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Ruth Stone: Voice from Society's Margins


Mary Ann Wehler

Ruth Stone was forty-four when she published her first book, In an Iridescent Time, in 1959. In fact, Norman Friedman states in his essay, "The Poetry of Ruth Stone" (46) that Stone had mastered the elegant formal conventions of that era. Soon after, Harvey Gross deems in his article, "On the Poetry of Ruth Stone," that Stone was versed in "balanced pentameters, ballad stanzas, sonnets" and other forms. He recognized that her prosodies in Topography, 1970 were more flexible; and that they showed "more character". (95) In recent years, Kevin Clark argues that, "Ruth Stone’s feminist work employs humor to render the lives of people pushed to the margins of society by economics and gender bias." (12) This paper will maintain that Ruth Stone does more than portray squalid unsheltered lives; on occasion she couches her anger about societal errors with humor so that even the careless reader is sure to attend. Often her characters live on the edge but her finger is pointed directly at society and its lack of humanism. The focus will be on Stone poems that portray the experience of characters that live outside of middle class life, men’s repression of women, and the treatment of the elderly.

Although Stone is close in age to Muriel Rukeyser and Adrienne Rich, because of a life lived largely outside of centers of power, she is only just now coming into the recognition her work deserves. Ruth Stone was raised in an artistic family. Her mother quoted Tennyson to her as a baby. She had an unsuccessful first marriage and then met the man she would love for the rest of her life. Sadly, Walter Stone committed suicide in 1959. At this time her writing changed dramatically; she began to feel and write as an outsider and her poetry developed a political tone.

When asked about the change in her poetry Stone said the strength came from the loss of her husband and the devastating life she had driving from college to college finding small jobs teaching so that she could support her children. Prior to that time her poetry was lyrical and rhythmic, but that style did not support the strong emotions she had upon the shock of waking up to the world around her. (interview)

Ruth Stone has been compared to Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, and Elizabeth Bishop. Adrienne Rich’s poetry is farthest from Ruth Stone, as Rich does not couch her rage with humor. In A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far 1981, Rich’s poetry reaches from Susan B. Anthony to her mother-in-law, writing about women that made a difference in her life, holding up her heroines to the reader. Rich writes from within the academic and the middle class world, Stone writes from outside both.

Stone has said she loved Elizabeth Bishop for her forms and lyric (interview). However, Bishop does not speak specifically to repression, poverty, or the elderly and although Stone praises Emily Dickinson for her forms, Dickinson’s spiritual and philosophical obsessions are far from Stone’s quotidian concerns (Smith 18). Of the four poets, Muriel Rukeyser comes closest to Stone in subjects. Rukeyser, however, writes from a Jewish standpoint and was physically an activist. For example, in 1972, she went with Denise Levertov and Jan Hart to North Vietnam on an unofficial peace mission. She was arrested and jailed for participating in antiwar demonstrations in Washington (Rukeyser, 240). Stone, on the other hand, did not "walk down the street waving a flag"; instead, she wrote about issues in her poems (interview).

When asked which female poet she felt closest to, Stone named Alicia Ostriker (interview). Ostriker writes in rage against men in "The War of Men and Women" (103). In "Windshield" (132) she speaks to the homeless, in "Globule" (170) she uses science as a metaphor just as Stone does. Ostriker has poems about nursing homes, ageism, and relationships, and both poets write about personal grief, love, anger and sex with the man most important in their life. In an interview with Ostriker, she states:

I am tickled that Ruth sees me as aligned with her. Here's what I think we have in common. We are both unabashed lovers of life, which includes sex and children. We both have a sense of humor. We both have a strain of rationalism and science in our work. We are realistic about relationships--which forms a big topic for us--we are feminists but not separatists; we both like a conversational style (though I sometimes write more lyrically), I think there is a straight- forwardness about us both (interview 4/00).

It is with Second-Hand Coat: Poems New and Selected, in 1991 that Stone is writing in her full power, relying on craft, music, wisdom and humor. The book title alludes to her poetry that portrays characters that live outside of middle class. Her writing strength builds through Simplicity, (1995) and into Ordinary Words, (1999), her latest book, which received The National Book Critics Circle Award in March, 2000.

In Second Hand Coat in her poem "Some Things You’ll Need to Know Before You Join the Union," Stone pokes fun at poets in general and academia specifically. The poem demonstrates her irritation with not belonging to the middle class. "The antiwar and human rights poems/ are processed in the white room./ Everyone in there wears gauze" (49). What comes through are her frustrations with moving from college to college, not being accepted into tenure, and suffering the indignities of poverty. Willis Barnstone says, "She is rich as only a person of authentic poverty can be, opulent in her life and words" (96).

In "1941", (Ordinary Words 7) Stone recalls a time in her life when she and her husband were poor, looking for jobs and a place to live.

1941

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.

Stone begins this poem emphasizing who, what, and where; setting time and place. She describes herself in the first three lines, young and beautiful, the third line, How thin I was: such skin., suggests thin skin and that she was young and living in "sin". She builds the image of the two young lovers and their setting in the second stanza; natural Afro, no money, seedy part, run-down, and then, "We moved like/the blind, relying on our touch." So into their affair, "your bones/were beautiful. I traced them/with my fingers." Stone is saying their lust and love making caused their sense of touch and sound to be sensitive but the couple is "blind," not paying attention to what was going on in the world, not prepared. "Now the Light/grows less." The war changes every thing, "The air darkens with steel/ and smoke. The cracked world/ about to disintegrate,/ in the arms of my total happiness." The music flows through the first stanza with the assonance of short i, brim, in, thin, sin, Indianapolis, a taste of sin. The turn comes in the third stanza. The cracked world disintegrates "in the arms of my total happiness." Without the last stanza, the poem is a description of a time long ago. Already experiencing poverty, the speaker in the third stanza shows how war affected her life on a personal level.

The following poem, from Ordinary Words (10), speaks to an administrator’s disregard for humans on a personal level. The description of the car points to Stone’s life outside of middle class.

Madison in the Mid-Sixties

Names, can you talk without their mirage?
What was his name . . . that rock star,
the one whose plane went down in the lake?
Trees talked all winter in click language.
It was a long drive from the East.
I arrived penniless;
called the Chairman.
"Find a motel," he said.
I could hear the background dinner party.
"Take a motel."
I sat in the Oldsmobile.
The Olds would later drop its front end
on the Interstate,
my mother in the backseat
and the hamster and Abigail.
University, where Roger, the graduate student,
gave me his endless poems to read, all
under the influence of Vasco Popa,
all mediocre.
The futile student protests,
napalm and the Feds.
My brains wadded like the Patchwork Girl of Oz;
maced lungs, the National Guard
lined up on either side of the main walk,
rifles cocked just above the passing heads,
a surefire canopy of death.
This montage upon which we write the message
that fails in language after language.

In the first four lines, Stone sets the scene, showing that she feels like an outsider. She doesn’t know the name of the rock star who could afford to fly his own plane, and even the trees talk in click language, which is an African tribal language. She arrives penniless. The next five lines establish another way that she doesn’t fit in. Although the Department Chairman is having a party, he doesn’t invite her and suggests twice that she take a motel. As a result Stone sits in her car, indicating frustration. All the lines up to this point end in a period or comma. In the process of demonstrating everything that is wrong with Madison, Wisconsin, the sentences get longer. A mother and child in the back seat, a mediocre graduate student modeling a poet from another society, the Fed’s and National Guard on campus, and Stone ends with the discouraging societal sentence, "This montage upon which we write the message/that fails in language after language." giving a picture of failure in everything tried. There is no humor in this poem as Stone covers the mistreatment of women and the difficulty of being poor. The fact that she has her mother in the back seat alludes to the treatment of the elderly; the rest of the poem recalls the powerlessness of those on the margins of society.

In "Echoes and Shadows" (Ordinary Words 13), Stone portrays a woman, "covered with a Kmart nonwoven coverlet," living in a neighborhood where, "the still eye of a prowl car stares up blank." The first four lines set the scene, "Like a Japanese print, the willow,/ closed in by chain-metal fence./ Along the gray corrugated warehouse/ a stout woman rounds the corner./" The first line so carefully accented, the beat maintained in the second line signals the reader of entrapment causing the "gray corrugated warehouse" to sound like a prison or holding place. There are lines that allude to a lost child, "Is a child still rolled tight in its nightmare,/ who in the dark crept in to her soft side?/ inferring that once this woman had a life but something horrible has happened and the police, who should be protecting her, "the still eye of a prowl car stares up/blank." ignore her and increase her invisibility. She is a lost spirit, lost in a world of "traffic fumes" and planes "violent as storms". Then a line comes which is the turn in the poem, "In our dreams we attend the long fall,/ the long fade of their passing flight." Stone not only is saying humans are forgotten in the world’s race for "technological improvements," but is also pointing out that some of society see the elderly as useless. The poem ends with this wonderful line, "Starlings walk around on the beaten/ yard of the playground, they walk/ around the dry fountain, and hiss/ in their soft pecking order, under the fingers,/ under the gray hair of the willow." Here the a lowly bird alludes to the woman not fitting in the normal stream of society, and who walks around beaten. The fountain is dry, the police can’t see, she is low in the pecking order because she is old and society sees no use for her. The reader must appreciate the repetition of sound in around, ground and fountain.

Another poem about poverty is "Patience" (Ordinary Words 34) which begins, "You hacked the firewood out of the stiffened snow. Winter demands a vital patience." Other poems treat the lives of the poor, for instance "The Ways of Daughters"(OW30) relates "their debts are rising and their faces are serious," and "their old cars break and are never fixed." However, in "In the Arboretum" (OW 44), Stone excels in contrasting the rich with the poor, forcing the reader to feel the narrator’s discomfort as she is reminded of her circumstances when she recalls, "In Vermont last year, when an eight-year-old girl disappeared,/ her whole community, most of them on welfare, living in trailers,/ got out and beat the fields in rows, with sticks, covering entire/ corn fields, the ground around for acres, until they found her/ body, her scarf knotted around her throat, her raped blood already/ dried; but there she was." Contrast that with a line about the wealthy in the same poem, "…a three-piece combo/ plays to a woman sitting at a special table with her friends, lets us/ have it, his great riffs coming right from his gonads," and one is able to hear the anger and frustration at the treatment of people outside the perimeters of middle class. As opposed to the wealthy, Stone is speaking to the caring and humanity of the community she belongs to.

In an interview with Ruth Stone, she spoke about the wiping out of the lineage of women. In many poems in her last three books, she recovers this lineage by telling the story of women in her life, thereby pointing out men’s repression of women. In "Names" (Second-Hand Coat 23) she refuses to accept the patriarchal customs of naming and recovers names by making connections with her female ancestors that would otherwise be lost through patriarchal customs.

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.

First, notice the inner-rhyme, "Like rings of a tree the years of woman’s fertility" then pay attention to the work that women do, churning butter, leaning on scrub boards, sweating in labor. In the remembrance of her grandmother Stone lists all the mountain plants her grandmother taught her, "never go hungry…when you can gather a pot of greens." "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." What Stone is saying in this poem is the naming of the chores women shared, the life experiences

passed down, such as birthing, and the handing down of the plants used daily in the household for cooking or curing, all of these were more important than the name passed down from the patriarch. Some of the most wonderful lines are, "Who are the women who nurtured her for me?/ Who handed her in swaddling flannel to my great-grandmother’s breast?" Here Stone is actually asking the reader to contemplate whether it makes sense not to know the names of the women in your heritage since they were more important physically and emotionally as a means of support.

Rather than connect with her grandmother’s last name, Swan, taken from her father, she says sarcastically, "Who can bother naming all those women churning butter,/ leaning on scrub boards, holding to iron bedposts,/ sweating in labor. More important, Stone asks the question, because no one in her family knows the answer, "Who are the women who nurtured her for/ me?" She leaves "me" to stand alone on a line, among many long lines, so that the reader must look at the question again. She asks another question: "Who handed her in swaddling flannel to my great-grandmother’s/ breast?" Again, she insists that the reader pay attention to these questions. We know this person wasn’t a man. Stone ends with, "In me are all the names I can remember pennyroyal, boneset,/bedstraw, oadflax from whom I did descend in perpetuity." Stone is saying the information, the how-to’s, the nurturing passed down by women are the most important naming.

Many of the characters in Stone’s poems have gone "berserk," causing this reader to question who are the sane and the insane. It has not been uncommon in the United States to commit women to insane asylums. To quote from John S Hughes, The Letters of a Victorian Madwoman, "…when a woman of good family goes wrong it is a good dodge to save the family name to send her to the insane asylum" (52). "It was believed in the 1920’s and 30’s that women’s reproductive systems ruled them." states Gerald Grob in Edward Jarvis and the Medical World of Nineteenth-Century America (153).

In "How Aunt Maud Took to Being a Woman", Stone cleverly demonstrates how Aunt Maud’s obsessive compulsive behavior kept her from going completely "berserk" (Second Hand Coat 32)

How Aunt Maud Took to Being a Woman

A long hill sloped down to Aunt Maud’s brick house.
You could climb an open stairway up the back
to a plank landing where she kept her crocks of wine.
I got sick on stolen angelfood cake and green wine
and slept in her feather bed for a week.
Nobody said a word. Aunt Maud just shifted
the bottles. Aunt’s closets were all cedar lined.
She used the same pattern for her house dresses—
thirty years. Plain ugly, closets full of them,
you could generally find a new one cut and laid
out on her sewing machine. She preserved,
she canned. Her jars climbed the basement walls.
She was a vengeful housekeeper. She kept the blinds
pulled down in the parlor. Nobody really walked
on her hardwood floors. You lived in the kitchen.
Uncle Cal spent a lot of time on the back porch
waiting to be let in.

The poem lists the rituals, the structure Aunt Maude formed to keep her sane. Everything stayed the same; the same pattern dress for thirty years, the jars climbing the walls, the housekeeping, living in the kitchen, and Uncle Cal on the back porch waiting to be let in. Stone forces the reader to look at the constriction of women’s roles, but it also demonstrates the way Maude went about keeping order in her life.

It is important to realize that Stone believes women see the world differently from men, making their writing different. In an interview with Robert Bradley, Stone said, "I was very careful. Men were always "brighter than women; ……I thought that in order for me to be what I wanted to be, I had to be better than anyone in the world…" Stone describes in the same interview how writing poetry is different for men and women, "Women who love to write poetry are the hagfish of the world. We eat everything. We eat the language. We eat experience. We eat other people’s poems" (Bradley 72). In a phone interview, she reiterated, "We (women) learn so much from each other." She agreed that women as poets are coming into their own and their subjects are different than men's.

In Stone’s poem, "How They Got Her to Quiet Down" (Ordinary Words 8), she portrays the horrendous treatment of "Aunt Mabel". Gerald Grob quotes Jarvis ,"The temperament of females is more frequently nervous than that of males. Women are more under the influence of the feelings and emotions, while men are more under the government of intellect." This illustrates men’s thinking in the early twentieth century. (153) This poem points out the husband’s lack of intellect and tragically demonstrates how women who tried to get out of impossible situations were treated.

How They Got Her to Quiet Down

When the ceiling plaster fell in Aunt Mabel’s kitchen
out in the country (she carried her water uphill
by bucket, got all her own wood in),
that was seventy-five years ago, before she
took her ax and chopped up the furniture.
Before they sent her to the asylum.
Shafe, father of the boys (she didn’t have a girl),
was running around with a loose woman.
Earlier Shafe threw the baby up against the ceiling.
"Just tossing him," he said. Little Ustie came down
with brain fever. In two days that child was dead.
Before that, however, the boys all jumped
on the bed up stairs and roughhoused so
that one night the ceiling fell in;
all lumped on the floor. The kitchen was a sight.
But those kids did not go to the poorhouse.
Grandma was elected to take them.
Mabel’s sisters all said, "Ma, you take the boys."
Beauty is as beauty does. Grandma chased them
with a switch until they wore a bare path
around her last cottage. Grandma was small
and toothless, twisted her hair in a tight bun.
After she smashed the furniture, Mabel tried
to burn the house down. Years later when they
let Mabel out of the asylum, she was so light
you could lift her with one hand.
Buddy took her in and she lay on the iron bed
under a pieced quilt. "Quiet as a little bird," he said.

This poem is a very strong feminist political statement beginning with the title. This is a story of a woman whose last straw wasthe plaster coming down in the kitchen; she went right over the edge but it took getting her own wood in, carrying the water uphill, her husband cheating on her and killing the baby, the boys jumping until the ceiling fell in. So what happens? She gets punished, they put her away. She kept escalating, trying to have enough power to get control of her life but things just got worse. Her sisters probably had houses full of kids, so told Grandma to take the boys.

The lines build in energy in this poem and the technique reinforces the horror of the woman’s life. The title "How They Got her to Quiet Down," reiterates the fact that many women were thrown in asylums to quiet them down(Hughes 53). Stone does something really important with the strong verb and noun combinations in this piece, Plaster fell, ax chopped, running around, threw baby, tossing, child dead, boys jumped, ceiling fell, grandma chased, twisted hair, she smashed, Mabel burns, AND ends with Quiet as a little bird!

Stone didn’t just illustrate the poor treatment men gave women in her poems. She dared to name specific men, both in her poetry and in interviews. In an interview with J.F. Battaglia in Boulevard, Stone is quoted as saying, "I don’t think Pound did much for anybody, that’s just my personal opinion, I think Pound was very clever. …….but I think he was terribly dogmatic and very harmful to many people, including H.D." "I think he was harmful to her, almost shoving her in a direction that he was (going). I think he played God with people." These lines quoted directly from Boulevard show how sharp Stone was at the age of eighty-two. In my interviews, I experienced her as being just as sharp and outspoken at eighty-five. Not only is she political but she has the courage to stand up to the men in poetry. Donald Hall wrote a review of Second Hand Coat, (1991) which she interpreted as, "She’s OK." and then commented that she’d always been treated that way by men. "They take each other so seriously, those men. We’ve neglected her. And now we give her this, and so forth. I know that women don’t respond to me that way. They really think I’m good. …I write like a woman" (Battaglia 2). She really fights against men who assume that women are trivial, hysterical and overblown. She even managed to attack Freud in this interview, "I think Freud has got so many holes in him that he looks like a sieve. Um-hum. Holy Freud. Well, Freud was all screwed up about women, for sure, because he looked at what was the effect of not only the Jewish traditional attitude toward women but the male attitude toward women in general, that the woman’s place was in the home et cetera, and the woman was jealous naturally of the penis. Et cetera. …Actually, Freud screwed people up royally, I think" (Battaglia 2).

Stone’s poem "Words" (Ordinary Words 3) is an excellent example of her ability to express her feelings about male attitude in her poetry. In "Words" each sentence stands as a small poem. This is an excellent strategy as Stone is effectively modeling Stevens’ own poetry, as in, "Gallant Chateau"(161) found in Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, 1982.

Words

Wallace Stevens says,
"A poet looks at the world
as a man looks at a woman."

I can never know what a man sees
when he looks at a woman.

That is a sealed universe.

On the outside of the bubble
everything is stretched to infinity.

Along the blacktop, trees are bearded as old men,
like rows of nodding gray-bearded mandarins.
Their secondhand beards were spun by female gypsy moths.

All mandarins are trapped in their images.

A poet looks at the world
as a woman looks at a man.

She begins by quoting Wallace Stevens who is very dogmatic; Stone chooses to argue with one of his more famous lines, "A poet looks at the world/ as a man looks at a woman." Her rebuttal, "I can never know what a man sees when he looks at a woman. That is a sealed universe." She uses long e to pull the reader down to sealed and drops the sentence for emphasis.

There is ironical grace in the lines of the fifth stanza beginning with "Along the blacktop." Stone establishes place, walking along the road and nature helps her with the rebuttal. She sees the trees bearded like rows of nodding gray-bearded mandarins, who are persons seen as elders and reactionaries. "Their secondhand beards were spun by female gypsy moths" really challenges Stevens, and she continues "All mandarins are trapped in their images." Men are not who they think they are, and basically she is saying, "behind every man there’s a woman." And then rather humorously, she ends with, "A poet looks at the world as a woman looks at a man." Stone is poking fun but serious at the same time. My fantasy is that she had been reading Steven’s work, went out for a walk, pondering his poetry, and developed the image of the female gypsy moths spinning those second hand beards.

"Earthquake" (Ordinary Words 14) is a very different kind of poem, presented in a much quieter way, but speaking strongly about men and their control of women.

Earthquake

The moon rises as Shizu rises from her couch,
still in the shadow of her husband
who puts her to work early at his vegetable stand.
The mountains take the light.
Her calligraphy, the dark brush stroke
with which she frees herself,
lies in loose sheets on her drawing table.
The tide recedes, the tectonic plates
grind into the flesh of the peninsula.
She is one grain of sand
in the rippling ground swell;
a fan opening and closing.

Here a woman in the Japanese society, subservient to her husband, rises in the shadow of her husband to work at his vegetable stand. But, she saves herself with her calligraphy, being able to pick up her brush, being an artist, saves her. The ending must be read very carefully. I believe the earthquake represents women or underdogs rebelling. "She is one grain of sand," Stone doesn’t say she’s destroyed, "in the rippling ground swell" a warning or prediction that things will change. Women can become open or closed at will, rather than being dominated. Notice the music, the moon rises as Shizo rises from her couch,/ still in the shadow of her husband, and the inner rhyme frees, sheets, recedes, and table, plates & grain, and sand & fan. The music of this poem makes it softer, gentler to read, but still in the end is a warning that women all over the world want to be equal.

In "Male Gorillas" (Ordinary Words 15) Stone appears to take a lighter stance poking fun at men and their bodies and also speaking with distaste for women who denigrate themselves.

Male Gorillas

At the doughnut shop
twenty-three silver backs
are lined up at the bar,
sitting on the stools.
It’s morning coffee and trash day.
The waitress has a heavy feeling face,
considerate with carmine lipstick.
She doesn’t brown my fries.
I have to stand at the counter
and insist on my order.
I take my cup of coffee to a small
inoffensive table along the wall
At the counter the male chorus line
is lined up tight.
I look at their almost identical butts,
their buddy hunched shoulders,
the curve of their ancient spines.
They are methodically browsing
in their own territory.
This data goes into the vast
confused library, the female mind.

This poem moves along with rhythm and metaphor. Stone establishes place and her opinion in the first two lines, describing themen as "silver backs," another name for old gorillas. Stone moves the lines along with the inner rhymes of small, wall/ line, tight, spines/ and the assonance of butts and buddy. One of the better political jabs comes when she describes the waitress and her actions, the fact that she is more intent on waiting on the men, than the speaker in the poem, that the speaker must insist on her order and also find an "inoffensive table." The carmine lipstick on the waitress puts one in mind of the stereotypical waitress, the one with a lacy hanky in her breast pocket, the older woman still fighting to look young because she needs a tip, her language a little coarse. Stone uses two words to put that whole picture in the reader’s mind. I appreciate that Stone is able to laugh at herself just filing the data into the "vast, confused library, the female mind."

The poems in the book Ordinary Words move back and forth between political, serious, memory, feminist, fears, personal, observation, and funny. "Absence Proves Nothing" (19) is a poem that shows how women translate fear because of some men.

Absence Proves Nothing

By noon I can’t stop writing.
I’m on the back of last night,
a reverse gallop.
Last night I lay turning –asking–
what is the telephone pole good for
if not the woodbine?
Because of men, women translate fear.
Thus, all women present subliminally.
That the killer did not come last night
proves nothing.
At night, what is a glass window?
Only a dark space reflecting yourself.
Only a lens for the one outside.

The speaker couldn’t sleep the night before. She is filled with fear because of men. Even if you want to look strong, the subliminal message is to be subservient. What good is the telephone pole this far out from town; it won’t bring help if one calls, it’s only good for the woodbine to grow on. Just because the killer didn’t come, doesn’t mean he won’t. At night, windows are mirrors for the insider, but they enlarge, they are the lens for "the one" outside. Men seldom have to deal with this kind of fear.

This poem is set up in four sections. Each section stands alone OR builds onto the next. This is the same technique used in "Words," each stanza could be a small poem.

There is a stream of consciousness thinking the speaker in the poem goes through when considering her inability to fall asleep the night before. For example: "By noon I can’t stop writing. I’m on the back of last night, a reverse gallop." Within the contents of this poem, the lines mean that the speaker in the poem is already remembering and writing her thoughts of the night before. If the lines were standing alone and a different subject came in the next stanza the meaning would change. There also is the rhythm of two longer lines and one short. The last three lines are much like a haiku. This poem demonstrates Stone’s deliberate use of form.

Not only does Stone point her poetic finger at men and their attitude and treatment of women but she has also chosen aging and society’s treatment of the aged as the subject of many poems. In "Interview with Theodore Roszak" (Carlson 1), Roszak finds that people are amazed to realize that the story of longevity goes back to the beginning of the industrial period, when the life expectancy in England’s industrial Manchester was 17. Stone addresses the problem of longevity in her poetry, an issue that is just now beginning to have some attention. If as Roszak states we are offering a long healthy life, we need to consider useful enterprises for the increasing older population (Carlson 3).

In "Relatives" (Ordinary Words 21) Stone is applauding the fact that the women who have lived past their husbands have found something useful to do with their lives.

Relatives

Grandma lives in this town;
in fact all over this town.
Grandpa’s dead.
Uncle Heery’s brain-dead,
and them aunts! Well!
It’s grandma you have to contend with.
She’s here she’s there!
She works in the fast-food hangout.
She’s doing school lunches.
She’s the crossing guard at the school corner.
She’s the librarian’s assistant.
She’s part-time in the real-estate office.
She’s stuffing envelopes.
She gets up at three a.m.
to go to the screw factory;
and at night she’s at the business school
taking a course in computer science.

Now you take this next town.
Grandpa’s laid out neat in the cemetery
and grandma’s gone wild and bought a bus ticket
to Disneyland.
Uncle Bimbo’s been laid up for ten years
and them aunts
are all cashiers in ladies’ clothing
and grandma couldn’t stand the sight of them
washing their hands and their hair
and their panty hose.
"It’s Marine World for me," grandma says.

The first stanza of Relatives takes a look at the sociology of aging in America. It begins with a litany of different ways older women find to survive after their husbands have died. But her conclusion is wonderful because more and more, older women are taking charge of their world and getting on with their lives. Often, it is not until they are freed from the responsibilities of parenting that they are able to do what they want with their lives. This is a fairly new sociological phenomena in the world. In "The Changing Nature of Work", Mark Hunter says, "The number of people 55 and older who are still in the labor force has increased by 6 million since 1950; most of that increase is women." Before the advent of antibiotics it was common for men to have two or three wives. Many women died in childbirth as a result of the lack of medicine and proper sanitary conditions. On a recent walk, I passed an old cemetery that showed family after family with the wives laid out in a row, their head stones stating they had died in childbirth. Besides the repetition in this poem, there is a sense of "grandma" developing a new value system and choosing to do worthwhile activities and frowns on the daughters "washing their hair and their pantyhose". (2)

It is often difficult to place a Stone poem in a specific category. In "An Education in the Eighties" (Ordinary Words 17) she focuses on the elderly but she also tells the history of other ages living outside of middle class society.

An Education in the Eighties

I’m in the Grandparent’s Program
at the Happyvale School.
It ekes out the S.S.
This morning I pass a child,
elbows up like wings, his hands
in breast-high leather pockets. He’s
headed down the mountain, but not to school.
He don’t go to school. Up here on the mountain
them two women and seven children
share the same man.
He comes in from wherever,
conspicuous in that getup;
decides which beast to slaughter.
Always a gaggle of geese out on the highway.
On the back road,
all of a sudden he’ll show,
straddle a poorly fed horse.
Their big old ram, sweetbreads hanging like an extra leg,
goes blatting ahead of my Buick.
Their barn door hangs on one hinge.
Built seven years ago by an out-of-stater
who married a second time after his wife
ran off. Married one of the Jones
girls, the mean one who used to tie
the step-daughter to the end of the bed
where she would scream for hours.
He built that barn and house out of green wood,
and when it dried it buckled.
It buckled after he sold it for spite to them folks
in a fracas over his local taxes.
They serve a hot lunch at school
and we senior citizens get the same menu
as the fourth graders. It’s all measured out
just so, none left over. You take what’s flobbed
on the plate and stay in line
even if you wet your pants.

The speaker, an old woman, is using home-rooted language, making this a persona poem. Stone starts again setting place,answering who, where, why and what and then slides into a description of the folks in the neighborhood. This poem is similar to, "How They Got Her to Quiet Down" (Ordinary Words 8) except that this poem isn’t talking about what happens to one person in particular but how a whole group of people are treated. In setting place, and putting the speaker right in the middle, Stone is leaving the judgment and conclusions for the reader to make. The speaker is supplementing Social Security with a hot meal at the school. As she moves about the neighborhood and back into the cafeteria, the reader gets a sense of how much face is lost. She describes the difficult lives the people in this town live, as well as speaking to how "outside" society some of the people live. "He don’t go to school. Up here on the mountain/ them two women and seven children/share the same man./ The home rooted language works well in the poem. "You take what’s flobbed on the plate." The history of the people in the poem draws a line showing that meanness is carried down to the smallest. She brings the old and the young together with the real fear; "even if you wet your pants" a common unspeakable problem for the young and the elderly.

"Strands" (Ordinary Words 22is a poem that exemplifies the wisdom Ruth Stone has developed over her years of writing. Much like a prayer, it also speaks to the wisdom of aging.

Strands

This uprooted grass from the edge of the marsh-lake
is green and beginning to rot,
so that some strands are brown as Hillery’s hair,
and fine and bleached as Bianca’s hair.
A small snail is passenger at the tip of one strand.
But it does not seem to move.
It is fastened. A bird could use this grass.
As it lies over my left hand drying in the air,
at the finial point a protrusion of bud-knobs,
like flowers in small cylinders.
It is almost the skeleton of itself as it dries.
On my palm it could be the threads
for stitching something together.
These grasses, silent as ourselves
as we went about making ourselves
from our mothers’ bodies, as they grew
up through the shallows to the surface,
where I look down at my bird body.
The mother, the wind moving over the surface;
the mother holding the roots in the silty bottom.
Now the sister can begin to weave
the body of the shirts for the six swan brothers.
The brothers move over the lake,
looking down at their bird bodies.
This marsh grass could be like my mother’s fingers
in the garden. the green and brown stains of grass
on her fingers in the garden.
And this light grass on my hand
is like her hair, light and sweet smelling,
now as hay drying in the sun is sweet smelling.
The snail among the strands like myself, clinging.

Stone takes the reader on a walk and standing or sitting at the marsh-lake, begins to describe the strands of grass. In the
process, using her senses and imagination, she describes what she feels and sees and then names the things grass could be usedfor. She slides into what happens as it dries; a skeleton of itself. She pushes it farther - - she could use it for stitching and farther, "silent as we went about making ourselves from our mother’s body." She notices that her own bird body pushes Mother (earth), holds the roots and then moves into a fable of a sister weaving shirts for six swan brothers. Stone pushes the poem deeper and deeper so that it could be her mother’s fingers in the garden, green and brown stains circling back to the beginning "like her hair, light and sweet smelling," and likens herself to the snail, clinging. "Strands" demonstrates the evolution of Stone’s work.

Ruth Stone’s poetry speaks from her love and concern for human kind. There are many reasons her poetry touches me. First, I appreciate her honesty, her anger, and her humor. Second, I admire the musicality of her work and the fact that she writes about the people in her life. Finally, Stone has been a model for me throughout my writing career, because she has honed her craft throughout her entire life. By focusing on the treatment of the elderly, men’s oppression of women and the lives of people that live outside of middle class life, she demonstrates her awareness of problems and asks the reader to consider them. She tells her story with the music of language picked up as a child and developed as a poet. Like Alicia Ostriker, whose concern and anger is wide and great, Stone is a poet of many subjects as well as one who continues to teach poetry. Moreover, she is a poet who insists that we look at our world with all its beauty and all its sins. Amazingly, she is a poet who at eighty-five continues to be constantly growing in her writing, and she is a poet that has finally gained recognition for her excellent work by receiving the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Works Cited

Battaglia, J.F.. "A Conversation with Ruth Stone", interview: Boulevard Journal, Volume 12, Numbers 1 & 2, 1996. <http://www.poems.com/~poems /stoneint. >

Barker, Wendy and Sandra Gilbert, eds. The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Barnstone, Willis. "Poet in the Mountains." The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 78-100.

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems 1927 – 1979. New York, The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.

Bradley, Robert. "An Interview with Ruth Stone: 1990" The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 67-77.

Carlson, Elliot. "Interview with Theodore Roszak." AARP Bulletin. October 1999. <http://www.aarp.org/bulletin/oct99/roszal.html. >

Clark, Kevin. " ‘The Wife’s Went Bazook’ Comedic Feminism in the Poetry of Ruth Stone." The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 112-117.

Fiedler, Leslie. "On Ruth Stone." The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 3-5.

Freeman, Jan. "Poetry and Life, Poetry and Ruth." The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 9-16.

Friedman, Norman. "The Poetry of Ruth Stone." The House is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 46-51.

Gilbert, Roger. " ‘Experiencing Otherness’ Ruth Stone’s Art of Inference." The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.140-150.

Gilbert, Sandra. "’Definitions of Love’ Ruth Stone’s Feminist Caritas". The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 194-206.

---, "Extraordinary words." Rev. of Ordinary Words by Ruth Stone: The Women’s Review of Books: Vol.XVII, No. 1.October 1999. pgs.6, 7.

---, Preface. The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. ix-xiii.

Grob, Gerald N. Edward Jarvis and the Medical World of Nineteenth-Century America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978.

Gross, Harvey. "On the Poetry of Ruth Stone." Iowa Review: Volume 3 #2, 1972. 94-106.

Hughes, John S., ed. The Letters of a Victorian Madwoman. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. 52, 61.

Hunter, Mark. "The Changing Nature of Work." Modern Maturity May/June 1999< http://www.aarp.org/mmaturity/may_jun99/workwork.html>.

Olds, Sharon. "Ruth Stone and Her Poems." The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 5-9.

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. The Little Space, Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998. Pittsburgh, Pitt Poetry Series, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.

---, Interview. April, 2000

Rich, Adrienne. A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far Poems 1978-1981. New York:W. W. Norton & Co. 1981. 10-15, 31.

Rukeyser, Muriel. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader. Ed. Jan Heller Levi. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. 240-247.

Silberg, Richard. "Ordinary Words." Rev. of Ordinary Words by Ruth Stone: Poetry Flash, November-December 1999. pg. 47.

Smith, Martha Nell. "Like a Laser Beam." The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 17-30.

Stone, Ruth. ---, "Breaking the Tired Mold of American Poetry." Tittanic Operas, A Poets’ Corner of Contemporary Responses to Dickinson’s Legacy, http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/Dickinson/titanic/stone.html

---, Cheap. New York: Harcourt, 1972.

---, In an Iridescent Time. New York: Harcourt, 1959.

---, Ordinary Words. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1999.

---, Second-Hand Coat: Poems New and Selected. Boston: Godine 1987; Cambridge, MA: Yellow Moon, 1991.

---, Simplicity. Northampton, MA: Paris Press, 1995.

---, Telephone Interview, Saturday, January 22, 2000.

---, Telephone Interview, Saturday, March 6, 2000.

---, Telephone Interview, Thursday, April 30, 2000.

---, Who Is the Widow’s Muse? Cambridge, MA: Yellow Moon, 1991.

---, "Breaking the Tired Mold of American Poetry." Titanic Operas, A Poets’ Corner of Contemporary Responses to Dickinson’s Legacy, 1-8. http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/dickinson/titanic/stone.html

Wakoski, Diane. "The Comedic Art of Ruth Stone." The House Is Made of Poetry, The Art of Ruth Stone. Eds. Wendy Barker and Sandra Gilbert. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 101-105.

Copyright 2000 by Mary Ann Wehler


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