Trains are Phallic Symbols
and other lessons from Ruth Stone
What Love Comes To
I had just had dinner with my neighbor, Marcia. While I drank coffee she disappeared into the next room. Two sips later, Marcia came back with a battered anthology. “Do you know Ruth Stone?” she asked, unsurprised when I said no.
The first Ruth Stone poem I encountered was “Pokeberries.” Marcia read the last lines aloud:
…No amount of knowledge can shake my grandma out of me;
I was in high school then. When I read What Love Comes To this summer, I found “Pokeberries” for myself. This reading helps me locate what is rare about Ruth Stone’s work.
Stone makes us laugh, in wonder and surprise. Her work reaches for what is grand; as in a tall tale, Stone’s mother “didn’t just bite an apple/ with her big white teeth. She split it in two.” While written for daily occasions, Stone’s poems grow extraordinarily big.
But while we laugh in wonder, Stone is laughing at herself. A folksy professor, Stone caricatures her own voice. In all of Stone’s work, there is a sense — sometimes troubling, sometimes funny — of standing just on the edge of what has been written, and looking on wryly. While she may look like “any old granny,” Ruth Stone is no fool.
“Pokeberries” is a poem of matrilineage. Despite her new “knowledge,” Stone’s matriarchs stick. Stone’s poems often record the knowledge passed from mother to daughter. Her small readership is garnered by word of mouth. Marcia shared “Pokeberries,” and I laughed in her kitchen. This is how a Stone poem is passed through the literary world.
Born in 1915, Ruth Stone grew up in a large Virginia household filled with poetry, classical records and folk music. She has said of her early writing:
You know, for years as a child I was afraid to read any other poetry for fear I would imitate it, copy it, and I was so fierce about my own poems, and they came to me so naturally and so mysteriously…that I didn’t want to make them like anyone else’s.
In this New and Selected Poems, published after fifty years of work, Stone proves her integrity. I want to begin with what is so unusual about Stone’s work: her impulse for delight.
Strangely, this delight springs out of mourning. In 1959, her husband, poet and professor Walter Stone, committed suicide. Since then, Ruth Stone has been his steadfast elegist. So Stone’s delight is neither giddy nor naïve. Instead, she defies our expectations, stepping outside her serious tone to laugh.
In the sequence “Who is the Widow’s Muse?” grief collapses into laugher. Here, Stone probes widowhood, alternately elegizing her husband and mocking herself.
This series bursts out of formalized language. Stone knows exactly how a lyric poem should sound. In an opening stanza, she forms spare analogies:
As I was a springbok,
Stone hooks together images, suggesting that grief is the consequence of former happiness. In these lines, Stone teaches us to expect compression and economy.
Her next poem in “Who is the Widow’s Muse?” begins:
The widow likes to ride on trains.
Stone sets the rules for her poetry only to break them. From terse analogies, she flies into gutsy conversation. Alone, this poem could make us laugh. But within a meditative series, these outbursts are exhilarating. Stone’s speaker is too silly, cynical, or dirty-minded to compress herself into stark stanzas. Here, Stone reclaims the parts of the widow that are silenced, unfit for lyric. The poems in “Who is the Widow’s Muse?” are diverse, reminding us that Stone’s speaker pushes past any single representation of herself in one poem.
Stone creates and violates laws on a formal level, as well. For Stone, words are tools: she writes, “Having come this far/ with a handful of alphabet,/ I am forced,/ with these few blocks,/ to invent the universe.” Stone permutes these alphabetic “blocks” with remarkable freedom, writing poems that test the possibilities of language. Her new selection includes poems written in Old English, shameless puns, and other experiments with sound and form.
No occasion is too serious for linguistic play: even elegies are fair game. Stone’s “Acrostic” begins:
Whatever good befalls us now
This is a formal poem, organized around her husband’s name: “Walter Stone, Phd.” This inclusion of Phd. is a hiccup in the poem’s serious tone. Stone teases her husband slightly, juxtaposing the supposed intimacy of marriage with the formal inclusion of his doctorate. lso, she pushes against the constraints of form, attaching the Phd to squeeze in a final couplet. Even in this steady, elegiac verse, Stone imbeds a joke into the poem’s structure.
Stone’s villanelle “Surviving in Earlysville with a Broken Window” shows how poetic laws are made and followed. The poem begins:
Mr. Garvey tells me old window glass is frail.
Despite the extra beats in the first line, this promises to be a steady villanelle. But as the poem progresses, Stone treats restraints more and more loosely:
I’m vegetarian, talk to the steers. I say we must love each other and the great blue whale
The stanza reaches extremes of euphoria and crabbiness. Stone teases herself, giddy over the life cycles of “steer,” “dodo” and “great blue whale.” But she immediately gripes about her landlord. We must love each other, except Mr. Garvey, who “never fixes anything.”
This poem is impetuous, always on the brink of abandoning form. Stone’s long-winded lines leave us suspended, waiting for the end-rhyme. So reading Stone’s villanelle is like watching a daring prank — Stone can outsmart formal constraints and get away with it.
Mother and daughter,This poem is aware of its constraints. But it brings out the moment when all the rules governing this relationship melt away, and “the universe” enters. Stone’s manipulation of poetic “laws” gets at the same sense of expansiveness. At the end of this conversation, Stone’s daughter will “go on saying/ you do not want to repeat my life.” The rules encroach again, but the poem has been out of the brief alleviation of their constraints.
What Love Comes To celebrates the career of a “mother poet” who has inspired younger women to write. So I want to end with a discussion of Stone’s feminism. She is famous for poems like “Names,” praising generations of women “who grasped iron bedposts and sweated in labor.” Her poems honor forgotten matriarchs. But now that Stone is over ninety years old, she must come to terms with her own role as a matriarch.
Stone has posed as a Mother Goose figure, even publishing a chapbook of cynical nursery rhymes. She claims, “I am rocking here/ Like any granny with her apron over her head.” Yet at the same time, Stone rebels against the role of grandmother, refusing to accept limits based on age or sex.
In old age, Stone has dealt with severe limitations. Most significantly, her vision has failed. She writes, “You are not wanted/ I said to the older body.” She rejects “the eyes… not mine” and “the unfamiliar nose.” These poems suggest a frightening division. Her real self is held apart from her aging, handicapped frame.
But in “Coffee and Sweet Rolls,” Stone affirms the wholeness of the elderly. She describes spending nights with her husband during the Second World War. She dozed while he — “a young poet working/ in the steel mills” — went out to buy breakfast. When Walter returned, she watched him sleepily from bed:
In those rooms with my eyes half open,
Although Stone bemoans her “older body,” here she is unified. Lying in bed, the young woman knows she will age. So the lover memorizes the scene to nourish “the austere and silent woman” she will someday become. While Stone often mocks her aging body, this poem fundamentally affirms the link between granny and a sleepy lover. And it goes a step further. As an old woman, Stone can still produce a frank description of her lover’s penis. Stone is unabashedly a woman with desires, long past the point when this is acceptable.
What Love Comes To shows Stone’s lifelong determination to jump beyond what holds her in. In poetic form and personal desires, Stone will not be bound by convention. It is difficult to work this hard in the space of one poem; it is still more difficult to do so for fifty years, which is what this collection celebrates.
Liza Flum ’10 lets it lie.