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Ree Dragonette

(1918-1979)

Born in Philadelphia, Ree Dragonette was the youngest of twelve children in a family that had a great interest in music and the arts. Her bio says that she began writing poetry when she was 7. She grew up to have four children of her own: a daughter, Juanita, and three sons, Reed, John, and Ralph. By the late 1940s, Dragonette had relocated to Greenwich Village, where she made many friends and became a vibrant member of the arts community. In the early 1970s, she moved to Westbeth and lived there until her death in 1979.

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Town Hall concert, 1962.

Dragonette was called a “metaphysical poet” and a “jazz poet”—indeed she read her poem “From the Valley of the Shadows” on the album New Jazz Poets (Folkways Records, 1967). She was involved in a number of performances with dancers and musicians. In 1962, she performed her poetry with the Eric Dolphy Quintet at Town Hall. Active in the poetry scene in New York City, Dragonette, along with poet Howard Ant, is said to have started poetry readings at the 10th Street Coffee House in the early 1960s. In addition to reading her own work at a variety of venues, including St. Mark’s Church, Dragonette taught a poetry workshop at Greenwich House Music School. Her published work includes Parable of the Fixed Stars (Allograph Books, 1968) and Remember Zion (Mercedes Books, 1970). Dragonette is featured in The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women, ed. Helen Barolini (Schocken Books, 1985).

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Personal memoirs and press reviews point to the rich imagery in her writing, while stressing that Dragonette was a powerful reader of her poetry. Artist Christina Maile, also an early tenant at Westbeth, says that although it’s some forty years later, she can still remember a reading she attended at Dragonette’s apartment, which was down the hall from her own. “Her apartment was a duplex, and the main area was downstairs. She had kept the space empty, which meant it was kind of dark except for the stairway light, and maybe she had one or two standing lamps. It was like entering a cave stocked with folding chairs. Ree was an elfin, elegant woman with short, spiky white hair, and a last name from a fairy tale. She read from pages—they could have been handwritten or typed. Her voice was strong and her manner casual, because she already knew the audience was in her power. Sometimes there were exclamations of delight when she began a poem.”

Juanita Corsiglia says that her mother loved Emily Dickinson. Below is Dragonette’s poem for Dickinson, published in a collection of such homages, Emily Dickinson: Letters from the World, ed. Marguerite Harris (Corinth Books, 1970).

“Apple Way” by Ree Dragonette

Skidding the prim breeze into Amherst
on north light, on hawthorn;
which road
by rocket or robin
or by emperor-bend in new autumn
threads you up to her door?

Is there a map of her hearthstone?
When is the hour for homage:
her moment of bird tongues
of laurel? What signal
or language red as the round of haw-berry?
In mist running yellow,
in a dusk aired eastward by foxglove,
where do you find her?

With scopa you gather up whole evening
meadows. Here you walk with cathedrals,
far from wet decks of trade winds.
Moors breathed this heather-edged lamplight, —
deeper oceans than you ever crossed.

In her garden, in moonshawl,
in shoulders of parchment,
rose amethyst breaks from your eyelids.
Night comes with apple tree
bearing. Of snowline
of wine like no other …

On the road, at your wheel,
under Southwind you sleepwalk:
riding rocked stars in remembrance.
Chill to your hand is her apple.
Scooped in the vat of the moonlight,
your mind is fire and snowline.

Note: For a remembrance of Ree Dragonette by writer Calvin Hernton, see “Les Deux Megots Mon Amour” in Light Years: An Anthology on Sociocultural Happenings (Multimedia in the East Village, 1960-1966), ed. Carol Bergé (Spuyten Duyvil/AWAREing Press, 2010), 291-306.
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