While I work on my next artistic post, I am posting another poem by my husband, this one otherwise unpublished. I think it relates to Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar, which is, in turn, related to Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Stevens, Helen Vendler wrote, was answering "a vow to stop imitating Keats and seek a native American language that will not take the wild out of the wilderness" (quoted by Antonio José Jiménez Muñoz, University of Oviedo, http://www.academia.edu/7357036/Wallace_Stevens_Anecdote_of_the_Jar). Charles Tarlton, whose narrator has, for the moment, "taken the wild out of the wilderness," says that his own poem came about because he dreamed of a rock that was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. And says, now, that the poem may be about how difficult it is, and how scary it is, to change your whole view of the world.
A Rock in a Jar
your eye catches it
(unexpectedly, a straggly fugitive
detail amidst the forest’s
disarray, illogical and off-hand)
in a glimpse of sun down through
a brushy filter of pine.
just a small irregular rock,
glassy blue, and subtly blurred
below the currents of a mountain
creek, somewhere off the road.
not at all auspicious, this rock,
water pocked and angular,
the underside a flat polished
mica sliver of sky, grey
on the upwards. A rock gone
unnoticed other than obliquely
by the odd skittish deer come
for a drink, or raucous blue
jays stirring up a bath.
now, visualize this rock
in the palm of your hand, destined
for the jar of souvenir seashells;
see reflected in it now
your own curious glances,
the backdrop of sky and cloud
you’re standing in. It goes
in your pocket, clicking up
against a penny and a quarter.
once home, emptying your treasure
on the kitchen table, you laugh,
remembering the little rock,
and drop it in the jar
of seashells. It alters everything;
its mirror refracts the crowded
seashore contents of the jar. The shells
roll over and roll their eyes.
“every vacation from now on,”
you’d said, on that last day at the beach
“we’ll come back here and add more
seashells to the jar. A sort of observance.”
notice the clumsy, lopsided
collisions of the rock against
the smooth parabolas and ampersands,
the swirled edges, and thin ridges
of the lustrous shells. Turn the jar
in your hands, and the tumbling
upstart rock reveals the graceful
seashells to themselves. Mother
of pearl discovering its reflection
in the watery isinglass;
the rock wears their likenesses
disguising the dissonance.
the red and yellow kitchen walls
awake and crowd the scene;
a roomful of common objects
strategically pinpointed like
the sectors of an artillery map,
imagined ribbons stretched,
and fastened to thumbtacks,
the battle of ontological
vectors. New truths revolve
in the room, the jar and the rock
and shells arc along the compass,
projecting, as from a disco ball,
the center out to the periphery.
the increase of distance
and of angular rotation throw
rock and shells lewdly
each against the other. They exchange
expectant kisses in the jar,
the jar caresses them. This dumb
subversive rock has brought
the windows in, and with the windows,
trees as well as sky. No glass
confines its movements, the rock
sees at the speed of light.
with the seashells in the jar,
the jar centers the kitchen,
surrounded by yellows and reds,
the colors spreading inward and out;
the rock greedy, the rock coquettish,
looking past the kitchen
and its own projected kitchens
into the trees and clouds.
what does its cold eye remember?
not ever being born, the rock
knows nothing about ripening,
or the fluctuations of growth emerging
ahead of the blood’s vulgar spurts,
but only sameness, always the one
thing. The water lay over it,
beyond the water, light and dark,
blue sky in its stillness,
clouds slow, white or gray,
and glaring sun. The rock had no
organic roots, no family; it was a chip
randomly broken from some larger rock.
memory was of no consequence to it,
nothing grew or passed through it.
geometry and physics were its genesis,
whose Forms are over and over
seeded, crystallized, and dumbly cleft
(no massif could ever conceive, gestate,
or bear pebbles in its image. No boulder
green tendrils to bind itself
to the fence. Now, the rock finds
itself transmuted; it can smell the ocean
on the shells, the hints of flesh
in the wet jar, a salt-sea stink
unknown amongst the magma and things
that have simply boiled and cooled
from which he came. A real novelty,
this rock, burly adjacent
to the daintier seashells
exhibiting traces how they once
were hinged to allow life to pump
in and out, wherein they could hide
from the light itself, or wear rings
marking how they grew, were used,
and had aged. The rock cannot grow,
but only be worn down, roughly gouged
across its glassy eye, or broken.
past the shells and the kitchen
implements, the rock records the sky,
exploring how to seize the garden,
and bring it all in, to catalogue
the exuberant and unfamiliar
flowers, combing the saw-tooth
of picket fence for new theorems.
Gathering as it goes along,
it wants to teach the shells more
than the walls, to reveal the widening
circumstances a propos themselves,
to show them to the moon.
nothing waits behind these
reflections but impenetrable
crystal; how a little rock contains
the world. Everything adds up
—shells, walls, windows, trees,
fence, clouds, and the sky,
and as far as the eye can see
into the little retina in the jar.
but the rock still knows nothing.
no time passes there, though movement
and stillness come and go and rest.
inertia, wound up or disengaged
like a broken watch spring,
metes out random, uncalibrated
distances and speeds. Time
should be able to record
something meaningful. All the things
inside and out are sizing
one another up according to weight
and their proximity;
they go fast or slow, eagerly
waiting (or tense with dread)
for something to come around
again, make any of it matter.
we will keep vigil out
our windows, throw one another
censorious looks, tragic
to comic, in the to and fro.
scenes projected on the rock’s
cinematic surface need more
than what the reflecting
unreflective little rock has
so far been able to deliver us.
a lonely pine tree
on a hilltop miles away
resists the gathering leer
of the rock (circling birds, warm
air rising, housetop TV aerials,
and wood smoke in streaks above
the rows of chimneys partly obscure
the tree’s conical shape;
its millions of needles cannot
be seen at all; they will not
project on the rock’s tiny screen).
in true synthesis, large
is found in small, complexity
hides simple, and distances
obscure reduction. Up to now,
fine coincidence of angle
and light defined the standpoint
of the rock; the seashells were
perfect, too, companions
in illusion, motionless, solid,
yet happy to pass through the glass.
but, we have not been scrupulous
enough about cupboards
or picket fences. We ignored
the obvious limitations of the rock’s
field of view in the excitement
of shattering boundaries.
everyone’s eye had overreached;
with these troubling observations
we have a turning point.
the story’s true; the last rays
from reclining Helios (not even
a rock can look straight
into the sun) cool obliquely
off the white paint of the fence,
cool flames in the window’s
bold returning stare. The shells grew
anxious. The walls come in close.
“Everything is just an idea,”
thought all round. The rock failed
to hold the fractious light
in lifelike image, the beholder’s
visual cortex reduced to changing
photons into bare neural impulse,
making inferences from what
others had said they’d seen.
distant objects are, perhaps, best
drawn, then, in the mind’s eye.
to enter into the cave of the mind,
the world must become a dream.
rock walls intrude uncouthly,
but interpretations and design
are dreamed. No properly
animated rock would continue
to prefer geometry to process,
or give preference to sine
and cosine once he’d known
the asymmetric shrubs and crooked
cupboard doors, or the fine
irregular squiggles rough soles
have randomly scratched on
the checkerboard linoleum.
the rock is moving on just so,
abandoning straight lines
and perfect parallelograms, isosceles
triangles, regular zigzags,
and logarithmic curlicues.
“Let the the rock be sentient!”
the audience chants. “We need a thinker
to imagine needles, who will
let us see their impossibly
excruciating distant thinness.”
pondered deeply, our thinking
reveals it lineage in flesh,
how it was always birthed
behind closed skulls. Along
the atom-to-atom circuitry, chemical
reactions pile up, a cluster
here, a sinewy string of connections.
absence and presence, stuff
cluttering the doorway, well-lit
garden gates and pitch darkness.
such a lot is going on.
shadow and light play
in tangles over the retina;
pathways down the cell-morass
of nerve and cerebral fluids.
isomerized draperies of purple
and violet, waving rods
and cones, linked beyond wet
surfaces, bravely running
neuron rapids to the cortex.
it is all the same with seeing.
clusters of electric charge
positioned like infielders
on the trusting retina, where
the brain extrudes part of its inward
workings to the outward
like a hernia; just so that
inside and out connect
on the mica layers of our rock’s
eye, on its flat reflecting
side. It picks up light waves
and reworks them. If a hair
is missing from a well-known
ear, the conceptual apparatus fills
it in; the same with pine needles.
the general idea spiffs up
the fragmentary thing. Experience
makes metaphors from our
stimulated nerves and the secretions
washing in waves over brain
cells. Changes of temperature
and the rhythms of discharge
turn into hatred, logical relations,
a bad chill. The scientist probes
the one, devising machines to manifest
the unseen goings on, the poet
dresses up in the tattered others,
rummaging for lacey brooches and
sepia albums with dried flowers and
obituaries cut from old newspapers.
the rock as poet, poetizing
rock (to complete the metaphor)
simulates without within
in both the crystals of its micaceous
window and deeply in the hard
granite below. It can conjure
what collides, rework whatever
dances on its screen.
it can make corrections
in obedience to theory where
observations might just not
confirm specifics. All this was
expected from the start,
the careful reader will allow.
we were always looking through
the rock’s eyes. Now the pine needles
are displayed fo r all to see.
the jar reaches round to caress
the seashells, the seashells
rub up against the glass,
each other and their reborn
hero rock. The rock makes and shows
movies on its little screen;
the camera dollies and tracks
in an ever widening gyre.
until now no one had noticed
a defect in the mica, on the lower
left-hand corner of the little
squarish mirror, just a tiny chip
that marks a blind spot,
a hole in the rock’s retina.
it shows up as a blur on the edge
of the closest huddling mollusk,
causes a bend in the third fence
picket from the left, but goes
unnoticed up in the clouds,
where details roll, spread,
and swirl anyway. Anyway,
it’s just a quirk that makes
the rock’s world entirely
the rock’s own; the rock’s theories
are rock theories. Undeterred,
the rock detours around its chip.
now, we have humane intelligence
performed by a reproducing rock
picked up from a brook where
it had tumbled, probably,
for several lifetimes. It can
see anything as far as
there’s good reason to see,
though an imperfection
nicked into its glassy edge
drives the eye to replicate
the error in each successive
scaling; progress and increase
are thus bought with ever
the goal was, absolutely
from the start, to see the swirls
etched in the pearly core
curvature of seashells in the jar
and then reflected in the shape
of the assembled stars (maybe
to discern the milky-way, and
with it, God’s own plan,
in the nacre inlay mirrored
in half a clam). What the rock
lusted after was much more
than merely sight and sense;
it now sought a knowledge,
some certitude how everything
was governed, how each and every
part imbued the whole.
in the passing of Time,
the immense distances reaching
always toward us, fold over
themselves along a fault line,
a cosmic curtain wafting
in celestial breezes. Undulations
fan out from the center
to the edge, from large and near
to small and far, and the reverse,
exhibiting the infinite
in all its insignificance.
to the rock, what’s happened
might all have been predicted;
the shape of the world resembling
familiar whorls inside familiar
seashells. All worlds grow, the gods
from rows of planted teeth;
everything unfolds until it
runs up against our stone
will then certainly mount up.
The Philosophy of the Rock, I
this rock considered farthest worlds
subject to its mirror, they could be
dragged into the jar, put under glass.
remote was just another instance
of close by. If it fits into
the mirror, how strange could
it be, how hard to understand it?
the shells themselves had never
moved of their own accord; sometimes
the jar was jostled or revolved,
and shells appeared at odd angles.
the rock’s sweeping gaze edited
the jockeying calcite matrices
composing tableaux framed to
show only their very best sides,
oil on water spreading rainbows
of soft violet, blue, and pink.
when the sun stood just above
the picket fence, and the rain
had gone, the rock could paint seashell
patterns in the sky, could imagine
clouds as trompe l’oeil bowls
of fruit, could fashion mythic war
chariots, the mirages
of their steam-snorting horses
quivering in a rising patch of pale blue sky.
in the rock’s mind the world
gave up its secrets in the mirror,
what the mirror could imagine.
from familiar to odd and weird is farther
than the distance traveled back,
when we hold our discoveries in old
cloth sacks sewn from common
knowledge. Nothing was entirely new.
blue light off the pretty shells
bent oddly as we know (don’t forget
the imperfection on the mirror’s face,
that unseeing smidgen), so the farther
away it surveyed, the farther the rock’s
estimates were off. The larger errors
presently began to haunt the intimates
within the jar. No shell was long
allowed to mean just what it meant.
shells became embodiments of vaster
implications; they wrongly stood
for more. The rock could not turn
to face away from any blemished shell,
could not ignore an imperfection
(it was powerless in that regard;
it could not move nor could it see
just how it wrongly saw), so it read
less meaning in the places its own
reflection spread. Those sad stars
received the names of lesser deities
—panic, narcissism, cupidity.
in the rock’s garden, they were simply
moved into the shade, where
they vied with dying lilies.
The Philosophy of the Rock, II
there are two senses, the rock
avers, of center; the jar
that holds the rock and the rock itself.
the rock contains the world,
and the jar holds the rock,
but cannot hold the rock’s roving
eye. Knowing no limits, the rock
imagines also God in two persons,
one that does, and another
that makes possible. The rock
is the moving center,
going where it sees things
on the cracked, distorted glass,
inventing fabulous objects
and creatures, three-winged
blackbirds pecking insects
on a twisting fence, or rooftops
droopy in the center, bowed with
imaginary weight. The jar is
the center that holds still.
what moves, is then moving
around it. See it and you are
justified and can understand
how to drag objects under the lens
and read out the name of each --
“fence, flower, shell, cloud, star,”
edicts from proclaimed divinity,
vain and arrogant, insisting
Time and Motion owe their Being
to its Will (the rock in the jar).
no other Genesis is countenanced.
word gets around—the Cat is out.
the fence was created for shade
infrequently dappled in dark
and lighter stripes along the flowers;
the flowers were born from the need
for a capricious yellow
offered up to the rock; the clouds
and the stars among them sing
a music silent in the yard,
heard only by the rock itself
within the jar; the cracks are plastered
up with mysteries. “listen. . . .“
the rock begins to hum,
some excess energy blows as wind
through a whistle-notched reed,
hardly audible at first, but soon
a rattling is noticed among
the seashells, sending brittle echoes
along the curved glass of the jar.
the table sways in sympathy
and the whistling, ever shriller,
passes through the windows to the yard,
past the fence, into the waiting sky.
as if the world had been tapped
like a tuning fork, the pitch
infects glass, rock, wood, plant,
and stars. They squirm in oscillating
rhythms—No one can sleep.
the action in the jar intrudes
impossibly into your own restless
tossing in the noisy, jar-shaking
night. Culpability awakes and wakes
you and in you, makes you stare
into the blackness. The night
hangs slack in the windows,
but the rock glows in your mind’s
eye, threatening reason
and routine with its anarchy.
“I’ve got to put it back,”
you whisper, coming up from sleep.
“Something’s very wrong.”
“Put what back?” your wife wants to know.
“The rock,” you whisper, “the rock I stole
from its place in the stream bed.”
“Oh, that’s silly; go back to sleep.”
instead, you get up quietly
and dress. In the kitchen everything
is still. Some invisible token
of calamity remains, but you can’t
be sure. The whole room,
the windows, and the yard outside
are holding their breath.
you pick up the jar, walk to the sink,
twist the lid, and smelly water
pours through your fingers
along with seashells, till you have
only the rock inert, so small
in your hand; it goes into
your pocket and weighs a ton
by the time you’ve hiked
and found the pool. The exact
desecrated site discovered,
an obvious hollow the size
of the errant rock in the sandy
bottom of the stream. Surrounding
rocks gape blindly, oblivious
to dull shapes and shadows,
waiting in perpetual obscurity,
dead to the spreading dawn.
you go down on one knee to refit
the stone, face up, like a glass eye
in its socket. It barely glances,
but you catch the wet suggestion
of yourself as the rock sees you.
the fracture on the layered mica
surface twists your cameo,
making your right eye enlarge fiercely;
then it’s gone. The tumbling
stream rolls the rock over
on its face, its unseeing granite
backside facing upwards now.