In tennis terminology, when we say love, we mean "nothing." In life, we mean "everything." Or we mean "that which is yet to come forth," depending on how you interpret the French word l'oeuf, which means "the egg." Or if we look at its shape, "zero." Any way you look at it, the most ordinary words can get complicated.
In this award-winning collection of poems, Ruth Stone simplifies things by showing us how words are the "food, oxygen, and comfort" we need to get through the worries and pleasures of everyday life.
Stone isn't your run-of-the-mill poet. At 84, she is a professor of English at the State University of New York, Binghampton. She is the recipient of many awards, including Guggenheim Fellowships, Pushcart Prizes, the Shelly Memorial Award and others. Through the years, she has mentored and nurtured so many contemporary poets that she is called "Mother Poet" by people like Sharon Olds, poet laureate of New York. Ordinary Words is Stones 11th book.
Written in formal and free verse, these poems take place in trailer parks, trains, prefab houses, bus depots, McDonald's, school cafeterias and the natural world.
Stone's heroes are ordinary people: her Uncle Cal and Aunt Maud, plumbers, school crossing guards, teenage daughters of struggling single mothers. She writes about dead husbands, dead sisters and wild-hearted grandmothers. She gives us lines that reverberate with sincerity and truth about what she loves most: family, especially grandchildren, and her late-middle-aged daughters ("in over their hips").
Stone's subjects are varied and include bears, cows, amoebas ("that single-celled miracle of chaos") and hummingbirds: The miniature dagger hangs in the air,/ entering the wild furnace of the flower's heart.
Confronting the closing of the century, she writes, "I look out of my worn eyes/ and see the bright new Pleiades." Stone writes honestly about what she sees, but always with extraordinary hope. She talks about poverty, racism, the ragged environment and aging ("this sly shadow of too much knowing").
In "Romance," she writes about lost love and the inevitable passing of time:
Returning to streets that had poured/
heavy shopping malls/
over the hay-sweet grass/
where he and I lay whispering/
the most important nonsense...
Stone has a gift for making the abstract tangible, and for giving ideas and images life in the figurative worlds of lyric poetry. Poems like "Echoes and Shadows," "The Ways of Daughters" and "Light Conclusions" glow with wit, elegance, range and wisdom.
In "Yes, Think," she transforms the everyday factual into the strange and unusual, using a delicate handling of extended metaphor and all natural ingredients:
Mother, said a small tomato caterpillar to a wasp,/
why are you kissing me so hard on my back?/
You'll see, said the industrious wasp, deftly inserting/
a package of her eggs under the small caterpillar's skin.
Here, Stone is dedicated to making the language reflect surprise. She uses the device of surrealism to open her readers' eyes wide.
Ordinary Words is filled with a devotion to the mundane, and sometimes the poet's powerful images are a little grisly. But her impeccable choice of poetic language and her understated humor make this an exceptional and consistently interesting collection of poems.