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This article is taken from PN Review 248, Volume 45 Number 6, July - August 2019.

on Lola Ridge
The Many-Faced Ridge
Jena Schmitt
To the Many: Collected Early Poems, Lola Ridge, ed. Daniel Tobin (Little Island Press, 2018)

ON 21 MAY 1941, the same year James Joyce died, Lola Ridge’s obituary appeared on page twenty-three of the New York Times:

LOLA RIDGE, POET,
DIES IN BROOKLYN

––––––––––

‘Firehead’ Was Called One
of Most Extraordinary Poems
Written by an American

––––––––––

DEALT WITH CRUCIFIXION

––––––––––

Champion of Poor Received
Guggenheim Fellowship in
1935 After Last Book


It appeared on the same page as ‘Columbia Fellowships: 20 Women and 85 Men Receive Study Grants’, and alongside the deaths of ‘E.W. Kneeland, Canadian Leader, Winnipeg Grain Merchant and Industrialist’, ‘Police Lieutenant William J. McMahon: Cleared Bomb Mystery’, ‘William S. Rowe: Director of Federal Reserve Bank During World War’, ‘Reuben C. Bolles, Veteran of Yale’s Races’, and farther down on the page, ‘Mrs. Augusta M. Statzer, grand secretary-treasurer of the ladies’ auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen’.

Ridge was sixty-seven when she died, though she had lopped first three years, then a full decade off her age, and so her obituary read fifty-seven. Throughout her life she moved from Ireland to Australia to New Zealand back to Australia to California to New York, and though her birth name was Emily Rose, she changed it many times: Emily Rose became Rose became Rosa became Rosalie became Delores became Lola became Sybill Robson became Rosa Bernard, became Lola Ridge again.

She would leave behind a husband in New Zealand (just as her mother left behind an ex-husband when she immigrated from Ireland to Australia when Ridge was four), a manager of a mine, which meant they had often lived in rugged, isolating conditions in the bush or hazardous tent cities dependant on the gold rush and the kinds of people drawn to it. Both mother and daughter married alcoholics (‘He used, too, to tell me stories out of Homer and be crudely kind when he was not in one of those raging drunken sprees when he would smash every stick of furniture in the three-roomed shack’, Ridge said of her stepfather); both claimed to be widows in their new environs. At the time, better a seemingly dead husband than a divorcée.

‘Your love was like moonlight / turning harsh things to beauty’, Ridge writes about her mother. An important, supportive figure wavering ghostlike in poems such as ‘Portraits’ and ‘Sleep Delorias’, she took care of Ridge’s young son Keith when Ridge went back to school to study painting at the Sydney Art School. But in 1907, when her mother died suddenly, Ridge became Mrs Robson and Keith became a fair, brown-haired, blue-eyed boy named Eric, and they travelled on the Moana for California. On the ship’s manifest next of kin read Nil. Ridge’s first son had died in infancy, and as a single mother with no family, she would have had to contend with work shortages, low wages and inadequate childcare in a place she knew no one. Two weeks after his eighth birthday, she left Keith at the Boys and Girls Aid Society (by the 1920s there often weren’t enough beds for the children being left in orphanages) in San Francisco and moved to New York, where she spent the rest of her life.

In an early poem entitled ‘Lake Kanieri’, published in the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine in November 1902, Ridge writes:

                              No need to serve
Or suffer, or regret. It seems life holds
No future & no past for me but this
Sun-lighted mountain & the brooding bush;

Nor art nor history nor written page
Could touch me now.

                                       *
To the Many, edited by Daniel Tobin and published by Little Island Press, collects Ridge’s early writing – The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918), an essay entitled ‘Woman and the Creative Will’ (1919), Sun-up and Other Poems (1920), Red Flag (1927) and ‘Verses’ (1905), an appendix that features early lyric poems and Australian bush ballads with narrative arcs that deal with the trials and glories of goldmining and living in the wilderness, very, what’s the word – ballady – thigh-slapping affairs, as they are meant to be. Her later collections, Firehead (1929), heralded by the New York Times, and Dance of Fire (1935), are not included here, out of print and difficult to find, save for bits and pieces of poems online. As Tobin in the introduction writes: ‘For more than thirty years neither the planned biography nor the collected poems… have come to light. Moreover, it is accurate to say that Lola Ridge’s literary estate has been considerably “protected”…’.

Ridge was born in 1873 and grew up at the tail end of the Victorian era, with its corsets and curved-heel boots, courting chairs and fan-shaped dance cards, but she wrote and published in the first half of the twentieth century, with WWI, the Great Depression, women’s suffrage, working-class movements, union worker strikes, the Russian Revolution, gender and race discrimination, race riots and antisemitism clanging up against each other, making themselves known.

An undeniably passionate leftist poet, she wrote about what was around her, about the apartments, neighbourhoods, and tenements she lived in (‘A late snow beats / With cold white fists upon the tenements –’), about the working man, immigrant lives, poverty, hardships, racial and gender inequality, lynchings, murder, executions, imprisonment. ‘I write about something I feel intensely,’ Ridge said in an interview, ‘how can you help writing about something you feel intensely.’

In the poem ‘Debris’ from The Ghetto and Other Poems, she reiterates, rather too romantically:

I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls –
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.

She wrote about New York in poems such as ‘Manhattan’, ‘Faces’ (about the Bowery), ‘Spires’ (about Grace Church), ‘Scandal’ (about a window in Greenwich Village) and ‘Brooklyn Bridge’. There are bar rooms, bread lines, dark alleyways, shuttered storefronts. In Ridge’s poems, veterans have a place, the homeless, the elderly:

There is a rustling along the benches
As of dried leaves raked over …
And the old man lifts a shaking palsied hand,
Tucking the displaced paper about his knees.

There are fur-makers and factory hands, shopkeepers and newsboys, exhausted mothers and sick babies, undertakers and steelworkers. She wrote about street accidents, union strikes, the lynchings of Frank Little and Leo Frank, the Ludlow massacre, the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. Fearless and steadfast in her convictions, she wrote and protested, protested and wrote, her writing itself a protest:

Charge the blast furnace, workmen
Open the valves –
Drive the fires high…
(Night is above the gates).

Nearly trampled by police horses, she was arrested, alongside the poet Edna St Vincent Millay, during a demonstration against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two men who had been controversially convicted of murdering a guard during an armed robbery. Terese’s Svoboda’s thorough biography, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, published in 2016, recalls this incident:

One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horse’s hooves beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still […] A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognizing her, ‘That’s Lola Ridge!’

There is a Virginia Woolfish quality to Ridge, though she wrote the essay ‘Woman and the Creative Will’ ten years before Woolf would publish A Room of One’s Own (‘Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping’, Woolf explains). ‘There is no woman among the great penitents of literature’, Ridge declares matter­of-factly, pointing to weak resolve and child-rearing as two of the culprits. The essay reads, at times, like a rant. No Shakespeare or Goethe, no Balzac or Dostoevski, no Huysmans or Poe or Baudelaire! She mentions Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Brontë and Selma Lagerlöf. But for Ridge, this wasn’t enough. ‘And for this reason –’ she concludes, rather contemporarily, ‘the dual sexuality of genius – men and women so gifted usually show characteristics of both sexes…’. She wanted more, more than what she had, what was offered to her, what she was able to get. More than the smashing of furniture around her, or the need to say she was widowed, or to move halfway around the world to get somewhere, or to choose between children and art.

Critics compared Ridge’s writing to Joyce (‘Of the dark past / A child is born; With joy and grief / My heart is torn’, Joyce writes in the poem ‘Ecce Puer’) and H.D. (‘Return – look again on our city, / though the people cry through the streets…’, this from H.D.’s poem ‘The Tribute’). ‘The Ghetto’ and ‘Sun-up’ have the long, meandering, elegiac nature of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, though not nearly as neatly or adroitly. The worlds she and Eliot wrote about could not have been farther apart, their experiences and politics on opposite sides of the political spectrum. While Eliot spoke of coming over the Starnbergersee, stopping in the colonnade or the Hofgarden, staying at an arch-duke’s, Ridge wrote about ‘the smooth dead surface of the heat, / And Hester Street / Like a forlorn woman over-born / By many babies at her teats…’.

Lines in the poem keep wandering away, in need of being brought back in. With ‘Majestic discordances / Greater than harmonies… / Half-heard like rain on pools … / Gleaning out of it all / Passion, bewilderment, pain…’, there are phrases that work, phrases that don’t. ‘Passion, bewilderment, pain’ falls flat, says too much. Or: ‘Bartering, changing, exhorting, / Dreaming, debating, aspiring, / Astounding, indestructible / Life in the Ghetto’. Lining up pinging ing verbs one after the other doesn’t necessarily move the poem forward the way it should. The strength in her poems is observation:

Nights, she reads
Those books that have most unset thought,
New-poured and malleable,
To which her thought
Leaps fusing at white heat…

An intimacy that makes the spaces she describes feel as real to the reader as they were to Ridge herself:

Calicoes and furs,
Pocket-books and scarfs,
Razor strops and knives
(Patterns in check …)

‘The Ghetto’, praised at the time of its publication, has its problems. Because Ridge is not just observing and writing what she sees, in the poem there are judgments, assumptions being made: ‘The sturdy Ghetto children / March by the parade… Lusty, unafraid’. Or:

Circling the Book,
And the candles gleaming starkly
On the botched-paper whiteness of his face,
Like a miswritten psalm …

Night by night
I hear his lifted praise,
Like a broken whinnying
Before the Lord’s shut gate.

The botched paper, the miswritten psalm, the broken whinnying, the shut gate, negative construction after negative construction. What is Ridge really trying to say? Perhaps that faith alone cannot save a man.

The poem ‘Lullaby’, about the East St Louis race riots, when white women threw a black baby into a fire, becomes more problematic and alarming, a caricature of race relations. What I can only assume is an interpretation of ‘black dialect’, with lines such as ‘Rock-a-bye baby, wooly and brown…’ and ‘Lil’ coon baby, mammy is down… / Han’s that hold yuh are steady an’ white…’, are offensive in whatever context Ridge was meaning.

The poems in Red Flag, meanwhile, jump from the streets of New York to Russia, but in so doing lose their details and verve. In ‘Moscow Bells, 1917’, for instance, she writes:

Like an army aroused at midnight out of its first
   deep sleep
   to be told
   at last there is peace …
   clang-dang
   clang-dang
   clang-

And near the end:

With your gestures comprehending
   all loves
   hopes
   hates
   defiant aspirations
   prides
   untamed cruelties
   immolations
   pities –

The words loosen, dangle too easily, a kind of free-for-all, then unravel just as quickly: ‘Sway in the mystic, incomprehensible dance of all…’. No, no swaying mystical dances, please. And there are instances where poems need fine-tuning. If ‘littered with memories’ was deleted from the line, ‘Her eyes – littered with memories’, so that it read:

Her eyes
Like ancient garrets
Or dusty unaired rooms where someone died.

The line would tighten up nicely. No need to over-explain.

In her own writing life, Ridge challenged policies, attitudes, rules, standards, inequalities, inequities. Her poems are poems of protest, to be sure, of injustice, like fists hitting a table:

Colder:
And the Elevated slams upon the silence.

They are as rugged as the environments and lives she lived or lived amongst, and the sharp edge of violence often runs alongside them, reds are hemorrhaged, a doll is beaten until she scowls, the flies buzz and buzz until someone pulls their legs out. Dickinson may have written about hearing a fly when she died, but for Ridge the flies continue to buzz long after they are dead.

Sometimes the poems are all violence, heartbreakingly so. When writing about someone named Jimmie, she says:

His lashes are gold as mama’s wedding ring
and his mouth feels cool and smooth
like a flower wet with rain.
You wouldn’t believe Jimmie was different …
till he showed you …

And later:

… Delores’ face
floats dim and beautiful
the way flowers do when they are drowned.

The poet Louise Bogan, who wrote poems such as ‘The Sleeping Fury’ (‘You are here now, / Who were so loud and feared, in a symbol before me…’) and ‘Kept’ (‘Our hand the dolls, the tongue.’), said of Ridge’s poetry: ‘At its worst, her language is overcharged and weakened by the weight of modifiers, especially adverbs; at its best it frees her thought and feeling to a remarkable degree’. It’s true that Ridge’s writing suffers at times from a Millay­-like sentimentality (in ‘Song of a Second April, for example, Millay writes: ‘full of whispers, full of sighs / of dazzling mud and dingy snow’), the castaways, perhaps, of Victorian influences. Lines can be overwrought with diaphanous phrases that billow too softly: ‘mauves, exquisite, tremulous, and luminous purples’, ‘nimble shadows’, ‘nebulous gold’, ‘ephemeral glory’, ‘scintillant­storied’, ‘vermillion signatures’ and ‘velvety blackness’. All have a very fainting-couch effect.

Beside the shimmering, glimmering distractions (‘Snaring, illuding, concealing, / Magically conjuring / Turning…’) and proliferation of ellipses, which tend to add an overly dramatic flourish, popular though they were at the time, there are phrases that are distinctly assured, capable, claw-footed (the way Millay was of course, too, the dark darkening down). ‘Words, words, words, / Pattering like hail’, ‘baffling minors’, ‘dropsical legs’, ‘mildewed hulk’, ‘livid faces’, ‘accouched to the darkness’, and ‘blind-folded street’ are perfect because they are surprising, because they pitch and turn a line exactly as they should, towards a new way of looking at something.

Ridge is at her best when she focuses generously, unassumingly, narrowing in on the details of people’s lives. The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva explained:

Do not despise the external! The colour of your eyes is just as important as their expression, the upholstery of a sofa no less important than the words spoken on it. Write more precisely! There is nothing that is not important!

Ridge, meanwhile, writes about the ‘yellow wine in tall goblets’ in a Hungarian café, centipedes black and brown and green like ‘hell’s flags’, girls dressed in white with white handkerchiefs over their faces, a woman with jewels who ‘erupts explosive breaths’, old houses with dark windows, ‘blind houses begging moonlight / to put out the shadows –’ And in ‘Sun-up’:

Blind wet sheets
Slapping on the lines
sun in your eyes,
dark gold sun
full of little black spots,
you have to blink and blink …

Instances such as these are vivid and acute; they are sharp, and continue to sharpen long after they are read. Snippets of lives feel lived, voices suddenly heard, others brought back from the dead – ‘Let me blow the dust off of you… Resurrect your breath’. In ‘The Life of Poetry’, Muriel Rukeyser wrote: ‘A work of art is one through which the consciousness of the artist is able to give its emotions to anyone who is prepared to receive them’. One can feel emotions such as tiredness, loneliness, fear in Ridge at her strongest: ‘The moon like a skull, / Staring out of eyeless sockets at the old men trundling home the pushcarts’. And from the poem ‘Betty’:

If you keep very still
lizards will think you are a stone
and run over your lap.

There is often something under the surface to be afraid of, steps that continually need to be watched, moves anticipated, whispers caught, secrets kept, fights fought.

Ridge’s own voice oscillates, tick-tocking back and forth between two distinct tones, one refined and one defiant, one strong and one weak. Perhaps her protestor self bashes up against her creative self, trying to tell, proclaim, too much. Or perhaps there are so many neglected voices needing to be heard, like the cast of characters, both real and imagined, who walk in and out of her poems. There’s Delores, Betty, Sadie, Sarah, Frank, Mabel, Una, Lizzie, Clara, Anna, Bennie, Phyllis, Celia, Alexander, Emma, Jim, Jimmie, Kelvin, Albert, and many more. Some are dedications, others are homages, lamentations, celebrations, the crowd growing loud and rowdy. Listen to us, you can almost hear.

Rukeyser again: ‘Outrage and possibility are in all the poems we know’. Ridge is nothing if not a fighter, both in the way she decided to live and how and what she wanted to write. After she met her second husband and fellow radical David Lawson in New York, she went back for her son, though the relationship had its difficulties, and he committed suicide a year after Ridge died. She won the Shelley Memorial Award two years in a row, in 1934 and 1935 (the same year as the Guggenheim Fellowship and the publication of her final book of poetry, Dance of Fire). Percy Hutchison, reviewing Dance of Fire in the New York Times, said of Ridge: ‘When a poet finds that he can express himself only by resorting to parentheses he has ceased to write poetry’. I’ve heard many funny things about poetry over the years, but this is one of the funniest. ‘Endowed with an unusually acute mind’ and ‘artistic sensitiveness’, she was also ‘enticed into unfortunate poetic paths’ with lines such as:

Strike on thy wings of iron. (Killers grew
Like mushrooms too in alleys of the Friar
Lorenzo strove with, as beneath these spires
Wherein magnificence in atoms moves
To impact.)

I tend to think there are far worse things than parentheses, but that’s just me. Readers not having an opportunity to read Ridge’s later work might be one of them. ‘Her hydra heads above the avenues’, as she writes in ‘Broadway’, and in ‘To the Others’, ‘There are so many of you’. One can see Ridge herself, with many names and faces, looking out over vast and treacherous terrains, plowing headstrong into the most difficult of spaces, lives and subjects. From ‘Firehead’:

Hundreds of thousands upon thousands swarming
In the cavities of those hills that are so steep and straight
They all but meet above me…

There is hope and despair, lightness and darkness, exhaustion and resolve (though never defeat), and ‘… just under the ribs a small hot place, maybe the size of a shilling, a live coal… to be with me my life long, even as my shadow’. Voices so bold and so loud and so determined.

This article is taken from PN Review 248, Volume 45 Number 6, July - August 2019.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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