FEBRUARY 12, 2015
IN 2012, I dropped everything else — my novels, my stories, my poetry, my teaching — and waded into the complexities of biography, a genre I knew nothing about, swam in murky unknown modernist waters, dove into the archives of a dozen libraries, and worst of all, discovered footnotes. All for Lola Ridge.
It wasn’t just her poetry of witness:
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.
As stirring and, yes, beautiful as her poems are about executions, labor rallies, lynchings, they are only one part of her attraction. She loved freedom, politically and aesthetically. She was an anarchist, in life and work. No subject or form was taboo. “All life is the domain of poetry; not only the ancient rituals of love and birth and death; but all vast happenings, from wars, strikes, the endless crucifixions of labor, to the beginning of the smallest flower,” she wrote an English critic. Modernist women poets of the 1910s and 1920s were renowned for writing about anything (especially sex and politics) as part of their big breakthrough in poetry. Of course, like Samuel Johnson’s dancing dog, that they could write poetry at all was most amazing.
Women of my generation came to writing encumbered by the New Critics telling us that writing about sex was fine — in fact, the more the better, bring on the titillation — but politics were a no-no. Even Adrienne Rich felt this at the beginning of her career, believing that “a too-compassionate art is half an art.” These days, with Ferguson and Occupy, poets are expected to weigh in on politics. Or at least the appropriate poets, those with the “right” race or political credentials. Lola had no such qualms. “Let anything that burns you come out whether it be propaganda or not … I write about something that I feel intensely. How can you help writing about something you feel intensely?” she told one critic. A white woman croons in black dialect in her “Lullaby” while throwing a black baby into a fire during a riot.
To discover such a maverick and bring her to light was admittedly another attraction. Buried treasure! It wasn’t as if absolutely no one knew about her — our twice Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky brought her to my attention with one of his brilliant Slate essays. But the work of radical poets was pretty much erased from the canon around the time of World War II in the hysteria around dissent of any kind. Her executor didn’t help. She had promised a biography for the last forty years and held onto her papers. Now the copyright has expired. Going through her work, I was happy to discover that to revive her didn’t involve slapping Ophelia or digging into discards. Lola had the poetic goods.
But did she have a life interesting enough for a biography? Born in Ireland in 1873, she lived 23 years in New Zealand, four in Australia before immigrating to the US. She also traveled to Mexico, France, Corsica, England, Bermuda, Damascus, Italy, Baghdad, and Montreal, peregrinations partially explained by the modernist tendency to homelessness. But hers were punctuated by years of invalidism. She would get out of her sickbed and board a boat with very little money and wander somewhere for months, writing begging letters to her friends. She was saved from starving by her tendency toward anorexia. In her feminism, she made radical life decisions, leaving her seven-year-old son in an orphanage in San Francisco. How did any of this reveal itself in her poetry?
I beat Janie
and beat her …
but still she smiled …
so I scratched her between the eyes with a pin.
Now she doesn’t love me anymore …
she scowls … and scowls …
though I’ve begged her to forgive me
and poured sugar in the hole at the back of her head.
Barbies alive! This wasn’t Mina Loy’s wild juxtapositions about sex or Baronness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s penetrating madness, or Edna St. Vincent Millay’s dexterous come-ons. Her voice was modern in a way that bridged the Freudian musings of her generation and mine.
I was hooked. Maybe this is always the way it is with a love object, but within months I discovered that, like some kind of biographical plumber’s snake, Lola had reached deep into my life. I found parallels everywhere. Lola spent her first four years in the company of kin who claimed to be descended from a race of Irish princes. I was an Irish princess, according to my mother, whose great-great grandmother ran off to America with a commoner. Lola’s New Zealand childhood was spent in Hokitika, once home to a gold rush as big as San Francisco’s. She arrived a decade too late. My hometown, Ogallala, Nebraska, once the rip-roaring end of the Texas Trail, had as many saloons as Hokitika, sporting the same Western storefronts. Even Nebraska/New Zealand politics ran along the same lines. When New Zealand labor journalist Len DeCaux saw a turn-of-the-century photo of Westport, a town which lies very close to Hokitika, he exclaimed: “It was so startlingly similar to Western American towns around the same period, where the IWW had its start, that I realized for the first time that the Wobblies might have had roots in like pioneering conditions in both countries.”
Then there was our shared New Worlds. Lola arrived in the US under the name of Sybill Robson. When I worked illegally in Canada, I too took an alias. Both of us wandered. I felt that I understood her struggles as a traveler in 1930s Baghdad since I had lived in similarly wild Khartoum in the 1970s, and Arab children threw rocks at me too. Traveling in the South Sudan for nearly a year, I lived with the Nuer, pastoral Nilotes. They are born anarchists: “There is no master and no servant in their society, but only equals who regard themselves as God’s noblest creation,” wrote anthropologist E. Evans Pritchard. A friend of Emma Goldman, Ridge saw anarchy as “ … the opportunity of complete self-expression for all.” But she also understood its limits. “Anarchy is the philosophy I feel closest to and shall always be, but I no longer believe in the possibility of its application to modern society.” She was a liminal woman who belonged nowhere, owing allegiance only to herself: freedom from that too small house.
The subject of Lola’s first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems, were the Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. As an “immigrant” from Nebraska, I’ve lived a block from the setting of the long title poem, “The Ghetto,” for the last twenty-some years. “Hester street, / Like a forlorn woman over-born / By many babies at her teats, / Turns on her trampled bed to meet the day.” Artists nearly always live like immigrants. They have to work part-time to support their art, and with half-wages, they buy vegetables in the open-air markets, they bicycle their child home from school, they seldom speak the same language as their neighbors. The difference is they don’t want — or can’t afford — to assimilate.
The Ghetto and Other Poems? said the clerk at the Tenement Museum. We don’t have it, he says, looking up from his computer. Sounds interesting.
I compliment him on his intuition and good taste. I’ve reached the state of proselytizing — it’s the state past finding her everywhere. The night before, Jeff Allen, my host at my reading for the New School, mentions that Paul Morphy appears in his new book Song of the Shank. Morphy, I interrupt — he was the subject of Lola Ridge’s husband’s biography. Jeff forgives me. He’s been working on his book for 12 years, he knows obsession.
Why isn’t everyone talking about Ridge? Why weren’t they always? When I give the usual reasons for her neglect, politics pre-World War II, her last too-ambitious books, the muscle behind the aesthetics-divorced-from-feeling Pound and Eliot espoused, the executor holed up with her papers, sheer gender-envy, I am left with luck. Edna St. Vincent Millay was dragged forth out of the past by Nancy Milford and others, despite John Crowe Ransom calling her a “little girl.” Can St. Lola rise from her slot between Evelyn Scott, called “whore,” and Millay’s “girl”? Haven’t we moved past the three categories for women?
Although we are separated by a hundred years, my experience in the social world of poets is the same as Lola’s: it’s a hardscrabble life, full of intrigue, and few rewards. Lola was lucky in that poetry written by women was particularly sought after in her era. Although second-wave feminism brought about interest in women’s poetry in my time, it seems to have waned, at least according to the VIDA count that tracks women’s publications. Lola rode her wave, and at its end abandoned many projects, including a book about women’s creativity that Viking said wouldn’t sell. The title of her proposed last book was “The Passage of Theresa.” I have no idea what she had in mind for it — not a word of it remains. With every move, she lost her glasses, her slippers, her keys, and her manuscripts. I like to assume with this one that she was channeling me backward; she saw me standing deep in Smith library where the accessible half of her papers are stored, trying to find a passage out. Passage or passion?
When Lola’s husband filled in his passport application in 1924, he gave the name of their closest friend as a reference — “the man who will always know our address,” the Australian printmaker Martin Lewis. Examining his work at the New York Public Library, I realized I’d seen it somewhere before. Lewis loved dramatic blacks surrounding pools of electric light — like Edward Hopper. That was the link? I wasn’t sure; I read on. He’d taught Edward Hopper etching. Unlike Hopper and his theme of isolation, however, Lewis was a proto-social realist whose work showed rallies in NYC, factory workers trudging home, and critiqued skyscrapers, using much the same subject matter as Ridge. Ridge’s husband owned two of Lewis’s works. Then I remembered a folder of mostly excruciatingly bad etchings from the ’30s my mother-in-law collected for her work for UNICEF. I rummaged through storage and found the file and there it was — Tree by Martin Lewis, a spooky night scene of three homeless boys caught around a fire, with a looming adult, a clothesline, lit skyscrapers, and a searchlight in the distance. Discovering such an artifact in my very basement proved to me that Ridge exists in more than my psyche.
Okay, okay — I’ve gone overboard. Of course there are sharp differences. Both of us suffered the death of our firstborn, a subject of a number of my poems, but none of Lola’s. I’ve never worked as an editor (well, maybe once or twice guest-editing), while she edited two important modernist magazines, Others and Broom. She took ten years off her age; I’m just thinking about it. I don’t take drugs except for a nice dose of melatonin now and then, and I’m not a hypochondriac. But I’m telling you too much. The biographer’s life must not compete, and most importantly, must not obstruct in the telling. But remember — most biographies have a doppelgänger dancing naked behind the curtain.