Friday, November 25, 2011

A Poem about an Incident in the Life of Ruth Stone

Ruth Stone: Photo by John Lane Studio

I don't like to admit that my poems tell "what really happened" because I want the same freedom that fiction writers have to tell lies that tell the truth. As I wrote about in my post, "Occupy Imagination: Everyone is Invited!," I prefer to let the imagination speak and invent the happily ever after.

I confess that "Madly in Love" really happened, but not to me. I was just a child observing. I remember Ruth's response to the poem, her customary generosity: "How amazing, Kiki,  that you remember the incident in such detail." And then she giggled or laughed. I don't know what to call her particular expression of delight.

I wrote this poem in January of 1992, when I was living in freezing Madison, Wisconsin. I was collecting unemployment, my marriage was unraveling, and I was depressed—if you get the picture of an unmastered disaster—well, that's what really happened, I guess—or at least it's a part of what really happened. Ruth's life of poverty, loss, and loneliness, which she transformed so exquisitely in her poetry, gave me the courage to name my own destitution, which I'm happy to report was brief, at least in terms of employment. I wrote the whole of my book, Madly in Love, in 1992. Each poem had a kind of inevitability; beginning with "Madly in Love," the first poem in the book, the poems came almost exactly in the same order as they appear in published volume. I've never had that writing experience before or since. From her winter in Binghamton to her summer in Goshen, I believe that whole year Ruth sent her spirit to me in Madison, to stay close and encourage me to listen carefully and attend, as her speaker does in "Dream of the Light in the Shade:" "and all says attend! / The light so coldly spells in innocence / Attend!" 

Ruth said in her acceptance speech when she won the National Book Award that her poetry "just talked to me, and I wrote it down,” she said. “So I can’t even take much credit for it.” Amen to that. 

 Madly in Love
                                                    For Ruth Stone

Late one summer night he tore through
her latched screen door, his trousers
in his hand, and declared his love.
Then he lay down on the rug and screamed.
He was obliging when she asked him to leave
and hiked from Goshen twenty miles
across the Brandon Gap in his underwear.
At six AM, casually as if he carried
a sack of breakfast bagels, he rang
our bell, trousers still in hand.
Three days later he committed himself.
He was a librarian, a sensible man.

As a child it mystified me.
Now I think despair could make me
walk twenty miles in my underwear.
I could lie down half-naked and wail
for an audience for my articulate loins.
I've screamed--haven't you?--even though
screaming means no one will listen.
And he was a librarian--I imagine him
knowing all the proper places for books
and for the lover in the stacks
who wasn't there when he clicked off
the fluorescent lights and drove

into mountains where the Milky Way's
silk sash billowed above him
and crickets sang out crazy excitement
as he stood on the dirt road with mountains
rising over him, wonderful, dark,
breathing desire. He saw her lighted
by a lamp and the fire, reading. 
And for a moment, before he broke
through the obstructing screen,
liberating to the inside
mosquitoes and winking fireflies,
he thought she might respond.

1 comment:

  1. Aliki. I just read an article about Ruth Stone and early this morning, found her poetry online. And then I refound your website and reread this poem and understood.
    Still haven't found a home for "After My Father Died" but I will. I will. And when I do, I'll let you know.