What Love Comes To
by Ruth Stone
Copper Canyon Press 2008
Reviewed by Joe Ahearn
“It flows backwards”
What Love Comes To is Ruth Stone’s thirteenth book of poems and the second “new and selected” she has published since her 1959 Harcourt-Brace debut, In an Iridescent Time. Stone is now 93 years old, a mother and grandmother and, if this book is any evidence, certainly still writing her relentless, bleak and occasionally hilarious poems at her rustic home retreat in Vermont. She seems remarkably vigorous for a poet in her 90s. The selection of new poems in What Love Comes To, dated 2008, contains 68 poems, some (“All in Time,” “Eta Carinae,” “The Fig Tree”) as good as anything she has written. And although she writes many poems on subjects we would expect any grandmother to write about–furniture, birds, the weather, the healing power of children–she is possessed of a fierce, even brutal vision, and, even at an age when many of us would be dozing by the fire, is still capable of writing a poem that stuns.
Look at “Eta Carinae.” The poem begins, as perhaps too many of our poems do, with descriptions of the birds and weather. But Stone perceives more than many of our merely gardeny poets. Noticing not just a relentless snowstorm, but the sunlight that falls through the snow, Stone does not settle for the usual pastoral or rustic scene. Instead, she widens the frame to astronomical scale, to show us the sun “wobbling and coughing / along the dust belt,” and then, Eta Carinae, our galactic neighbor, a hypergiant, intensely luminous blue star that seems well on its way to exploding into a supernova. A supernova, Stone says, that like Christ, will “come to illuminate the ignorant / who can only swallow one another.” In Stone’s poems, we are all of us among the ignorant, and our disasters, our propensities to destroy one another, are merely the foreshadowing of the larger, cosmic disaster we are born into.
These austerities are not recent inventions. Stone’s poetry is filled, almost from the beginning, with accounts of desolate suffering, with depictions of the miserably poor, with scenes and memories from her own desolate, poor, often miserable life. She is a poet of the coldest eye, one who nearly always refuses not only sentimentality but often, it seems, even a reasonable optimism. She sees a terrible, almost Russian, tragedy in even the simplest and most apparently innocent scene. Look at “Winter,” a poem written at least twenty years before “Eta Carinae.” The plot is simple: A woman looks out the window of a train stopped amid the “drab misery” of the station, noticing the crowds and concrete and the general junk and trash of our public spaces. Then, suddenly, she remembers how in her youth, her husband, now dead many years, ran alongside another train, waving goodbye. “The train,” Stone writes, “passes a station; / fresh people standing at the platform, / their faces expecting something. / I feel their entire histories ravish me.” Suffering, for Stone, is not only the key to poetry, but her vantage point into the lives of others and the ground of her sense of community.
It is impossible, of course, to summarize a life’s work, a thick book of poems written over a period of fifty years, in a short review. Stone’s work is more various than these examples may indicate. One notices in Stone’s work not just her harshness and astringency, but also her tenderness, her humor. One also notices, especially in these days of hyperkinetic post-everything poems with their sleights and trickery and dazzle, the unvarying plainness and simplicity of her poems. She says (and she is right, if it is to her work that she refers), “the song is a monotone.” After abandoning her sometimes awkward metrical exercises in the late Fifties, Stone settled into a signature style of simple, sometimes primitive, diction, flat tone, and a medium-length, frequently end-stopped, line. She is neither the poet of Whitman’s onflowing exuberance nor the poet of Dickinson’s gnomic, symbolic and heavily textured abbreviations. She uses the standard line of mainstream American poetry in the Sixties and the Seventies and one learns to expect few, if any, innovations in prosody or technique from her.
It is fair to say, though, that even if Stone’s poems do not dazzle with ingenuity, they often succeed by slicing their way deep into the reader’s consciousness. Stone’s poetry is, at its best, a poetry that wounds, a poetry that hurts us into feeling more, seeing more. Many of her poems live a long time in memory, even after a single reading. And her poems of widowhood (I am thinking here particularly of the poems selected from the book Who is the Widow’s Muse?) are the fullest and deepest examination of the widow’s life available in contemporary poetry. Stone is often a poet of memory (“Time,” she says, “is absurd. It flows backwards”) and her poems remembering her late husband, Walter Stone, are grave and beautiful and terribly sad.
What Love Comes To, it should be noted, is a beautifully made book. One wishes, though, that Copper Canyon Press had elected to include an index of titles and first lines to aid the reader who wants to find a particular poem without flipping through the Table of Contents. Even better would have been also to include standard bibliographic information regarding the nine books from which Stone chose poems, to help the reader who may want to search out Stone’s earlier books, many of which are now, regrettably, out-of-print.