Pebbles and Sand

pebbles and sand
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Poets throughout history have turned to animal and mineral being to express their own because from that storehouse a larger vocabulary of being, particularity, and wisdom can emerge.

~ Jane Hirshfield “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry”

Some poems are pebbles, some are sand. This sounds like the beginning of a poem, but which kind?

For the sake of argument, let’s say that pebble-poems, like the pebbles they are named after, have unique personalities: they vary in color, shape, weight, evoking different moods in those who hold them in their palms (the poets who wrote them or their readers). Pebble-poems leave a shadow on the page. We can hide universes inside a shadow. Pebble poems have impact. We feel them when they strike.

Sand-poems, by contrast, are virtually indistinguishable. They weigh little to nothing. They don’t thunk, they whisper. Their shadows are smaller. When hurled at us, they don’t hurt as much, unless they get in our eyes. Sand-poems have a way of seeping into everything. They can become annoying, like that pop tune we’ve always hated but can’t get out of our heads.

Sand-poems seem perennially unfinished. Given-up on. Forgettable. We want to keep rewriting them over and over. The right words are always on the tip of our tongues, almost within reach… and then they’re gone. We go through stages where we try to resuscitate sand-poems, to help them breathe on their own. We rarely succeed. It’s in their nature to be minor, to lack ambition. They simply don’t have the will to live.

I’m mean to sand-poems, I know. So I’ll go ahead and disagree with myself. I’ll question this hasty classification of poems in terms of size and impact. After all, we need all kinds of poems in our lives—poems that dent our floorboards and poems that fall soundlessly, like sand in an hourglass.

Who’s to say that sand-poems are all alike? Are snowflakes all alike? Raindrops? Under a microscope, one can see a world in a grain of sand. Someone else said this before. Someone whose fertile imagination renders the microscope superfluous.

And who’s to say that pebble-poems are so darn special? Myriads of them line the seabed, doomed to obscurity under the weight of water and time. Those thick tomes in the library, the ones nobody reads? Filled with pebble-poems.

Now I’m mean to pebbles. What is it about the human mind that compels it to label, brand, and discard? I want to be all-inclusive, but I have to be honest, I’m struggling.

I remember a summer in Yalta, many years ago. My father and I were at a writer’s retreat. The adults—poets and writers with their significant others, no kids—were drinking and talking on a terrace overlooking the Black Sea, while the seventeen-year-old me was quietly dying of boredom. Then came the bee. Troublesome, scary creature. I’d been stung before. I swatted at it as it kept buzzing around my head, either trying to pollinate me or insinuating—not so subtly—that I didn’t belong. An old writer from Armenia leaned toward me and whispered, “Leave it be. There’s room in this world for both of you.” I thought he was unfair at the time. The bee was the one attacking, couldn’t he see that?

I think differently now. Perhaps he was telling me that I, too, belonged. There’s room in this world for all of us, people who get stung, bees who do the stinging, poems of all sizes and descriptions—with their own stings.

I felt guilty toward my sand-poems over the years, guilty for loving them so little. I wrote a poem once to illustrate that guilt. The metaphor I used was that of a flightless bird, one that had the potential to fly but chose to walk. You can find the poem here. I hesitate to bring a flightless bird among pebbles and sand. It seems like a recipe for a mixed metaphor. Or does it?

Some birds, like the ringed plovers, the little terns, the oystercatchers, build their nests on pebbles and sand (see the image at the top of this page). I’m onto something here, I can feel it. Like birds, we build our nests inside all kinds of poems. We weave whatever materials we have at our disposal into them: our petty hurts and our unique tragedies. We build to live or live to build–either way, we are such stuff as nests are made on.

Perhaps they are not so different, then, these pebble-and-sand poems. Perhaps they are simply the alpha and the omega of a poet’s life. Each sand-poem used to be a pebble once. Each pebble-poem will eventually turn to sand. We need them both to build our intricate nests of words. We pour sturdy pebble-poems into foundations, we melt sand-poems into glass, so that we can clearly see out of a window.

In time, we, too, may become pebbles. Or sand.


PS–I’m not the first, nor the last to think of poems as pebbles. Here‘s a desperate piece I wrote in graduate school in response to Jane Hirshfield’s essay Two Secrets: On Poetry’s Inward and Outward Looking (from her book “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry”), in which she comments, among other things, on Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “The Pebble.”

It’s strange–and strangely comforting–how we keep returning to the same themes and symbols throughout our lives. As if they were the ones rewriting us over and over.

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