ruth stone | lighter than air | how it is | the porch

30 07 2009

PoetryDispatch No.290 | July 30, 2009


Lighter Than Air

The fat girl next door would give us a nickel
to walk to the old man’s store
and get her an ice-cream cone,
vanilla, of course, the only flavor then.
On Powotan Avenue, Aunt Harriet and I would take
turns licking it all the way back.
It was hot that summer and we longed
to go to Virginia Beach and put our toes in the tide.
[trained every day and the James River swelled
up to our doorsteps.
Aunt Harriet and I wore tight rubber bathing caps
and long saggy bathing suits. How skinny we were.
She was nine and I was six. The lightning flashed
and we hid in the closet; the thunder crashed.
We had straight, bobbed hair and bangs.
Once a dirigible moved above the tops of the trees,
with little ladders dangling down, and we waved.

How It Is

The sensible living
aren’t interested in the dead,
unless there is money in it.
So little you can do with them.
What they say is in your head.
They visit in dreams but turn their backs
when you beg them to stay.
They are never hiding in your closet.
Empty jackets, loose sleeves yawn
on the hangers. Their cold feet
that they rubbed and rubbed
with their long sensitive fingers,
before they put on their socks,
never come back with their fine
fitted bones to warm your bed.

The Porch

Whatsoever comes to the screen,
firefly or moth,
I lean back in the wicker chair,
the porch my fragile skin
between me
and the gorgeous open maw,
the suckling swallowing world.

[from: WHAT LOVE COMES TO, New & Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2008}

Ruth Stone (born June 8, 1915, in Roanoke, Virginia) is an American poet, author, and teacher.

Ruth Stone is the author of thirteen books of poetry. She is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the 2002 National Book Award (for her collection In the Next Galaxy), the 2002 Wallace Stevens Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Eric Mathieu King Award from The Academy of American Poets, a Whiting Award (with which she bought plumbing for her house) two Guggenheim Fellowships (one of which roofed her house), the Delmore Schwartz Award, the Cerf Lifetime Achievement Award from the state of Vermont, and the Shelley Memorial Award. In July 2007, she was named poet laureate of Vermont. The voice of Ruth Stone reading her poem “Be Serious” is featured in the film USA The Movie. Paintbrush: A Journal of Poetry and Translation 27 (2000/2001) was devoted entirely to Stone’s work.

In 1959, after her husband, professor Walter Stone, committed suicide, she was forced to raise three daughters alone. (As she has pointed out, her poems are “love poems, all written to a dead man” who forced her to “reside in limbo” with her daughters.) For twenty years she traveled the US, teaching creative writing at many universities, including the University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, University of California Davis, Brandeis, and finally settling at State University of New York Binghamton. Today, Stone lives in Vermont.


  • * What Love Comes To: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2008) – A finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize
  • * In the Dark (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)
  • * In the Next Galaxy (Copper Canyon Press, 2002)
  • * Ordinary Words (1999)
  • * Simplicity (1995)
  • * Who is the Widow’s Muse? (1991)
  • * The Solution (1989)
  • * Second Hand Coat: Poems New and Selected (1987)
  • * American Milk (1986)
  • * Unknown Messages (1973)
  • * Cheap: New Poems and Ballads (1972)
  • * Topography and Other Poems (1970)
  • * In an Iridescent Time (1959)

What love comes to

One of 68 poems, this one begins with, “Look at Eta Carinae”. With this, Stone perceives more than many gardeny poets, noticing not just a relentless snowstorm, but the sunlight that falls through the snow, Stone does not settle for the usual pastoral scene. Instead, she widens the frame to an astronomical scale of eleven, to show us our galactic neighbor, a hypergiant, intensely luminous blue star that seems well on its way to exploding into a supernova. source


thomas mcgrath | death song poems

24 06 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 244 | June 24 2008

Thomas McGrath

I have been a long time in this emptiness
Most of it wasted…
Out here it is so easy for the fool,
Mad in his isolation,
To mistake the solitude of his own poor soul for a diamond

I’ve mentioned my old bookseller-friend from Chicago, Paul Romaine on other occasions (profiled in CHI TOWN), a mentor of sorts, who put the books of numerous socially conscious writers into my hands, suggesting: to be a real writer in America you must engage yourself with larger issues…matters of injustice…racial intolerance, “big business” (as it was called then), war, labor, the plight of the working class.

One of these writers was the poet Tom McGrath and his book LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND. I remember buying the paperback when it first came out in 1962 (Swallow Press), and finding it tough going. I was just a kid, wanting to write. What the hell did I know? An entire book, one long autobiographical poem that was all over the place, every direction in America and beyond… The language both lyrical and hard as nails.

I was not ready for McGrath. Some writers you have to grow into. Wait to find. Wait till they find you. So true of the ones who remain hidden to so many In their lifetime. It would take McGrath thirty years (1962 to1985) to complete his epic. He died in 1990 and is still waiting to be discovered in America. Partly because he criticized it so severely. There are ways here to keep a writer’s voice down.

“I hope I can someday give this country or the few poetry lovers of this country something as large, soulful, honest and beautiful as McGrath’s great and still unappreciated epic of our mad and lyric century, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, a book from which we can draw hope and sustenance for as long as we last.”Philip Levine

McGrath, an outstanding lyric poet, was also one of America’s great revolutionary poets. Maybe its only true one. He hated ‘the system.’ Hated what it did to our humanity. He grew up working class poor in North Dakota, his father a farmer. Never forgot it. Saw and tasted poverty at an early age. And took his stand when the time came—never flinching till the time of his death. There are a lot of writers who claim to be revolutionaries. A lot of talk. A lot of dramatics. A lot of words. But damn few who lay it on the line the way McGrath did.

DEATH SONG, published posthumously, from which the poems below were excerpted, is a beautiful mix of the many wonders of Tom McGrath’s way with poems. I can’t think of a better introduction than this final cry and whisper. —Norbert Blei

P.S. I’d like to dedicate this Poetry Dispatch #244 in memory of writer, publisher, friend, Curt Johnson / december press, who loved everything McGrath stood for in America and wrote about.


On Monday he died.
A few heard of it and were shocked but not surprised.

On Tuesday
A newspaper noted his passing.

On Wednesday
There was a small service and some people came.

On Friday
They buried or burned him at the beginning of a long weekend.

On Saturday
They went to the beach, doped, drank, fornicated, had a “good

On Sunday
With headaches, a few went to a bar and one remembered a line
of a poem.

He would have understood perfectly the “human condition.”

“War is the continuation of policy by other means.” So said Von Clausewitz.

But war is also
The continuation of false consciousness
And falsified policy and politics
And greed masked as bourgeois generosity
By the falsified desires of American imperialism
By presidents wedded to cowboys and missiles
By chauvinist beer salesmen peddling the stars and stripes by
the six-pack
By the trained psychopathic liars of the State Department
By simple-minded sods in all fifty states
By the born-simple clergy and suckers of religion
By the bearded dons and Ph.D. dumdums of Academia
By painters selling third-hand Da Da at fancy prices
By poets who have forgot their songs in their gilded cages
By farmers sold out and put on the road and still finding their enemy
in Nicaragua or El Salvador
By workers given their walking papers for life and their heads still so
unscrewed they think the enemy is Russia or Communism
By housewives pissing their pants and dreaming of Red Terror
Or hijackers invading Podunk

By other means.
Politics is the continuation of war by other means.
And now, you celebrated American jackasses:
You still want war?
Go let a hole in the head shed light on your darkling brain-
Remember Vietnam?

Go and be damned!
But don’t count on me for nothing you righteous
stupid sons of bitches !

Fargo-Moorhead, about 1980

Friends, I am old and poor.
The ones who lived in my house have gone out into the world.
My dogs are all dead and the bones of my horses
Whiten the hillsides.

All my books are forgotten.
My poems
Are asleep, though they dream in many languages.
The ones I love are carrying the Revolution
In far away places.

This little house has few comforts-but it is yours.
Come and see me here-
I’ve got plenty of time and love!


After working a long time at my desk near the window
I turn out the lamp

but eventually
the dark sky and the page I have been working on
are flooded
with light!

Let us turn the page
And see what is written
On the other side of the night.

from Death Song, Copper Canyon Press, 1991

taha muhammad ali | three poems

20 03 2008
Taha Muhammad Ali | Photo: Nina Subin
Poetry Dispatch No. 220 | March 20, 2008

Three Poems by Taha Muhammad Ali

Taha Muhammad Ali was born in 1931 in a village in Galilee–then Saffuriya in Mandatory Palestine. At seventeen he fled to Lebanon with his family after the village came under heavy bombardment during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. A year later he slipped back across the border with his family and settled in Nazareth, where he has lived ever since.

In the fifties and sixties, he sold souvenirs during the day and studied poetry (everything from classical Arabic to contemporary American free-verse) at night. Still owner of a small souvenir/antiques shop he operates with his sons, he writes vividly of his childhood in Saffuriya and of the political upheavals he has survived.

The Saffuriya of his youth has served as the nexus of his poetry and fiction, which are grounded in everyday experience and driven by a storyteller’s vivid imagination. He is self-taught and began his poetry career late.

Taha Muhammad Ali writes in a forceful and direct style, with disarming humor and an unflinching, at times painfully honest approach; his poetry’s apparent simplicity and homespun truths conceal the subtle grafting of classical Arabic onto colloquial forms of expression. In Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Europe and in America, audiences have been powerfully moved his poems of political complexity and humanity. He has published several collections of poetry and is also a short story writer.


Where by Taha Muhammad Ali

Poetry hides
behind the night of words
behind the clouds of hearing,
across the dark of sight,
and beyond the dusk of music
that’s hidden and revealed.
But where is it concealed?
And how could I
possibly know
when I am
barely able,
by the light of day,
to find my pencil?

from SO WHAT New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005, Copper Canyon Press, 2006, $18


Empty Words

Ah, little notebook,
yellow as a spike of wheat
and still as a face,
I’ve protected you
from dampness and rodents
and entrusted you with
my sadness and fear,
and my dreams—
though in exchange I’ve gotten from you
only disobedience and betrayal…
For otherwise where are the words
that would have me saying:
If only I were a rock on a hill…
unable to see or hear,
be sad or suffer!
And where is the passage
whose tenor is this:
I wish I could be
a rock on a hill
which the young men
from Hebron explode
and offer as a gift to Jerusalem’s children,
ammunition for their palms and slings!

And where is the passage
in which I wanted
to be a rock on a hill
gazing. out from on high
hundreds of years from now
over hordes ,.
of masked liberators!

And where is what belongs
to my dream of being
a rock on a hill
along the Carmel—
where I call on the source of my sadness,
gazing out over the waves
and thinking of her
to whom I bade
farewell at the harbor pier
in Haifa forty years ago
and still…
I await her return
one evening
with the doves of the sea.

Is it fair, little notebook,
yellow as a spike of wheat
and still as a face,
that you conceal
what you cancel and erase,
simply because it consists of empty words—
which frighten no enemy
and offer no hope to a friend?

from NEVER MIND, Twenty Poems and a Story, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, Gabriel Levin, IBIS Editions, POB 8074, German Colony, Jerusalem, Israel, $11.95


Meeting at an Airport

You asked me once,
on our way back
from the midmorning
trip to the spring:
“What do you hate,
and who do you love?”

And I answered,
from behind the eyelashes
of my surprise,
my blood rushing
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
“I hate departure…
I love the spring
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning.”
And you laughed…
and the almond tree blossomed
and the thicket grew loud with nightingales.

…A question now four decades old:
I salute that question’s answer;
and an answer
as old as your departure;
I salute that answer’s question…

And today,
it’s preposterous,
here we are at a friendly airport
by the slimmest of chances,
and we meet.
Ah, Lord!
we meet.
And here you are
it’s absolutely preposterous—
I recognized you
but you didn’t recognize me.
“Is it you?!”
But you wouldn’t believe it.
And suddenly
you burst out and asked:
“If you’re really you,
What do you hate
and who do you love?!”

And I answered—
my blood
fleeing the hall,
rushing in me
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
“I hate departure,
and I love the spring,
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning.”

And you wept,
and flowers bowed their heads,
and doves in the silk of their sorrow stumbled.

from SO WHAT New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005, Copper Canyon Press, 2006, $18]

joseph stroud | homage to life

3 12 2007


Poetry Dispatch No.165 | April 26, 2007


Homage to Life by Joseph Stroud

It is good to have chosen
a living home
and harbored time
in a constant heart,
to have seen one’s hands
touch the world
as an apple
in a small garden,
to have loved the earth,
the moon and the sun,
like old friends
beyond any others,
and to have entrusted
the world to memory
like a luminous horseman
to his black steed,
to have given shape
to these words: wife, children,
and to have served as a shore
for roving continents,
to have come upon the soul
with little oarstrokes
for it is frightened
by a sudden approach.
It is good to have known
the shade under the leaves
and to have felt age
steal over the naked body
accompanying the grief
of dark blood in our veins
and glazing its silence
with the star, Patience,
and to have all these words
stirring in the head,
to choose the least beautiful
and make a little feast for them,
to have felt life
rushed and ill-loved,
to have held it
in this poetry.

from BELOW COLD MOUNTAIN Copper Canyon Press

david budbill | quiet and seldom seen

3 12 2007


Poetry Dispatch No.164 | April 24, 2007


Quiet and Seldom Seen by David Budbill

Less than forty-eight hours southeast to downtown Boston,
less than three northwest to Montreal, less than seven

south to New York City, yet prowling through the mists
among the cliffs on Judevine Mountain are deer and bear,

moose, and some say the reclusive catamount, the panther.
I prowl here too, among these beats and all the others,

all of us, by nature, quiet and seldom seen together here
in our wilderness surrounded by that other world.

from MOMENT TO MOMENT, Copper Canyon Press