Ordinary Words celebrates Ruth Stone’s 84th birthday. This brilliant new collection is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Eric Mathieu King Award from the Academy of American Poets. Ordinary Words captures a unique vision of Americana” marked by Stone’s characteristic wit, poignancy, and lyricism. The poet addresses the environment, poverty, and aging with fearless candor and surprising humor.
Sister poet to Nobel Prize-winner Wislawa Syzmborska, Ruth Stone offers a view of her country and its citizens that is tender and wacky, filled with hard political truths as well as love, beauty, cruelty, and sorrow. Ruth Stone is a poet of the people, and poet’s poet. Her following is devoted and ever-growing. Ordinary Words shows that poetry is about everyday life, our life. Poems are set in Rutland, Vermont; Indianapolis; Chattanooga; Houston; Boise; and Troy, New York (where celluloid collars were made). Stone’s subjects are trailer parks, state parks, prefab houses, school crossing guards, bears, snakes, hummingbirds, bottled water, Aunt Maud, Uncle Cal, lost love, dry humping at the Greyhound bus terminal, and McDonald’s as a refuge from loneliness. Her heroes are dead husbands, wild grandmothers, struggling daughters: ordinary Americans leading simple and extraordinary lives.
"You think it horrible that lust and rage / Should dance attention upon my old age," wrote W.B. Yeats in one of his many, memorable testimonies on behalf of eternal youth. At 85, Ruth Stone has refrained (as far as I know) from the sort of chemical fixes and elixirs that intrigued her Irish predecessor. But she too has remained open to eros and anger, despair and delight, and steadfastly avoided the sort of golden-hued nostalgia that has ruined many an older poet.
Ordinary Words, which won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award, is an excellent specimen of Stone's art. She has a superb eye for landscape, noting both the beauty of the natural world and the dispiriting thumbprints that human beings leave behind: "As now, another snowfall / sculptures an unreality, clean and fresh, / bringing down in its light crystals / industrial particulates as it settles." This note of ecological protest, here subsumed in Latinate playfulness, can sometimes mar Stone's poetry, and the same thing might be said of her mini-manifesto against consumer culture, "Incredible Buys In." She's much stronger when delving less deliberately into what she calls "that vast / confused library, the female mind." Over and over she emerges with astonishing prizes, from the dizzy imagery of "Prefab" to the stirring snapshot of bereavement in "Then":
In our loss we accepted the strange shape of things
as though it had meaning for us,
as though we moved slowly over the acreage,
as though the ground modulated like water.
The floors and the cupboards slanted to the West,
the house sinking toward the evening side of the sky.
The children and I sitting together waiting,
there on the back porch, the massive engine
of the storm swelling up through the undergrowth,
pounding toward us.
Despite the damp fizzle of the final line, this gets right to the heart of our sorrowing, queasy communion with the dead. And it confirms that when Ruth Stone hits her stride, as she often does throughout this collection, the words that she deploys with such low-key panache are anything but ordinary. --James Marcus