Lola Ridge's Sun-Up and Other Poems

(New York, B.W. Huebsch, 1920)

by Lorraine Graham


Although Sun-Up and Other Poems, Lola Ridge’s second book, did not receive the public attention of The Ghetto, it is nevertheless an insightful collection full of diverse risk-taking — political, personal and aesthetic. Ridge moves among, describes, and inhabits voices and physical cityscapes with a poetic eye that is objective, yet also politically and emotionally engaged.

The collection begins with a long and at least semi-autobiographical poem called “Sun-Up.” The lyric “I” speaks alternately in the voice of a child full of nouns, and as an adult retrospectively addressing the child it once was. Ridge grew up in immigrant neighborhoods, and this is the world depicted. In one of the most brutal moments of the poem, the child-“I” becomes aware of class distinctions through a violent encounter, while at the same time the voice of the mature poet reflects:

Jude and I
were weeding our garden
when we heard his whip —
must have been a new whip
to cut of dandelion-heads at one swing. . . .
He was the kind of boy you know when you had Celia. . . .
with nice clothes on and curls
crawling about his collar
like little golden slugs,
and his man was leading his horse.
I wish I hadn’t run to meet him. . .
If you hadn’t run to meet him
he mightn’t have trod on your garden and said:
Get out of my field you dirty little beggar. . .
He mightn’t have struck you with his whip. . . .

While the poem describes a world of striking social and economic inequality, that same world is also the domain of a child, and much of the poem’s language dwells on the mother, friends, and a doll. At times the poem reads like a nursery rhyme: “Moon catches the flying fish / as they dive in the bay / Flying fish / spin over and over / slippity-silver / into the water.” Other times it is psychologically observant: “You look in the eyes of grown-up people / to see if they feel / the way you feel… / but they hide inside of themselves, / and so you do not find out.” The combination of multiple voices, physical language, and political and emotional awareness makes “Sun-up” an impressive autobiographical poem which does far more than narrate the childhood of Lola Ridge.

The rest of the book is divided into six other sections, of which “windows” and “Reveille” are (for this reviewer) especially interesting. “Time-Stone,” the first poem in “Windows” begins “Hallo, Metropolitan — / Ubiquitous windows staring all ways,” addressing the cityscape from one of the many “ubiquitous windows” overlooking the street. Other poems look out on “Small towns / Crawling out of their green shirts . . .” as in “Train Window.” These poems examine windows and look through windows, often onto more architecture: churches or “skyscrapers . . . remote, unpartisan . . .” creating a feeling of both lonely alienation and connection. Though the skyscrapers are “Austerely greeting the sun,” the poet says “I know your secrets . . . better than all the policemen / like fat blue mullet along the avenues.”

The poems in “Reveille,” the final section in the book, are explicitly political, some dedicated to Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, editors and publishers of the journal Mother Earth (1906-1917), and leading anarchists, who Ridge knew personally. Other poems in this section focus directly on economic inequality and highlight the potential power of the working class to defy their subjugators:

Allons enfants de la patrie
Electric . . . piercing . . . shrill as a fife
the voice of a little Russian
breaks out of the shivered circle.
Another voice rises. . . another and another
leaps like flame to flame.
And life — surging, clamorous, swarming like a rabble
            crazy fluttering ragged petticoats —
comes rushing back into torpid eyes
like suddenly yielded gates  (“In Harness”)

Immigrant issues (“the voice of a little Russian”), gender issues (“crazy fluttering ragged petticoats”), and the plight of the working class are all prominent in this poem. Thus it is in this final section of the book that Ridge begins to focus more explicitly on the social and economic issues that define her later work. Overall Sun-up and Other Poems is a diverse and daring collection of work by Lola Ridge, a major female poet and social activist.

Bio: Lorraine Graham is the editor of Anomaly, a magazine of innovative poetry and poetics with a focus on writers in greater Washington, DC. Her poetry, book, and art reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Washington Review, So to Speak: a Feminist Journal of Language and Art, 108, Realpoetik, 5_Trope, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

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