“The Way It Isn’t”
A Review of
What Love Comes To:
New and Selected Poems
By Ruth Stone
Reviewed by Kendra Langdon Juskus.
What Love Comes To:
New and Selected Poems
Paperback: Copper Canyon Press, 2008
New Edition, Dec. 2010.
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It is dangerous to be a young woman reading an old woman’s poetry. Her words prematurely thrust you into the inevitabilities of life: the tender scars of loss, the wounds of war that open again and again, the disorientation of old age. This foreknowledge can be a liability in your hands, or it can be a gift. Either way, it is what you get reading the poetry of Ruth Stone.
Stone is nearly 96 years old but does not rejoice in her longevity. In fact, it seems a part of her would have rather exited life years ago than persist without the husband she lost in 1959 and whose ghost haunts every poem she has written since. And she has written a lot of poems since.
Living most of those years in some degree of poverty and obscurity hasn’t persuaded Stone to surrender any commitment to her craft or to compromise her vulnerable, brutal, and often sparkling voice for greater fame. The result of her tenacity is an oeuvre of 13 books of poetry; a National Book Award and a Wallace Stevens Award for her 2002 collection, In the Next Galaxy; a National Book Critics Circle Award and two Guggenheim Fellowships; and this latest collection, What Love Comes To: New and Selected Poems, which was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist.
But accolades don’t motivate Stone. She is wedded to poetry regardless of recognition. Poetry also anchors her to some strand of meaning in what she describes as an otherwise futile existence. “The mouth cannot forget / the story of the fingers” she writes in defense of her craft. In those lines, too, is an allusion to another shadow of meaning in her life, her love for her late husband and her commitment to sustaining him in memory.
Outside of these and several other reference points—her Vermont home, the tangibility of laundry and birdsong, the continuum of matter—Stone is at a loss for meaning. Her most common metaphors, especially as she ages, concern disintegration, fragmentation, entropy. In her recent collections she employs images from the natural sciences, repeating the language of segmentation, supernovae, particles and fractals.
Of course the editor of any collection must make selections of an artist’s work that may not represent the whole of the artist’s offering or worldview. But the prevalence of this theme of dissolution makes clear that Stone believes the world is going to pieces.
She is not without her reasons for this perspective. The death of that husband she still loves so fiercely was at his own hand. On sabbatical in England at the time, Walter Stone had an advance for a novel, an adoring wife, young children, and a position at Vassar College. According to interviews Ruth has given, her husband’s death was a complete shock. The poem “Turn Your Eyes Away” articulates her sense of betrayal: “How could I have guessed / the plain-spoken stranger in your face, / your body, tagged in a drawer, / attached to nothing, incurious.”
Walter’s death, as well as the various injustices and violences of living through poverty, war, the obscurity of being a woman and a poet, blindness, and life’s quotidian disappointments, pervade Stone’s poetry in language that captures the raggedness and roughness of existence more acutely than we would like. Stone’s diction is brutal, shocking, and visceral on the tongue even when not bloody in content. Even her most beautiful language shines like spears of ice.
She is clever, too, and funny in a rueful, cynical way. She takes particular delight in juxtaposing jarring images with tender ones. “Message from Your Toes” disgusts at first: “Far from notice they spin / with their soft cheese-grains, / their ingrown nails…” But it concludes, like many of her poems, with a heartbreaking reference to Walter: “And your toes, passengers of the extreme / clustered on your dough-white body, / say how they miss his feet, the thin elegance of his ankles.” Her description of a fat man in “Certainly Not,” a poem infused with irony and the feminism that characterizes much of her work, reads, “There’s so much meat. / …If roasted / you could get slices, / enough for thirty or more / at dinner, / and his right hand, / resting at his crotch, / would fill a quart jar / as pig’s knuckles, / tender and sweet.”
Stone is honest. And although she can be uncomfortably vulnerable about heartache and absurdity, she is equally vulnerable about euphoria: “Then why this happiness in muted things? / Some equation of time and space, / a slowed perception of the battered brain / strips back like leaves to unexpected glittering.” Certain poems about childhood or lovemaking or moments of domestic joy brilliantly capture the sublime. Although—or perhaps because—poems in this spirit are in the minority in this collection, they are like rare fruit worth savoring. In “The Porch,” Stone writes, “…I lean back in the wicker chair / the porch my fragile skin / between me / and the gorgeous open maw, / the sucking swallowing world.”
It would be comforting to deduce, from lines like these, that Stone finds transcendence and purpose in the mundane or natural. Stone does love life’s treasures in spite of herself. But each gift offers itself to her not as an expression of grace or hope or providence, but as a random current of happiness in an equally random river of meaninglessness: “Tell me, what is the meaning of this? / While the subliminal shrews are ferociously / eating, always eating, in order to waste away.”
She clings to an element of purpose in materialism, in the continuum of everything through natural systems. Hence her persistent poems about Walter: Words are like DNA. They can rebuild a person. But she is also wise to the laws of nature; one can feel the rush toward entropy in her words. So she settles for what is, as evident in the titles of her poems, even of the entire collection: What Love Comes To, “So Be It,” “This Is How It Is,” “Accepting.” She is not bitter, self-pitying or even particularly angry about life’s arbitrariness. Her tone is a little rueful, somewhat perplexed, and certainly sad, but still acquiescent. She writes, “…you think, as you must, / that what you see is the way it is, / the way it will always be.”
Perhaps grace lies in the fact that Ruth Stone has persevered for 96 years; that she delights in anything and writes at all. It is certainly a grace to us that she writes, for she writes truth. It benefits even young women like myself to confront the rawness and randomness of existence through this old woman’s words, but it benefits us also to complement it with the reading of others’ work. Anna Kamienska and Czeslaw Milosz, for instance, burdened with their own tragedies, wrote about things falling apart, but also about things being stitched together. One ought to read poets like these alongside Stone, not to reject or hide from her hard-won and searingly vulnerable revelations, but as a practiced remembering of the reality of what love truly comes to.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com