Conversation with a Stone – analysis

Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) was a Polish poetess and a recipient of 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. Despite her rather large popularity in her home country she was a reserved person who liked the privacy of her home. Very critical of her work, she only published approximately four hundred poems, of which she fully acknowledged only about two hundred. Szymborska started writing poetry at the age of four. She witnessed the fall of Poland in 1939 and lived through the Nazi occupation. The brutality of war has left a mark on her poetry. She often chooses dark themes that explore unspoken, yet universal truths. Szymborska dissects the matters of morality, mortality and permanence using irony, paradox and a deceivingly simple language.

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 around,
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 sight 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 say what the leaf has said.
And, finally, ask a hair from your own head.
I am bursting from laughter, yes, laughter, 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.

From “Poems New and Collected: 1957-1997” by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (Harcourt Brace: 274 pp., $27)

Analysis:

In her poem, Conversation with a Stone, Szymborska makes a stone, her aim of inquiry. For the poetess, even a part of a landscape is a good enough excuse to begin a mystical and existential query. Here, she focuses on this inanimate object to examine some of the most profound themes of humanness. In what seems like an absurd dialog with the stone, she probes and tries to convince it to let her inside. In her poem, the stone is given its own voice, intelligence and a sense of humor. While it may seem to be an ordinary rock, it holds a plethora of secrets concealed from the human eye, and is impenetrable by logic.

The stone’s “great empty halls inside” intrigue our narrator as she imagines some secret life happening inside, and is eager to witness it. Szymborska repeatedly asks the stone to be let in, to experience its vastness and beauty, and to satisfy her own curiosity. The stone’s response is always logical and to some extent blunt, if not humorous. Here, the stone, with its “straight face” questions the narrator’s intentions and points out that she lacks the capacity to fully experience the object’s true being. This is where we get to the core of this seemingly insane dialogue, “You may get to know me but you’ll never know me through,” says the stone. (In the original the poetess uses “experience” instead of “know me through,” which slightly changes the meaning.) Humans almost always try to use their intellect to transcend the mystery of life. Even art and love are often interpreted via means of logic. However, as the stone points out, there are some things that cannot be comprehended with this rather limited instrument. To experience the mystery of being, one needs to become aware and present. The narrator is reproached, “You lack the sense of taking part,” which metaphorically refers to our inability to be fully present to experience life. The essence of the stone lies not in the precepts our mind has conjured. We pry the stone open with hammers and methodically dissect it in a laboratory to examine its “bowels.” All we really know is its surface and the chemical content. However, we are unable to know the stone’s true form from our sophisticated, hurried and ego-driven, human vantage point. To know the stone one needs to get immersed in the essence of it, a feat hardly attainable to anyone in today’s world. Yet, Siddhartha (from Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse) managed to do it. Through expanding his consciousness Siddhartha transcended his own body’s limitations and experienced the Universe in its true form. He “became” a stone for a short while before he returned back to his Self. He was able to blur the boundaries between his own self and that of the stone. However, for the average joe, this kind of illuminating experience is beyond reach, and leaves him knocking on the stone’s door.

The narrator keeps asking the stone again to be let in as she suggests that it is in human nature to ponder and be curious. She also acknowledges her own mortality, “I don’t have much time. My mortality should touch you.” To which, the stone replies, “I am made of stone,” with a sarcasm, which suggests it has no feelings we ascribed to it, and thus is not a subject to human emotions. The rock sends the narrator to seek a counsel of a leaf, a drop of water and even her own hair, which will confirm what the rock had already said, that a human cannot penetrate its essence (or the essence of the nature.) The final attempt to convince the stone to open its door ends up with a characteristic for Szymborska crux – the stone has no door. This concludes the poem as it literally shuts the door to any further discussion. The ludicrousness of this conversation must challenges anyone’s perception of what truly is real and prompts us to ponder the unorthodox perspective it offers.

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