Reviews, Vol. 2.2, June 2008
Quale Press, 2007
Paperback, 102 pp., $15
Reviewed by Cynthia Reeser
In Daniel Tobin’s introduction to Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge, a picture of an ascetic, self-made woman emerges. Ridge, born in Dublin in 1873, was the American editor of the literary journal Broom, who hosted literary salons in her heyday. Alternately hailed and debunked by her modernist peers, Tobin underscores the legacy of “a vivid original whose life and work embody the tumultuous confluence of forces that shaped the twentieth century.” Placed in the context of William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Hart Crane, Ridge’s work unfortunately falls just shy of its goals, a fact attributable, at least in part, to her political activism.
Her activist passion as an advocate for the working classes is filtered into poetry through an aesthetic motivation that strives toward an ideal of a capitalist modernity, one whose essential tenets mesh with that of Eliot and Pound. Tobin attributes “Ridge’s inability to achieve a synthesis” of what really looks like a failing to unite her aesthetics and political credo to a “profound dissociation of sensibility” stemming from a conflict between “her religious and spiritual idealism” and the “social and materialist imperatives of her leftist convictions.”
Ridge does move beyond mere modernist discontent, differing from Eliot in that, where he sees hell on Earth, Ridge places in her people a hope to fuel the struggle. A retrospective modernism may be presented here in Ridge’s writing from the ghetto and in her aesthetic, which is indicative of a modernism newly discovered in this day and age, but ignored in hers. Tobin instructs that “Ridge’s ghetto is a social world where—unlike Eliot’s solitary aesthetic and Pound’s glorification of the cultural Ubermensch—the longing for transcendence involves communal as well as individual rituals.”
For Ridge, “the ghetto is no wasteland.” In “The Ghetto,” an old mother abides by her circumstance:
On Friday nights
Her candles signal
Infinite fine rays
To other windows,
Coupling other lights,
Linking the tenements
Like an endless prayer.
Even in poverty, which Ridge experienced herself, she sought to put the modernist world back together, where others sought to fragment it.
Perhaps where her work does not achieve the foundation of her ideals is where the aesthetic resolves itself into an abstraction informed by imagism. That imagist quality unfortunately never, in this reviewer’s opinion, achieves the next level—the something that the reader should be able to take away from a piece.
Looking at her work, immediately distracting is the overuse of ellipses (this device, as a stylistic measure, may serve as a stumbling block to readers much as Emily Dickinson’s use of the dash does for some) and non-purposeful repetition and wordiness. Ridge’s poetry contains the aesthetic vision of a working-class member’s view of other working-class members; significantly, it is not written from the lofty heights of Eliotan education and class, which produces a greater distinction between his world and the one he writes, where can be seen “the damp souls of housemaids/ sprouting despondently” (from “Morning at the Window”). Alternatively, Ridge sees the simple joy in such a way of life alongside its squalor.
This viewpoint drives Ridge’s work but falls short; the intent of “The Ghetto” and of the body of work flattens under weak language that fails to place itself in context, lacking that comparison to other that would place it in a milieu against the affluence its situation is in opposition to. After all, what is light without dark, good without evil, rich without poor? The same happens in “The Fiddler” and “The Edge.” Other works, like “Flotsam,” present a series of images, but to what end?:
And the shadows twitch upon the snow
As though death played
With some ungainly dolls.
Tobin situates Ridge’s place in the literary canon: “considered from the standpoint of her own time, she is an insufficiently recognized part of the confluence of politics, culture and the burgeoning of women’s voices at the advent of modernism to the start of World War II.” Ridge seems to fit best when placed in her historical context—as a voice of expression and activism, rather than one that seeks to interpret.