September 17, 2008

Reviewed by Gilbert Purdy

WHAT LOVE COMES TO: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS
by Ruth Stone

Copper Canyon Press
PO Box 271
Building 313
Fort Worden State Park
Port Townsend WA 98368
ISBN 1-55659-271-3
2008, 383 pp., $32.00 cloth
www.coppercanyonpress.org

The Belle of Goshen

The first letters of the lines of Ruth Stone’s poem “Acrostic” spell “Walter Stone PhD.” The lines begun by those letters compose one of 68 new poems that appear in What Love Comes To: New and Selected Poems. Those 68 poems are quite enough to compose a healthy volume in themselves and a notable largesse compared to the mere handful of new poems generally provided in the “New and Selected” format in recent times. In fact, they are designated, after the same fashion as the previous volumes, as Stone’s most recent: What Love Comes To (2008).

Ruth Stone’s late husband, Walter, an associate professor at Vassar College, hanged himself on March 11, 1959. He was in England at the time. In the bluntly prosaic words of David Slavitt’s “Elegy to Walter Stone”:

In London, on a grant
to study Renaissance eschatology,
the late professor and poet, Walter Stone,
committed suicide:… (1)

Walter left Ruth and three young daughters behind to go on without his person or paycheck.

Ruth herself would have a great deal to say, in her own poems, about the life and death of the husband with whom she has never stopped living to this day. In the poem “Coffee and Sweet Rolls,” selected from the volume Simplicity (1995), she revels in the forbidden, bohemian nature of their early love:

When I remember the dingy hotels
where we lay reading Baudelaire,
your long elegant fingers, the nervous ritual
of your cigarette; you, a young poet working
in the steel mills; me, married
to a dull chemical engineer. [264]

In “Love’s Relative,” from In an Iridescent Time (1959), she describes him as he sleeps beside their two year old child:

…he’s tanned and hairy,
Has a fierce Egyptian head. [110]

The poem is written in loose iambic tetrameter. A goodly number of the poems in the early books are written in loose forms.

“I have a talent for loving the dead,” writes Stone in “A Short History of My Brother,” another of the new poems. It has certainly been true of Walter Stone throughout all of the volumes of Stone’s poetry. In What Love Comes To (2008), however, published during her 92nd year, the dead are loved in urgent profusion: mother, father, grandmother, brother, sister, friends and acquaintances.

There have been a lot of people worth loving in Stone’s life. From her earliest years, many of the women were poets and artists. Her mother read to her regularly beginning shortly after she was born (a very advanced idea of nurturing in 1915). Her Aunt Harriette was only some three years older than she and the two constantly wrote and drew together. Poetry and painting were family traits, in particular on the paternal side. The list of giving and creative people that have graced her life, eventually to pass out of it, is prodigious and there are, of course, the thank you notes to be written.

The living receive their share of love, or otherwise attention, as well. The better of the new poems tend to be about them. Stone’s poem to her eldest daughter, “Marcia,” is more truthful than most such efforts. The decidedly non-elegiac poem “The Dorm” bursts with the ambivalent energy of youth:

Along these halls at night,
doors explode with the hoarse screams
of young men;
their cartilage bursting at seams;
manic, they run barefoot,
throwing banana skins,
pounding on walls,
laughing hysterically ―
and the screams of young women
pitched like sirens,
racing to blood,
to disaster,… [32]

The dead, however lovingly and carefully portrayed, seem decorous by comparison. They lack the intensity they had in the earlier volumes in such well known poems as “Names” (selected from the 1987 volume Second Hand Coat).

Walter is not the only persistent element in the poetry of Ruth Stone. From her first book to her most recent nature and the lives of women are the primary sources of poetry. Both are magical and diverse. In the world of men they are vulnerable, cautious. Both are impressed by the violence and insensitivity of men.

A mare roaming an orchard has “A woman’s patient stare that grieves.” In the poem “The Plan,” selected from Topography and Other Poems (1971), Stone is almost as natural as the mare, though she struggles against the fact:

I said to myself, do you have a plan?
And the answer was always, no, I have no plan.
Then I would say to myself, you must think of one.
But what happened went on, chaotic with necessary pain. [122]

The plans of most of the female characters, if they have any, and if they can be called plans at all, revolve around the house and relationships. Mrs. Dubosky, from the poem “What Can You Do?” (redolent of Frost’s “The Housekeeper”), is patiently trying to pay off her trailer so she can retire. Stone herself bought a house, shortly before her husband’s death, that is now the stuff of legend (at least in poetry circles):

With my first piece of ready cash I bought my own
place in Vermont; kerosene lamps, dirt road.
I’m sticking here like a porcupine up a tree. [176]

Her lack of planning presumably left her heart free to make the choices that arrived at the purchase.

While the women of Stone’s poetry may not satisfy some readers who grew up during the years following 60s feminism, they are deeply human and her portrayal of them is true to the experience of many even now. As she has pointed out, in interview after interview, their culturally imposed limitations are clearly a strong feminist theme.

A man’s world is constructed, hierarchical, emotionally violent. “Oh man, whose waking breeds confusion,” she says reflecting upon her beloved Walter, every detail of whom she has retained in memory for nearly 50 years. Man is also nonchalantly powerful as in the poem “Plumbing” (from Simplicity):

He crawls through your dusty attic
over the boxes of doll furniture,
the trains, the ripped
sleeping bags, the Beatles posters,
the camp cots, the dishes, the bed springs,
to wire up the hot water tank.
And you admire him
As you would Saint Francis,
for his simple acceptance
of how things are. [231]

By the end of the poem, however, Saint Francis is transformed by the sensual delight of having indoor plumbing:

And you feel comfortable, taken care of,
like some rich Roman matron
who had just been loved by a boy. [232]

Once the flush toilet is in (or rent payment collected, lawn mowed, murder committed, etc.), however, and the poem about it written, Ruth Stone’s world is again populated solely by women, nature and poetry.

With each passing volume, these traits become more general, more pronounced. The romance of her first volume arrives, in fits and starts, at the delightfully slant (Emily) Dickensonian quality of In the Dark (2004), written as Ruth Stone was on the verge of 90 years, slackening only slightly with the poems of What Love Comes To (2008). “For fifteen years,” she writes,

…I have lived in a house
without running water or furnace.
In and out the front door
with my buckets and armloads of wood.

(The fifteen years apparently refers to the years she has been living there full-time, retired.) In the process she has been given the solitude to become “The Belle of Goshen.”

(1) David R. Slavitt, Change of Address: Poems, New and Selected (LSU Press, 2005) 40.

___________

Gilbert Wesley Purdy has published poetry, prose and translation in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine, Poetry International , The Georgia Review, Grand Street, SLANT, Consciousness Literature and the Arts, Orbis (UK), Eclectica, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Links to his work online, and to a selected bibliography of his work in paper venues, appear at his Hyperlinked Online Bibliography.

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