Lola Ridge's Dance of Fire

(Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1935)

by Catherine Daly


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 “Art all-equating.”

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, 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:

The workers of all lands that day
Looked toward the death house where the two
Lay with a thief between
(old myth... (61)

In “Fire Boy” Ridge displays facility with very long lines. Made to dance through the use of alliteration and rhythm, the poem ends the book by adding “fire” to the three men dead earlier,

Let us go singing —
For what should the quick do with the dead, O four men,
seeing spring in each other’s eyes.(104)

Until a complete edition of Ridge’s poetry that includes her notes for Lightwheel (begun in 1929 with Firehead and continued during a second residency at Yaddo in 1930) and three of her last journals is made available, Dance of Fire serves as the only indication of Ridge’s intended directions at the time of her death. This female poet, who wrote notable long poems throughout her career and who yielded to lyricism clumsily at times, displays a totalizing and lyric impulse which doesn’t reconcile her virtuoso political modernist collage with her eccentric spiritual beliefs.

Work Cited

Weir, David. Anarchy & Culture. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1997.

Bio: Catherine Daly lives in Los Angeles. Tupelo Press will publish her first book, Locket, in 2003; another manuscript, Heresy, was a finalist in the 2002 National Poetry Series competition. She is at work on two collections of criticism: one on contemporary experimental poetry written by women and one on early modernist poetry written by women.

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