conversation with a stone

This blog’s former title, living on in a modified form, was “Conversations with a stone.” It was inspired by the poem “Conversation with a stone” by Wisława Szymborska. You can find the text of the poem here.

The poem is a series of exchanges between a stone and a poetic interlocutor. At each stage the narrator knocks at the stone’s front door and asks “It’s only me, let me come in.” The recalcitrant stone rebuffs these advances with replies that swell to a peak in the eighth stanza and then close off again, like the stone, as the poem ends. At each turn the poet brings different imaginative devices to bear on the stone in the attempt to be “let in” and understand. The simple request of the first stanza gives way to an appeal for empathy in the third. In the fifth, the poet brings metaphor and imaginative imagery to the task. We see throughout, techniques of thought, imagination, inquiry brought to bear on the stone, each time falling short of their task. In its responses, the stone deconstructs the poet’s efforts. To the poet’s request for empathy in her mortality the stone wishes to laugh, if only it had the muscles to do so. The poet’s imaginative vision of “great empty halls” is accepted only to be turned on its head by the stone — ” ‘Great and empty, true enough’, says the stone / ‘but there isn’t any room.’ ” The stone’s final line is the ultimate refusal, calling into question the entire conceit of the poem (an extended metaphor all along).

The heart of the poem is in the fourth exchange between the stone and poet.

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I don’t seek refuge for eternity.
I’m not unhappy.
I’m not homeless.
My world is worth returning to.
I’ll enter and exit empty-handed.
And my proof I was there
will be only words,
which no one will believe.”

“You shall not enter,” says the stone.
“You lack the sense of taking part.
No other sense can make up for your missing sense of taking part.
Even sight heightened to become all-seeing
will do you no good without a sense of taking part.
You shall not enter, you have only a sense of what that sense should be,
only its seed, imagination.”

The “missing sense of taking part” is such a beautiful line! Note also the plays on ‘sense’ throughout the poem. In these stanzas we get something more than just a frustration of imaginative device by the objective stone. The missing sense of taking part is a response to the poet’s request to come in without need, “enter and exit empty-handed”, and take part with “only words”. This is not taking part. No skill, no “sight-heightened to all seeing”, is taking part; imagination is only its seed.

Though the stone frustrates all attempts, there are at least indications that the stone is not only inaccessible otherness. It bursts with laughter despite not knowing how or having the muscles to do so. It has insides, though never turned toward us. It has a beauty, though not to our taste. And, of course, the poem plants its own seed — a pointer to the missing sense of taking part.

To me, the poem speaks about epistemological humility, a resolute external objectivity to the world we study, think and write about, live in. But in its playfulness, the poem invites just that inquiry. And it speaks about an epistemology of involvement, of the necessity of taking part for knowing. 

The intriguing and ultimately frustrating attempt to know and describe drew me to the poem as a blog title; even more so its direction to involvement and an attempt to ‘take part’ in knowing. Finally, I thought it a good reminder (to me at least) of the externality of what I was going to try and write about. (Hence, in the setup of the title, I have never been the stone.) Though ‘theo-ethical interrogations’ may be a long way from Szymborska’s light and suggestively ironic ‘conversation’, I think the things I read in her poem still have relevance here, at least to me.

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