Dance of Fire, Lola Ridge’s last book,
was not intended to be part of her multi-volume Lightwheel
project, of which Firehead was to be the first volume.
Dance of Fire begins with a sonnet sequence
entitled “Via Ignis.” The sequence is addressed to “Thou, multi-one,”
“O stringed fires,” and “O lively light”: to the dance of fire itself.
The deity of this fervent anarchist and feminist is disembodied,
or perhaps embodied in her fervency, her zeal, the religion she
herself has made. Ridge never rejected her vision of Jesus as a
martyr among thousands of contemporary labor martyrs, or of a power,
although not a “higher” one. The thees and thous, the verbs ending
in “eth,” and the stilted diction may now seem ridiculous, but the
archaism and spirituality expressed in these poems has a purpose:
it subverts both the modernism and the Marxism Ridge held in complex
and difficult relationship. Ridge also takes opportunities to exploit
some of the archaisms for effect. For example, in the first sonnet
of “Via Ignis,” Ridge uses “Art” instead of “Are” to yield the phrase
Like many Marxist poets in the 1930’s, Ridge
moved her poetic toward a form which sought to satisfy less-educated
readers’ expectations (the recognizable sonnet) but also to avoid
the elitism of DaDa as well as that of the Rossettis. Unlike most
Marxist writing, these sonnets are very abstract. Yet they are not
fragmented, being “worked out” in a series of correspondences. They
are unlike the modernist collage poems in the volume’s “Three Men
Die” section or in Red Flag.
Unlike contemporaries Lorine Niedecker or Louis
Zukofsky, Ridge was lauded by the literary establishment and regularly
published in popular journals alongside a large number of now-forgotten
female sonneteers, many of whom also writing on mystical topics.
She benefited from large grants, stays at writing colonies, and
plum editorships. The sonnets of “Via Ignis” show Ridge deliberately
participating in an individualist and political formalist lineage
which includes Shelley, E.A. Robinson, W.B. Yeats, and Robinson
Jeffers, and which might be differentiated from the political avant-garde
of the Commune as well as the formal avant-garde of symbolism, DaDa,
and later, Objectivism.
As David Weir writes in his book Anarchy
& Culture (which features on its cover a poem written by
Man Ray and Adon Lacroix during their Modern School / Kreymborg
period, a period contemporaneous with Ridge’s own involvement in
the Modern School), Shelley believed “the root or radix of politics
is the cultural ideal of Poetry.”(116) Ridge’s political poetry,
like Shelley’s, is an abstracted and idealized one addressed to
Culture, Poetry, Religion, one which makes the mythologizing of
Jeffers or Yeats seem tangible and dramatic by comparison (of course,
Jeffers and Yeats, also wrote plays). Ridge notably wrote no drama.
Like Emma Goldman, she did not believe that theatre was a way to
directly speak to illiterate or exhausted workers.
The abstraction of this late poetry of Ridge’s
makes even Shelley’s political sonnets seem concrete. Yet Ridge
writes very specifically in the second poem of “Via Ignis,” “Not...vassal
of this heart, nor...in music over heaven.” In other words, this
divine “dance of fire” has no feudal relationship of lord over or
servant to the writer; the music of the spheres is not over and
above anything. Rather, the divine is unlimited, beyond the limits
of lyre (and lyric poetry) and heart (or emotion). She continues
her definition through rhetorical questions such as whether what
is divine should be “above” humans struggling with the exigencies
of existence and “the void”.
A poem entitled ‘Crucible”(56) flanks “Stone
Face,” a political poem now being republished in many anthologies.
While “Stone Face” addresses Tom Mooney’s incarceration in Alcatraz,
“Crucible” seems to describe a parallel cultural exile by Jeffers,
“Away on the Carmel Coast...His, too, Point Lobos....” While Tom
Mooney was being held in San Francisco as Ridge entered the U.S.
through that city’s port, Jeffers would be, somewhat ironically,
at the height of his fame when Dance of Fire was published
some thirty-two years after she came to this country.
“Three Men Die” makes up another section of
Dance of Fire. Nancy Berke has written extensively about
this poem in sections in her chapter on Ridge in her book Women
on the Left. However, it is important to discuss the ways in
which “Three Men Die” and another poem, “Fire Boy,” are completely
unlike those in the remainder of the book. Lines in the sonnets
of “Ice Heart” and in the alternating free verse and versification
of “White Buzzard” contain all of Ridge’s poetic tics and mystical
meanings with hardly any of the glory. As an example, the second
section of “Ice Heart” opens by likening the sun-based deity in
winter to engineers not unlike Ridge’s second husband, David Lawson,
who had a long undistinguished career at the water district, “...long
will engineers / Between the steel horizons ... / ... hold the city
breathing through the ice...”(86). Unfortunately, this comparison
disintegrates as Ridge cloyingly closes the poem with reference
to Caesar and Cleopatra. In “White Buzzard,” Ridge addresses death
with the same diction as in the sonnets, but with a different forma
and format in each section.
By way of contrast, “Three Men Die” opens with
a stanza interrupted by a comment: