Poem of the week: Manhattan by Lola Ridge

An intensely dynamic vision of New York City in the early 20th century raises questions about its gilded allure


Out of the night you burn, Manhattan,
In a vesture of gold –
Span of innumerable arcs,
Flaring and multiplying –
Gold at the uttermost circles fading
Into the tenderest hint of jade,
Or fusing in tremulous twilight blues,
Robing the far-flung offices,
Scintillant-storied, forking flame,
Or soaring to luminous amethyst
Over the steeples aureoled –

Diaphanous gold,
Veiling the Woolworth, argently
Rising slender and stark
Mellifluous-shrill as a vender’s cry,
And towers squatting graven and cold
On the velvet bales of the dark,
And the Singer’s appraising
Indolent idol’s eye,
And night like a purple cloth unrolled –

Nebulous gold
Throwing an ephemeral glory about life’s vanishing points,
Wherein you burn …
You of unknown voltage
Whirling on your axis …
Scrawling vermillion signatures
Over the night’s velvet hoarding …
Insolent, towering spherical
To apices ever shifting.

In this poem from her first collection, 1918’s The Ghetto and Other Poems, Lola Ridge captures the excitement of a dynamic modern city and insinuates a political critique into her investigations of the visual dynamics of “gold”.

Ridge, born in Dublin in 1873, was a painter as well as poet, and her receptivity to avant garde developments in the visual arts is clear in Manhattan. With its brilliant illusions of physical movement, it might almost be a literary offshoot of Vorticism. Ridge’s adopted city becomes a shape-shifter, a monstrous torch dancer swathed in golden light, a perpetuum mobile, a turning planet. To both the city and the gold, the speaker says “you burn”, but the burning does not – or does not yet – equal disintegration. Generating golden electric light is a continuous, vital process, like the generation of wealth, gold in another form. The “whirling” movement in the last stanza, the “arcs” and “circles” of the first, are compelling metaphorically, and, through the poem’s repetitions and rhythms, they dominate the structure. Even the suggestion of the thesaurus in some of the diction works oddly in the poem’s favour: it adds to the density of movement.

The bright yellow light “at the uttermost circles” softens and morphs into “the tenderest hint of jade” and “tremulous twilight blues” but its effects never cease: and it never vanishes. Gold is volatile and pervasive. In the first stanza, it fades reluctantly, still “forking flame” from the “scintillant-storied” offices. The spelling reminds us that the office blocks contain stories as well as storeys. (Ridge’s talent for characterisation and sympathetic “human stories” is also much in evidence in this collection.) The rhyme-word at the end of the last line, still picking up a chime with the second, gives us the sound and root of “gold” in “aureoled”. It suggests that haloes have shifted in the modern city from the churches and temples to the wealth-generators, the offices and factories.

Materialism includes material in decorative form. Ridge weaves into stanzas two and three an important clothing metaphor, picked up from “vesture”, continued in “robing” and, later, in “veiling” and in the occurrence of “velvet” twice in association with nocturnal imagery.

Her vision acquires a more narrow-eyed intensity. In the second stanza, she names names, singling out the Woolworth and Singer buildings, and generally choosing a more sinister lexicon. The skyscrapers’ very shapes suggest the “vender’s cry” while the towers resemble merchants crouched over their wares: night itself is “like a purple cloth unrolled”. End-rhymes proliferate in this stanza (gold, cold, unrolled; dark, stark; cry, eye). While the Woolworth building rises “argently” like a naked, silvery, pre-Raphaelite body, the “diaphanous” gold stealthily covers the traces of its crude power.

“Nebulous gold / Throwing an ephemeral glory about life’s vanishing points, / Wherein you burn …” These “vanishing points” are the crux of the matter, where the human and the monetary intersect. The night’s “velvet” reappears, rich fabric of display as in stanza two, and “indolent” catches a rhyme with “insolent”. The hard coldness of “apices ever shifting” make a fine cubist finale. The picture the poem has painted remains fluid, unframed. And so the expansive possibilities and sheer beauty of gold are shown to be without limit.

In her next collection, Sun-Up and Other Poems, there’s a short poem that is almost a companion piece to Manhattan. Wall Street at Night demonstrates Ridge’s increased technical assurance. Thesaurus-words are absent, the terse colloquial diction focuses the energy, while the gift for metaphor and for making images live and move is unchanged:

Long vast shapes ... cooled and flushed through with darkness …
Lidless windows
Glazed with a flashy luster
From some little pert cafe chirping up like a sparrow.
And down among iron guts
Piled silver
Throwing gray spatter of light … pale without heat …
Like the pallor of dead bodies.

A richly varied collection, fusing Ridge’s talents as a poet, painter, storyteller and political radical, The Ghetto and Other Poems can be read online here. To the Many: Collected Early Works by Lola Ridge has just been published, and is reviewed here by Billy Mills.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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