Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind
Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2022
77 minutes, col.
Distributor’s website: icarusfilms.com/if-ruths.
The poet Ruth Stone (1915-2011) called her messy farmhouse in Goshen, Vermont a “Vast Library of the Female Mind”, which fits as a title for this warm, fine and sensitive biography that’s largely filmed in the house, spanning four decades.
At her 94th birthday celebration, Ruth is surrounded by family, daughters and especially granddaughters who’ve all memorized her poems and recite them along with her. One granddaughter Bianca is a self-taught animator, whose animations are used judiciously and effectively throughout the film, as is footage shot by Sidney Wolinsky in the 1970s.
Ruth kept her 1940s pompadour hairstyle all her life, for during WWII she left an abusive husband for slim, literary Walter Stone. Walter taught at Vassar, wrote, and published a book of poems and aspired to complete a novel by age 40. He encouraged her own work, and her first book of poems was well-received. On impulse she bought the Goshen house, charmed by its orchard and brook, and Walter grudgingly set about repairing it. Yet when the family was enjoying his Sabbatical in England, his despair overcame him—blocked on his novel—and he hung himself. A distraught Ruth brought her daughters home and tried to carry on with their life.
Various poets and editors who speak onscreen—some who were her students, for she taught numerous places around the US in her life—attest to her excellence, crafting her poems with exactly the right words to be understandable on first reading, but with subtle meanings and voices unfolding with further attention. And nearly all acknowledge that her grief about Walter, carried until the end of her life, was an incendiary motivator for her poems. “Turn Your Eyes Away” may straightforwardly speak to his suicide’s effect on her and the family—“Inside your skull there was no room for us”—but fear of disaster, mortality, and melancholy are never far behind.
She worked for My Weekly Reader, probably during the years this reviewer read it in elementary school. The lack of a college degree meant Ruth only got short-term teaching jobs, and she took these until awarded Professor of English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University at age 75, retiring at 85. Many of the poets who most appreciate her are women; she didn’t have the careerist sense of, say, Adrienne Rich, and was dismissed by her male contemporaries’ “old boys’ network”. Yet the African-American male poet Major Jackson has his class analyze her work in his University of Vermont classes.
The family (including namesake grandson Walter) muses on the pain Walter Stone’s suicide left upon each life, and especially Ruth’s. As the film progresses, we see granddaughter Bianca and the rest of the family sorting through her boxes of miscellaneous papers (including unfinished poems!) after her death, as the house is renovated towards become a writers’ retreat and meeting center.
The last film I saw by Nora Jacobson was “Delivered Vacant” (1992), on the gentrification of Brooklyn. This one ends with restoration of beloved land and building to encourage, not erode, community. An historical marker in front of the house, with one of her poems on the reverse side now celebrates Ruth Stone, and her final resting place is just a short walk around the back.