Ariella Ruth’s “Barbara Allen”—the first chapbook of her triptych REMNANTS—is a subtly layered web-work of fleeting recurring images and phrases, inlaid with echoes from the regret-rooted love ballad “Barbara Allen.” The poem finds its own power, evoking birth love and dying in glimpses both present and deep-in-time, and an overall mood that transcends emotional labelling. It is a pleasure to read and get to know.
Ariella Ruth notes “love is birth” and, in that spirit, gathers seemingly small details to illuminate the unspoken mysteries we sense all around us but aren’t ourselves certain how to look at in order to see. She holds moments up to the light so that a scene may emerge more fully, and deepen, “her fingers held the stories that fall below cheek bones.” REMNANTS celebrates new life in “the snow that weighs the ceiling.” Later, “eyes scream of ocean” in loss. The movement of REMNANTS is “fire hanging on [a] corner of the sun” as Ruth interrogates the ebbs & flows between two people and the passage of time from them. These poems are also a chance to see music through words, to bring “forth the present in rolled pants”, especially before we too become “skin dust.”
Ariella Ruth’s lush poems sound out into the void, and the void answers back. Through haunting twinnings—of light and dark, birth and death, he and she, water and ether—the poems of REMNANTS weave a tapestry of love and loss, and in that the makings of a life.
Barbara Allen (Bonny Barbara Allen, Barbary Allen, Barbary Ellen) is the best known of the Child Ballads. Hundreds of versions have been collected. The earliest mention we have of it is in Samuel Pepys’s diary of January 1666. She has been a hard-hearted tavern girl, a witch, and a mistress of Charles II. In some versions, she laughs at her spurned lover’s corpse and walks off into an unknown fate; in one version, she accuses her doomed suitor of wanting not her beauty but her dowry. In most, she dies of remorse soon after him and asks to be buried by his side; then her heart grows a briar and his a rose, and the two entwine. That is where Ariella’s verses end. They are between a death and the making of a daughter, a woman, oneself. She’s unstuck, not unkind, unafraid. Her focus is at once minute and panoramic. It’s an open-ended situation. We need that now. Poets instantiate freedom. We go with Ariella in a cold place, sweet New England. The light changes. There are flowers, fireplaces, hands, and rain. Light, the first word, recurs, once by the sea, which might be an interior, and as in the ballad, a bell tolls.