I didn’t find out until today, but Ruth Stone, my poetry teacher and mentor for all four years of my creative writing degree at Binghamton University, passed away on Saturday. She was 96. Ninety-six! Imagine that for a minute. Those are a lot of years. Not enough, though. She was amazing, and I have been tearful since I heard the news.
I still remember sitting down with her after she’d read my senior portfolio – four years of poetry, enough for a chapbook, as the assignment called for – waiting for her to pass judgment. Petrified, because she was tough. She pulled my work out of her bag, took my hands in her soft, worn ones, and looked me seriously in the eye.
“Your poetry is painful. You’ve been hurt,” she said.
“Some people are hurt, and they let it kill them inside. Some people are hurt, and they harness it and make it work for them. You take it one step further; you reclaim the hurt, you make it yours again, and to punish the people who’ve hurt you, you polish it into diamonds.”
Two of her poems. This is what this woman did with words.
Putting up new curtains,
other windows intrude.
As though it is that first winter in Cambridge
when you and I had just moved in.
Now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen.
What does it mean if I say this years later?
Listen, last night
I am on a crying jag
with my landlord, Mr. Tempesta.
I sneaked in two cats.
He screams, “No pets! No pets!”
I become my Aunt Virginia,
proud but weak in the head.
I remember Anna Magnani.
I throw a few books. I shout.
He wipes his eyes and opens his hands.
OK OK keep the dirty animals
but no nails in the walls.
We cry together.
I am so nervous, he says.
I want to dig you up and say, look,
it’s like the time, remember,
when I ran into our living room naked
to get rid of that fire inspector.
See what you miss by being dead?
The gendarme came
to tell me you had hung yourself
on the door of a rented room
like an overcoat
like a bathrobe
hung from a hook;
when they forced the door open
your feet pushed against the floor.
Inside your skull
there was no room for us,
your circuits forgot me.
Even in Paris where we never were
I wait for you
knowing you will not come.
I remember your eyes as if I were
someone you had never seen,
a slight frown between your brows
How could I have guessed
the plain-spoken stranger in your face,
your body, tagged in a drawer,
attached to nothing, incurious.
My sister, my spouse, you said,
in a place on the other side of the earth
where we lay in a single bed
unable to pull apart
breathing into each other,
the Gideon Bible open to the Song of Songs,
the rush of the El-train
jarring the window.
As if needles were stuck
in the pleasure zones of our brains,
we repeated everything
over and over and over.
Ruth. That bruised-up twenty-two year old thanks you. Thank you for handing me my voice and giving me permission to scream.