Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Terese Svoboda

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How could I have never heard of Lola Ridge before? A central figure in Modernist poetry, she seemed to know everyone: from Robert Frost to Amy Lowell to H.D. Praised by people like Stephen Vincent Benét and Louis Untermeyer, she was considered one of the top American poets. Her fiery poems describe the real life of immigrants and others struggling to get by. A lifelong anarchist, she was devoted to the ideal of personal and artistic freedom. She worked for years with Emma Goldman and participated in many political protests, including the outcry against the Sacco and Vanzetti executions and the railroading of Tom Mooney.

I have become accustomed to the way once-popular artists and activists disappear from the cultural consciousness. I have heard the argument that the guardians of the Western canon needs to let go of the belief that only white men can write lasting literature, and add more women and minorities (and new majorities!). I’ve shaken my head at the way hysteria around World War II and McCarthy’s reprehensible anti-Communist tactics attempted to wipe out the memory of the social reformers, labor activists, anarchists, socialists and, yes, communists who were active in the first half of the 20th century. But I’m still surprised that I’d never heard of such a prominent figure.

This biography rescues Ridge from history’s dustbin. Svoboda embeds us in her life, from her birth in Dublin in 1873 through emigration to New Zealand as a child, then to Australia, and finally to the U.S. in 1907 where she mainly lived in New York City. Her travels didn’t stop there though. Always on the edge of bankruptcy and starvation, she scrounged money for trips to Mexico, Baghdad, Taos, and California. She was awarded residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony.

And always she wrote poetry. By including so many poems and fragments of poems, Svoboda give us what is truly a writer’s story: Ridge’s experiences and convictions drive her fierce work that captures the lives of the poor and disadvantaged, the dreams that possess them and the forces that beat them down. Here is a poem from her first collection The Ghetto and Other Poems:

Debris
I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.

Described as fragile and intense, Ridge often invoked images of fire in her work. She went on to publish three more collections, each more popular than the last. She won awards like the Guggenheim, and edited the avant-garde magazines Others and Broom, as well as Margaret Sanger’s magazine on birth control. While editing Others and afterwards, she hosted weekly soirées in her one-room apartment to discuss art and freedom. These lively gatherings drew famous and not-so-famous writers and artists and activists, including William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Alfred Kreymborg, Mitchell Dawson, Jean Toomer, John Reed, Louise Bryant, and Evelyn Scott.

The New Critics, who rose to ascendancy during WWII and afterwards, insisted that poetry should not be political in any way and claimed that women, with their overactive emotions and weak intellect, were unsuited for writing anything but love poetry. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Ridge’s poetry, so famous in her lifetime, sank into obscurity after her death in 1941. Svoboda compares the way Ridge’s influence on Crane and others has been lost to the way few today know of how TS Eliot drew on Hope Mirrlees’s Modernist masterpiece Paris while writing The Waste Land.

I hope that Svoboda’s biography helps to bring her back into the light.

What early 20th century poet fires your imagination?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

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This is one of those books that I appreciated rather than enjoyed. Sure, there are beautiful sentences and sentences whose intelligence, perception, and depth of emotion require no ornamentation. There are quick, deft depictions of character, such as this one of our narrator, Hans:

“Let me introduce myself properly,” Chuck said. “Chuck Ramkissoon.” We shook hands. “Van der Broek,” he said, trying out the name. “South African?”

“I’m from Holland,” I said, apologizing.

Boy, are there characters. Chuck hails from Trinidad but is 100% American, with his handful of shady businesses, his huge appetite for life, and his outsize dream of saving the world by establishing a cricket club in an abandoned field on the edge of the city. Through him, Hans meets and becomes a part of a subculture of cricket clubs, made up of émigrés, himself the only white one.

Much as I appreciated the writing—more about that later—I have to admit that I was bored. So much so that about halfway through I set the book aside for two weeks, and debated whether to finish it or not. First off, I don’t share the fascination those who live or have lived in New York seem to have for novels about what it’s like to live in that city. Surely they know already. I am more fascinated by The Hague and deeply enjoyed the brief flashbacks to Hans’s youth. I was also fascinated by his enigmatic mother, by far the most interesting character to me, though barely present.

Secondly, the plot is not an attention-grabber. We learn in the first few pages that Chuck’s body has been found in a canal and that Hans and his wife have been estranged but are now back together. The exploration of cricket and Chuck’s world are somewhat interesting, but the story of yet another middle-aged man, estranged from his life and feeling disconnected from his fellow humans doesn’t excite me. At least there are those beautiful and penetrating sentences.

Some people have no difficulty in identifying with their younger incarnations: Rachel, for example, will refer to episodes from her childhood or college days as if they’d happened to her that very morning. I, however, seem given to self-estrangement. I find it hard to muster oneness with those former selves whose accidents and endeavors have shaped who I am now.

A little background: Hans, who grew up in The Hague and lived in London before moving to New York, is a successful equities analyst for a large bank. In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, he and his wife and young son take up temporary abode in the Chelsea Hotel. The dislocation and the danger prompt Rachel to take the child and move back to London. Her refusal to let Hans come with them signals her intent to end the marriage.

If this almost casual use of the 2001 attacks is one of the successes of the novel—for once they are not used to ratchet up drama and sentiment—Rachel is one of its failures. Presented as active in contrast to Hans’s passivity, she is a mass of unexplained contradictions, secrets, and sometimes seemingly random decisions. While such a depiction makes sense given that we are being told the story by the mystified, miserable, and angry Hans, it turns Rachel into a chesspiece designed to move the story along rather than a person.

I liked the depiction of the fellowship Hans forms with his fellow cricketers, the way they watch out for each other even though their lives only intersect in this one area. I was not particularly charmed by Chuck, whom some reviewers have compared to Gatsby, and questioned why Hans became so involved with him. I derived some amusement from random oddball characters—no, I don’t want to give them away—but after living in Baltimore, they seemed mild to me.

I’m left with the beautiful and unexpected passages, such as this one:

The business world is densely margined by dreamers, men, almost invariably, whose longing selves willingly submit to the enchantment of projections and pie charts and crisply totted numbers, who toy and toy for years, like novelists, with the same sheaf of documents, who slip out of bed in the middle of the night to pitch to a pajama’d reflection in a windowpane.

I appreciate the transnational perspective brought by O’Neill, who is of Irish and Turkish descent, grew up in The Netherlands, and now lives in the U.S. His memoir, Blood-Dark Track, should prove interesting.

Have you ever set a book aside for a few weeks and then gone back to it? What did you end up thinking about it?