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In the Next Galaxy By Ruth Stone

Golden years of poetry continue for National Book Award winner

Sunday, December 29, 2002

By Jim Schley

When told that she had been nominated for the 2002 National Book Award in Poetry, Ruth Stone has said she felt "profoundly dumbfounded."

 
 

In the Next Galaxy

By Ruth Stone

Copper Canyon Press ($20)

   
 

That phrase is so characteristic: clear as a bell in meaning but also a sonic knot of sibilant vowels and gliding syllables -- pro-FOW-nd-lee dumb-FOWN-ded (two iambs and a trochee, or two amphibrachs, depending on how you scan the meter). Stone's poems are chockful of such felicitous rhythmical detonations.

Readers who have followed this exceptionally gifted (though not widely known) poet through eight books and more than 50 years of writing, publishing and teaching weren't profoundly surprised when her book won.

Despite all those years as an itinerant professor, 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:"

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 87, Stone is one of our finest chroniclers of aging. She and her octogenarian or nonagenarian compatriots -- Czeslaw Milosz, Stanley Kunitz, Hayden Carruth, Alan Dugan, Grace Paley, Madeline DeFrees and Kathleen Raine -- are writing aching, gorgeous verse from the vantage of old age.

Has there ever been a literary era with so many eloquent poets writing so well in their 80s and 90s? 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. It's a savage existence 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 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."

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

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.

This collection is decidedly not one of those hefty retrospective tomes, produced to monumentalize a senior statesperson of verse. I do hope we're lucky enough to see a complete collection of Stone's work in the not too distant future.

But this is an audacious book, brimming with new poems. Remarkably, it is Stone's fourth book in little more than a decade, after 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 riddle of the world," existence in its true and complete strangeness, is repeatedly seen fresh by Stone with startled, scrutinizing eyes.


Jim Schley lives in Vermont, and is the author of the poetry chapbook, "One Another" (Chapiteau Press).

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