Verses by Lola Ridge

Verses. Lola Ridge (Connecticut: Quale Press, 2019). ISBN 9781935835240. RRP $18. 176pp.

Reviewed by Lynne Street

Lola Ridge left Ireland with her mother, Emma Ridge (née Reilly) in 1877. Lola (also known as Rosalie or Rose Ridge) was then aged three. After Emma married Donald McFarlane in Hokitika, Rose became Rosalie MacFarlane.

The poems included in this collection were written by Ridge when she lived in New Zealand and Australia, and subsequently submitted to The Sydney Bulletin as a manuscript. Some of her verses were first published individually between 1901 and 1905 in The Bulletin before she and her son emigrated to the US in 1907.

The 63-page Introduction is written by Michele Leggott, who herself is an accomplished poet, with an academic background of poetry. She provides a thorough discussion of Ridge’s use of imagery, symbolism, and metaphor. Leggott adds to Ridge’s verse by supplying her findings on Ridge’s development as a poet of significance to both Australia and New Zealand.

Read closely before delving into Ridge’s verses. Leggott’s Introduction provides insights to Ridge’s background — her family origins, the places she lived, the impact of these aspects on her style and themes. Leggott also details the history of Ridge’s writing and her involvement in the early stages of female political and social activism.

Leggott accompanies her responses to the verses with samples of Ridge’s work. In the book’s final pages, the notes detail the sources of Ridge’s verses, including amendments made in earlier publications. The notes also explain the Māori vocabulary used in the New Zealand-themed poems.

Ridge’s verses are definitely in the style of a female writer of her time. Her later verses delve into the lives of people who lived outside of, or beneath, generally acceptable society. An icon to social and political activists, and an activist herself, she entered the near-underworld that was beyond the norm for women of her social level. Her verses represent different stages in her life: her return to Sydney in Australia, her time in New Zealand’s south-west coastal bush during the gold diggings, and her travels in the US, before settling in New York. Ridge died in Brooklyn, in 1941, aged 67, of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Ridge’s work shows she is powerful writer. Her pieces are presented in three sections: Voices of the Bush, Songs of the Sluicers, and Humorous Verse. The last section is, in my opinion, poorly titled, as only one poem is truly humorous. The rest are best described as whimsical, and could have been better placed within the first two collections.

Phrases from her verses jump at the reader, filled with maternal and sexual metaphor. Ridge’s vivid imagery is also easily recognised in New Zealand, where most of her work was created.

The verses that are a standout for me include “Lake Kanieri”, first published in the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine in November 1902. It opens with:

Blue veined & dimpling, dappled in the sun
Lies Lake Kanieri, like a tired child
Wide-eyed, close clinging to the spacious skirts
Of old Tuhua, the big, brawny nurse
On whose broad lap I lie. All else is still.

In the second stanza, Ridge writes:

Ye old Stoic Hills!
Yield up your secrets. On your furrowed fronts
Are scars of fierce upheavals; in your grave,
Deep breasts what dreams are shut? Ye seem to stand
Like pale, impassive monks, whose chill looks hideForbidden memories of clinging lips,
Of passion conquered & of pain repressed
Within their breasts congealed.

I appreciate the internal rhyme and alliteration in this piece, two tools that Ridge wields in much of her work. Her choice of words drives the reader to utter them in a particular rhyming pattern, rather than as usually spoken.

“The Bush”, published in The Bulletin in September 1904, is full of references to the femininity of the bush and the masculinity of the sun:

And weary women who have seen love droop
In lust & laughter, till their bruised hearts yearn
And ye, her nursling, who would turn the key
Her shut heart closes on its hidden things,
Go learn & listen at her mother knee
The half-articulate, deep song she sings.

In “The Legend of the Cross” — published in the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine in April 1903 — Ridge makes the star who visits masculine, while the earth who gives birth is feminine:

The Earth, a dusky maiden,
Stirred in her vestal dreams,
Her deep eyes slumber laden
Dazed in his burning beams;
Close in his arms he wound her,
And with her tangled hair,
The forests braided round her,
She screened her bosom bare.

And here, Dusk is feminine, as she comes to take the children:

With holy dew to wet them,
And priestly Dark to shrive,
High o’er the South she set them,
The bright-eyed children Five.
And from a rocky highland,
Earth watched, till faint & far
Up in the distant sky-land
They opened star by star.
And night by night they grew there,
Till o’er the south Sea track
A blaze of light they threw there,
That reached the line & back;
And from lone bush-bound stations
To wild grey-seas a-toss,
Men hail them from the Nations—
The Guide Lights of the Cross!

All in all, Verses by Lola Ridge has just become a preferred collection of New Zealand poetry for me. May it become a standard text in literature in our secondary schools and beyond.

Lynne Street has enjoyed writing reviews since 2014, for New Zealand distributors and US Romance publishers, and of books that have given reading pleasure, fascinated her, and fitted her eclectic interests.

To read more reviews, poetry, and articles, join the NZPS here. You can also find more poetry reviews on our website here.