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In the Next Galaxy

By Ruth Stone

Original and Current Publisher: Copper Canyon Press    

Katie Peterson writes:

What if you woke up one day and everything looked the same, but some essential principle of reality behind existence had changed, and that change could be felt everywhere, with all the appearances intact? In one famous episode of the Twilight Zone, “The Invaders,” a hardened but apparently innocent woman is tormented by two tiny spacemen with miniscule guns who turn out to belong to the US Air Force. In another episode, an apparently perfect town is actually an experiment created by giant aliens. In both, the true nature of the ordinary is revealed by confusions of scale that turn what appears to be most normal into what is most strange. Rod Serling understood that the fact that everything appeared normal on the surface was actually absolute evidence that everything was deeply, categorically, profoundly crazy. So does Ruth Stone, whose 2002 collection, In the Next Galaxy, combines the visionary and the ordinary in short lyrics of great complexity. Stone sees things differently than most people but in a way available to all. In a poem entitled “Reality,” she writes of her husband’s body, prepared for burial after his suicide:

As a fish, gutted for trade,
so my darling as a cadaver
was slit, his viscera removed;
pulled out by a gloved hand
as waste; the still pulsing
microscopic flagella,
only recently going about its business
in the small scape of the veins,
the glut of the great esophagus
and the first bend of the squirming bowel.

Walter Stone’s death is the biographical fact that has informed much of Ruth Stone’s verse. What she has enabled that biographical fact to ask of her is all her own. Submitted, for your perusal: Ruth Stone, the cadaver-opening investigative spirit of real Twilight Zone – ordinary life.

Stone’s poems have been called “misleadingly simple.” Most of them feel born in a field and taken into a house, or found in a train station or bus station and packed into a suitcase. Whether writing about the pleasures of inhabitation or the challenges of transience, Stone prefers, in subject matter, the elemental aspects of a life: beds, kitchens, neighbors, and strangers. Her vocabulary, even at its most complex, feels received and reflected upon rather than vigorously attended to. Her sentences, though never simple, appear declarative, until you notice the obsessive desire to list that often closes a lyric of great intensity. List-making is for the disorganized, not the organized, and Stone’s lists have the mood of designs against disorder. The title poem of the collection is one of Stone’s most disarmingly dramatic:


In the Next Galaxy
Things will be different.
No one will lose their sight,
their hearing, their gallbladder.
It will be all Catskills with brand-
new wraparound verandas.
The idea of Hitler will not
have vibrated yet.
While back here,
they are still cleaning out
pockets of wrinkled
Nazis hiding in Argentina.
But in the next galaxy,
certain planets will have true
blue skies and drinking water.

Stone layers her neighborly tone on top of a heavy subject. We wonder whether she’s talking about the next galaxy over (a house down the block) or the next world (an afterlife in which our moral nature is transfigured and restored to goodness). It must be the case that she’s talking about both, as the pleasures the next galaxy affords (“blue skies and drinking water”) are sufficient rather than excessive. Stone’s language gets tangled in a particularly American knot, combining words of Native, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek descent when she first talks about what the next galaxy will be like: “all Catskills with brand- / new wraparound verandas.” A visionary knows that her true interest in the next world is an interest in describing the problems of this one, however. In the next lines, the poet handles the evils of the 20th century with a delicacy conditioned and created by fear. “The idea of Hitler,” and the “pockets of wrinkled / Nazis hiding in Argentina,” imagined here as absences in the (better) next galaxy, are rare instances of metonymy—Stone, in general, prefers the definite article, and the declarative subject. Here metonymy functions as a fearful delicacy, a way of picking up evil by the edges in order to show it in all its horror. A poem like this one holds the extremity of pleasure and the extremity of pain: Stone’s great gift is her ability to imagine a world that can hold both.

Misleadingly simple, Stone’s poems are far from pure. It is hard to think of another contemporary poet as willing to talk about the body who also has a gift for doing so with candor. Stone is age-inappropriate in the best sense, and her reflections on culture are far from polite. Consider the following lines from “At Eighty-Three She Lives Alone”:

No one knows you. No one speaks to you.
All of their cocks stare down their pant legs
at the ground. Their cunts are blind. They
barely let you through the checkout line.
Have a nice day. Plastic or paper?

The vision of public space here is something like Night of the Living Dead. But Stone sees the body for everything that it’s worth, and when she asserts the value of memories of pleasure, we believe her as well. In the beautiful (and deceptively simply titled) “Lines,” she sees how the body is a vessel for both the persistence and perishability of memory:

Sharp as the odor of fresh sawdust,
the color of lost rooms,
those erotic odors, angst of brevity;
like crossing your thighs
in a spasm of loneliness.

Ruth Stone was born in 1915. After her husband’s death in 1959 she raised her three daughters as a single parent while teaching at colleges and universities across the country. Each poem in In the Next Galaxy feels as if it has required a lifetime of experience and this one is no different. It takes an exacting patience to account for the impatience of sex with such tender articulation and such an understanding of the necessity of human connection.

Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues, 2006). She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her reviews have appeared in the Boston Review and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches literature at Bennington College. (Photo credit: Ariana Ervin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Harryette Mullen for Sleeping with the Dictionary
  • Sharon Olds for The Unswept Room
  • Alberto Rios for The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body
  • Ellen Bryant Voigt for Shadow of Heaven

Poetry Judges that Year: Dave Smith, Elizabeth Alexander,
Margaret Gibson, Bob Holman, Dorianne Laux

The Year in Literature: Practical Gods by Carl Dennis won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information: 

  • Ruth Stone (1915- ) was born in Roanoke, VA.
  • Stone wrote her most recent collection, What Love Comes To: New and Selected Poems, at the age of ninety-three. The book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

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