One of the glue dots that has held my marriage together, aside from both of us NOT being Morning People, is that neither one of us can pass by a bookstore – if there’s a sale table, we may only go in to buy the bargains we just found, but otherwise we are in the door and browsing before you can say: “HowmanybooksdoyouNEED?!”
About a year and a half ago, my husband came back from running errands with groceries, car maintenance supplies, a full tank of gas and books – there was a sale table somewhere on his path. Light reading — SciFi and online Poker strategy — for him (he’s more likely to bring home stuff like The History of the Peloponnesian War or String Theory – 53rd Revised Edition) — and 100 Great Poems by Women (edited by Carolyn Kizer) for me.
In the poetry anthology, I found one poem I liked and one that I really liked – a pretty good percentage. Some of you undoubtedly already know Ruth Stone’s poetry, but she was new to me, so my husband got a Gold Star for finding the book and bringing it home.
This was the poem that started me on a search for more of Ruth Stone:
Putting up new curtains,
other windows intrude.
As though it is that first winter in Cambridge
when you and I had just moved in.
Now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen.
What does it mean if I say this years later?
Listen, last night
I am on a crying jag
with my landlord, Mr. Tempesta.
I sneaked in two cats.
He screams, “No pets! No pets!”
I become my Aunt Virginia,
proud but weak in the head.
I remember Anna Magnani.
I throw a few books. I shout.
He wipes his eyes and opens his hands.
OK OK keep the dirty animals
but no nails in the walls.
We cry together.
I am so nervous, he says.
I want to dig you up and say, look,
it’s like the time, remember,
when I ran into our living room naked
to get rid of that fire inspector.
See what you miss by being dead?
She wasn’t hard to find.
Books, lots of books: In an Iridescent Time (1959), Topography (1971), Second Hand Coat: Poems New and Selected (1987), Ordinary Words (1999), In the Next Galaxy (2002), In the Dark (2004), What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (2008), and so on, 15 books/chapbooks.
Honors, lots of honors: a National Book Critics Circle Award, a National Book Award, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, ………………the Walter Cerf Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts and several others.
Ruth Stone is a Famous Poet. But she lived a lot of her life in impoverished obscurity in rural Vermont, and only got national recognition in her eighties with the publication of Ordinary Words in 1999. That’s the book that won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
The problem with being a Famous Poet in America is that only a tiny percentage of Americans have ever heard of you. And the pay is usually worse than working the counter at McDonald’s.
She certainly didn’t have an easy life.
Ruth Stone was born in Virginia on June 8, 1915, about a month after the sinking of the Lusitania. Her mother was an avid reader, and grew up in a home with an extensive library. Ruth learned to read at the age of three. Her father was a musician and sometimes a printer, but his gambling led to the family living with his parents in Indianapolis. Her paternal grandparents’ house was also full of books and music.
She was married at 19. She went with her husband to the University of Illinois, where he attended grad school in chemical engineering. There she had her first daughter, Marcia, took classes, and met Walter Stone, her beloved poet-teacher, for whom she left her first husband.
I wore a large brim hat
like the women in the ads.
How thin I was: such skin.
Yes. It was Indianapolis;
a taste of sin.
You had a natural Afro;
no money for a haircut.
We were in the seedy part;
the buildings all run-down;
the record shop, the jazz
impeccable. We moved like
the blind, relying on our touch.
At the corner coffee shop,
after an hour’s play, with our
serious game on paper,
the waitress asked us
to move on. It wasn’t much.
Oh mortal love, your bones
were beautiful. I traced them
with my fingers. Now the light
grows less. You were so angular.
The air darkens with steel
and smoke. The cracked world
about to disintegrate,
in the arms of my total happiness.
She and Walter were married in 1945. He became her advocate, typing her poetry and sending it out into the world. Ruth said later she was “only ambitious vicariously, through him. . . . he defined the idea of achievement.”
They moved, so Walter could go to Harvard as a graduate student, and then again when he got a teaching position at Vassar. Ruth gave birth to two more daughters, Phoebe and Abigail. Her first poetry collection, In an Iridescent Time, was about to be published. Walter’s poetry and short fiction were being published in The New Yorker, and he had an advance for a novel.
It was 1959. The family was in London because Walter was on a sabbatical. He suffered two seemingly minor head injuries. Around this time, he told Ruth he was having strange thoughts, including that he was losing his mind. Whether this was related to bumping his head was never determined.
Walter committed suicide. ”Tied a silk cord around his meat neck/and hung his meat body, loved though it was,/in order to insure absolute quiet,/on the back of a rented door in SoHo”— from her poem, March 15, 1998. She never stopped loving Walter, but she never stopped being angry at him for taking his own life either. In this poem, she called him “serial killer of my days,” but she referred to much of her work as “love poems written to a dead man.”
“We were a happy family. It was like a rock fell out of the sky.” She and her daughters returned to America, but for the next ten years, Ruth was often depressed and unable to work steadily.
Always On The Train
Writing poems about writing poems
is like rolling bales of hay in Texas.
Nothing but the horizon to stop you.
But consider the railroad’s edge of metal trash;
bird perches, miles of telephone wires.
What is so innocent as grazing cattle?
If you think about it, it turns into words.
Trash is so cheerful; flying up
like grasshoppers in front of the reaper.
The dust devil whirls it aloft; bronze candy wrappers,
squares of clear plastic–windows on a house of air.
Below the weedy edge in last year’s mat,
red and silver beer cans.
In bits blown equally everywhere,
the gaiety of flying paper
and the black high flung patterns of flocking birds.
She became a wandering poet, taking short-term teaching positions, and returning to the old farmhouse she’d bought in Vermont between jobs. The poet Roseanne Wasserman confirms: “Stone has always been a stunningly empathetic teacher, funny and dead serious at once, masterful at the excruciating dance of giving immediate feedback.”
At first, their farmhouse had no running water or central heat. There was no television, but there were hundreds of books. With this upbringing, it doesn’t seem surprising that her oldest daughter Marcia would become a psychologist, her middle daughter Phoebe a painter and writer-illustrator of children’s books, and Abigail a novelist and songwriter.
Once you saw a drove of young pigs
crossing the highway. One of them
pulling his body by the front feet,
the hind legs dragging flat.
you called the Humane Society.
They came with a net and went for him.
They were matter of fact, uniformed;
there were two of them,
their truck ominous, with a cage.
He was hiding in the weeds. It was then
you saw his eyes. He understood.
He was trembling.
After they took him, you began to suffer regret.
Years later, you remember his misfit body
scrambling to reach the others.
Even at this moment, your heart
is going too fast; your hands sweat.
Finally, after two years of teaching at the State University of New York at Binghamton, she was granted tenure as a professor of English in 1990. She was in her seventies. She retired in 2000 because her eyesight was failing and she could no longer drive.
When she won the National Book Award in 2002, in her acceptance speech she said, “I certainly wasn’t expecting this. I think you probably gave it to me because I’m old.”
In her last years, she lost her sight completely, but with the help of her daughters, was able to complete two more books: In the Dark (2004); and What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (2008), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
“I have had a life of enormous happiness,” she said. “It is just beautiful. I think I’ve been fortunate. Though I lost Walter.”
Ruth Stone died on November 19, 2011, but her legacy continues through the efforts of the Next Galaxy Poetry Initiative (NGPI) to restore and convert her home to a creative space for writers and artists. The group’s name comes from the title poem of Ruth Stone’s 2002 In the Next Galaxy collection:
In the Next Galaxy
Things will be different.
No one will lose their sight,
their hearing, their gallbladder.
It will be all Catskills with brand
new wrap-around verandas.
The idea of Hitler will not have vibrated yet.
While back here,
they are still cleaning out
pockets of wrinkled
Nazis hiding in Argentina.
But in the next galaxy,
certain planets will have true
blue skies and drinking water.
- “Curtains” from Second Hand Coat: Poems New & Selected, © 1987 by Ruth Stone, David R. Godine Publishing
- “1941” from Ordinary Words, © 2000 by Ruth Stone, Paris Press
- “Always on the Train” from In the Next Galaxy © 2002 by Ruth Stone, Copper Canyon Press
- “Another Feeling” from In the Dark, © 2004 by Ruth Stone, Copper Canyon Press
- “In the Next Galaxy” from In the Next Galaxy, © 2002 by Ruth Stone, Copper Canyon Press
- “Green Apples” from Topography and Other Poems, © 1971 by Ruth Stone, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
- Bay window alcove in an old apartment
- Cover of Ordinary Words
- The young Ruth, photograph by John Lane Studio
- Ruth Stone on her Vermont farmhouse porch
- Ruth Stone in her house, photo by Paul O. Boisvert, 2002
- An older Stone on her porch
- Her Vermont farmhouse
- Ruth Stone’s poem Green Apples
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud