by Claire J. Baker
I am honored that Street Spirit editor Terry Messman has asked me to write a memorial article on the passing of our good friend, the luminous poet Mary Rudge. Mary passed away in her sleep on Sunday, January 19, 2014, after a long life of giving and receiving. Her daughter Diana Rudge was living with Mary, lovingly helping her in their longtime Alameda home.
Mary died just a couple of hours before Martin Luther King Day arrived. How fitting: Mary Rudge always championed the less-privileged, the beaten-down. Street Spirit printed many of Mary’s poems and articles, as being vital toward the cause of peace and equality
Our friend Mary was a vibrant peace activist, and was asked to speak at peace events and rallies both here in America and in her travels with Artists Embassy International to five continents. Heads of state asked Mary Rudge to come and teach “peace skills” and present “Poetry as a Healing Art.”
Earlier in our 40-plus-year friendship, Mary said: “Claire, what I mean by peace goes well beyond the end of a war.” Yes, I told myself, that’s positive peace. It’s uplifting to learn that Mary Rudge’s literary work was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Here is the short list of Mary’s other ventures (to list them all would require a small book): She was a prize-winning poet, and was honored as the Poet Laureate of Alameda, Calif., an honor she held for 12 years, until the end of her life.
Mary was a frequent presenter and reader who overcame her own shyness, and became a world traveler. An early champion of the farmworkers, she was the editor of an anthology of poetry, Reaping: Poems, Cries, Chants, Tributes, Songs for the Farmworkers. Mary was the Literary Arts and Events Director for Artists Embassy International (AEI), as well as a reporter for a local newspaper and a book reviewer. She was the originator of an ongoing Alameda TV program “Star Rover,” and the first leader of Alameda Poets, an ongoing chapter of Chaparral Poets.
I tried to accompany Mary to events, but couldn’t keep up the pace — and I was an athlete. Later, I counseled with Mary and soon realized I couldn’t duplicate her inroads and workloads, but had to find and forge my own.
Though faced with a great deal of adversity in life, our friend Mary was never bitter or complaining. She once told me that we don’t get paid to plan or organize, even though Mary’s ventures took a lot of planning and organizing, while the payoff for poetry is small or zero.
Earlier in life, she had owned and/or managed two art galleries in Oakland. And she also taught gifted children. Lucky for us, this single mother of seven, our dear friend, was wise, realistic, and helpful. Often she offered amazing insights and ideas we might consider.
Mary Rudge was a luminous spirit in our midst, so I want to share her poem, “We Who Are Luminous.”
“We who are luminous
are 90% light
who know a fiery fusion that
makes stars and suns
whose flesh is compressed of
We chart an inner astronomy
our nucleus, our energy
without burning our eyes
There is a crust of seasons that we wear.
Seeds sleep along the bones, erupt, and bloom
in heats and darks responsive to our moon.
Flames loop and leap the arteries
there is a core of ember in the womb —
beyond our brightness
our creation, cells
connect in constellations of our own.”
Mary Rudge’s poem “Luminous” was first presented at the World Congress of Poets and later performed by Poetic Dance Theater Company, sponsored by Artists Embassy International (AEI), a nonprofit organization that promotes worldwide peace and understanding through the arts. Natica Angilly, the president, dancer and choreographer of Poetic Dance Theater Company, told me that “Luminous” helped launch dance-performance poetry programs for AEI’s Poetic Dance Theater Company, now in its 21st year of performing its annual Dancing Poetry Festival at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, in San Francisco. Mary Rudge and Richard Angilly were featured poets, and their poems were read and performed at worldwide events.
Artists Embassy International is a humanitarian organization that served as an ideal venue for Mary’s creativity. It resulted in the honors Rudge received at the World Congress of Poets, including a crown of “gold laurel wreath as an International Poet Laureate.” The honors go on and on for this illuminating poet. She won poetry contest prizes, honorary degrees and a “Princess of Poetry” honor in Italy.
Mary Rudge had just finished her last book, Jack London’s Neighborhood, a wonderful study of London and many other artists that lived in the artists’ community of Alameda. A partial listing of Mary Rudge’s books reads like the curriculum for a university course in humanities: Water Planet, Oakland Is A Holy City, When the Rapture Comes, Bus Poems, Struck Lodestone, The Skin of God, For Ireland.
Mary and I co-authored Poems From Street Spirit, a collection of our poetry contributions to Spirit over the years. From this collection, I’m drawn to this passage from Mary Rudge’s poem “A Child’s View of Winter”:
“In winter we only heat one room
We hang blankets over the doors
and put all our bedding on the floor
and sleep there
together in one warm room.
I like to hear our breath
in the dark, one family
helping each other keep warm.”
Financially challenged, Mary had known and experienced personally these kinds of cold-weather privations in heating the 1880s fix-up Victorian she called home. (Their first home in Alameda was in the projects.)
“All work and no play” didn’t apply to Mary Rudge. Alongside her serious concerns for world peace and justice for homeless people, she had a light side too. Because Alameda once had a peanut butter factory, Mary sponsored a “peanut butter and jam jamboree” and then, from the poets she had inspired to write about peanut butter, she produced an anthology.
Again on the light side, Mary ran a snake in a snake race “for a good cause,” she said. At the dedication of a bench and plaque to honor Ina Coolbrith on Russian Hill, she had celebrants frolic down the park path scattering bird seeds. And at a new-officers’ installation for a poetry club, she used a magic wand to scatter sparkles on the newcomers’ shoulders. All these innovations made the events more memorable. That was our Mary.
Though a topnotch lyric poet, Rudge also could and did write with irony and anger, as in her great poem, “Where Was Your Pen in the War?” again published in Poems from Street Spirit.
The poem was a powerful outcry, addressed to a fellow poet who had once spoken out against war with courage and outrage and vision, but was now missing in action as the Gulf War erupted. Mary’s concluding eight lines are a powerful indictment of a former poet of peace now sitting on the sidelines:
“How angry I am, arrived
at your door, to see the note ‘gone fishing’ —
I expected to carry off a box of passion
reams of paper ammunition, we needed you
right-writing hand, what right have you,
you bastard while the world burns
to just be down by the river
watching the light on its beautiful forever flow.”
Rudge also edited and contributed to Poets and Peace International; to State of Peace: The Women Speak; and to Peace Poems By Children, this last book accomplished by interviewing children, inspiring them to write peace poems which were then taken all over the world as part of a peace exchange sponsored by AEI and other organizations. Mary believed in “Poet as Culture Hero” and in “Poetry as a Healing Art,” both refreshing concepts.
And I remember Mary Rudge’s Bus Poems, an early collection of poetry. Mary never owned a car. She walked, took BART and paratransit; friends gave her rides, and she took the bus. Rudge identified with the common man, with fellow bus riders in rich ethnic and cultural diversity. Her poetry is refreshing because she writes with conviction and uses imagery as a sketch-artist with an expansive spirit.
Mary graduated from California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and studied art in Mexico and Santa Cruz. She illustrated her own and others’ books, including two books she and I co-authored.
In gathering material for this article, I was excited to come across Mary Rudge’s poem “Sunflower,” winner of Chaparral Poets Beth Haas Memorial Award in 1997. The initial passage reads:
“Turning toward something
greater than yourself.
It is said you are peasant stock
of all the flowers closest to barefooted
struck in humble earth of south of France
Belgium, Holland, Spain
all farm countries
to dance, coarse, rough, wild, plain
in back yards and bare plots
untamed by fences, upright
able to grow uncared for.”
A few years later, Mary won the coveted Chaparral Poets’ Golden Pegasus trophy. At the 2013 Berkeley Poetry Festival, Mary Rudge was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award. Dignitaries shared the honor with her, as did her friends, the Angillys and I among them, as we all tripped over to a nearby cafe for light refreshments.
I remember that Mary urged us artistic/poetic women to openly take pride in our accomplishments, be mindful of promoting ourselves and our good works. She reminded us that the Beat poets, mostly men, were not shy about eliciting attention and promoting themselves wherever they went and read their works. I certainly profited by her suggestion, as have other women.
In 1979, Mary originated the concept of Poetry Landmarks locally, and helped establish a poetry landmark in Point Richmond, Calif. I followed with a poetry landmark in my then-hometown of San Pablo, in the Civic Center courtyard. Rudge had shown the way. Others followed: Modesto, San Francisco, Piedmont, Oakland, the latter three landmarks in honor of California’s first Poet Laureate, Ina Coolbrith. Poetry landmarks can be a plaque, a home, bench, sundial, or a tree, as in poet-tree. Public dedication is always encouraged to show that poets are alive and active.
The last time any of us saw Mary Rudge was on Saturday, January 18, 2014, at Alameda Museum for Natica’s Big Show. The occasion was perfect for Mary: her poem “Irish Girl” was beautifully performed by Poetic Dance Theater Company. She was accompanied by her caregiver daughter Diana Rudge, and she sold copies of her just-published book, Jack London’s Neighborhood (Alameda is also Mary’s own neighborhood).
Our friend Mary was surrounded by an art exhibit, and by friends, admirers and dancers she knew. She enjoyed grand refreshments in warm community. Several of her books were on display, and she was relaxed and happy in this cozy museum in her own hometown. Mary and Diana had front-row seats and Mary spoke to the crowd, most of whom knew her.
Here, Natica reminds me that instead of reading my scheduled poem, “Double Helix,” I changed my choice to “Fantasy in New Guinea,” a poem of mine which I read at the end of the program. Following is the now-fateful poem, “Fantasy in New Guinea” (from Street Spirit):
“When one is about to die
three women of the mountains
strip your body with dignity;
they cover you, chin to knees,
with large butterflies.
Blinking satisfaction, you die
the splendid death of your dreams.
The women carry your weightless
body to the top of a waterfall.
Butterflies blossoming in a tall tree
watch over you as you slide down
liquid air, land perfectly laid out
in a rain forest clearing where you
enter the far kingdom as a butterfly.”
This turned out to be a fateful poem because Mary passed away the next day at her home, on January 19.
I can’t conclude this memorial article for Mary Rudge without including in entirety her “Poem of Light,” one of my favorite of anyone’s poems. Listen to the words of our luminous poet:
“Why do I wake this morning?
luminous in cell of brain
vein of leaf, vein of hand
Captured as cup of calm
the elusive and infinite.
Who can replay it, or call it with
To eye, pore, fur, flower, sand
it comes for each
only the shadows.”
In conclusion, folks, thanks for joining me in remembering a creative genius among us, the multi-gifted Mary Rudge. What a force, what a model of talent, grace and courage through adversity. We revere her ability to envision and accomplish myriad worthy and selfless projects that enrich the human spirit, thus the human experience. Mary Rudge left much of value to replace her physical presence, which of itself shall remain luminous.
Memorial Services were held January 28 and 29 in Alameda followed by burial ceremony at St. Dominic’s Cemetery in Benicia, where her daughter Caroline and son Jordan are laid, and where granddaughter Abigail’s ashes are now with Mary.
Over the graves, the trees were bare, but I spotted two hardy bird nests high in the branches. Seeing the nests was soothing, as was the entire ceremony with flowers tossed into Mary’s grave. I took a flower home with me.
Addressing Mary Rudge Upon Her Passing
(Jan. 19, 2014)
by Claire J. Baker
In your sleep, Mary,
in your sleep, maybe
dreaming of words in a row.
Mary Rudge, Mary Rudge,
you chose after speeches on peace,
workshops, books and travels
a most relaxing way to go.
Yes, dear friend, we’ll miss you,
the sun sometimes fades dim.
Knowing you, Mary, you might
suggest its deity could be
a “her” and not a “him.”
Poet, you are grandly appreciated
more than the dismal “sorely missed.”
Miracle among us, now luminous
may you rest, elated.
Many Thanks to the Magical Mary Rudge
by Ishtar-Lhotus Zeviar
Many Thanks to the magical Mary Rudge!
“For Poetry Always”
She is steady and committed and consistent,
and always gives me a nudge…
we all get to play
with our own inner Visionary and Judge,
And express our Spirits’ thoughts and feelings
in collective, creative community;
To celebrate Being Human on a Planet
that needs our love and humor…
To build and increase both Combined and Individual
wisdom and immunity.
Dividing Sorrows and Multiplying Joys;
Poets know that we are all more than just Society’s
strategic ploys (toys).
Processing together and alone,
Trying to master the worlds inside ourselves…
to make our unique mobilities a Home.
And Mary is a Grandmother’s Soul for so many.
Poet Laureate of the City of Alameda,
Poet Laureate of our Hearts.
She tries to listen equally to the essence of
a variety of distinctive Voices,
Acknowledging the respective roles
of often unconsidered and lonely, diverse parts.
Weaving minds and hopes;
Ripple effects that make it easier and more fun to
try to cope.
Her wonderful crown of gleaming, glowing white,
With big intent sly eyes
and a gentle smirk in her inquiring voice…
that somehow helps us to kindle/activate/engage
that much more Neighborly Care.
“The More the Merrier” to host & to toast!
Who knew that being a poet could build so many
bridges that practically, or impractically,
take us to just about anywhere?
And integrate into us that The Adventure is worth
the processes of our going and