In the Dark by Ruth Stone. Copper Canyon Press, $22.
Reviewed by Jenn Blair
Edwin Muir once wrote, “This is a difficult country, and our home.” Ruth Stone's poetry has absorbed this contradiction, to its great strength. Her work is by turns wry, spare, raw, and generous. In the Dark presents a collection of poems fully inhabited by a voice that takes delight in many subjects, but two in particular: the slightly ajar and the just so.
Stone's work echoes Wordsworth's famous pronouncement that “we murder to dissect,” but one important distinction between Stone and the Romantic poet quickly emerges: she's funny. Consider her poem “Heaven,” a piece that speaks of “ignorance hung / like a bat of viscous glue; / upside down-- / beautiful blind insectivore.” Traces of humor appear in other poems, but Stone's lightheartedness often contains an edge. “What They Don't Tell Us About” speaks of an “asteroid fat boy,” noting, “This kid is a little punk, three miles in diameter / and solid rock. He's brushed-off / leftover pie dough.” In “Interim,” “the radiator that sits / in the kitchen passing gas” turns plaintive at the conclusion: “When you have nothing to say, / the sadness of things / speaks for you.” Stone's use of everyday objects puts her in the same realm as Nancy Willard and Jane Hirshfield, but her personification possesses more iron, perhaps. In “Drought Again,” she speaks of rocks “secret as potatoes” who “squint in their gum-dirt sockets / and Geiger-count a tremble coming / inch by inch.”
Other poems, such as “Body Language,” hand back readers lost fragments of days. We usually don't remember the sidewalk we walked down this afternoon, but Stone's poetry brushes off matter only to re-present it, giving us another chance. We nod in recognition, for the first time--again--strangely pleased at the reappearance of “A pyramid of vitamins, endorsed by Olympic teams, / in the flyspecked window.” If Stone's poetry is like the world, that's because it contains a little of everything--“mystery” and “longing” as well as “shit” and “Wal-Mart.”
Stone's poetry also speaks of the past as a force to be reckoned with. The poem “Ice” ends with a surprising juxtaposition: “the tracery of blue-white / forget-me-nots carved of the purest ice may lash / us with the sting of memory.” In “This is How It Is,” she remarks of her late husband, “On this planet, for me, there was only one impetuous specimen.” “Am I” is a shattering, unsentimental account of insensitive medical advice handed her shortly after his death. The force of the poem lies in Stone's refusal to point fingers: she indicts simply by recounting. These poems imply that if meaning becomes condensed enough, it constantly reoccurs: perhaps our lives are composed of just a few moments, terror and joy not much different in that they happen over and over. “Accepting” and “Tell Me” also dwell in the personal, touching on Stone's failing eyesight, questioningly but gracefully. Without lapsing into hagiography, the sense still remains that Stone has mastered--or been gifted--the rare ability to hold her disappointment at arm's length, at least just long enough to wrest it onto paper and pound out some of the frustration to sustenance and some of the pain to bread.
In Of Poetic Diction (1973), Owen Barfield argued that metaphors are not created, only apprehended, and that this truth had been forgotten over time. He wrote, “The language of primitive men reports them as direct perceptual experience. The speaker has observed a unity, and is not therefore himself conscious of relation. But we, in the development of consciousness, have lost the power to see this one as one.” Barfield concluded that imagination was the key to drawing disparate parts back to a whole: “The world, like Dionysus, is torn to pieces by pure intellect; but the poet is Zeus; he has swallowed the heart of the world; and he can reproduce it as a living body.” In Stone's collection, poems such as “Blizzard” and “Pulsing” skillfully bring these various “pieces” or fragments together into a unified whole. Her poems hint that Barfield was onto something: with enough imagination, a poet truly can “discover” (or uncover) those places where “here” and “there” brush shins.
Stone's poems bristle with a disarming simplicity. Pieces such as “Walter, Upon Looking Around” and “Between Men” touch on gender, but are not heavy handed, leaving us with the feeling Stone has simultaneously held her tongue and spoken her piece. “In the Free World” presents a truculent murderer's remarks, a few observations on gun control, then concludes with the Mexican government's “betraying” and bombing of “Native American farmers”: the guns that have slipped from the dead farmers' hands are revealed to be “just pieces of carved wood.” Since Stone's censure appears in the guise of comment, the welt does not rise immediately, but gradually, giving the distinct impression that withholding judgement might be the most elegant judgment of all.
If we trust Stone, perhaps it is mostly because she herself seems to inhabit the “stern rapture” mentioned in “Writer's Block.” “Cosmos” asks, “What is this speech, this blind fingering of the dark?” then answers, “Nothing, old mother, / but your wasted breath.” Stern, indeed. But “And So Forth,” the poem presented just one page before “Cosmos,” preaches a cautious optimism. How else could one grow brave enough to ask, “Can I hope the great ear of the universe / is pressed to the wall of space and hears me, / its own chick peeping?”