Lola Ridge was once alive as you are, dreaming of Ireland in the
depths of a Lower East Side night, dreaming of New York by a South Pacific
shore, dreaming of a utopian future that would not arrive but which she was already
partially in the process of living. Through the casual miracle of literature,
we can communicate with her, though she is long dead. Ridge was Dublin-born (baptised
Rose Emily) but spent her teenage years in Australia. She became a lifelong
anarchist and caused a literary sensation in the U.S. with the appearance of her
epic poem ‘The Ghetto’ in The New Republic. She drew pictures and posed as an
artist’s model. She wrote to imaginary friends. She worked with Marianne Moore
and William Carlos Williams, editing the modernist journal Broom as well as
contributing to Others and New Masses. She shaved ten years off her
life. She travelled and wrote in Yaddo, Mexico and Baghdad. She wrote Imagist verse and radical polemics. She
worked in a factory. On Thursday afternoons, she hosted literary gatherings
attended by the likes of Mina Loy, John Dos Passos, John Reed and Hart Crane. “She
made a religion of it”, according to Carlos Williams.
Her active role in New York modernist and radical circles ended with a decline in her health, due to contracting tuberculosis, which forced her into seclusion. The unfailingly-punchable Ernest Hemingway in his 'The Lady Poets With Foot Notes' wrote of Ridge, [she] "never had enough to eat." She was frail but brave, in a different sense from the puff and bluster of 'Papa'. She campaigned, until her health collapsed, for Sacco and Vanzetti, fellow anarchists who were framed and then executed by the state. She was arrested alongside Edna St. Vincent Millay and once faced down a police horse charge whilst gravely ill, an incident Katherine Anne Porter later vividly recalled,
‘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 hoofs beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognizing her, "That's Lola Ridge!" and dashed into the empty space toward her. Without any words or a moment's pause, he simply seized her by the shoulders and walked her in front of him back to the edge of the crowd, where she stood as if she were half-conscious. I came near her and said, "Oh no, don't let them hurt you! They've done enough damage already." And she said, "This is the beginning of the end--we have lost something we shan't find again." I remember her bitter hot breath and her deathlike face. She had not long to live.’
Earlier, she had been brave in a different way, standing up for the integrity of her journal Broom and resigning when forced to publish a ‘big name’, regardless of the quality of the work, called Gertrude Stein, “Personally, I have nothing against Miss Stein. I do not know her, but she is doubtless a lady of charm. Witness her power thereof in her literary reputation — a bladder blown up by many breaths. Well, my breath will not help to fill this particular bladder.”
Ridge had higher callings than reputation or partiality, which is partly the reason why she languishes in relative obscurity today, in these ideology-free yet ideology-wracked times. It was not always so. Her poetry poster dedicated to Tom Mooney made an unlikely pin-up of the jailed activist. These were the days when campaigners for social justice were not just imprisoned on trumped-up charges but were shot and burned to death with their families (the Ludlow massacre) or castrated and lynched (Frank Little), when the state and big business conspired in barbarities towards those advocating change or simple fairness. Ridge lamented and rhapsodized those caught in the maelstrom. A tribute to the Irish labour leader Jim Larkin indicated that Ridge’s empathy was a hard-fought and continual struggle between tenderness and hopelessness. It was a tribute that could well have been her own,
One hundred million men and women go inevitably about their affairs,
In the somnolent way
Of men before a great drunkenness….
They do not see you go by their windows, Jim Larkin,
With your eyes bloody as the sunset
And your shadow gaunt upon the sky…
You, and the like of you, that life
Is crushing for their frantic wines.
When Lola Ridge wrote of metropolitan life in the tenements of Lower East Side Manhattan, pre-empting even pioneers of urban poetry like Hart Crane, Lola Ridge did so as someone who lived in those same dilapidated unheated buildings. She chose to do so following her convictions, a monkish solidarity with the poor, having grown up under less than favourable circumstances with a drunken stepfather, an early unhappy marriage and her first son dying in childhood. At the age of 22, she met and married a gold-miner and moved to Lake Kaniere, outside Hokitika, New Zealand in the futile search for fortune. Eight years later, she left her drunk of a husband and took her young son first to Sydney then to the U.S. There she wrote of people she knew and people she had become. She wrote with mystified awe of the industrial age, of electricity as “rushing auras of steel / touching and whirled apart”, of the working people who made it possible and those who were crushed by it. Like Walt Whitman she was a poet of contradictions. Unlike Whitman, she did not or could not embrace them or at least call a truce with them. There would be no reconciliation because politics, and its demands on the conscience, never ceases. There is wonder in her descriptions of the city and horror in the very same, whether towards Brooklyn Bridge as a throttling sea-creature (“I feel your coils tightening... / And the world's lessening breath") or an entire urban island,
Out of the night you burn, Manhattan,
In a vesture of gold—
Span of innumerable arcs,
Flaring and multiplying—
In ambuscades of light,
Drawing the charmed multitudes
With the slow suction of her breath
Like her contemporary Mayakovsky, her poetry worked best when idiosyncrasy broke through the didactic (her iron furnaces and teeming masses imagery has not dated so well this side of Stalin) as when she addressed the skyscrapers with the amorous threat, “I know your secrets.” There are traces of the intoxicated abandon of the Beats in her open-hearted urban Romanticism, “Singing a hot sweet song to the super-stars / Shuffling off behind the smoke-haze... As the trains made golden augers / Boring in the darkness... How my heart kept racing out along the rails.” There is the embryo of Frank O’ Hara in her conversational tone. She is in all of them. At her darkest, there is something of bedazzled testaments of Garcia Lorca’s Poet in New York or even the belly of the beast nightmares of Georg Heym, “Like a beast pressing its great steaming belly close / Covering all avenues of air… Bodies dangle from the fire escapes / Or sprawl over the stoops.” We are forced to locate her on the literary map with reference to others because she has been denied a place of her own, through wilful erasure or neglect. She should be her own signpost and, in time, will.
There were poets of the city before Lola Ridge of course but the tendency had been, from the Lake Poets back to the Bible, to associate the city with decadence and commerce and the countryside as the sanctuary of the poet and the prophet. Ridge demonstrated that poetry wasn’t located anywhere in particular; rather it was a way of seeing the world. It was mobile. If we were attuned to it, it would follow us everywhere and anyone with practise and talent could conceivably channel it into writing. It was not to be found exclusively in arcadian or academic surroundings or by any one group over another. The promised lands were forgeries. When she looked out of her metropolitan existence, she saw “horizons reeling / And the terror of the plain.” There was nowhere to escape to, unless she, and we, built it. The slums of the inner city nevertheless had their own mystery and ruined beauty just as the lofty skyscrapers contained their own ruins; after all Ridge had made her freezing loft a place of artistic meetings and threw parties despite being close to destitution at times. The city, in her poems, does not quite manage to eradicate the stars or the wind, the moon or the sun. The elemental, the cosmic and the millennial make everything insignificant and in doing so give our actions mythic proportions. Yet her observations were too jagged to be celebratory. As she wrote in ‘To the American People’, “On my board are bitter apples / And honey served on thorns.”
It’s been written before that the writer Ridge is closest too was the great London radical and mystic William Blake. She too wrote songs of innocence and experience, often in the same verse. She wrote over and over for her mother (“It's nice to be carried along / up high near the stars”) and wrote of poverty through the surreality of a child’s eyes. Her poems are filled with suffering, the vast majority of it unnecessary, preventable and enforced, "Hester street,/ Like a forlorn woman over-born/ By many babies at her teats,/ Turns on her trampled bed to meet the day." She was implicitly feminist by the strength of her work and her independence, and explicitly with her text Woman and the Creative Will (a work dropped by her publishers). Had it not been suppressed, it would have been amongst the first modern feminist texts. As it is, her poem ’Betty’ is a multi-layered, sophisticated and personal insight into her thoughts of identity and gender. There are no simple answers and complicity comes in different shades. Even in what might be described as her pioneering confessional poems, there is a sense of dualities at work in Ridge. With attraction comes the possibility of destruction,
“What are you to me, boy,
That I, who have passed so many lights,
Should carry your eyes
Like swinging lanterns?
Often this is not her duality but theirs, the ones with power. Yet she survives and avoids the pitfalls of puritanism, in her defiantly sensual poem ‘North Wind’ for one,
Carry me to pine forests—
Great, rough-bearded forests…
Bring me to stark plains and steppes…
I would have the North to-night—
The cold, enduring North.
Similarly, the brilliantly-evocative descriptions of childhood in her collection Sun-Up are all the more powerful when contrasted with a devastating poem like ‘Lullaby’ (“Rock-a-by baby, hushed in the flame…”), based on a reported occurrence in the East St Louis Race Riots, when a mob of white women threw a black child into the fires. It is a treacherous psychotic counter-balance to her poem ‘The Foundling’, where maternal safety and care offers sanctuary from the bitter cold,
Down the whore-street,
Accouched and comforted and sleeping warm,
The blizzard waltzes with the night.
For all the empathy she had, in fact because of the empathy she had, Lola Ridge was not passive. In ‘The Tidings (Easter 1916)’, she wrote of the land of her birth and the Rising taking place there,
My heart is like a lover foiled
By a broken stair—
They are fighting to-night in Sackville Street,
And I am not there!
“All gutters are one” Lola Ridge once wrote. It is fashionable, and profitable for some, to be misanthropic today. Poets, like Ridge, can remind us of the folly of this and the wisdom of solidarity, not just for others but as self-interest, to prevent the profiteers of divide and conquer, to dispel the blizzard together or initiate our own. There are times when her poems suddenly zoom out from a tenement room to float above the entire city or vice versa. The self-seeps out of her into the city and the city seeps into her, as it does with us all, or should,
I was afraid of the silence
And the slipping toe-hold…
Oh, could I now dive
Into the unexplored deeps of me— (‘Submerged’)
Lola Ridge’s poetry is not without its faults. It can be clumsy, flowery, didactic though it must be said all poets work in spite of themselves. Towards the end of her life, she combined the political (at first overt, in Red Flag) with a curious (is there any other kind?) spiritualism, rewriting the crucifixion in Firehead and dealing in archaic mysticism with Dance of Fire. As with many ventures into symbolism and mysticism, she never quite found her way back. She was working on the five volume Lightwheel, roaming space and time from Ancient Babylon to Revolutionary Paris (charting the trajectories of her actual travels), when she died at home in Brooklyn just prior to the US entry into the Second World War. A long-time advocate of the work of others, she was not afforded the same respect in death, bar individual supporters like Marianne Moore, who was at her graveside as she was buried. At first satirised, she was both forgotten about and deliberately buried. It’s been said her work suffered from the anti-left hysteria of the McCarthy era and then the Cold War. Her Memorial Award was cancelled and her books were allowed to fall into obscurity. There are more pernicious and still-ongoing forms and forces of deletion at work for her and voices like hers. What she has to say is there for the reader to discern and she can say it infinitely better than I. How it is said is no small thing. When they connect, the poems speak across decades now lost forever. We hear the voice of the dead in our heads, as we might speak to others one day. And Lola Ridge is alive for as long as we read her.
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.
Oh, God did cunningly, there at Babel--
Not mere tongues dividing, but soul from soul,
So that never again should men be able
To fashion one infinite, towering whole.
In a little Hungarian cafe
Men and women are drinking
Yellow wine in tall goblets.
Through the milky haze of the smoke,
The fiddler, under-sized, blond,
Leans to his violin
As to the breast of a woman.
Red hair kindles to fire
On the black of his coat-sleeve,
Where his white thin hand
Trembles and dives,
Like a sliver of moonlight,
When wind has broken the water.
Crawling out of their green shirts…
Coughing a little in the dawn…
And the church…
There is always a church
With its natty spire
And the vestibule—
That's where they whisper:
Tzz-tzz… tzz-tzz… tzz-tzz…
How many codes for a wireless whisper—
And corn flatter than it should be
And those chits of leaves
Gadding with every wind?
From Connecticut to Maine:
Aren't there bigger things to talk about
Than a window in Greenwich Village
And hyacinths sprouting
Like little puce poems out of a sick soul?
Some cosmic hearsay—
As to whom—it can't be Mars! put the moon—that way….
Or what winds do to canyons
Under the tall stars…
How that old roué, Neptune,
Cranes over his bald-head moons
At the twinkling heel of a sky-scraper.
Excerpt from Jude
Mama drew my cot to the window
so I can look at the stars.
I will not look at the stars.
There is a black chimney
throwing up sparks
and one tall flame
like gold hair in a blaze….
I know now
what I shall do….
I will set fire to him
and he will burn up into a tall flame—
he will scream into the sky and sparks will fly out of him—
he will burn and burn…
and his blazing hair
shall light up the world.
Crass rays streaming from the vestibules;
Cafes glittering like jewelled teeth;
Blinking yellow phosphorescent eyes;
Girls in black Circling monotonously
About the orange lights…
Nothing to guess at…
Save the darkness above
Crouching like a great cat.
In the dim-lit square,
Where dishevelled trees
Tustle with the wind—the wind like a scythe
Mowing their last leaves—
Arcs shimmering through a greenish haze—
Pale oval arcs
Like ailing virgins,
Each out of a halo circumscribed,
Figures drift upon the benches
With no more rustle than a dropped leaf settling—
Slovenly figures like untied parcels,
And papers wrapped about their knees
Huddled one to the other,
Cringing to the wind—
The sided wind,
Leaving no breach untried…
So many and all so still…
The fountain slobbering its stone basin
Is louder than They—
Flotsam of the five oceans
Here on this raft of the world.
This old man's head
Has found a woman's shoulder.
The wind juggles with her shawl
That flaps about them like a sail,
And splashes her red faded hair
Over the salt stubble of his chin.
A light foam is on his lips,
As though dreams surged in him
Breaking and ebbing away…
And the bare boughs shuffle above him
And the twigs rattle like dice…
She—diffused like a broken beetle—
Sprawls without grace,
Her face gray as asphalt,
Her jaws sagging as on loosened hinges…
Shadows ply about her mouth—
Nimble shadows out of the jigging tree,
That dances above her its dance of dry bones.
to his death
singing Annie Laurie;
didn't another have
a rose in his coat-
or was it a pink-
hanging out of an empty
or was it a pink carnation
rose colour soft as sunrise
glimmering upon a gallows,
and streak of silver song
ravelled with the rain
on a filthy Chicago morning in the Eighties-
you shall outlast horizons.
[Illustration by Christiana Spens]