp, and a particular shade of red to frame it. Whereas Maxine and Martin had been part of an ultra-reform minion which eschewed many rituals, Hilary Tham brought them into her synagogue, what became Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, which albeit having a female rabbi, preserved many other traditions. And it was here that in 2002, Maxine’s final service was held, with several of us reading her poems, before moving on to a hillside in King David Cemetery.

The final poem in LISTENING FOR WINGS is "I REACH FOR THE DARKNESS." Passager; LISTENING FOR WINGS, Wineberry Press, 1983.

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