A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature. Over 15,000 daily subscribers. Over 6,000 archived posts.
—after Lawrence Fixel
Give a poor stone a chance, I thought she said, but it was something else. She rounded the corner, the click of her heels on pavement, and was gone.
She was right, in my wrong way. We disrespect the sedimentary, the igneous makes us nervous, and we cannot trust the metamorphic.
Above all, we shrink from what is hard.
And who can blame us? Look at this skin. You press it, it gives in.
A boy is walking across a city park, late afternoon. Call it Parkside Square: two ball fields diagonal from each other, pine trees, ugly oleander all around. Fog.
But the boy’s head is clear. He loves walking across the empty field and thinking of baseball—of Musial, Piersall, Jensen.
Then, a rain of stones. One to the shoulder first—the shock of it—then to the head: now another, and he runs.
He has the distinct sense of his legs moving too slowly across the surface of the earth. He has never felt that before.
No great damage done. Two knots the size of knuckles at the side of his head.
It was the boys from the orphanage again: that old Gothic place, faced with stone.
I made stones, once, in a beginning ceramics class. Sat for a while & wondered what to do, my hands in the cold clay, my mind groggy with clay, working it, only images of stone arising, persistent, bothersome, until I knew that I had to make stones.
I took newspaper, then, & wadded it, and formed stones around it: the first not at all like stones—some like huge nematodes, some like potatoes.
Amazed at the difficulty of making something so simple as a stone, so studied them, learned that I was unclear about what they were. What did I want? Sharp? Smooth? Squared?
I went to the river. Sat, looked at stones, held stones, closed my eyes, ran my hands across them, put them to my face, to my closed lips. Small stones, big ones.
These were what I wanted, then: rounded by the river.
So every week in the studio I made stones. Sat at the table, wadded newspaper, thought of that river, formed stones, they dried, I fired them to bisque. The image of the newspapers burning red-hot inside the stones thrilled me: all that human behavior, fiery, gone to ash now inside ceramic stones.
Glazed them. Fired them again. Then piled them, surprised at the difficulty in building a natural pile of stones.
There is a stone in the top drawer of my bureau that I told our kids was The Smoothest Stone in the World. I think it’s obsidian: a dull black that turns glossy as it absorbs the oil of fingers passing over it.
It’s a stone that rests naturally in the crook of a forefinger—it seems to seek the elliptical caress of a thumb.
I’ve never understood: everyone who picks up this stone holds it the same way, rubs a thumb over it, mesmerized, as if, even as they are expressing wonder over the stone, they’re trying to bring something to mind: an image, say, of a woman walking up a steep road, pacing herself, meditative. She’s talking to herself, but the words do not come clear to them, and the stone is put down. The image dissipates.
Over & over this has occurred with this stone—a small black stone found on a beach beside a blue lake. Small black stone ice-sliced from a larger mass, ice-driven, ice-polished, picked up by the young man I was, put in a dark pocket, carried home. And now the man sometimes takes the stone out of the drawer & looks at it, holds it, puts it back.
If you are not honest, stone will make you honest. Lifting it, breaking it, fitting it. The work is mostly quiet—the main sound the sound of stone against stone. The work is close to the ground.
Lifting stone is an act at once miraculous & godlike. A man first moving a heavy stone from its native place feels something old & deep. This is human—he’s antediluvian—the brute maker, changer, & he feels the magic of it not in his brain, not even in his muscles, but in his bones. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Lifting stones, one soon learns, has to do with scale: thisbody, thisearth. I’m not talking about the use of levers here, nor working with another. I’m talking about one man, alone in the afternoon, having decided to lift a stone, gauging his weight & his strength & his age against the gross tare of stone. He dares not think of the stone’s own strength—which is not weight but kinship with gravity—nor consider the stone’s age; each consideration would weaken him.
Yet he knows what must be done, and he practices the proper lifting, and bends his legs and straightens his back and grasps the stone around its best handhold (How old is this knowledge, he wonders—where to hold a stone?) then rises with his thighs, the big stone close to his belly, his back straight, and steps away with the stone, his steps deliberate, one by one.
All afternoon he repeats the process. He paces himself, drinks water in the afternoon sun, and when it is dark and the task of moving all the stones is done, he goes in, takes a hot bath, luxuriating in his fatigue. His body feels important.
Gerald Fleming’s recent books include One, a collection of monosyllabic prose poems from Hanging Loose Press. He lives most of the year in the San Francisco Bay Area, part of the year in Paris.
Copyright 2019 Gerald Fleming