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The Stone
Phil Powrie

                                                                                                                       

 

 

 

I’ve always been attracted to pebbles and stones, particularly those worn smooth by the tides.

 

I would spend unreasonable amounts of time, half-bent, eyes screwed, walking along beaches looking for the perfect pebble, never looking at the sky. Furious with the sea for washing up so many broken seashells, clutter concealing perfection. It’s not that I don’t like seashells. Their whorls, helico-spirals and curls are mathematically and architecturally faultless. They might have been of interest if large enough, or colourful enough, or unbroken. But they didn’t have the magnetic density of stone.

 

I would get angry at other beachcombers apparently looking for the same thing. What if they found a perfect pebble before me? We observed each other warily from afar, or, pointedly, refused to acknowledge each other’s presence. Our repeated gesture that of the collector delighted to have found a perfect beautifully seamed pebble, only to reject it because of imperfections on its underside, cracked, pitted, dimpled, its seam fractured.

 

I focused obsessively on the task, on covering the ground, from one end of the beach to the other, grumbling against breakwaters, splashing across rivulets, losing all sense of time’s trickling, darting here and there, trusting to chance, not knowing when to stop. The perfect pebble could well be in the next few steps, or the steps beyond, at the far end of the beach.

 

Occasionally I would ask myself the obvious question: why did I find pebbles so fascinating? They were anonymous, because the rough edges had been washed out of them and they were all trying so hard to be perfectly spherical. And they were inherently nomadic, unanchored, washed up from other beaches or cliffs or deep-sea ledges. They were the ultimate unmossed rolling stone. Anonymous and migratory—irremediably other. The attraction of the ever out of reach.

 

*

 

I escalated. I sought out beaches that had heavy stones rather than pebbles. After all, I argued to myself, pebbles were once stones, and stones were waiting to be worn down or fragmented into pebbles, each stone a motherlode. The stones I collected got bigger and bigger until sheer size cut down the time I could spend combing the rocks. A sortie would yield one or two spheroidal stones that I would struggle to take back to my car.

 

My rapidly filling living room increasingly resembled the bottom of a collapsed rock face. Except that unlike what you see in rockfalls these objects were all perfectly shaped, orbicular, a scree-like accumulation of scarily blank eyeballs or uncracked ova.

 

I had to stop inviting friends around, because my stones were (a) too creepy (the blank, dead eyes) and (b) too tumblingly numerous, a health hazard to anyone who might want to sit and chat. Entering the room meant taking your life in your hands, fearing that the rocks might roll.

 

I lived and breathed stone. I was a stoner, compact and pyramidal.

 

*

I started therapy.

 

Combing beaches had always been a dialogue—whispering shingle, the chuckle of pebbles, the clamour of rocks tumbling against each other. I knew that I had to listen as well as look. The first steps were to work through the obvious associations and emotional freight of the word stone.

 

Turned into stone in a Medusa-induced stupor.

 

Stone broke—always, having had to give up my job to go on pebble (class B) and stone (class A) hunts.

 

Leaving no stone unturned.

 

Having a heart of stone for family and friends.

 

I was stone cold, stone deaf, and sinking like a stone.

 

*

 

The next step of the rehab was to graduate from semantics and emotion to philosophy. I picked up from Corinne in Godard’s film Weekend when she muses existentially on the stone in her hand, asking ‘Does it think of itself? In itself or for itself?’

 

Although a stone isn’t sentient, its contours compress sense and sentiment. A smooth pebble is time compressed with affect, each layering the other, folded over and over. It was as though the surfaces of these much sought-after smooth pebbles and stones, impregnable space eggs, had been shaped by time, but resisted time and space in equal measure.

 

A stone can be anything, because within its folds lies the power of transformation shaped as permanence. Within its egg lie other eggs; within its hidden orbits lie other orbits.

 

Ergo, a spheroidal stone is more like a black hole than an object of substance. It is absence compressed into presence.

 

To gaze at a sea-smoothed stone is to gaze at what’s no longer there, it’s to gaze at what’s been relentlessly scuffed and abraded. To hold that stone is to hold shapeless absence in its present shape. It’s to hold time itself. You grasp the stone and it’s real, or as real as a previously rough-shaped object can be, but its reality continuously gestures at what’s been taken away. A stone is time past, rough object grated and sucked away by time, and time present as the smoothly idealised past takes shape.

 

To hold a stone is to hold both nothing and everything. It’s to hold both the anonymous object and the nomadic subject.

 

It’s to feel the form and textures of the Idea. It’s to hold all possible orbits as they vanish in folds of thought.

 

*

 

Thinking about stones this way became a burden. Too convoluted and labyrinthine. Dense and circular. Two further steps cured my addiction.

 

The first of these was to think through the geology of stones. Stones are just aggregates of minerals. Fragments, shards, sheared-off particles held together by air. The stone I saw as whole and dense is vibrating, threatening to explode at exactly the same time as it coagulates in compactness. Mass without borders.

 

This was a revelation. From impenetrable pyramidal density I was able to deescalate to sparsity and the gaseous.

 

*

 

The final step was coming across an imperfectly perfect stone.

 

I found a stone shaped like a cloud (the photo accompanying this piece).

 

It wasn’t the perfect sphere that had been my obsession, but it incorporated roundness and gaseousness in equal measure.

 

It made me think of Magritte’s question, ‘How can I paint a stone in such a way as to make it worth being shown?’ The result, his 1959 painting of a stone floating in the sky, The Battle of the Argonne. A stone that isn’t a stone, a cloud that isn’t a cloud.

 

But Magritte’s stone was a representation. Mine was the real thing. I’d found the imperfectly perfect combination of stone and air, sand and cloud. I’d found the sky again.

 

Adrianne Marcus’s poem on Magritte’s painting says that ‘no one listens to a stone’ and that the stones ‘convict you, speechless.’

 

I had listened. I could be silent. I was at last a looser assemblage. I was transformed and gaseous.

 

I was borderless. I was free.

 

 

  ‘No one listens to a stone’ (Adrianne

                                                                      Marcus, ‘The Battle of the Argonne’,

                                                                       Magritte’s Stones)

Phil Powrie is Emeritus Professor of Cinema Studies. You can find his academic work here. Bilingual in English and French, he writes in both languages. His poems in French have been published in the journals L’Altérité, Hélas, Lichen and Luna Rossa. His poems in English have been published in Blue Unicorn, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lotus Eater, October Hill, The Poetry Porch, Pulsar, Shot Glass Journal, South.

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