June 8, 1986
I’m sitting with a group of friends in one of New York University’s sterile student apartments singing “Happy Birthday” to our beloved teacher, Ruth.
“Seventy-one,” she marvels, shaking her head and pushing a loose strand of her long red hair out of her eyes.
My friend Jan holds up her wine glass for a toast. “May there be seventy-one more.”
Ruth plays at looking horrified. “Thirty of those years were really hard!”
Ruth’s husband killed himself years ago and her heart has never healed. She raised their three young daughters alone with very little money in a house, meant to be their summer home, with no indoor plumbing. I know all of this but I’m twenty-four. Hardship, scarcely having grazed my life, looks romantic, especially when its bearer has shaped it into darkly beautiful poems.
Inside your skull/ there was no room for us, / your circuits forgot me. / Even in Paris where we never were / I wait for you / knowing you will not come.
I sip my wine, basking in the warmth, both comforting and charged, of Ruth Stone’s inner circle.
Summer comes. I go with Jan and another friend to visit Ruth in rural Vermont. Indoor plumbing has been installed, but the house is rustic and wild. Piles of books and papers lounge on the furniture along with the sleeping cats. Still, Ruth can quickly find the exact poem she’s looking for in any of the many volumes. She reads me “Beautiful Legs” by Joan Aleshire. Born without arms, the speaker reflects on what’s unsaid in the compliments she’s been given all her life. It’s the first time I’ve heard anything like this, a nimble, intelligent poem about living in a disabled body. I understand that Ruth is saying, You can do this. This subject belongs to you too.
Ruth’s demeanor can seem brusque and no-nonsense, yet she nurtures our poems out of us. “You’ve got it,” she tells us matter-of-factly. “You’re the real thing.”
At the breakfast table, she shares funny, startling anecdotes about times she put her art before the family, a Gauguin who managed to stay with the kids. “The girls could be screaming outside the bedroom door and I’d hold it closed with my foot until I finished my poem.” What I don’t yet know is that she’s giving me permission. To be imperfect. Selfish sometimes. To treat my compulsion to write seriously no matter what else I take on.
The next time I visit Ruth, I’m stunned and sad after a recent abortion. It was the right decision; Richard’s only twenty-one. We’re only three months old as a couple. Even so, I dive into mourning. “Look at it this way,” Ruth tells me over tea. “Every time you menstruate that’s a child you’ll never have. Hundreds of them. You could grieve those too.” An offbeat observation but I’m soothed by it, just as I am by the walls around me. An accepting house, I think to myself. It accepts my sorrow the way it accepts its own clutter and fading paint.
Soon after, despite Ruth’s good example, I let poetry slip from my life. I let Ruth slip away too. Years later, when Ethan is born, I recall that first pregnancy and wonder if somehow, soul-wise, they’re the same child. That concept, odd and intuitive, makes me think of Ruth.
Eventually, I find my way back to poetry. I discover a poem of Ruth’s that begins, When you come back to me / it will be crow time / and flycatcher time, / with rising spirals of gnats / between the apple trees. At first I think the you is her deceased husband, Walter. The you is so often Walter. But no, the piece is called “Poems.” Maybe, as has happened with me, poetry had at one time eluded her. And you will take me in / to your fractal meaningless / babble; the quick of my mouth, / the madness of my tongue.
I buy Ruth’s books when they come out, cheer her on in my heart when she wins the National Book Award, when she’s named a finalist for The Pulitzer. But I don’t attempt to get in touch. I’ve let so many years go by and I’m afraid of how it will feel if she doesn’t remember me.
June 8, 2010
Ruth’s ninety-fifth birthday. Poet’s House, across the river in Battery Park City, is holding a reading in her honor. A librarian there tells me Ruth is hoping to attend. Any shyness and regret about the years I let fall between us dissipates in the briny air above the Hudson. “I was a student of hers,” I say proudly, thrilled for the chance to celebrate Ruth.
The evening of her birthday, I ride the ferry over with my friend Lynne. We take the last two good seats in the crowded room. Favorite poets of mine are on the program along with several women with the last name Stone. Ruth was unable to make the trip, yet she’s wholly present. In her poems. In the faces and mannerisms of her daughters and granddaughters. A former student of Ruth’s shows a segment of a film he made about her. There she is, fifteen years younger than when I last saw her, talking candidly in her kitchen, reading poems in her homey backyard.
A speakerphone is hooked up to the sound system and we hear Ruth in real time. “I love you all,” she tells the hundreds of us there. We sing “Happy Birthday” and I find myself wishing she could make out the thin strand of my voice in the crowd. I realize then how much I’d love my own moment with her.
Back at home I stand in front of my bookshelf until I find my copy of her collection, Second-Hand Coat. Well-worn as it is, I’m startled by what I find inside. My wished-for moment, there in her sprawling hand: My darling Ona, poet and loving heart. I wait for your poems, illuminations — to light up the mountain. Love always from Ruth.
Ah, Ruth. I think you’d be pleased. I’m raising this amazing boy as a single mom and I’m writing. Thank you for showing me it was possible to take both these roads and find my own way to dance between them.