On "The Museum of Stones"
1. Stones by type: schist, shale, hornblende, agate, marble, chalk, marl, mudstone, feldspar, rose quartz, slate, blueschist, gneiss, chert, sandstone, lava
Stones by location: roadside, culvert , viaduct, battlefield, threshing floor, basilica (in Roman architecture, a public building for assemblies; in Christian architecture, an early church), abattoir (a slaughterhouse—from the French verb abattre, “to strike down”—or freezing works, where animals are killed and processed into meat products), streets (loosened by tanks), schoolyard, corpse’s hand, Apollinaire’s oui, Cromlech, Cairn, choirs, shipyards, temples, tombs, near the scaffold, from the tunnel lined with bones, lava of the city’s entombment, lighthouse, cell wall, scriptorium (a room in medieval monasteries devoted to the copying of manuscripts)
Similarly to a poem’s layered meaning, the rocks are formed in and individualized by the layers of earth that hold them. Together they encapsulate the diversity as well as common connections endemic to the minerals, vegetables, and animals that inhabit this “third rock from the sun.”
Further meaning arises from the original locations of the various rocks, which range from the pedestrian (no pun intended—roadside and culverts), to marvelous works of engineering (viaduct and basilica), to sites of labor (threshing floor and abattoir, or slaughterhouse), the latter literally and metaphorically aligned with the battlefield where one might find a rock in a corpse’s hand. How intriguing and macabre is that last location! Finally, we can’t overlook the schoolyard that precedes the image of a corpse’s hand. The contrast of the two (youth to adult, fun to horror, innocence to perversity) is startling. Whereas Forché’s cataloged list draws the reader ever forward, that line is a stumbling block that trips the senses.
“This assemblage, taken together” (line 32) mirrors the complexity and specificity that inform our understanding of the world. The diverse origins (locale and purpose) of the rocks remind us of the many diversions that our life-journey encounters. The narrow focus of the collection mirrors the grounding we bring to that journey by being consistent and clear about certain decisions, plans, and habits.
2. Forché evokes sadness through judicious, sparse, and often indirect references to the human condition. For example, words such as battlefield, schoolyard, temples, cell wall, bridges, and quarry evoke visions of the people whose work, crime, faith, curiosity, ingenuity, etc., endow these places with their deeper meaning beyond the concrete. She also employs poetic phrases such as “the mind within us” (line 8) and “all earth a quarry, all life a labor” (31) to expand the speaker’s voice, making it more inclusive and inviting readers to understand that the speaker is not only the friend of the rock collector, but everyone.
3. Playing with the different stone words adds layers of sound and meaning to the poem. On the surface, they accentuate the fullness of a life lived, its variety, its scope. On a purely musical/tonal level, they allow Forché to play to the reader’s ear for alliteration (cromlech and cairn, schist and shale), rhythm (battlefield, threshing floor, basilica, abattoir), surprise and mystery (through odd-looking, odd-sounding, and obscure words: abattoir, hornblende, marl, scriptorium, blueschist, gneiss). She also strings together quite a “rock collection,” which becomes something of a chant, a dirge befitting poem’s meaning—assuming, of course, that “a poem’s meaning” is something that can be identified or agreed upon.
4. Forché’s phrase “the pebble from Apollinaire’s oui” (line 7) remains obscure (at least to this researcher).
Bamiyan: Afghanistan site of the famous Buddhist Caves where colossal stone statues of Buddha from the fifth century C.E. were destroyed (blown up, hence “mortared”) by the Taliban in 2001.
Research on the terms illuminates their meaning and gives some specificity (in the case of Bamiyan) to the litany of rocks that, for the most part, remain generalized.
5. Herself or someone else—each reader has the prerogative to decide. The question becomes more intriguing (and, for me, the answer clearer) if we including the preceding words: “This is your museum of stones. . .” (line 1). First, does this refer to the rock collection or the poem? The clause can be one of discovery (Aha! So this is your museum of stones!) or declaration (This [poem] is your museum of stones). The “discovery” interpretation can also be read with melancholy.
6. In Forché’s poem, the listing technique comprises parts of the whole, suggesting inherent connections between and among the artifacts that in tandem construct a personality. In O’Brien’s short story, the “things” establish distance and difference, lending character and distinction to each of the soldiers. Ironically, the soldiers themselves resemble the rocks in Forché’s poem in that they comprise parts of a whole, which in tandem form a single unit.
7. We create our own museums. By collecting personal artifacts, we enlarge ourselves and script our histories. The degree to which those artifacts determine personalities varies. In the western world’s materialist, throwaway culture, our museums are always in flux, changing at warp-speed to maintain pace with fashions, trends, and technologies—faster for some than others. At death, our museums solidify, and the overall impression we leave behind cannot be separated from artifacts we leave behind. Forché seems to have understood (and agreed with) this idea of the personal museum and employed it in tribute to her friend.