At Poets House on Tuesday night family and friends of Ruth Stone gathered to celebrate her 95th birthday. It was a beautiful day for any kind of celebration, full of fresh air, sun, and skidding clouds over the Hudson. Inside, it was standing room only for visitors who crammed into the small auditorium. We were greeted by the expert program coordinator Stephen Motika. Twelve people saluted the poet described by Sharon Olds as the “mother of humor and mourning.”
Chard de Niord began the evening with a telephone call to Stone in Vermont the way David Letterman on live TV used to phone his mom for the whole studio and TV audience, with enhanced sound so that we could hear each other across the miles. Stone’s voice rang out loud and clear how “she loved us all very much!” and then she read her poem, “The Orchard.”
Sidney Wolinsky, a filmmaker who made Stone’s acquaintance in the 1970s, showed a few minutes of his documentary “Excuses.” Even though Stone was not present at Poets House, we all did get to see her at home slicing up carrots and mushrooms for a casserole while she talked about her work and her life.
Her oldest daughter, Marcia Croll, read love letters between Ruth Stone and her husband Walter. The letters were erotic, charged with love and longing. Walter’s suicide in 1959 made Stone an expert in grieving, loss, and the surreal turns that life takes. Now, more than fifty years later, she survives, continuing to write and read aloud with her clear firm voice.
Dorianne Laux delivered by heart brilliantly the poem, “Curtains.”
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?
Sandra Gilbert read the poem, “The Song of the Absinthe Granny.”
The Song of Absinthe Granny
Among some hills there dwelt in parody
A young woman; me.
I was that gone with child
That before I knew it I had three
And they hung whining and twisting.
Why I wasn’t more than thirty-nine
And sparse as a runt fruit tree.
Three pips that plagued the life out of me.
Ah me. It wore me down,
The grubs, the grubbing.
We were two inches thick in dust
For lack of scrubbing.
Diapers and panty-shirts and yolk of eggs.
One day in the mirror I saw my stringy legs
And I looked around
And saw string on the floor,
And string on the chair
And heads like wasps’ nests
Full of stringy hair.
“Well,” I said, “if you have string, knit.
Knit something, don’t just sit.”
We had the orchard drops,
But they didn’t keep.
The milk came in bottles.
It came until the bottles were that deep
We fell over the bottles.
The milk dried on the floor.
“Drink it all up,” cried their papa,
And they all began to roar, “More!”
Well, time went on,
Not a bone that wasn’t frayed.
Every chit was knicked and bit,
And nothing was paid.
We had the dog spayed.
“It looks like a lifetime,”
Their papa said.
“It’s a good life, it’s a good wife,
It’s a good bed.”
So I got the rifle out
To shoot him through the head.
But he went on smiling and sitting
And I looked around for a piece of string
To do some knitting.
Then I picked at the tiling
And the house fell down.
“Now you’ve done it,” he said.
“I’m going to town.
Get them up out of there,
Put them to bed.”
“I’m afraid to look,” I whimpered,
“They might be dead.”
“We’re under here, mama, under the shed.”
Well, the winters wore on.
We had cats that hung around.
When I fed them they scratched.
How the little nippers loved them.
Cats and brats.
I couldn’t see for my head was thatched
But they kept coming in when the door unlatched.
“I’ll shave my head,” I promised,
“I’ll clip my mop.
This caterwauling has got to stop.”
Well, all that’s finished,
It’s all been done.
Those were high kick summers,
It was bald galled fun.
Now the daft time’s over
And the string is spun.
I’m all alone
To cull and be furry.
Not an extra page in the spanking story.
The wet britches dried
And the teeth came in.
The last one cried
And no new began.
Those were long hot summers,
Now the sun won’t tarry.
My birds have flocked,
And I’m old and wary.
I’m old and worn and a cunning sipper,
And I’ll outlive every little nipper.
And with what’s left I’m chary,
And with what’s left I’m chary.
To get more of a sense of how her mind works, read this interview with Ruth Stone. In reading several interviews over the past few days, I find it amusing to see how she learns about the interviewers, how she disarms them with her curiosity about everyone she speaks to.