Behind the Curtains: Close-Reading Ruth Stone
Dorianne Laux: Ruth Stone was born June 8, 1919 in Roanoke, Virginia, and her and her husband Walter Stone had three children, three girls. In 1959 they came to London. Walter was on a sabbatical; he went there to study. Ruth was a poet, but she was more busy being a mother, raising her children, when Walter suddenly committed suicide—hanged himself in a closet in London.
She found her way back to the United States and had to find a way also to raise her three daughters alone. She did this by becoming an itinerant poet—she traveled from town to town, working for a little while in a university here and there. Eventually she got a National Endowment for the Arts grant in the U.S., which is about $20,000. And with that, she bought a house. And she has always called it "the house poetry made." It was in Vermont. She says that all her poems are really love poems to her husband Walter—she never remarried. In 2002, she won the National Book Award in the United States. One of her books has been published on Bloodaxe Press in the U.K.
This particular poem is from her book Secondhand Coat. But she has continued to write love poems to her dead husband Walter, right up until her last book, In the Next Galaxy.
This one is called "Curtains," and already you can hear the pun in the title.
Putting up new curtains,
other windows intrude.
As though it is that first winter in Cambridge
when you and I had just moved in.
Now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen.
What does it mean if I say this years later?
Listen, last night
I am on a crying jag
with my landlord, Mr. Tempesta.
I sneaked in two cats.
He screams, "No pets! No pets!"
I become my Aunt Virginia,
proud but weak in the head.
I remember Anna Magnani.
I throw a few books. I shout.
He wipes his eyes and opens his hands.
OK OK keep the dirty animals
but no nails in the walls.
We cry together.
I am so nervous, he says.
I want to dig you up and say, look,
it's like the time, remember,
when I ran into our living room naked
to get rid of that fire inspector.
See what you miss by being dead?
This is not so much a close reading as a close listening. When you hear the poem out loud, you can hear its wonderful music, can't you? It's the kind of wonderful dialect of someone who's speaking directly to someone else. The opening is so reflective and liquid: "Putting up new curtains"—I love that—"other windows intrude. / As though it is that first winter in Cambridge when you and I had just moved in." And what could be a more lonely line than "Now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen."
"What does it mean if I say this years later?" I always mistake one of the words, I always say "see" this. Because the poem is so visual that I get mixed up. Because I'm seeing it, as it happens! And so sometimes, in fact, probably I did this time—did I make the mistake? [Audience confirms] I do it every time! And I know it says "say" but I want to say "see."
"Listen"—and I love that! She's direct. Of course, she's speaking to Walter. But she's speaking to us! "Listen! Listen, last night..." And the whole mood of the poem, the whole tone of the poem changes. "Listen, last night I'm on a crying jag with my landlord, Mr. Tempesta." What could be a better name? You know, maybe she made that name up; I don't think so, but maybe she did. But it doesn't matter, it's the perfect name. It's a name Shakespeare would have made up for a character. Isn't it? "I sneaked in two cats. He screams, "No pets! No pets!" You can almost hear some kind of Brooklyn landlord and tenant screaming at each other here with the attendant accent.
"I become my Aunt Virginia." She writes a lot about her Aunt Virginia. If you read her poems, you'll read many references to her Aunt Virginia. "Proud, but weak in the head." What a glorious description of someone! "Proud, but weak in the head." You know, already you know Mr. Tempesta, you know Aunt Virginia, you don't need to know any more about them except those two lines.
"I remember Anna Magnani"—someone we all know from the movies. "I throw a few books. I shout."—isn't that what she would do? In any given movie? "He wipes his eyes, and opens his hands." You can just see that gesture, right? "OK OK keep the dirty animals but no nails in the walls." The concession, the whole conversation includes so much of that world of the landlord and tenant, and in just a few lines.
"We cry together." A complete shift again. She's taking you from this very reflective mood into the jumble of life, her life, the craziness of it, and then takes us back down: "We cry together. / I am so nervous, he says. // I want to dig you up, and say, look." Listen! Look! "It's like that time, remember," and then that glorious moment that goes back to all that life that she's living now, "when I ran naked into the living room to get rid of that fire inspector."
We feel as if we have moved through a person's entire relationship with her husband. In how many lines? I haven't counted. But not very many! And they're short! We've met Mr. Tempesta, Aunt Virginia; we've re-seen Anna Magnani, and we certainly feel like we know Walter by now, in a very important and intimate way. And we know we know Ruth Stone, now, in a very important and intimate way.
And then that wonderful line break/stanza break: "See what you miss" and, it's interesting, Robert Hass says "every good poem walks the tightrope between 'yes' and 'no'." Okay? This is one of those lines, where, when she says "See what you miss by being dead?" On the one hand, we can feel all that yearning, those windows, intruding, that time of her life with her loved one coming to the forefront—"See what you missed, my dear, my husband, the one I spent all those years with, made three beautiful girls with, see what you missed? Walter?" And also, that tightrope she walks on the other side of it is, "you bastard. How could you leave me. How could you do this to me? You see what you miss, by being dead?"
Right? It's both those things. And isn't that true—when someone dies—especially by their own hand, but even not by their own hand, we feel both things. We feel this longing, we feel this sadness, we feel this love. And we also feel this incredible anger toward that person for leaving us alone. And she achieves that in that final line. One of the ways she achieves it is—the line alone is very powerful—but it's because she's taken us through a life. She's taken us through an entire lifetime to get to that line.
I think she's an incredible poet. One of her poems I used in my workshop was called "At Eighty Three I Live Alone." This is another poem where she talks about being invisible as a woman. Walking down the street, no one sees her. And in this poem, she forces Walter to look at her. Right? She forces him from the grave to look at her. And she forces all of us to look at her, too. To wake us up. She's in complete control of the language in this poem. Even though, when you hear it, it just sounds so off-the-cuff. As if she just scribbled it out. Or as if she was actually speaking it, in her head. And yet, you can tell, just from this one poem, how great a poet she must be.
It reminds me of the poet Sappho, and how we have so few poems left from her, because they were all destroyed, but we have these little tiny bits, and the bits are so brilliant, that you know—from that little bit—what a poet she must have been. What a poet. And the same is true of Ruth Stone; you can read any poem of hers and just want to read more. So I hope that's exactly what you do. Go out and get a book of Ruth Stone's poems, and read it tonight. Thank you.