|Oct/Nov 2005 Book Reviews|
In the Dark
Copper Canyon Press (2004) 128 pages
After her husband committed suicide in 1959, Ruth Stone moved into the house they had just purchased in Goshen, Vermont. It had been intended as a sanctuary in which the two would find the peace and serenity to write, a place to get away from the New York literary scene. She brought up their three daughters there. Some 46 years later she remains in the house, nearly deaf and all but blind.
As a working, single mother, she did not have the luxury of remaining at the house throughout the year. The little family traveled to wherever work was available. She taught creative writing at a succession of schools.
At some point, Stone was able to bring an end to her gypsy existence and to retire to Goshen. Now nearly ninety years old, she is free to be alone with her poetry. The result, in her present volume, In the Dark, is as much like Emily Dickinson as any since the Belle of Amherst set down her pen. Like Dickinson's the poems of the volume are uneven but never uninteresting or facile. Like Dickinson's, among the merely interesting the reader is suddenly brought up short by a poem of sparkling revelation.
It might be argued that she writes more after the manner of Elizabeth Bishop, a poet as eccentric as Dickinson. There are clear affinities, after all. But Stone shares an edginess in her better poems with the earlier poet that Bishop seldom displayed. The relative propinquities are particularly evident in the shorter poems, such as "Cause and Effect":
Once a stick who was tired
of being beaten against everything
lay down on the fagot pile.
"Let me ascend to heaven," it snarled.
Presently wood smoke rose
from the poet's chimney.
In the longer poems distinctions are not quite as clear, but they are evident nonetheless. Stone takes from both, but the issue-oriented quality of the poems—the quality to which she seems to be referring when she calls her poetry "political"—is wholly her own.
Like Dickinson, now that she is free to be alone with her poetry, Stone's house has become the center of a tiny universe. It had always been a magical place, always an influence. In the words of Jan Freeman:
The house is made of poetry. The walls are covered with books. Surfaces, stacked with notebooks. Piano, tables, typewriter, shelves, floors. Record jackets and old grocery lists, covered with drafts of poems. On the bathroom walls, poems by students, friends, her children, grandchildren. For years an early poem by Sharon Olds hung beside the light switch. Now, Mother's Day poems beside drawings and photos of Ruth, her children, grandchildren, friends and students. Everywhere, something connected to poetry.
But now it is how she thinks. The in-progress poems are gathered in a brown paper bag that she carries about with her. The small experiences that solitude gives change the proportions of things, particularly the proportions of the world outside, of memory. Like Dickinson, while she rarely writes about the house, it is everywhere in the poems of In the Dark. Only that rich and lingering solitude can teach a poet the meaning of perhaps Emily's favorite observation: "To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations." From within it, the poet recalls her travels through "darkest Binghamton" and the "mall-dominated towns."
Of course, this all bespeaks a rich, a happy and a difficult life, as well. She is as much how the house thinks, the spirit that gives the place its own personality. Visitors speak of mother, mentor and muse. Fruitful clutter.
Will she nil she, life took her away to make poetry of her until it would leave her free to make poetry of it:
O language that follows like the comet's tail;
the rubble of senseless longing
for what was.
She carries it—memory, longing, fable, sense and senselessness—all in that brown paper bag.
In the Dark seems like an unusually long volume. Not because it is tedious, but because it bears careful, thoughtful reading. The precision of images such as "the rain's velvet scrim" and "the faint gonging of the sun" scattered throughout the volume require a reader to explore at a level that is not common. This, together with Stone's striking, off-hand use of images from the sciences and her often effective use of bathos to counterpoint flights of fancy that might otherwise altogether fly away, arrives, at worst, at a delightful grab-bag, and, at best, at a way-of-being both shared and uniquely her own.