Monday, November 28, 2011

Life in Full: Sydney Lea on former Vermont state poet Ruth Stone

Editor's Note: This column was written before former Vermont State Poet Ruth Stone died Nov. 19. Current state poet laureate Sydney Lea writes about how Stone, in a few words, evokes life while writing about loss.

I want to pay a brief and inadequate tribute to Ruth Stone, my predecessor as Vermont Poet Laureate. Ms. Stone is remarkable in every way: 96 years old and all but completely blind, the woman still generates some of America's most compelling poetry.

Compared to her, I'm a mere youngster, just shy of 69. 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 reach 96, but if I did, such losses as I have known would surely have lost themselves among the multitude that followed.

It is entirely understandable, then, that at her great age Ruth Stone should be a chronicler of sorrow; but in fact she suffered gut-wrenching loss even before she reached 50. Her husband committed suicide half a century ago, and to one extent or another, we sense the man's presence (or rather his absence) in all Ms. Stone's work. She has described her own work 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,/ coarse, welcoming/ and spine-tipped./ The crows, their black flapping/ bodies, their long calling/ toward the mountain;/ relatives, like mine,/ ambivalent, eye-hooded;/ hooting and tearing./ And you will take me into 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 return 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 enacts by means of her own eloquent speech The "madness of my tongue" is 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, it seems; for as long as we draw breath, we experience pain and fulfillment simultaneously.

Ms. Stone invites 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, have known, and that I am bound to know further.