'reflecting each other as obliquely as in cracked mirrors'

Lola Ridge and poetry’s refractions in Aotearoa

Lola Ridge
Lola Ridge

Some time ago I was traversing through Papers Past, an archive of digitised newspapers managed by the National Library of New Zealand, when I fortuitously encountered six poems by Lola Ridge in the New Zealand Illustrated and The New Zealand Tablet. With the exception of “The Tidings,” her other poems “The Legend of the Cross, The Dream Man,” Moonstruck,” “Dead Pine Shadows,” and “Mother” underplay the more abrasive social observations that accompanied Ridge’s The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918), but they are also undeniably rebellious in their pleasure of feminine, cosmic, and earthly ecologies. Of particular interest in this small cohort of poetry is how much Ridge’s imagery of light — its refracting, reflecting properties infused with mythological coordinates — echo throughout her poetic imaginary. Her 1903 poems are, for example, reap with lustrous and shady adjectives and compound nouns — “brightest,” “shining,” “burning beams,” “dusky,” “gleaming splendour,” “starry spaces,” “dull,” “glare o’ day,” “dim,” “moon-beams,” “glitter,” “pale,” “helmet white,” “moon-set,” “shining eye-balls lit” — that suggest the shifting material and elemental conditions of her perception. Later, in “Mother,” Ridge overtly aligns these conditions to her own maternal figure, whose lustrous presence foregrounds a sensitive feminine strength:

Your love was like moonlight
turning harsh things to beauty,
so that little wry souls
reflecting each other obliquely
as in cracked mirrors …
beheld in your luminous spirit
their own reflection,
transfigured as in a shining stream,
and loved you for what they are not.

You are less an image in my mind
than a lustre.
I see you in gleams
pale as a star-light on a gray wall …
evanescent as the reflection of a white swan
shimmering in broken water.

The ellipses here extend Ridge’s streams of attentive reflections that invest the poetic gaze with motherly appreciation. Michele Leggott has more expertly documented Ridge’s relationship with her mother than I can undertake. Yet suffice to say, this is a poem where memory sheds light not on the image of the mother but rather her radiating ambience. 

Ridge’s fluency in this illustrious vocabulary also underscores my own anachronistic reading into the subtle inflections of her temporary homeland in her work — not because light has a material-specificity in Aotearoa but, rather, for the unique experiential effect it leaves on local observers. At least for contemporaries, Aotearoa’s light might recall the violence that it exerts on exposed skins under a dwindling ozone layer and the cheesy PSA memories of ‘slip, slop, slap.’ It also recalls for me Robert Creeley’s evocations of the stern sunlight in his poem “10:30 AM: Ralph Hotere’s” whereby the briskness of each line feels more akin to an observer’s reactive squinting: 

See sun shine.
Look across valley at houses.
Chickens squawk.
Bright glint off roofs.
Water’s also,
in bay, in distance.

Both poets’ fleeting engagements with Aotearoa’s ecological nuances gesture towards the interstitial zones where an uncomfortable squinting at the world re-envisions the parochialism of an island state. Ridge’s inner and outer worlds were marked by a sense of dislocation, motion, and unsettlement — as an Irish immigrant in New Zealand, Australia, and later the United States — and her poetry, arguably, can be read like “cracked mirrors” that reflect back her sharp perceptions of these geopolitical spaces and timescales.

Yet more to the point here, Ridge’s migratory patterns pose a rather curious problem of identification, raising the question of who might be included in the accumulative category of “New Zealand/Aotearoa poetry,” and, indeed, the validity of this label itself. Ridge’s brief presence in New Zealand/Aotearoa alone should invite a very long squint at the configurations of the country’s poetry communities. And indeed, Ridge’s poetry proposes a different cartography of national literature, one that remaps not centres but its radiant networks. 

1. Robert Creeley, The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1975-2005 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 9.