For this final post, perhaps because I just saw Dustin Hoffman’s debut film as a director, Quartet, which achingly portrays the trials of senescence; for this last commentary, I want to pay a brief and inadequate tribute to Ruth Stone, my predecessor as Vermont Poet Laureate.
Ms. Stone was remarkable in every way: until the last of her 96 years, and despite being all but completely blind, the woman still generated some of America’s most compelling poetry.
Compared to her, I’m a mere youngster, just past 70. And yet, like anyone blessed to live past middle life, I feel a profounder sense of loss with every year: dear friends and family die; faculties and physical resources fade; I anticipate more funerals than weddings. I scarcely expect to know a life-span like Ruth’s, but if I did, such losses as I have known up to now would surely have lodged themselves among the multitude that followed.
It is entirely understandable, then, that at her great age Ruth Stone should have been a chronicler of sorrow; but in fact she suffered gut-wrenching loss even before she reached 50. Her husband committed suicide in 1959, and to one extent or another, we sense the man’s presence (or rather his absence) in all his companion’s work. She once described her production as “love poems, all written to a dead man.” Consider the following:
When you come back to me
it will be crow time
and flycatcher time,
with rising spirals of gnats
between the apple trees.
Every weed will be quadrupled,
The crows, their black flapping
bodies, their long calling
toward the mountain;
relatives, like mine,
hooting and tearing.
And you will take me in
to your fractal meaningless
babble; the quick of my mouth,
the madness of my tongue.
By my reading, the speaker here finds herself looking forward from winter to the warmer seasons so brilliantly evoked by her meticulous attention to natural detail. That will be a fecund time, a time when poems returns to her; and yet “when you come back to me” seems poignantly to suggest the return as well of an absent lover. The tragic subtext here is that the human “you” will not come back after all, that the speaker must settle for what she calls “fractal meaningless/babble.”
Lyric poetry, however, more than any other mode of discourse, can contain opposite impulses without lapsing into mere self-contradiction. While this is, yes, another Stone poem about grief and loss, and about the resulting erasure of meaning, it’s also about “the quick of my mouth,” the life-force that this valiant woman enacted by means of her own eloquent speech. The “madness of my tongue” was the madness of desolation –but also of exhilaration. The reader can all but hear the sound of spring freshets in her diction.
For me, “Poems” captures in very short span what it is to be human. Our lives do not consist of a simple good day/bad day dialectic; for as long as we draw breath, we will experience pain and fulfillment simultaneously.
Ms. Stone invited my admiration and gratitude: the very music of a phrase like “fractal meaningless/babble” makes me feel more alive, no matter the losses that I, like anyone else, have known, and that I, like anyone else, am bound to know further.