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In the Dark

by Ruth Stone

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In the Dark by Ruth Stone
Two important American poets, Sylvia Plath and Ruth Stone, both have new volumes out in 2004. Plath's is a posthumous facsmile edition of Ariel, and Stone's most recent is In the Dark, her ninth. These two poets are poles apart, running the emotional gamut from Plath's teeth-grinding rage at her fate to Stone's calm fortitude. A phrase in one of Stone's poems reads "nature accepts everything." If her poems are an indication, nature is her teacher.

One would be tempted to characterize Stone's poetry as down-to-earth if one of her books was not titled In the Next Galaxy. She can be both a kindly grandmother baking gingerbread or a wizened mystic chanting into the howling void. Her images of the everyday are variously surreal, humorously real, gut-wrenchingly emotional, cooly intellectual, and mystical. She's a Cassandra, shape-shifting her way to fullness of vision, looking at life from changing points of view, always maintaining her still center.

Her persona is arguably the most fully developed and mature in American poetry, with the largest scope, fullest emotional range and deepest wisdom. (Among our novelists, Saul Bellow probably has that honor.) One is struck by how appropriate her reactions are; never overblown or hysterical, never treacly or sentimental, always equal to the occasion. Bad things happen, but she puts them in a cosmic perspective:

In the Next Galaxy

"Things will be different.
No one will lose their sight,
their hearing, their gallbladder..."

The poet at the time of publishing this latest book is 89, frail and nearly blind. She is past the point when saving face matters, free to expose personal issues without embarrassment:

"...I remember the hard
lab table where you pushed me down
and pulled off my skirt. (Negative)"

Stone's husband suffered a dreadful fate, leaving her in poverty with three small children. Managing economic and emotional crises became the material she drew upon. In Am I, she records an interaction with a psychiatrist she turned to for help:

"...in a suburb of London he will say over the phone,
when I tell him my husband has hung himself,
'Well, what do you want me to do about that?'
His wife explains that it is his arthritis
that makes him so irritable."

Memories are vivid in this book, important clues to be examined again and again by a detective seeking to unravel a mystery. Some traumas are unforgettable and unresolvable; old pain is still present, old blunt instruments strike her anew:

"as I remember
your elegant fingers
in the flare of a match
as we paused on the edge
of that illusion
that now rises from the dead....(I Walk Alone)"

A secret is hidden between the lines of Stone's poetry: this is how to survive. Her subtext is: affirm life despite everything. Don't be a professional victim; you're not being singled out by life. Joy and tragedy come to you as to everyone. Grandiosity will bring you down.

Her humility allows her to sympathize and even identify with other living beings. "Another Feeling" may be the best animal poem ever written, better than Ted Hughes' "Crow," James Dickey's "The Heaven of Animals," Galway Kinnell's "The Bear," or even John Clare's great poem "The Badger." An excerpt:

"Once you saw a drove of young pigs
crossing the highway. One of them
pulling his body by the front feet,
the hind legs dragging flat...
They came with a net and went for him.
...He was hiding in the weeds. It was then
you saw his eyes. He understood.
He was trembling...
Even at this moment, your heart
is going too fast; your hands sweat."

Note how the animal's sentience is respected; he's not Porky Pig, dressed in a little suit and acting human. His pig life of struggle and fear is beheld with compassion by someone who has travelled beyond self-centeredness in her quest is to understand the life force, and what it does to us all.

Stone's poems do not foist tidy endings on us either; she offers no ideologies to make sense of it all. Studying the puzzle-pieces of her experiences for some pattern that will give them meaning, she affirms them even though she cannot find one:

"...years of it, accepting
from each hand the gifts,
without knowing why they were
given or what to make of them."

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