Jim Schley's Essays

Ruth Stone and the Riddle of the World

In the Next Galaxy (Copper Canyon Press, 2002). Winner of the 2002 National Book Award for Poetry.

When told that she had been nominated for the 2002 National Book Award in Poetry, Ruth Stone has said that she felt "profoundly dumbfounded." That phrase is so characteristic: clear as a bell in meaning, but also a sonic knot of sibilant vowels and gliding syllables, pro-FOWnd-lee dumb-FOWN-ded (two iambs and a trochee, or two amphibrachs, depending on how you scan the meter). Ruth Stone’s poems are chockfull of such felicitous rhythmical detonations.

Readers who have followed this exceptionally gifted (though not widely known) poet through eight books and more than fifty years of writing, publishing, and teaching weren’t profoundly surprised when the NBA judges selected Stone’s new book In the Next Galaxy for this year’s award winner. 

Despite all those years as an itinerant professor, Ruth Stone isn’t headmaster of any "school" of poetics. She is a fierce anomaly, unprecedented and inimitable; a brilliant metaphysical oddball, with a skewering wit akin to that of no one else. Here is "Sorrow and No Sorrow," quoted in its entirety:

We eat through tubes of time

as the cockroach,

as the apple and the codling moth,

as worms of neutrinos;

and what is not there

is always more than there.

As the dropped fawn,

dappled and cinnamon;

as the wind lays the fern aside

and carries the fawn’s milk breath

over the ravenous field

on its indifferent tongue. 

In another poem she moves, via rippling metaphor, from marbles to cow’s eyes, to the speaker’s own eyes, then on to the universe. You can’t be trained to write like this; you must have lived long and hard in the thick of things, feeding on sensory experience with the devotion of art.

And at age 87, Stone is one of our finest chroniclers of aging. She and her octogenarian or nonagenarian compatriots — Czeslaw Milosz and Stanley Kunitz, Hayden Carruth and Alan Dugan and Grace Paley, Madeline DeFrees and Kathleen Raine — are writing aching, gorgeous verse from the vantage of old age, that catastrophe all of us can only hope to experience. Has there ever been a literary era with so many eloquent poets writing so well in their eighties and nineties? Stone is merciless in her evocation of the body’s demise as the mind sings lucidly. She writes of the insults and indignities of growing old in poverty that’s by no means genteel but savage and certain to be lethal. 

The red clay bank, the spread hawk,

the bodies riding this train,

the stalled truck, pale sunlight, the talk;

the talk goes on forever,

the wide dry field of geese,

a man stopped near his porch

to watch. Release, release;

between cold death and a fever,

send what you will, I will listen.

All things come to an end.

No, they go on forever.

The rage in Stone’s poems is very often paired with a furious comedy. "We are meat," she says, several times, in a jarring variety of ways. And audible in every poem is her appetite for vocabularies of fabulous diversity, dictions of unreconciled disparity — like life in these times! — cutting-edge conceptual science, political diatribe, the subtleties of a closely observant naturalist, and the long view of a seasoned historian. 

Bawdy, wry, acerbic, and genuinely (if momentarily) tender, frequently in the same brief poem, she keeps aiming for what she calls "the not-get-at-able . . ."

Few of the new poems are longer than a page, and most are less than half a page. Yet these segments — Stone loves the word fractals, so let’s call them that — accumulate in force and impact as a reader proceeds. And this book of outstanding individual poems also has a kind of plot, source of its considerable undertow, the death by suicide of the author’s husband, "hung by a silk cord on the back of a rented door." Addressing the dead, she says "You who are always sinking into must, / stripping back, the gaud of skeletons, / cum of molecules, kiss of gas; / the exact never to be repeated form gone slack."

Viewed from many years later, she realizes that the lost husband has been known longer in memory than in person: 

But compared to all the optic scanning, 

the nerve ends of retrospection

in my thirty years of knowing you

cell by cell in my widow’s shawl,

we have lived together longer

in the discontinuous films of my sleep

than we did in our warm parasitical bodies.

In the Next Galaxy  is decidedly not one of those hefty retrospective tomes, produced to monumentalize a senior statesperson of verse. I do hope that we’re lucky enough to see a complete collection of Ruth Stone’s work in the not too distant future. But this is an audaciously new book, brimming over with new poems. Remarkably, this is Stone’s fourth book in little over a decade, following two splendid volumes published by Paris Press (even tinier than Copper Canyon), Simplicity and Ordinary Words, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999. 

What Coleridge called "the riddlle of the world," existence in its true and complete strangeness, is repeatedly seen fresh by Ruth Stone with startled, scrutinizing eyes. In the Next Galaxy concludes with her "Mantra,"

When I am sad

I sing, remembering

the redwing blackbird’s clack.

Then I want no thing

except to turn time back

to what I had

before love made me sad.

When I forget to weep,

I hear the peeping tree toads

creeping up the bark.

Love lies asleep

and dreams that everything

is in its golden net;

and I am caught there, too,

when I forget.

— Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 29, 2002