Monday, 25 January 2010

Lola Ridge

I just ran by accident - thanks, Janie L - into the works of Lola Ridge (1873-1941). From the biography:

Although Lola Ridge is relatively unknown to contemporary readers, she was a well-known poet and advocate of immigrants and the working class during the first half of the twentieth century. She wrote five books of poetry, edited for avant-garde magazines Others and Broom, and from 1908 through 1937 published at least sixty-one poems in magazines such as Poetry, New Republic, and The Saturday Review of Literature. Her first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems, was well received, and her poems appeared in anthologies edited by the respected William Rose Benét and Louis Untermeyer. Her obituary in The Publishers' Weekly characterized her as "one of America's leading poets," and that in the Wilson Library Bulletin stated that she was "one of the most completely sensitive of American poets" and "For her long poem called The Ghetto she was considered the 'discovery' of the year 1918."

Ridge's background and life is interesting; Irish-born Jewish, she was brought up in Australia and New Zealand before emigrating to America, where she experienced working-class ghetto life and became involved in left-wing and anarchist politics, pro-immigrant activism and proto-feminism: all of this is reflected in many of her works, which relate to a dark era in pre-WWII American history. (This was the Woodrow Wilson era with its government persecution of left-wing unions, notably the Industrial Workers of the World a.k.a. Wobblies, the First Red Scare and the Palmer raids).

In 1916 she supported the cause of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, convicted (and much later pardoned) after having been framed as "usual suspects" for the Preparedness Day Bombing; and she was arrested in the 1920s for protesting against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti (Galleanist anarchists who may or may not have committed armed robbery and murder, but either way didn't get a fair deal from a highly prejudiced court at a time of terrorism hysteria - one critic compared compared the chances of an Italian getting a fair trial in Boston to a black person getting one in the American South).

Two of Ridge's collections are online at Project Gutenberg: The Ghetto and Other Poems and Sun-Up and Other Poems. The autobiographical title poem of the latter first caught my attention; it's a powerful evocation of a difficult childhood, ranging through the lyrical to the poignant, as when - in probably the best-known segment, generally quoted incomplete and out of context - the troubled little girl takes out her anger on the doll she loves, then regrets it.

It's strange about stars....
You have to be still when they look at you.
They push your song inside of you with their song.
Their long silvery rays
sink into you and do not hurt.
It is good to feel them resting on you
like great white birds...
and their shining whiteness
doesn't burn like the sun--
it washes all over you
and makes you feel cleaner'n water.

: :

My doll Janie has no waist
and her body is like a tub with feet on it.
Sometimes I beat her
but I always kiss her afterwards.
When I have kissed all the paint off her body
I shall tie a ribbon about it
so she shan't look shabby.
But it must be blue--
it mustn't be pink--
pink shows the dirt on her face
that won't wash off.

: :

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.

: :

Mama says Janie is a fairy doll
and she has forgiven me--
that she's gone to the market
to buy me some sweets.
--Now she's at the door
and a little bag tied to her neck--
I run to Janie
and kiss her all over....
Ah... she is still frowning.
I let the sweets drop on the floor--
has told you a lie.

: :

singing in street:
gleen ledd-ish-es, gleen ledd-ish-es--
hot sun
shining on your face--
it must be a new day.
But why aren't you happy
if it's a new day?
Because something has happened...
something sad and terrible....
Now I remember... it's Janie.
I took Janie out
and tied my handkerchief over her face
and put sand in it
and threw her into the ditch
down in the black water
under the dock leaves...
and when mama asked me where Janie was
I said I had lost her.

: :

I'm glad it is night-time
so I'll be able to go to sleep
and forget all about it....
But mama looks at my tongue
and says she will give me senna tea.
When you smell the tea
you shut your eyes tight
and pretend not to hear
the soft, cool voice of mama
that goes over your forehead
like a little wind.
And then you lie in the dark
and stare... and stare...
till the faces come...
yellow faces with leering eyes
drifting in a greeny mist....
I wonder
if Janie sees faces
out there... alone in the dark....
I wonder
if she has got the handkerchief off
or if the water has gone in the hole
where the whistle was
at the back of her head
and drowned her...
or if the stars
can see her under the dock leaves?

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Very powerful. Although we see it every day, poverty and misery seem to to be on an exponential rise. Maybe it is just that we are more aware of it.
    The devastation in Haiti simply exposed a sore that had been festering there since Columbus "discovered" and Europeans "civilized" the island.
    The irony of the presidential palace Sans-Souci on the island should not be lost on us.