Shapes on a ship



by Ruth Stone


In the longer view it doesn’t matter.

However, it’s that having lived, it matters.

So that every death breaks you apart.

You find yourself weeping at the door

of your own kitchen, overwhelmed

by loss. And you find yourself weeping

as you pass the homeless person

head in hands resigned on a cement

step, the wire basket on wheels right there.

Like stopped film, or a line of Vallejo,

or a sketch of the mechanics of a wing

by Leonardo. All pauses in space,

a violent compression of meaning

in an instant within the meaningless.

Even staring into the dim shapes

at the farthest edge; accepting that blur.



Poet Ruth Stone puts forth a pretty bleak view of existence in “Shapes.” Her description of the type of moment that breaks you apart is a nihilistic riddle:


A violent compression of meaning in an instant within the meaningless.


That’s a view my sister, who is pictured sitting next to the poem on a ferry in Savannah, would not share. For the record, Josie’s presence in the photograph is coincidental and signifies only her willingness to get up and move her seat and not her endorsement of the ideas and images contained herein.


[Ahem. Greetings to my dear sister.]


Disclaimers aside, this little poem followed me from the Savannah River to a parking lot in Southfield, Michigan, where I found myself this morning momentarily confused staring up at four gigantic flags marking a car dealership. The flags were sunk on their poles at half-mast, and in the bright sun they waved like Sequoia-sized living monuments, calling out to the wee folk below, Remember, Remember, Remember. Remember what? And then I did remember—the Las Vegas massacre, of course—and my heart sank. I stood still, remembering the beautiful faces I had seen in the paper, and then remembering this line from “Shapes”—


So that every death breaks you apart.


And this one—


However, it’s that having lived, it matters.


I’m not sure exactly what Stone means by that, but the line sticks with me.


Anyone with thoughts on the last two lines?


(FYI, Cesar Vallejo was a Peruvian poet considered the greatest Latin American poet of the twentieth century, and by some as the greatest innovator of poetry of the same time period in any language. Link here to learn more about him and read some of his poems.)



I’ll post Stone’s bio from a previous post:


Recognition came late to Stone.   She wrote in relative obscurity and poverty most of her life. In her late eighties, she won the National Book Award and in her nineties was named the Poet Laureate of Vermont. When she died last November [2011] at age 96, every major paper around the globe printed a worshipful obituary.


Ruth Stone (1915-2011) was born in Roanoke, Virginia but grew up in Indianapolis. Her father was a typesetter for the Indianapolis Star and a part-time drummer whose gambling addiction kept the family in near poverty. Still, hers was a happy childhood, full of music, literature and fun-loving relatives. Her mother read her Tennyson while she was a toddler, and her grandmothers and aunts engaged her in their love of reading and writing.



She married young, to a chemist, had a daughter and ended the marriage when she fell in love with professor and poet Walter Stone. They had two children together and their poetry careers were just taking off when he hung himself on a coat hook in their London apartment. She never got over his suicide. In an interview with NPR when she was 89, Stone said, “I think every year – let’s see, he’s been dead maybe 40–some years — I think every year or every day or something, that it won’t come back — the pain. And it always does.”



She struggled as a single mother of three girls, travelling across the country from teaching post to teaching post to support the family. She eventually settled at SUNY Binghamton and then moved to rural Vermont.   I like this story poet Chard DiNiord tells about when he visited her towards the end of her life:


“I didn’t know Ruth before I interviewed her and really didn’t know what to expect when I showed up at her rundown, three-room apartment on Waybridge Street in Middlebury, Vermont. She didn’t open the door at first, fearing, I think, that I was a scam artist. My wife sat on her porch while I went for a brief walk in the hope that she would eventually open her door. While I was gone, she looked out her kitchen window and saw my wife sitting in one of her metal chairs. Although nearly blind from a botched eye procedure, she could still make out figures and colors. She emerged from her apartment in a flannel shirt and corduroy pants and sat next to my wife, taking her hand and immediately engaging her in conversation.”



And this, from the subsequent published interview:


Ruth Stone (laughing): I’m just this weird old lady.


CD: You are, and that’s a great thing.


CD: Your humor complements your grief in a way that helps you write about loss without becoming morose.


Ruth Stone: Yes! Ultimately, you know you can’t help it. Life turns terrible, and it’s so ridiculous, it’s just funny.





  1. Tom

    “…a violent compression of meaning…”

    Oh, that was a blow to the solar plexus that left me stunned and gasping for breath. Kind of like the nightly news.

  2. Creative You Editing

    Re the last two lines, I think it refers to a couple of things: most literally, the vision problems she dealt with after that botched eye surgery (“accepting the blur” and “dim shapes”), but also the dim shape of death on the horizon and the inescapable extinction of the self. I think she found while talking or writing about the literal vision problem that it had a compelling metaphorical meaning as well. Thank you for posting this poem. It is a powerful one indeed.

  3. Emily

    I’m so happy to see a Ruth Stone poem! I think the dim shapes are the “moments of compressed meaning” which we see peripherally and don’t quite grasp–that even those moments are as meaningful as a leonardo sketch or a line of vallejo or a human life . . .

  4. Patricia Rawlings

    A beautiful poem. And it has its mystery . . . that’s maybe eluded me!

    But here goes one idea:

    I wonder if she’s talking about the moment abstractions turn into real things and how this is an ineluctable and irreversible process.

    In the beginning things seen using “the longer view” don’t matter to her, are at arm’s-length and don’t make her weep.

    But if someone, anyone, dies, “having lived,” they’re re-animated by her mind and have the power to make her weep.

    Despair encountered in the tactile reality of the “resigned” person with the “wire basket on wheels right there” makes her weep.

    Now Death and Despair are no longer abstractions. They’re real, as real as a line of poetry, a drawing, a bit of film: meaning crystallized instantly.

    Then she steps back, seeming to return to that place of the “longer view” of the first line:

    “Even staring into the dim shapes

    at the farthest edge; accepting that blur.”

    The lines feel incomplete, the thought unfinished.

    “Even staring” what? Even “accepting” what?

    Finally it occurred to me that maybe she’s saying that even as she is seeing– accepting–distant objects as blurs, she’s simultaneously knowing that they represent real things: boats, trees, shoreline. They can’t ever be turned into abstractions, anymore than that homeless person can be transformed back into Despair.

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