Ruth Stone

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Breaking The Tired Mold Of American Poetry
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When I read her poems, these original, hard as steel poems, and I feel the intensity in every word, words used in new ways, bent to her will, then I think she was self-sufficient, an artist whose mind was never asleep, whose concentration recreated, made fresh all that she saw and felt, as though she saw through the ordinary barriers, not as a visionary, but as a laser beam. But when I think of how little recognition she received in her lifetime, and how devastated she must have felt, though her fierce pride concealed it, then I am angry and sad. Yes, a great artist knows and can work in almost total isolation, but it is a terrible thing to have to do. The original mind seems eccentric, even crazy sometimes. In her cryptic inventions, she broke the tiresome mold of American poetry. We still stand among those shards and splinters.

Many a phrase has the English language -
I have heard but one -
Low as the laughter of the Cricket,
Loud, as the Thunder's Tongue -

Murmuring, like old Caspian Choirs,
When the Tide's a'lull -
Saying itself in new inflection -
Like a Whippoorwill -

 

Breaking in bright Orthography
On my simple sleep -
Thundering its Prospective -
Till I stir, and weep -

 

Not for the Sorrow, done me -
But the push of Joy -
Say it again, Saxon!
Hush - Only to me!

 

(JP 276)

Saying, "there's another one that I think is astonishing," she read:

The Loneliness One dare not sound -
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size -

 

The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see -
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny -

 

The Horror not to be surveyed -
But skirted in the Dark -
With Consciousness suspended -
And Being under Lock -

 

I fear me this - is Loneliness -
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate - or seal -

 

(JP 777)

A pause, and then immediately:

When I hoped, I recollect
Just the place I stood -
At a Window facing West -
Roughest Air - was good -

Not a Sleet could bite me -
Not a frost could cool -
Hope it was that kept me warm -
Not Merino shawl -

 

When I feared - I recollect
Just the Day it was -
Worlds were lying out to Sun -
Yet how Nature froze -

 

Icicles upon my soul
Prickled Blue and Cool -
Bird went praising everywhere -
Only Me - was still -

 

And the Day that I despaired -
This - if I forget
Nature will - that it be Night
After Sun has set -
Darkness intersect her face -
And put out her eye -
Nature hesitate - before
Memory and I -

 

(JP 768)

And another:

One Anguish - in a Crowd -
A Minor thing - it sounds -
And yet, unto the single Doe
Attempted of the Hounds

 

'Tis Terror as consummate
As Legions of Alarm
Did leap, full flanked, upon the Host -
'Tis Units - make the Swarm -

 

A Small Leech - on the Vitals -
The sliver, in the Lung -
The Bung out - of an Artery -
Are scarce accounted - Harms -

 

Yet mighty - by relation
To that Repealless thing -
A Being - impotent to end -
When once it has begun -

 

(JP 565)

Ruth remarked, "What I'm most struck by in Emily Dickinson is her amazing use of language. She felt very keenly the lack of recognition in her own life--her consummately beautiful poetry was so advanced. She was a child of the future, and it was lonely to be that way."

All right, my poems, which are in a different mode. "The Nose":

Everyone complains about the nose.
If you notice, it is stuck to your face.
In the morning it will be red.
If you are a woman you can cover it with makeup.
If you are a man it means you had a good time last night.
Noses are phallic symbols.
So are fingers, monuments, trees, and cucumbers.
The familiar, "He knows his stuff," should be looked into.
There is big business in nose jobs,
The small nose having gained popularity during the Christian
   boom.
Noses get out of joint but a broken nose
Is never the same thing as a broken heart.
They say, "Bless your heart." "Shake hands." "Blow
   your   nose."
When kissing there is apt to be a battle of wills
Over which side your nose will go on.
While a nosebleed, next to a good cry, is a natural physic;
A nosey person smells you out and looking down your nose
Will make you cross-eyed.
Although the nose is no longer used for rooting and shoving,
It still gets into some unlikely places.
The old sayings: He won by a nose, and,
He cut off his nose to spite his face,
Illustrate the value of the nose.
In conclusion, three out of four children
Are still equipped with noses at birth;
And the nose, more often than not,
Accompanies the body to its last resting place.

Let's see, I don't know whether to offer this. I have some poems about "The Poetry Factory," but I don't know whether you'll like them or not. Well, all right, all right, I will. They're very silly, though. They're called: "Some Things You Need to Know Before You Join the Union."

     I
At the poetry factory
body poems are writhing and bleeding.
An angry mob of women
is lined up at the back door
hoping for jobs.
Today at the poetry factory
they are driving needles through the poems.
Everyone's excited.
Mr. Po-Biz himself comes in from the front office.
He clenches his teeth.
"Anymore wildcat aborting out there," he hisses
"and you're all blacklisted."
The mob jeers.

 

     II
The antiwar and human rights poems
are processed in the white room.
Everyone in there wears sterile gauze.
These poems go for a lot.
No one wants to mess up.
There's expensive equipment involved,
The workers have to be heavy,
very heavy.
These poems are packaged in cement.
You frequently hear them drop with a dull thud.

 

     III
Poems are being shipped out
by freight car.
Headed up the ramp
they can't turn back.
They push each other along.
They will go to the packing houses.
The slaughter will be terrible,
an inevitable end of overproduction,
the poetry factory's GNP.
Their shelf life will be brief.

 

     IV
They're stuffing at the poetry factory today.
They're jamming in images
saturated with as and like.
Lines are being stuffed to their limits.
If a line by chance explodes,
there's a great cheer.
However, most of them don't explode.
Most of them lie down and groan.

 

     V
In the poetry factory
it's very hot.
The bellows are going,
the pressure is building up.
Young poems are being rolled out
ready to be cut.
Whistles are blowing.
Jive is rocking.
Barrels of thin words line the walls.
Fat words like links of sausages
hang on belts.
Floor walkers and straw bosses
take a coffee break.
Only the nervous apprentice
is anywhere near the machines
when a large poem
seems about to come off the assembly line.
"This is it," the apprentice shouts.
"Get my promotion ready!
APR, the quarterlies,
a chap book, NEA,
a creative writing chair,
the poetry circuit, Yaddo!"
Inside the ambulance
as it drives away
he is still shouting,
"I'll grow a beard,
become an alcoholic,
consider suicide."

 

CODICIL

 

I am still bitter about the last place we stayed.
The bed was really too small for both of us.
In that same rooming house
Walls were lined with filing cases,
Drawers of birds' eggs packed in cotton.
The landlady described them.
As widow of the ornithologist,
Actually he was a postal clerk,
She was proprietor of the remains.
Had accompanied him on his holidays
Collecting eggs. Yes,
He would send her up the tree
And when she faltered he would shout,
"Put it in your mouth. Put it in your mouth."
It was nasty, she said,
Closing a drawer with her knee.
Faintly blue, freckled, mauve, taupe,
Chalk white eggs.
As we turned the second flight of stairs
Toward a mattress unfit for two,
Her voice would echo up the well,
Something about an electric kettle
At the foot of our bed.
Eggs, eggs, eggs in secret muted shapes in my head;
Hundreds of unborn wizened eggs.
I think about them when I think of you.

 

HABIT

 

Every day I dig you up
And wipe off the rime
And look at you.
You are my joke,
My poem.
Your eyelids pull back from their sockets.
Your mouth mildews in scallops.
Worm filaments sprout from the pockets
Of your good suit.
I hold your sleeves in my arms;
Your waist drops a little putrid flesh.
I show you my old shy breasts.

 

 

NAMES

 

My grandmother's name was Nora Swan.
Old Aden Swan was her father. But who was her mother?
I don't know my great-grandmother's name.
I don't know how many children she bore.
Like rings of a tree the years of woman's fertility.
Who were my great-aunt Swans?
For every year a child; diphtheria, dropsy, typhoid.
Who can bother naming all those women churning butter,
leaning on scrub boards, holding to iron bedposts
sweating in labor? My grandmother knew the names
of all the plants on the mountain. Those were the names
she spoke of to me. Sorrel, lamb's ear, spleenwort, heal-all;
never go hungry, she said, when you can gather a pot of greens.
She had a finely drawn head under a smooth cap of hair
pulled back to a bun. Her deep-set eyes were quick to notice
in love and anger. Who are the women who nurtured her for
     me?
Who handed her in swaddling flannel to my great-grandmother's
     breast?
Who are the women who brought my great-grandmother tea
and straightened her bed? As anemone in midsummer, the air
cannot find them and grandmother's been at rest for forty years.
In me are all the names I can remember -- pennyroyal, boneset,
bedstraw, toadflax -- from whom I did descend in perpetuity.

 

WHERE I CAME FROM

 

My father put me in my mother
but he didn't pick me out.
I am my own quick woman.
What drew him to my mother?
Beating his drumsticks
he thought--why not?
And he gave her an umbrella.
Their marriage was like that.
She hid ironically in her apron.
Sometimes she cried into the biscuit dough.
When she wanted to make a point
she would sing a hymn or an old song.
He was loose-footed. He couldn't be counted on
until his pockets were empty.
When he was home the kettle drums,
the snare drum, the celeste,
the triangle throbbed.
While he changed their heads
the drum skins soaked in the bathtub.
Collapsed and wrinkled, they floated
like huge used condoms.

 

THE TALKING FISH

 

My love's eyes are red as the sargasso
With lights behind the iris like a cephalopod's.
The weeds move slowly, November's diatoms
Stain the soft stagnant belly of the sea.
Mountains, atolls, coral reefs,
Do you desire me? Am I among the jellyfish of your griefs?
I comb my sorrows singing; any doomed sailor can hear
The rising and falling bell and begin to wish
For home. There is no choice among the voices
Of love. Even a carp sings.

 

CURTAINS

 

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?

 

 

METAMORPHOSIS

 

Now I am old, all I want to do is try;
But when I was young, if it wasn't easy I let it lie,
Learning through my pores instead,
And it did neither of us any good.

 

For now she is gone who slept away my life,
And I am ignorant who inherited,
Though the head has grown so lively that I laugh,
"Come look, come stomp, come listen to the drum."

 

I see more now than then; but she who had my eyes
Closed them in happiness, and wrapped the dark
In her arms and stole my life away,
Singing in dreams of what was sure to come.

 

I see it perfectly, except the beast
Fumbles and falters, until the others wince.
Everything shimmers and glitters and shakes with unbearable
     longing,
The dancers who cannot sleep, and the sleepers who cannot
     dance.

 

 

TURN YOUR EYES AWAY

 

The gendarme came
to tell me you had hung yourself
on the door of a rented room
like an overcoat
like a bathrobe
hung from a hook;
when they forced the door open
your feet pushed against the floor.
Inside your skull
there was no room for us,
your circuits forgot me.
Even in Paris where we never were
I wait for you
knowing you will not come.
I remember your eyes as if I were
someone you had never seen,
a slight frown between your brows
considering me.
How could I have guessed
the plain-spoken stranger in your face,
your body, tagged in a drawer,
attached to nothing, incurious.
My sister, my spouse, you said,
in a place on the other side of the earth
where we lay in a single bed
unable to pull apart
breathing into each other,
the Gideon Bible open to the Song of Songs,
the rush of the El-train
jarring the window.
As if needles were stuck
in the pleasure zones of our brains,
we repeated everything
over and over and over.

 

WOMEN LAUGHING

 

Laughter from women gathers like reeds in the river.
A silence of light below their rhythm glazes the water.
They are on a rim of silence looking into the river.
Their laughter traces the water as kingfishers dipping
circles within circles set the reeds clicking;
and an upward rush of herons lifts out of the nests of laughter,
their long stick-legs dangling, herons, rising out of the river.

 

TRANSLATIONS

 

Forty-five years ago, Alexander Mehielovitch Touritzen,
son of a white Russian owner of a silk stocking factory
in Constantinople, we rumpled your rooming-house bed,
sneaked past your landlady and turned your plaster Madonna
to the wall. Are you out there short vulgar civil-engineer?
Did you know I left you for a Princeton geologist who called me
girlie? Ten years later he was still in the midwest when he died
under a rock fall. I told you I was pregnant. You gave me money
for the abortion. I lied to you. I needed clothes to go out with
the geologist. You called me Kouschka, little cat. Sometimes I
stopped by the civil-engineering library where you sat with other
foreign students. You were embarrassed; my husband might
catch you. He was in the chemistry lab with his Bunsen burner
boiling water for tea. Alexander Mehielovitch Touitzen, fig of
my pallid college days, plum of my head, did the silk stocking
factory go up in flames? Did the German fox jump out of the
desert's sleeve and gobble your father up? Are you dead?

 

Second-hand engine, formula concrete, we were still meeting in
stairwells when the best chess player in Champaign-Urbana went
to the Spanish Civil War. He couldn't resist heroic gestures. For
years I was haunted by the woman who smashed her starving
infant against the Spanish wall. Cautious, staid Mehielovitch, so
quick to pick my hairpins out of your bed.
Average lover, have your balls decayed?

 

Mehielovitch, my husband the chemist with light eyes and big
head, the one whose body I hated, came back in the flesh fifteen
years ago. He was wearing a tight western shirt he had made
himself. (There wasn't anything he couldn't do.) He talked about
wine- and cheese-tasting parties.
We folk danced at a ski lodge. So this is life, I said.
He told my daughter he was her daddy. It wasn't true.
You are all so boring. My friend from Japan, Cana Maeda, the
scholar of classical haiku, whose fingers, whose entire body had
been trained to comply: her face pale without powder, her neck
so easily bent, after she died from the radiation her translations
of Basho were published by interested men who failed to print
her correct name. So the narrow book appears to have been
written by a man. Faded in these ways, she is burned on my flesh
as kimonos were burned on the flesh of women in the gamma
rays of Hiroshima. She wasn't one of those whose skin peeled in
the holocaust, whose bones cracked. Graceful and obscure, she
was among all those others who died later. Where are you my
repulsive white Russian? Are you also lost?

 

Pimpled obscene boy employed at an early age by your father,
you pandered his merchandise on trays using your arm as a
woman's leg slipped inside a silk stocking with a woman's shoe
on your hand. Do you understand that later I lived with a
transvestite, a hair-dresser who wore wigs? When he felt that way
he would go out and pick up an English professor. After we
quarreled, I cut up his foam-rubber falsies. I had a garage sale
while he was out of town. I sold his mail-order high heels, his
corsets, his sequined evening gowns.

 

Those afternoons in bed listening to your memories of prostitutes
with big breasts, how you wanted to roll on a mattress of
mammary glands; the same when Rip Hanson told me about the
invasion of France. Crossing the channel he saw infantry, falling
past him from split open cargo planes, still clinging to tanks and
bulldozers. Statistical losses figured in advance. The ripped-open
remnants of a Russian girl nailed up by the Germans outside her
village, also ancient, indigenous.
But what can I tell you about death? Even your sainted mother's
      soft dough body: her flour dusted breasts
by now are slime paths of microorganisms.
Where were you when they fed the multitudes to the ovens?

 

Old fetid fisheyes, did they roll you in at the cannery?
Did you build their bridges or blow them up?
Are you burned to powder? Were you mortarized?
Did you die in a ditch, Mehielovitch? Are you exorcised?

 

Poor innocent lecher, you believed in sin.
I see you rising with the angels, thin forgotten dirty-fingered son
of a silk stocking factory owner in Constantinople,
may you be exonerated. May you be forgiven.
May you be a wax taper in paradise,
Alexander Mehielovitch Touritzen.

ORANGE POEM PRAISING BROWN

The quick brown poem jumped over the lazy woman.
There it goes flapping like an orange with peeling wings.
Like an old dried orange with hard peel wings.
The thick brown poem jumped over the desperate woman.
There you go my segments, my divided fruit, escaping.
The thick woman jumped over the lousy poem. It's Brown,
     she sighed.
Watch it, the poem cried. You aren't wearing any pants.
The empty places of the poem. The odor of the poem.
Brown approached. Praise my loose hung dangle, he said.
Tell me about myself in oral fragments.
Refer to Brown. Not you. Not her.
The thick lenses through which the poem lurks.
Come, says the poem, see my harmless teeth. Kiss my vicious
     lips.
Rising in the greasy air, the orange poem heavy with brown
goes to the dump. It does not even like the taste of itself.
The thick typewriter jumps over the lazy poet.
You have not yet praised Brown, it said, and you
call yourself a poet. Jump over that.

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