Lola Ridge was born in Dublin in 1873. As a child she and her mother left Ireland and lived in New Zealand and Australia for a number of years. At the age of 34 she moved to New York, where she became a poet and political activist. Her first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems, published in 1918, was concerned mainly with the immigrant experience in her adopted city and can be read beside Charles Reznikoff’s poems on similar themes. Over the following 20 years she published four more collections, Sun-Up, and Other Poems, Red Flag, Firehead and Dance of Fire.
The poems below are the first section of the long title sequence of her first book and To Larkin, from her second.
Cool, inaccessible air
Is floating in velvety blackness shot with steel-blue lights,
But no breath stirs the heat
Leaning its ponderous bulk upon the Ghetto
And most on Hester street…
Nosing in the body’s overflow,
Like a beast pressing its great steaming belly close,
Covering all avenues of air…
The heat in Hester street,
Heaped like a dray
With the garbage of the world.
Bodies dangle from the fire escapes
Or sprawl over the stoops…
Upturned faces glimmer pallidly–
Herring-yellow faces, spotted as with a mold,
And moist faces of girls
Like dank white lilies,
And infants’ faces with open parched mouths that suck at the air
as at empty teats.
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…
The street crawls undulant,
Like a river addled
With its hot tide of flesh
That ever thickens.
Heavy surges of flesh
Break over the pavements,
Clavering like a surf–
Flesh of this abiding
Brood of those ancient mothers who saw the dawn break over Egypt…
And turned their cakes upon the dry hot stones
And went on
Till the gold of the Egyptians fell down off their arms…
Fasting and athirst…
And yet on…
Did they vision–with those eyes darkly clear,
That looked the sun in the face and were not blinded–
Across the centuries
The march of their enduring flesh?
Did they hear–
Under the molten silence
Of the desert like a stopped wheel–
(And the scorpions tick-ticking on the sand…)
The infinite procession of those feet?
Is it you I see go by the window, Jim Larkin–you not looking at me nor any one,
And your shadow swaying from East to West?
Strange that you should be walking free–you shut down without light,
And your legs tied up with a knot of iron.
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.