“– Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye,” Zbigniew Herbert concluded in “Pebble”. This week’s poem by Janet Simon, “Stone,” recalls the political-parable style of much central and eastern European 20th-century poetry, and seems to share Herbert’s sense of the stone as a point of moral reference.
There are four characters in Simon’s fable: the speaker, the addressee, a passerby and the stone itself. The addressee, as epithets such as “creamy” imply, is well-fed, well-washed, and, evidently, authoritative. This person is not initially unpleasant. He emphasises the stone’s smoothness, because he (or she) is an expert on smooth. Handing the stone to the speaker seems well-intentioned.
But the speaker’s ironical tone (“You sanction me …”) alerts our suspicions. The stone is identified with authority. Perhaps the speaker threw the stone in the first place? At any rate, it’s a difficult gift to receive. A “defence” is needed, one that proves an impossible compromise. Now an “outsized pebble” in the speaker’s mouth, the stone seems to implicate language – language as fixed and made “frigid” by those in control.
The spitting out of the stone is rejection, but certainly not malicious; nobody is meant to get hurt. The passerby misinterprets it, however, and sees, and uses, the stone as a weapon. The suave, creamy-skinned authority figure takes fright, becomes violently discoloured, bolts the door, rings the police – self-betraying reflexes that prove the power was hollow all along.
The crux of the poem comes when the speaker picks up the hurled-back stone. In six short, sparely-written lines the truth of the parable is laid out: the stone is neutral, uncoloured by its misinterpretations. Yet the stone seems to have a frailty of its own: it “pleads” for understanding.
The last stanza is more generalised, building from the situation narrated earlier. The “you” may be the same addressee, or a plural “you” that embraces everyone caught up in cycles of attack and revenge. The destruction is incomprehensible to the speaker, but there’s a clear insistence on the innocence of the stone. “And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone,” Simon concludes, echoing her earlier notion of “stoneness” and, of course, alluding to Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”.
Stein herself said that her sentence was an attempt to escape the particularity of the Romantic “rose” and recover the universal. Incidentally, the line was parodied rather unkindly by Ernest Hemingway, reminding us that “Stein” can literally mean “stone” in German: “A stone is a stein is a rock is a boulder is a pebble.”
Simon’s stone may be all these things, too. And the hinted pun returns us to the idea of the stone as language, even voice – a difficult voice, a tongue you might have to hold. The act of holding the stone, in fact, seems mirrored in the poem’s shape.
This shape is one of enclosure around a central “core”. The exterior stanzas spread themselves. The first seems to mirror the spacious home, the easy hospitality of privilege. The last, conversely, suggests open air, lawlessness, danger, with the speaker needing to assert her eloquence.
These stanzas are like cupped hands. In the middle, the shorter-lined, indented core-stanzas focus on the stone, its adventures, and the cost of engaging with it.
It has been a consolation and a weapon, represented homeliness and the destruction of home. Personified, the stone seems not only a touchstone or neutral mineral, but an unreliable mortal. If it pleads guiltlessness and sings, even metaphorically, it must have about it some human quality. It’s not innocent, then, but perhaps it represents what Václav Havel called “Living in Truth”.
Janet Simon has published one full collection, Victoria Park (Loxwood Stoneleigh, 1995). “Stone” is from her pamphlet, Asylum, where its distinctive presence is underlined by realistic and moving poems reflecting the poet’s experiences working with asylum seekers and the homeless. Asylum was published by Hearing Eye in the Torriano Meeting House Poetry Pamphlet Series, of which number 62, “Protest” by David Floyd, will appear in November.
You would reduce this stone to something homely.
Set in the palm of your soft hand,
it rests as if it wouldn’t harm a fly.
In your pink fingers, it is a generous stone.
You offer its smooth surface as the best
of possibilities in the best possible of worlds.
You pass this stone to me
with pleasing manners.
You sanction me to hold it
for a few minutes
and to speak uninterrupted
in my own defence.
Your gracious patronage
reduces me to gibberish.
To avoid stuttering
I place this outsized pebble
in my quivering mouth.
Its frigid texture
is cold, impenetrable.
I cannot chew on it.
I spit it out.
An angry passerby
picks up this stone
and hurls it
through your window.
Your creamy skin
and as he runs away
you bolt your doors
and ring for the police.
I bend down and pick up
It hasn’t changed
its shape or colour.
Its unrelenting stoneness
pleads with me.
I do not understand what force of hatred
makes a man destroy your house,
what speed of terror grabs you to defend it,
but I accept this stone, I hear its silent plea
of guiltless being. It sings to me
in my own ignorance, I am a stone.
And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/24/poem-of-the-week-janet-simon