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.

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer

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Did you think that the days of extreme poverty in the U.S. were over? Did you think there was a safety net in place? Think again.

After over 20 years of poverty research, Kathryn Edin began to see an entirely new level of despair: families in the U.S. getting by with almost no cash income. Luke Shaefer, an expert on the Survey of Income and Program Participation administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, didn’t believe her. He decided to prove Edin was wrong, using the World Bank’s poverty threshold as his upper limit. After crunching the numbers, however, he found that in 2011, “1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month.”

How could this happen in a country so prosperous? We hear a lot about income inequality these days, but not about this kind of extreme poverty. Through stories of individual families backed by solid research, the authors detail the reasons why this kind of poverty has been increasing since 1996, “and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.”

1996: you remember. That was the year welfare reform destroyed the safety net. No longer was there any guarantee for those whose severe poverty qualified them for assistance. And what federal money remained was changed to go to the states as block grants with wide leeway on how they could spend it; it didn’t actually have to go to poor people. As documented in this book, people are so routinely denied—often being told there is no more money—that most poor people don’t bother applying. Many don’t even know there is a benefit for which they qualify. The authors call the commentators who in 1996 foresaw the coming catastrophe “remarkably prescient”, but those of us who’d been poor saw it all too clearly; we knew how fragile and under siege our benefits had always been.

The other factor, of course, is the ever-worsening lack of jobs. Even if they can get a job—as everyone interviewed has done in the past—the pay is so low, the hours unreliable, the benefits non-existent, that it is not enough to lift them out of poverty. And that’s not even considering the ways that bosses take advantage of their employees, since it’s a buyer’s market for them.

How is it even possible to manage without a cash income? You can only use food stamps for actual food, not soap or kids’ shoes or rent or light. We meet many families in this book, each with their own strategies. Their stories are told with the calm of a social scientist, tempered by compassion. You cannot help but be moved by the stories of people like Modonna Harris standing in line for hours to apply for benefits only to be turned away. “Everyone knows you have to get here by at least 7:30, a full hour before the office opens.” We learn about her background, her search for work, everything that led her to this point.

The authors see this work experience as a cause for hope: those they interview have worked in the past and are desperate to work again. I found the same thing when I was on welfare 40 years ago. In the final chapter Edin and Shaefer lay out a roadmap for getting people back to work and helping those who cannot work.

My only disagreement with them is their blithe statement that “reverting to the old welfare system is not the answer.” I agree that in addition to money, Aid to families with Dependent Children (AFDC) dispensed stigma and isolation. As a former AFDC recipient, I experienced both and the hopelessness that comes with them. However, I would take that stigma and isolation a thousand times over to spare my children what happened to the children we get to know in this book: chronic malnourishment, abuse by sexual predators in overcrowded households, the temptation for a tenth-grade girl when a teacher offers her food in exchange for sex. I would make the same decision I made all those years ago when I said to myself: the kids come first.

Of course, I know there’s no going back to AFDC, even though it would be better than what we have now. The voting public has been too blinded by politicians determined to demonize the poor—such a handy target! so powerless to fight back. They have also been blinded by their own comfortable lifestyle, not recognising the privilege that got them there, or, for those in a lower income bracket, their fear of falling into poverty themselves.

I do endorse the authors’ proposed solutions. However, it will take a huge groundswell of public opinion to overcome our society’s bias against helping the poor. It will take all of us speaking out.

I hope you are moved. I hope you read this book. I hope you act.

The Normans: From Raiders to Kings, by Lars Brownworth

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I’ve recently taken a little detour into the Middle Ages, starting with Helen Hollick’s The Kingmaking, a well-researched novel about Arthur Pendragon’s rise to power in 5th century Britain. Then I jumped ahead to the 12th-15th centuries, viewing a four-part series hosted by historian Dan Jones called Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets.

I also read Judith Merkle Riley’s witty novel, The Master of All Desires, about a young woman who finds herself at the center of Queen Catherine de Medici’s intrigues at the French Court and looks to the Queen’s Astrologer, Nostradamus, for advice. The story is set in the 16th century, thus putting it over the historians’ line and into the Renaissance, although the reliance on seers and spells seems more apt for the Middle Ages.

Finally I tackled this book on the Normans, set in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is relatively short at a little over 200 pages and immensely readable. Maps, family trees, descriptive lists of people and places, and endnotes explaining possibly unfamiliar terms, make this history accessible for a reader with little or no foreknowledge while not boring one who knows quite a bit about the Normans already.

I knew that the Normans who invaded Britain came from—surprise!—Normandy and were descended from Viking raiders who’d settled there in the 9th and 10th centuries. I knew about the Battle of Hastings and have my list of English monarchs well situated in memory.

What I didn’t know was that the Normans played a huge role in the rest of Europe, creating kingdoms as far south as North Africa, going on crusades, and taking on the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire (aka the German Empire) and the Byzantine Empire. And that much of that was accomplished by members of a single family, the de Hautevilles.

The question Brownworth sets out to answer is: “How did Western Europe, which was militarily, technologically, and socially far behind its immediate neighbors in the Middle East, manage not only to catch up with them, but to rise to global dominance?”

He finds much of the answer in the Normans. Without downplaying their ruthless suppression of local languages and customs, he does explain how they eventually assimilated with their conquered peoples. While some of the Normans he describes were warriors first and last, others actually found creative ways to govern, becoming respected and even beloved.

Still, the net result for me of all this reading and viewing was a sickening sense of the brevity of life in the Middle Ages, not only for the conquered peasantry and the waves of warriors thrown at various foes, but for the rulers themselves. Intrigue is too mild a word for the fostering of revolts in a brother’s country, the poisonings and outright murders. And then there were the frail, inbred children placed on thrones, controlled or fought over by power-hungry nobles.

None of this was new to me, but the span of this little detour of mine showed how prevalent it was. Yet another person murdering all of his brothers to gain a throne, in turn murdered by another claimant. Over and over.

In this season of the U.S. presidential election, a time I loathe, one that has me avoiding the saturated media, I actually found the slaughter of the Middle Ages comforting. Yes, the airwaves are dominated by amoral pretenders, each trying to stir up more hatred than the next, making the U.S. a laughingstock in the international arena where people cannot believe such clowns could even be considered for office. But at least they are not killing each other. At least they are not cooking up charges to have each other’s entrails dragged out or having their opponents beheaded or poisoned or burned at the stake. And this season, at least, there are a few who are refraining from even verbal attacks in favor of—shocking as it may be—a discussion of the issues.

I will take comfort where I can find it.

What do you know of the Normans’ involvement in the Crusades?