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National Poetry Month Poetry Dare: Wisława Szymborska’s “Conversation with a Stone”

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Wisława Szymborska's Conversation with a Stone

Atop the newel post at the bottom of my Great-Grandma Bessie’s dark oak staircase sat a large, bumpy light colored stone. She had another on a shelf that was broken apart, revealing a sparkling quartz-like interior, a delightful contrast with the blasé outer surface. I don’t recall the name of the stone, though it was likely some sort of geode, and certainly a source of intrigue for a young child, alongside the Mason jar of old buttons and the rusted peanut brittle can that let loose four feet of spring-loaded fake snakes when it was opened by an unsuspecting aunt or uncle.

It is perhaps the promise of such a glittering surprise that makes the speaker in Wisława Szymborska’s “Conversation with a Stone” so maddeningly persistent in his efforts to get past a stone’s front door for a bit of a “look round” the insides.

Conversation with a Stone

I knock at the stone’s front door.
It’s only me, let me come in.
I want to enter your insides,
have a look round,
breathe my fill of you.”

“Go away,” says the stone.
“I’m shut tight.
Even if you break me to pieces,
we’ll all still be closed.
You can grind us to sand,
we still won’t let you in.”

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I’ve come out of pure curiosity.
Only life can quench it.
I mean to stroll through your palace,
then go calling on a leaf, a drop of water.
I don’t have much time.
My mortality should touch you.”

“I’m made of stone,” says the stone,
“and must therefore keep a straight face.
Go away.
I don’t have the muscles to laugh.”

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I hear you have great empty halls inside you,
unseen, their beauty in vain,
soundless, not echoing anyone’s steps.
Admit you don’t know them well yourself.”

“Great and empty, true enough,” says the stone,
“But there isn’t any room.
Beautiful, perhaps, but not to the taste
of your poor senses.
You may get to know me, but you’ll never know me through.
My whole surface is turned toward you,
all my insides turned away.”

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 site 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.”

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I haven’t got two thousand centuries,
so let me come under your roof.”

“If you don’t believe me,” says the stone,
“just ask the leaf, it will tell you the same.
Ask a drop of water, it will tell you what the leaf has said.
And, finally, ask a hair from your own head.
I am bursting with laughter, yes, vast laughter,
although I don’t know how to laugh.”

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.”

“I don’t have a door,” says the stone.

By rights, I think I should not like this poem. As I read, I had that infuriating sense one can have when, well, having a conversation that feels like talking to a rock. For each rejection by the stone, the speaker retools his approach and advances again. And as irritating as I find that, it makes me love the poem. It does its job well in evoking a strong response, whether or not it is a response I favor.

I find myself asking questions as I read, thinking I might know the answer, only to have it dashed in the next stanza. Why is the speaker so intent to go in? Could the speaker be any more self-focused in his pursuit of entry? (And impatient?) Does the speaker intend to give anything to the stone, or once inside, will it only be a taking, an insistence to be allowed to “breathe my fill”? Why is the stone closed so tightly? Why does he demand participation from the speaker, yet refuse to be touched by the speaker’s mortality? The stone’s argument that it can be broken and still not opened—is this a simple statement of fact or is it a defiant challenge? Go ahead, break me. You’ll see. 

And what of the door? Is there one or not? Does the speaker imagine it, or is it really there? Is there a door and the stone doesn’t know it? Or does the stone deny it? Or does it truly not exist? If there is no door, then why not say it at the first, rather than the desperate “I give up” declaration at the end? And if there is a door, what purpose does it serve—to let a visitor in, or to keep one out?

Answers are not forthcoming. But that the questions themselves came as such an avalanche is as rewarding as the shimmering quartz inside the unnamed stone at my grandmother’s home.

Getting a Word in Edgewise After Szymborska’s “Conversation with a Stone”

The stone was right.
There are no passageways
to meander, nothing
to see but solid state.
Take a crack
at it with your mallet
and chisel. You won’t see
the the inside of a stone,
but the outside,
now of two.
__________________

I’m reading poems by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska every day in April as part of our National Poetry Month Poetry Dare, and writing my own poems in response. I’ve read little, if any, of her work before, and that’s really the point of the dare: to spend time with a poet that is unfamiliar, and see what happens. Are you reading a particular poet each day? Maybe you are reading an eclectic mix you’ve put together, or the daily offerings of Every Day Poems. What do you find challenging about the daily practice or about your poet? What are you most enjoying? Share with us in the comments. And if you wrote about the dare on your blog, leave us a link.

Read about the National Poetry Month Poetry Dare
Browse more Wisława Szymborska

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Photo by Guy Renard, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by L.W. Lindquist.

______________________

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Your Comments

15 Comments so far

  1. Love that you are reading Szymborska for National Poetry Month! She is one of my faves.

    Checkout my kudos to Tweet Speak, a Szymbroska poem and my response to her poem on my blog: http://ofearthandobjects.blogspot.com/

  2. L.L. Barkat says:

    Your poem title made me laugh out loud! Perfect response to Szymborska’s.

    I think the questions contain their own answers, which is pretty cool. But, like good questions always do, these are the kind that don’t dictate the answer that anyone might think they contain. They are delicious questions. And I’m glad you asked them.

    • They do and they don’t. I would find myself formulating an answer, then read the next stanza and have it go to pieces. I found myself irritated with the speaker for the relentless advancing, then annoyed at the rock for answering in ways that left an opening for the next advance.

      Fascinated with the poem, and my own reaction to it. :)

  3. This poem, a discussion of which could last hours, makes me laugh, because the ending is perfect.

    Could there be a better metaphor than stone? In Szymborska’s hand, the stone indeed gets the last word and proves so much wiser than the insistent fool himself. The question of what is real – interior vs exterior, what we show and hide, experience vs memory, what we see and miss seeing – is profound.

    Great choice to highlight for the Poetry Dare.

    • I think the discussion could go on for hours and still not resolve, Maureen. As I wrote this one out, I found myself making marginal notes, which I don’t normally do, but there’s a list of questions it provoked as long as my arm (which is long). ;-)

      And yes — so many ways to look at the metaphor, and I’d add animate vs inanimate, mortal vs immortal.

      • Oh, I agree, Lyla, that there is no particular resolution; that’s one reason I like this poem. The reader is in on the game before the narrator, and there’s some irony in that if we accept that the narrator is human and just can’t “get” how inexplicable some things, like nature, are, and insistently continues to know what can’t be described.

  4. As I’ve said, Laura Brown and I are doing Kevin Young’s “Book of Hours.” Doing a collection reveals patterns across the poems, echoes. I’m reading more carefully than emotionally.

  5. but the outside
    now of two…

    Oh bother! says The
    Pooh, as he rolls
    an unwanted stone
    off his wooden shanty
    porch.

    With ho-hum bothersome
    grumbling
    Eeyore mumbles low
    head-cracking talk
    because he stubbed his
    hoof-y toe on the stone.

    Rabbit & Owl calculate
    wheelbarrows, catapults; the duo
    invokes rubber
    bands to launch the stone
    out of the way. They fail and
    commiserate with math-less,
    empty dealt hands
    and drink tea, spiced with the vapors.

    Piglet, all pink and
    stripy, skittering about in his fear
    some underwear. Scrunches
    up brow and simply turns
    the stone’s cotton candy
    insides
    out. She’s pink
    like me.

    “Oh Pooh! Come
    and see what I’ve got
    for you! And bring
    your strange friend,
    the man who talks to
    stones.”

  6. Donna says:

    I adore your poem in response Lyla…. and this last bit “You won’t see
    the the inside of a stone,
    but the outside,
    now of two.”

    It struck me with it’s elegance and related to what I was envisioning as I read the conversation… and so, I respond to your response in what else but a poem?

    the stone did split
    and split
    endlessly split

    now renamed

    sand

    countless doorless grains
    closed tight

    pressed
    and heated
    endlessly craved

    now renamed

    glass

    • Donna says:

      (I was practicing with spacing like I have seen in Adrienne Rich’s work but it disappeard… after endlessly and before split.
      endlessly – - – split)


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  1. Two After Wisława Szymborska - April 12, 2014

    […] National Poetry Month Poetry Dare: Wisława Szymborska’s “Conversation with a Stone&#822… […]

  2. Tweetspeak Poetry's Top Ten Posts from the Last Month (or so) | - June 5, 2014

    […] 5. Wisława Szymborska’s “Conversation with a Stone” […]

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