I saw a movie once called Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her: five short stories about women’s interior struggles with loneliness, grief, dissatisfaction. But let’s be honest. Most of these things you can’t tell just by looking at a woman, especially when she’s surrounded by her children.
The woman in the photo below, for example, was 30-something, proud, defiant—you can see all that. You can maybe tell, by the body language, that she raised her children to be self-sufficient, self-contained. There were reasons for that, but you can’t see the reasons in the picture. You can’t see her loneliness. Her uncertainty about how she was going to put food on the table for her kids.
The girl on the right in the striped jumpsuit grew up to be the woman in the photo below. The ashtray suggests she was a smoker, the teapot that she washed the cigarettes down with a cup of tea. You can see from the no-frills chocolate cake that the birthday cakes she baked for her kids were quick and plain. You can’t see why they needed to be: the six-bedroom house she kept clean on her own, the huge garden she tended, the alcoholic husband who was no help at all, the two old men he brought home for her to look after, like she didn’t already have enough people depending on her.
The girl on the left in the funky striped dress grew up to the woman in the photo below. You can see it was the early 90s by her huge plastic glasses. You can see she wasn’t one to fuss about hair and makeup, that she had two boys. Not much else is visible here. You don’t see the closet. You can’t tell she’s on the verge of busting out of it.
All three of these women carried secrets. Me, my mother, her mother.
infesting my half-sleep…
did you enter my wound from another wound
brushing mine in a crowd…
or did I snare you on my sharper edges
as a bird flying through cobwebbed trees at sun-up
carries off spiders on its wings?
running over my soul without sound,
only when dawn comes tip-toeing
ushered by a suave wind,
and dreams disintegrate
like breath shapes in frosty air,
I shall overhear you, bare-foot,
scatting off into the darkness….
I shall know you, secrets
by the litter you have left
and by your bloody foot-prints.
Her 1941 obituary in The New York Times called Lola Ridge one of the leading American poets, but not many people — not nearly enough — have heard of her today. Born in Dublin in 1873, she emigrated to the United States in 1908 via Australia and New Zealand. An activist, an anarchist “when anarchy was a political possibility,” she was “one of the first to delineate the life of the poor in Manhattan and, in particular, women’s lives in New York City.” Asked in an interview once what poets should write about, she replied “Anything that burns you.”
You can read a selection of Lola Ridge’s poems here. She deserves to be much better known.