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Nominated for the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award, Ordinary Words, Ruth Stone's 11th book of poetry, chronicles the small-town dramas of "ordinary" Americans as they pass through her wise, uncanny vision. This collection of more than 60 short, lyrical poems ranges from a tale of an energetic grandmother to wanderings through the Vermont landscape to unabashed insights on the passing of time.
In reading the poems, one imagines a quiet old woman who suddenly speaks, who suddenly lets you know that she has been watching you and the rest of the world for years. Her voice is not any highbrow play of language or embedded in distraught confession, but plainspoken and direct. She has seen the world and tells it how she wants to tell it. She finds inspiration in donut shops, in Aunt Mabel's kitchen, even in bottled water.
Many of the poems are short tales of transformed lives rendered with a quirky lyricism. In "Perhaps," a woman sits while snow falls outside: "This woman sits in the kitchen/at a plastic table playing computer chess." Another poem, "How They Got Her to Quiet Down," is a mixture of bizarre tragedy and humor, where a woman is chopping the furniture with an ax, a baby is tossed in the air ("Little Ustie came down/with brain fever"), and a toothless grandma is running around the house.
Stone frequently pays homage to Wallace Stevens, whose philosophy that poetry should be free of rigidity and forever changing she clearly takes to heart. This collection goes far beyond simple snapshots of Americana. The polyphony of voices attempts to communicate in universal terms what the local stories cannot. A nostalgic moment in 1941 Indianapolis rests beside the "thermonuclear wings" of hummingbirds, making the reader forget the earlier proclamation: "This montage upon which we write the message/that fails in language after language."
From the very first poem, "Good Advice," there is an acute awareness of mortality, of the inability to conquer time:
We who grow old so fast
may not perceive their turbulent birth.
My darling suffered so; her cells
bursting and burning, eaten alive.
In this slow terrible way, we come to know
violent chaos at the pure brutal heart.
What the poet cannot get at through direct approach, she communicates through a tone of distance from the world. Strangers pass in and out of her view as if in automatic motion, unable to escape their situations. Couples grope each other at the Greyhound station, then "uncouple" and begin a different drama. Moments with a lover from 60 years before have been diluted to hazy fragments. In "Repetition," she searches for that mysterious life-affirming element that moves people: "It's unbearable and yet, every day/you go to the city."
This detachment from the world is balanced by her nature poems, which seem to explain the unintelligible answers that she searches for in people. She has an affinity for the strangely unnoticed, such as the suffering of amoebas or the funeral woods for the diseased cattle. But her visions of the ordinary seem most powerful:
Across the highway a heron stands
in the flooded field. It stands
as if lost in thought, on one leg, careless,
as if the field belongs to herons.
In many of her poems, the enormous distance between the stories, imagery, and metaphors stacked on top of one another works to dissociate your senses. The rapid movement from shadows to cards to confetti to a penumbra creates less of a scene than an accumulation of images that tries to connect from the furthest reaches. In "Sorting It Out," and other poems, she hints that this "obsession with invisible things" is a form of female intuition, an illogical feeling of fragments.
There is a strange truthfulness in the poetry of Ruth Stone. What most poets tend to ignore or pass over as unpoetic, she confronts head on. The images of McDonald's and Buicks and shopping malls make the reader squirm. An urge arises to push such capitalist icons out of your head at the same time you recognize their long familiarity in your life. And yet, Stone's homegrown poetry still enlists the wisdom of the canon to push the boundaries of what is considered poetry. She unearths the quirks and tragedies of provincial America while still managing to confront the universal conditions of time, sex, and death.