To the Many: Collected Early Works, Lola Ridge

This review was first published on the Empty Mirror site in September 2018. but as that site is now in seemingly permanent hiatus, I decided to post it here so that it remains available, no matter what.

Lola Ridge’s life was, in many ways, a tale of her times. Born Rose Emily Ridge in Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin, she and her mother emigrated to New Zealand as a child after the death of her father. She acquired a stepfather with a taste for Shakespeare and drink, married in her early 20s, lost a child, had a child, started publishing poetry in local newspapers and magazines. When she was 30, her marriage broke up and she moved with her son to Australia, where she studied art and submitted a collection of poems, Verses, to a local publisher AG Stephens, literary editor of the Sydney Bulletin in which much of her Australian work appeared, in 1905. The book never appeared.

In 1907, after the death of her mother, Ridge sailed to San Francisco with her son. She left him in an orphanage there and moved to New York, where she became Lola, knocked 10 years off her age, and immersed herself in the literary and anarcho-socialist life of the city that was to be her home for the rest of her life.

In To the Many, Daniel Tobin brings together Ridge’s first three published books, Ghetto & Other Poems (1918), Sun-Up & Other Poems (1919) and Red Flag (1927), together with the 1919 lecture ‘Woman & the Creative Will’ and the text of the unpublished 1905 book as an appendix.

While I can understand the reasoning behind placing the early poems at the back of the book, on balance I think it works best to read them first, to get an idea of the technical distance Ridge travelled while moving from the antipodes to New York.

The poems in Verses show the influences you might expect in work in English published in the first decade of the last century: Tennyson, Longfellow, early Yeats, the Rossettis. There’s a deal of sublimated sexuality, with any number of fallen maidens with turbulent breasts:

The Bush bends o’er me with her wond’rous, long

Wind-loosened hairs on my unquiet breast,

Whose barred thoughts burning to confront the test,

With glowing impulse & endeavour strong

To rise & answer when they call the rest!

There are also parallels with her near contemporary Banjo Paterson, who also contributed to the Sydney Bulletin, in the poems of antipodean pride:

Where are ye now old comrades?

Past alarms –

Past lust of gold or gilt!

The sinews of a nation

In your arms,

Out of your strength & folly

A nation ye have built.

The theme of the role of labour, as well as the landscape, people and events of her New Zealand childhood, were to reoccur in Ridge’s later, Modernist poetry.

The Ghetto and Other Poems shows that Ridge had, in her new home in New York, absorbed the lessons of Whitman, Imagism and other avant garde poetry movements that she came across in the small magazines of the day, and forged her own distinctive voice from these influences. The title sequence, which opens the book, is an exploration of the everyday life of the poet and her neighbours in the Bowery district of New York. The easy sentiment of her 1915 collection is replaced by a cooler, more objective tone, but one that facilitates an immersion in the subject that is missing in the earlier work:

In this dingy café

The old men sit muffled in woollens.

Everything is faded, shabby, colorless, old…

The chairs, loose-jointed,

Creaking like old bones–

The tables, the waiters, the walls,

Whose mottled plaster

Blends in one tone with the old flesh.

As I have written elsewhere, these poems can be read illuminatingly alongside the work of Charles Reznikoff, whose first book, Rhythms, also appeared in 1918. Ridge is an outsider, a recent, non-Jewish immigrant in an established Jewish district, the world into which Reznikoff was born. She is also more overtly political, and her somewhat utopian beliefs lead her to a more heroic vision of the people around her. Compare, for instance, her

Young women pass in groups,

Converging to the forums and meeting halls,

Surging indomitable, slow

Through the gross underbrush of heat.

Their heads are uncovered to the stars,

And they call to the young men and to one another

With a free camaraderie.

Only their eyes are ancient and alone…

with Reznikoff’s:

The shopgirls leave their work

Machines are still, tables and chairs

The silent rounds of mice and roaches begin.

Where Reznikoff’s people are absorbed into the poverty and squalor that define their world, Ridge’s transcend them. Her politics led her to view ‘the people’ as an organized force for change, Reznikoff tends to see the world more as a process of slow evolution, which favours the individual over the collective.

Indeed, Ridge’s writing at this period displays a Futurist pleasure in the city and the machine, albeit a Futurism tempered with the Whitmanesque. The miners of her early work give way to factory workers, especially those who worked in iron foundries:

But I hear in the Iron singing–
In the triumphant roaring of the steam and pistons pounding–
Thy barbaric exhortation…
And the blood leaps in my arteries, unreproved,
Answering Thy call…
All my spirit is inundated with the tumultuous passion of Thy Voice,
And sings exultant with the Iron,
For now I know I too am of Thy Chosen…

Oh fashioned in fire–
Needing flame for Thy ultimate word–
Behold me, a cupola
Poured to Thy use!

Heed not my tremulous body
That faints in the grip of Thy gauntlet.
Break it… and cast it aside…
But make of my spirit
That dares and endures
Thy crucible…
Pour through my soul
Thy molten, world-whelming song.
[from ‘The Song of Iron’

This tendency, blended with a Poundian imagism, finds its purest expression in this short poem from Sun Up:


Out of fiery contacts…

Rushing auras of steel

Touching and whirled apart…

Out of the charged phalluses

Of iron leaping

Female and male,

Complete, indivisible, one,

Fused into light.

These poems of the urban are interspersed with memories of childhood, a concern that comes fully to the surface in the title sequence of the 1919 collection. The primary difference between ‘Sun Up’ and the earlier poems of childhood is technical. By moving to a more organic formal mode, Ridge is able to inhabit her own memories as the child she once was, and the poem gives voice not to memory ‘through a glass darkly’ but to the experience as vividly lived. The ‘Sun Up’ sequence delineates a more fraught relationship with her over-protective but cold mother than was previously shown, as well as the cruelty that children can indulge in.

There is no one to play with

and the flies on the window

buzz and buzz…

…you can pull out their legs

and stick pins in their bodies

but still they buzz…

and mama says:

When Nero was a little boy

he caught flies on his mama’s window

and pulled out their legs

and stuck pins in their bodies

and nobody loved him.

Buzz, blue-bellied flies—

buzz, nasty black wheel of mama’s machine—

you are the biggest fly of all—

you have the loudest buzz.

I hear you at dawn before the locusts.

But I like the picture of the Flood

and the little babies getting drowned….

If I were there I would save them,

but as I can’t save them

I like to watch them

getting drowned.

After this long title sequence, much of the rest of the book is made up of short poems that, despite their relatively late appearance in the book, have the feel of transitional work, with Ridge absorbing the lessons of the Imagist poets she was undoubtedly reading in the little magazines of the day and some of whom she came to know personally through her association with the journal Others:

To O.F.T

You have always gotten up after blows

And smiled… and shaken off the dust…

Only you could not shake the darkness

From off the bruised brown of your eyes.

There is also a longer sequence poem, ‘Sons of Belial’, that strongly echoes the style and subject matter of H.D.

This is interesting because the Imagist poet is not among the literary foremothers that Ridge mentions in ‘Woman & the Creative Will’, a passionate defence of women’s abilities and critique of their lack of opportunity to express them. While she concedes that there have been few women writers of the first rank, with the exception of Sappho, she expresses admiration for Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, the Nobel-winner Selma Lagerlöf and, to a lesser extent, Christina Rossetti. However, the piece concludes with a note of defiant and prescient optimism:

Women have the greater part of the essential genius of the race. And when they have realised these two things – that art must transcend fear, and that thought is a spiritual substance to be molded like clay – they too will be masters of dreams.

As the title indicates, at the core of Red Flag is a set of poems celebrating the Russian revolution, which she sees as the culmination of a historical process that started with Spartacus ended in Moscow. These poems are often too propagandistic to hold the interest, but the book also contains a number of sonnets, both Shakespearian and Italian, that point towards a new direction in her poetry, a move towards formal conservativism and religious themes that mark the work that comprises her later work not included here. The growing tension between her Anarcho-communism and her spiritual instincts are clear in, for instance, the sonnet ‘Easter Morning’, where the risen people and the risen god are brought together:

They bring – while fields are chiming with soft notes
Of the arisen lilies – from white pods
Smell-less offerings to anæmic gods;
As earth, resurgent, trumpets at their throats
To hail her gods of the first dark surmise –
Who parted waters with a glistening tusk
And came out with the privy stars at dusk
To trouble rivers with their small fierce eyes.

They gather at the cross, whose haggard sign
Impends in the moon-ushered dawn that leans –
In rose and ivory on tender greens
Of new corn covering an old design –
To light the brown rapt faces who kept tryst
With all the dark bright gods that they name Christ.

There is still, however, a strong political consciousness running through the book, and her insistence on justice, and its abuse, as a lever of power finds its strongest expression in a number of poems here that deal with lynchings and the execution of political prisoners, including a poem for Kelvin (sic) Barry.

This poem is one of a handful in the book that deal explicitly with Ireland, and they cluster around revolutionary politics of one sort or another: James Larkin, the Easter rising, Barry and, to quote the title of one of her Irish poems, the ‘incompatibility’ she saw between ‘British common sense’ and ‘Irish romanticism’, expressed in terms that borrow heavily from Yeats:

Laughter in tears and malice in mirth;
Wine quaffed at the coffin’s rim,
And the pride that walks unbound?
For well may theses strike cold offence

To the guarded soul that hordes its pence
Till they raise an English pound.

These poems may encourage those of us who would like to count Ridge as an Irish poet, which, by birth, she is. However, by temperament, style, subject matter and self-invention we must, I think, recognise that her Irishness is accidental rather than essential and that she belongs to the great tide of poetic revolution that characterises American poetry in the early decades of the 20th century. I have already mentioned parallels with the Ur-Objectivist Reznikoff, and she has much in common with that group of poets, primarily as Modernist poets with left-wing politics. In his introduction, Tobin speculates on the reasons for Ridge’s posthumous neglect, and leans towards the problematic nature of her politics in America during the Cold War period, alongside the way in which her estate has hindered publication and study of her work.

He doesn’t really consider her gender, which I suspect was a major factor, but equally I think her failure to find a home in any of the groups or movements that tend to define literary history (which which was part of the reason why the Objectivists were recovered far earlier than her); their weight as a group meant there were more hooks for academics and poets to hold on to and the return of George Oppen to publishing with New Directions in the early 1960s helped stimulate interest in the other members of the group. Ridge’s splendid isolation meant that she could more easily fall off the stage into oblivion. It is to be hoped that this publication will hasten the process of recovery and re-evaluation of her work and her place in the interweaving stories of Modernism, leftist political poetry and poetry by women. And for this, both editor and publisher are to be greatly thanked.