Ruth Stone died a year ago today. Because she lived so long in Vermont, some might forget that she grew up in Indiana, the daughter of Roger McDowell Perkins, a typesetter for the Indianapolis Star and part-time drummer, and Ruth Ferguson Perkins, who loved to recite Tennyson out loud while nursing her daughter. Stone’s father made a habit of gambling, so the family lived with his parents on Julian Avenue, a modest street in the Irvington district, and Stone’s uncles and aunts often congregated there as well. According to Wendy Barker, on nights when Stone’s father wasn’t gambling, he would bring home chocolates and classical records. “He would read out loud to them, sometimes from the Bible, sometimes from Bill Nye. . . . The poet remembers her uncles at dinner parties who told one fascinating story after another, convulsing the family with their humor” (Modern American Poetry Site).
Stone’s grandfather, also a printer by trade, became a state senator, and her grandmother threw elegant tea parties. But pouring Lipton and cutting up watercress sandwiches never was Ruth Stone’s thing. In fact, her Indianapolis poems draw more from her jazz-loving, dangerous daddy. They prefer the down-and-out to the up-and-coming. In “Icons from Indianapolis,” Stone remembers
[an] older black woman in the bus station,
pus running down her legs, gushing out of her,
the policeman coming to take her away. What were hats
and fur shawls when I knew that? She never left me.
From that time I carried her like an icon.
This “icon” foreshadowed Stone’s poverty after her beloved husband Walter committed suicide in 1959, leaving her to raise their three daughters. Jim Powell, former director of the Writers’ Center of Indianapolis, recalls Stone arriving from Vermont on a Greyhound for a reading with only $5 in her pocket. Willis Barnstone once observed that “while her house may be in need of heat, a new roof, a septic tank, and more bookshelves, her unique solitary alliance with art also directs the vision of her poems, which we see in the very titles she has chosen for two of her books, Cheap and Second-Hand Coat” (MAPS).
And to the segregated Indianapolis of Stone’s youth—in 1926, the city council had enacted a strict zoning law to keep blacks and whites separate—Stone’s poems offer a complicated response. Take, for example, this poem from her 1999 collection Ordinary Words:
I wore a large brim hat
like the women in the ads.
How thin I was: such skin.
Yes. It was Indianapolis;
a taste of sin.
You had a natural Afro;
no money for a haircut.
We were in the seedy part;
the buildings all run-down;
the record shop, the jazz
impeccable. We moved like
the blind, relying on our touch.
At the corner coffee shop,
after an hour’s play, with our
serious game on paper,
the waitress asked us
to move on. It wasn’t much.
Oh mortal love, your bones
were beautiful. I traced them
with my fingers. Now the light
grows less. You were so angular.
The air darkens with steel
and smoke. The cracked world
about to disintegrate,
in the arms of my total happiness.
Reading this poem, I’m reminded of something Sharon Olds said about Stone, her former mentor: “She is a seer, easily speaking clear truths somehow unmentioned . . . She has a tragic deadpan humor: love and destruction are right next to each other.” That ability to juxtapose impending war with hot jazz, a segregated city with an interracial romance was uniquely Stone’s. Her daughter Abigail, in a blog entry composed just after her mother’s death, wrote: “Her poetry, like her mind, was always fixated on the terrible and the beautiful. She mixed them together like pancakes and served them to whoever happened by.”
“Icons from Indianapolis” appeared in In the Dark (Copper Canyon, 2004). “1941” can be found in Ordinary Words (Paris Press, 1999).