Anything That Burns You
A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet
by Terese Svoboda
Schaffner Press, 2016
Terese Svoboda creates an image of witness with the opening scene of Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet. At a protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the hooves of police horses rear up over Ridge’s bowed head. She stands immobile, willing to be martyred on behalf of anarchists and immigrants—two identities central to her life and work as well as the tumultuous era she helped shape. Svoboda—poet, novelist, memoirist, and translator—has reclaimed the life of this neglected, pioneering writer, compelling us to share her passion for Ridge. She asks why contemporary feminists have not claimed a woman who championed women’s creativity ten years before Virginia Woolf, and why we don’t today celebrate an artist hailed by the founder of Poetry magazine as a genius.
Ridge was born Rose Emily Ridge in Ireland in 1873 to a family who traced ancestral connections to royalty. The claim befits a woman who, despite a life of poverty, considered herself equal to the wealthy patrons who funded her writing and travels to Europe, Baghdad, Mexico, and beyond. If the royalty claim creates an air of mystery, that, too, suits someone who changed her name repeatedly and shaved a decade off her age as she invented a self. Svoboda wisely structures the book both chronologically and thematically via Ridge’s poetry and politics. Her subject’s shifting identities and peripatetic life might otherwise challenge our ability to follow the story. Chronology also serves an author confronting gaps. All biographers face this dilemma. However, Svoboda, who did extensive research, also had to contend with an estate executor who denied access to half of Ridge’s papers. That this work feels fluid, the life fully realized, testifies to Svoboda’s tenacity as well as her lyricism.
Separated from Ridge’s father, her mother left Ireland for Australia, then New Zealand, where Ridge spent her formative years. She married a miner, lost one child, and moved with her son and her mother back to Australia. Despite successful ventures into painting, theater, and writing short stories, Ridge felt her ambitions thwarted in New Zealand. She thrived in Sydney’s bohemian arts scene, a little-explored world Svoboda recounts in fascinating detail.
Arriving in New York in 1908, Ridge, having never divorced her husband, identified as a “single widow.” She’d left her son in a San Francisco orphanage, from which he was sent to Los Angeles; she would rarely see him again. Rather than condemn or condone these actions, Svoboda holds fast to her task: to conjure Ridge’s frame of mind from the known fragments. She uses the conditional to bridge the biographer’s imagination and the facts. Regarding Ridge’s actions, Svoboda writes, “Perhaps she hoped she would return to Los Angeles or send for him after she had settled in New York.” But she adds that Ridge “must have had some idea about the terrible conditions that typically occur with the overcrowding of children who were supported by the state.” Neither the author nor the reader can know if Ridge’s actions haunted her, though several poems suggest this. Svoboda deftly balances perspectives here. She sets an action that might seem heartless, especially amid the contemporary adulation of motherhood, in its social context. In the early 20th century, poor parents often placed children in orphanages or with other families until they could retrieve them. Svoboda cites Dorothea Lange, who entrusted her children to foster parents while she pursued photography. Parents also leave children for months at elite boarding schools, she adds, though for vastly different reasons. Svoboda shifts our vision, jolting preconceptions about “proper behavior,” especially for women.
New York gave birth to Lola Ridge, anarchist and poet. Without money or connections, Ridge struggled as surely as the immigrants whose lives her writing celebrated. In the electric anarchist scene, Ridge found her place among artists and writers seeking self-expression and liberation from state and religious domination. She worked as an artist’s model, did illustrations for Emma Goldman’s pamphlets, and managed the anarchist Ferrer Center. Here she met David Lawson, whom she eventually married and lived with off and on until her death. Though Ridge would later separate from Goldman (“I was no disciple”), write mystically inclined poetry, and reject all ideologies, anarchism remained the closest thing to a working philosophy she held.
The sturdy spine of Svoboda’s book is her adroit and extensive treatment of Ridge’s poetry, both in modernist free verse and later, traditional forms. Ridge published five poetry books in addition to many poems in magazines like New Republic, New Masses, Dial, and Poetry, most to critical acclaim. In The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918), she evokes immigrant life on Hester Street, women workers in garment factories, and the harsh effects of capitalism. Sun Up and Other Poems (1920) explores a young girl’s inner life, including “sex and its secrets.” An early feminist, Ridge was one of the literary editors of Margaret Sanger’s The Birth Control Review; she celebrated the androgynous spirit of creativity in “Women and the Creative Will,” a speech given in Chicago in 1919. Women poets were essential to modernism; they were lauded by Edmund Wilson as “more rewarding than the men…their literary instinct surer.” Svoboda critiques as well as admires Ridge, admitting that in later works such as Firehead, a radical reimagining of Christ’s crucifixion, “her vision outpaces the material, and the work sounds dated and wrought.”
We know Ridge in part through the company she kept—and what company it was! In her one-room apartment on E. 15th Street, she hosted literary salons where Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Reed, William Carlos Williams and others gathered. The lively and shifting cast of characters debated politics, read poems, and raised money for literary magazines. Among the most important were those Ridge edited, Broom and Others. Both were enormously influential in introducing and shaping experimental poetry. Ridge’s significance to modernism in America, Svoboda argues, was as great as Ezra Pound’s was in Europe. As a friend and editor, Ridge championed writers like Jean Toomer and Hart Crane; she featured Paul Strand’s photos and Picasso’s drawings in the journals. She didn’t pit American aesthetics against European but used ancient cultures like the Mayan to explore the uniqueness of American art and writing. Sometimes the complex connections among early twentieth-century literati leave a reader dizzy. But Svoboda uncovers how social entanglements shape art and literature as surely as the “worth” of the work. She astutely observes, “What becomes admired depends so much on taste and timing, as well as the proper publicity, the right psychological Zeitgeist that allows a poet to step into the light just when the hands of the audience are coming together—and not just the text, as New Critics would have readers believe.”
As an editor of struggling journals, Ridge often worked without salary. She was always broke, even when prize money arrived: The Shelley Memorial Award (twice), a Poet’s Guild award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. But lack of money doesn’t explain her self-imposed starvation, even while in residence at places with ample resources like Yaddo. Svoboda creates a complex psychological portrait of Ridge’s anorexia and her real and imagined maladies. Despite lifelong health issues, Ridge traveled the world, leaving behind her long-suffering husband to send her drugs (Gynergen), clothing suitable for Mabel Dodge Luhan’s New Mexican arts scene (a black kimono), and always books. Ridge lost many of these while traveling, along with her passport, and critically, her manuscripts. That she survived until age 68 seems miraculous. However, her fragile persona masked a fierce will and helped guard her creative solitude.
The biography’s title seems apt. We still feel the heat that burned Ridge and inspired her work. Yet Svoboda’s initial query echoes: Why has such a standout writer been ignored? The author puzzles out the reasons through the demise of modernism and retreat from political poetry; the backlash of the 1950s; sexism, McCarthyism, and the rise of New Criticism. Ridge’s dedication to freedom and experimentation also make her hard to classify. Svoboda raises the question of why readers today might admire Pound as though his Fascism didn’t affect his poetry yet dismiss modernists as somehow polluted by leftist politics. The modernist passion for justice, she states, is particularly critical for today’s “Occupy Generation.”
We’re left pondering Ridge’s contradictions: a woman overly generous yet always soliciting funds from friends and patrons; fiercely devoted to anarchism but suspicious of political systems; a celebrant of all forms of love who abandoned her son and often seemed ungrateful for her husband’s ministrations; someone who lauded sexual liberation but neglected and abused her body. Svoboda doesn’t flinch at portraying Ridge’s less savory qualities. But we read biographies to imagine the lives and times of others, and to assess our own. I finished the book in awe of Lola Ridge. Svoboda’s riveting biography reminds us that there are other ways to love and work, to transcend today’s often narrowly defined vision of what makes a committed citizen, a dedicated artist, or a fulfilled life.
Joanne B. Mulcahy is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her essays appear in journals and anthologies that include The Stories that Shape Us: Contemporary Women Write About the West and These United States. She is the author of Remedios: The Healing Life of Eva Castellanoz and is working on a biography of artist Marion Greenwood.