by Rita Riddle
Edited by Jim Minick
Colleague, teacher, friend, poet, Rita Sizemore Riddle (1941-2006) made an art of nurturing community. After her death in the fall of 2006, one of these communities, the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC), decided to honor her by funding the publication of her last book of poetry, All There Is to Keep. Bob and Beto Cumming of Iris Press contributed their expertise in designing this lovely book, and many people helped with the editing. All of this evidence of Rita’s grand heart.
Rita Sizemore Riddle, fondly known as Dr. Mama in the Radford community, grew up in a coal-mining family in Dickenson County, VA. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1971 and began teaching English at Radford University, where she taught Shakespeare and creative writing until she retired in 2002.
Beyond these facts, Rita is best remembered for making an art of loving people. She connected with students more deeply than most teachers because she offered a way to open doors, a way to open their hearts to their own powerful words. Many of her students stayed connected to her for years after they walked out her classroom door.
Though I never was in one of her classes, I too studied under Rita, walked through doors she helped me see. She took me along with her to my first gathering of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative, and thus gave me a group of friends equally in love with turning the doorknob of each word.
But there was often something just beyond reach with Rita. Sometimes I was too young to understand an allusion, or my northern ear couldn’t catch her speedy southern tongue (that, as she described, “talks/ like her mouth is full of apple butter”). And that’s how our lives often are, just beyond the connection point, just out of reach.
When those moments happened between us, she’d sit back, reflect, and then make a joke, the twinkling eye seeing beyond our differences, the door of friendship always open.
All proceeds from All There Is to Keep will be donated to a Radford University creative writing student to further his or her education.
Jim Minick, Editor
What others say
Rita Sizemore Riddle’s poems draw us in. Images place us in her past, both distant and near. In “My Mother Never Shuddered,” two images compete: that of the Sunday chicken draining on the clothesline and that of the mother standing at the same line to hang the Monday wash. The evocative contrast between blood and light makes us savor Riddle’s poems. Her dichotomies are simultaneously subtle and striking, noisy and soft. Rita Riddle seems to have a sixth sense, a gut instinct that allows her to see around corners, through sentimental memories, past hardship, and through the folly of human frailties.”
— Felicia Mitchell, Editor of Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women’s Poetry
“All There Is To Keep by Shakespearean scholar and teacher Rita Sizemore Riddle is utterly astonishing not only for its story of enduring and prevailing but also for its accompanying wisdom. It is the story of all of us, whether from Appalachia or afar, if we’re really honest as Riddle invariably is in poem after poem in this remarkable collection. She makes no effort to satiate our lust to be lied to. Like the blade of a knife, each poem quickly gets to the human condition from a deeply personal perspective, often with wrenching irony and low-keyed humor. The persona is vitally connected to everything, to family, friends, to the cities and outside world, and to the earth itself. The lesson echoed is a hard one. With connections comes love but also loss—indeed each is a measure of the other. One approach to living is the denial of death, but Riddle has chosen another kind of life, to face loss and to give it shape, form, and meaning through verse, through love. The stanza in her poem, “It’s Time to Take Our Shoes Off,” sums up the prevailing theme and tone:
While the rain falls around us
like a warm wet satin robe, sliding, sliding,
drops catching what light there is
as they roll down middle-aged paunches,
we have to go barefoot. This time
we have to feel what’s under us,
all of it, whatever it is.”
— Jack Higgs, author of God in the Stadium
“One is first struck by the variety here—in form (sonnet to lyric to narrative to monologue) and in content. Although Appalachia serves at the locus for many of the poems, the author is not limited to that geography. In fact Rita Sizemore Riddle attempts to show “what’s under us, all of it, whatever it is.” There is more than “just a whiff of grief” in what is under us, but one is bolstered by the poet’s tough-mindedness:
Everything I have loved
got lost in the living,
but I never lost anything
I can’t live without.
Perhaps the gift of poetry is what sustains the author. “Make believe cannot be eaten,” she notes, but it “never fails to leave me full.” In one poem she describes a paring knife that grows thinner each year. That knife is “pointed as a poem.” And poems in All There Is To Keep are indeed pointed—in shape and meaning.
“Running Out of Thread” presents the poet as a spider that seems to lose the stuff of creation, unlike Rita Sizemore Riddle who retained the powers that bring brilliance to these pages.”
— Bo Ball, author Appalachian Patterns
“Like pieces in a mosaic, the hard-won poems of Riddle’s All There Is To Keep create a narrative that transcends its fragments. They give us the history of a place and family through the wisdom of one who had the gumption to back of out of bad luck and start over.”
— George Ella Lyon, author of Don’t You Remember? A Memoir
“All There Is To Keep is a refusal of everyday amnesias and the unlived life to which they give rise. Riddle looks straight at unspeakable loss, teaching us to let go without forgetting. She takes us into famine, into shadows filled with fists, into “ground-glass alleys” in our bare feet. But in the next breath, she also offers up joy, “all I have that’ll keep”—“Running water/ on my wrists.// A bowl of roses,/ lapful of boy.” She paints the fine line between love and grief and dances on it with scarred feet, so that we also can learn the dance.”
— Diane Gilliam, author of Kettle Bottom
Excerpts from Rita Riddle’s All There Is to Keep
You Can Tell a Woman’s Life by her Knife Blade
If she’s the type of woman who fends for her family,
her paring knife will grow thinner each year.
The blade will shrink and curve, indiscernibly,
the crescent side turned to her body,
the point outward and away, for emphasis when
she peels peaches, scrapes potatoes, twists apple skin
into interminable curls, sorting out and storing up,
wielding her knife in woman’s mystery.
My grandfather bought my mother a paring
knife when she married in ’29,
sharpened it on his whetstone,
then threw in the whetstone, too.
I’ve seen her sharpen the knife before
she skinned a squirrel or cut up a chicken,
the blade right to run under the skin
or bite through the leaders at the joint.
She nicked or sliced her own fingers sometimes,
mostly when the cataracts came and the kitchen
light never seemed bright enough.
She tore a piece off a worn-out pillowcase
to bind the gash, or, if the cut were bad,
she’d fill it full of flour
to stanch the blood.
Nothing in her house became her
like the paring knife.
When she died at seventy-three,
the knife was slender
as a new-born moon and just as silver,
the inside edge curled like a miniature scythe,
the outside edge straight and even,
pointed as a poem.
The radiation therapists had to draw a map,
like a constellation on my neck and chest,
the top line through my double chin,
with an asterisk at the center.
Pointed wings on each side of my chest
joined a dot, a black tattoo
punctured half an inch to my left,
one inch above where my cleavage starts.
The radiation machine, like the bottom
of the Enterprise, passes over
my neck and chest following
the star map made of black magic marker
whose fumes make me sick.
When I go home, I wash the star map
off, every day. Every day it’s drawn again.
For five days a week, seven weeks in all.
What will happen when the treatment’s up,
the map’s all gone?
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