The Rock in a Jar
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds...
- Wallace Stevens
Your eye catches it (unexpectedly, a straggly fugitive detail amidst the forest's disarray, illogical and off-hand) in a glimpse of sun down through a brushy filter of pine. Just a small
irregular rock, glassy blue, and subtly blurred below the currents of a mountain creek,
somewhere off the road. Not at all auspicious, this rock, water-pocked and angular, the
underside a flatly polished mica sliver of sky, grey on the upwards. A rock gone unnoticed by the
odd skittish deer come for a drink, or raucous blue jays stirring up a bath. Now, visualize this
rock in the palm of your hand, destined for your jar of souvenir seashells; see reflected in it now
your own scrutinizing glances, the very backdrop of sky and cloud you're standing in. It goes
into your pocket, clicking up against a penny and a quarter. Once home, emptying your treasure
on the kitchen table, you laugh, coming upon the little rock, and drop it in the jar of seashells. It
alters everything; its mica mirror refracts the crowded seashore contents of the jar. The shells roll
over and roll their eyes. Notice the clumsy, lopsided collisions the rock makes against the
smooth parabolas and ampersands, the swirled edges, and thin ridges of the lustrous shells. Turn
the jar in your hands, and the blind mica face of the tumbling upstart rock reveals the graceful
seashells to themselves. Mother of pearl discovering its own reflection in the watery isinglass;
the rock wears their likenesses, disguising the dissonance.
Red and yellow enameled kitchen walls awake and indicate the scene; a roomful of common
objects strategically pinpointed like sectors of an old artillery map; imagined ribbons stretched in
a geometry and fastened to thumbtacks, the battle of ontological vectors joined. New truths
revolve in the room, the jar and the rock and shells arc along the compass, projecting, like a
mirrored disco ball, the center out to the periphery. The increase of distance and angular rotation
throw rock and shells against each other lewdly. They exchange surprise kisses in the jar and the
jar aches to caress them. This dumb and blind subversive rock has on angles of incidence and
reflection brought the windows in, and with the windows, trees as well as sky. No glass confines
its movements; the rock sees at the speed of light. With the seashells in the jar, the jar centers the
kitchen, surrounded by yellows and reds, the colors spreading inward and out; the rock greedy,
the rock coquettish, looking past the kitchen and its own projected kitchens into the trees and
clouds. What does its cold eye remember?
Not ever being born, the rock knows nothing about ripening or the fluctuations of growth
emerging ahead of the blood's vulgar spurts; it assumes only sameness, always the one thing.
The water lay over it in the jar, beyond the water, light and dark, blue sky in its stillness, clouds
slow, white or gray, and the glaring sun. The rock has no organic ties, no family; it's a chip
randomly broken from some larger rock. Memory is of no consequence to it, nothing grows or
passes through it. Geology and geometry were its genesis, whose forms are over and over
seeded, crystallized, and dumbly cleft (no massif, and there's Nature's tragedy, could ever conceive, gestate, or bear pebbles in its image). No boulder promiscuously unrolling green tendrils to bind itself to fences. Now, the rock finds itself revised; it can smell the ocean on the shells, the hints of rotted flesh in the wet jar, a salt sea stink unknown amongst the magma and mineral upheavals, the slow stony stew from which he'd come.
A real novelty, this rock, burly adjacent to the daintier seashells, now exhibiting traces how they
once were hinged to allow life to pump in and out, where they could hide from the light itself, or
wear rings marking how they grew, were used, and had aged. The rock cannot grow, but only be
worn down, roughly gouged across its glassy eye, or broken. Past the shells and the kitchen
implements, the rock records the sky, plotting how to seize the garden, and bring it all in, to
catalogue the exuberant and unfamiliar flowers, combing the saw-tooth of picket fence for new
theorems. Gathering as it goes along, it wants to teach the shells more than the walls, to reveal
the widening circumstances apropos themselves, to show them to the moon.
Nothing waits behind these slivers of reflection but impenetrable crystal; how a little rock contains the world. Everything adds up—shells, walls, windows, trees, fence, clouds, and the
sky—as far as the eye can see into the little retina in the jar. But the rock still knows nothing. No time passes there, though movement and stillness come and go and rest. Inertia, wound up or
disengaged like a broken watch spring, metes out random, uncalibrated distances and speeds
(Time should be able to record something meaningful). All the things inside and out are sizing
one another up according to weight and their proximity; they go fast or slow, ardently awaiting
or tense with dread for something to come around again, make any of it matter. We will keep
vigil at our windows, throw one another censorious looks, tragic to comic, in the to and fro.
Scenes projected on the rock's surface need more than what the reflecting but unreflective little
rock has so far been able to deliver us.
A lonely pine tree on a hilltop miles away resists the gathering leer of the rock. Circling birds, warm air rising, housetop TV aerials, and wood smoke in streaks above the rows of chimneys
partly obscure the tree's conical shape; its millions of separate needles cannot be seen at all.
They will not project on the rock's tiny screen. In a true idea of synthesis, large is found in small,
complexity hides simple, and distances obscure reduction. Up to now, fine coincidence of angle
and light has defined the standpoint of the rock; the seashells were perfect, too, companions in
illusion, motionless and solid, yet happy to pass round through the glass. But, we have not been
scrupulous enough about cupboards or picket fences. We have ignored, in the excitement of
shattering boundaries, the obvious limitations of the rock's field of view. Everyone's eye had
overreached. With these troubling observations we have achieved a turning point. The story's
true; the last rays from reclining Helios (not even a rock can look straight into the sun) cool
obliquely off the white paint of the fence, cool flames in the window's bold returning stare. The
shells grow anxious. The walls come in close. "Everything is just an idea," they thought all round. The rock failed to hold the fractious light in truly lifelike image, the beholder's visual field all reduced to changing photons, into bare neural impulse, making inferences from what others had said they'd seen. Distant objects are, perhaps, best drawn, then, in the mind's eye. To enter into the cave of the mind, the world must become a dream. Rock walls intrude uncouthly, but interpretations and design are dreamed.
No properly anointed rock would long prefer geometry to process, or give preference to sine and
cosine once he'd known the life in asymmetric shrubs and crooked cupboard doors, or the fine
irregular squiggles rough soles have randomly scratched on the checkerboard linoleum. The rock
is moving on just so, abandoning straight lines and perfect parallelograms, isosceles triangles,
regular zigzags, and logarithmic curlicues. "Oh, Let the rock be sentient!" the chorus of shells
chants. "We need a thinker to imagine needles, then, who will let us see their impossibly
excruciating distant thinness."
Pondered deeply, our thinking reveals its lineage in flesh, how it was always birthed behind closed skulls in meaty brains. Along the atom-to-atom circuitry, chemical reactions pile up, a
cluster here, a sinewy string of connections, there; absence and presence, stuff cluttering the
doorway, well-lit garden gates and pitch darkness. Such a lot is going on. Shadow and light
play in tangles over the retina; synthesis-choosing metabolic pathways down the cell-morass of
nerve and cerebral fluids. Isomerized draperies of purple and violet, waving rods and cones,
linked beyond wet surfaces, bravely running neuron rapids to the cortex. It is all the same with
seeing; clusters of electrical charge positioned like infielders on the trusting retina, where the
brain extrudes part of its inward workings to the outward like a hernia; in somewhat the same
way, adjusting so that profoundest inside and out connect on the mica layers of our rock's eye,
on its flat reflecting side. It picks up light waves and reworks them now. If a hair is missing
from a well-known ear, the conceptual apparatus fires up and fills it in; the same with pine
needles. the general idea spiffs up the fragmentary thing.
Experience makes metaphors from our stimulated nerves and the secretions washing in waves
over brain cells. Changes of temperature and the rhythms of discharge turn into hatred, logical
relations, a bad chill. The scientist probes the one, devising machines to manifest the unseen
goings on; the poet dresses up in the tattered others, rummaging for lacey brooches and sepia
albums with dried flowers and obituaries cut from old newspapers.
The rock as poet, the poetizing rock (to complete the metaphor) simulates without from within both the crystals of its micaceous window and deeply in the hard granite below. It can conjure
what collides, rework whatever dances on its screen. It can make corrections in obedience to
theory, where observations might just not confirm specifics. All this was expected from the start,
the careful reader will allow; we were always looking through the rock's eyes. Now the pine
needles are displayed for all to see. The jar reaches round to caress the seashells, the seashells
rub up against the glass, each other and their reborn hero rock. The rock makes and shows
movies on its little screen; the camera dollies and tracks in an ever-widening gyre.
Until now no one had noticed a miniscule defect in the mica, on the lower left-hand corner of the
little squarish mirror, just the tiniest chip that marks a blind spot, a whirly gap in the rock's
retina. It showed up first as a blur on the edge of the closest huddling mollusk, caused a bend in
the third fence picket from the left, but went unnoticed up in the clouds, where details collapsed,
changed and rolled, spread, and swirled, anyway. It's just a quirk that makes the rock's world
entirely the rock's own; the rock's theories are but rock theories. Undeterred, the rock just subtly
detours around its chip. Now, we have virtual intelligence performed by a sight-reproducing rock
picked up from a brook where it had tumbled, probably, for several lifetimes. It can see anything
as far as there's good reason to see, though an imperfection nicked into its glassy edge drives the
eye to replicate errors in each successive scaling; progress and increase are thus bought with ever
The goal was absolutely from the start to see the swirls etched in the pearly core curvature of seashells in the jar and then reflected in the mist of the assembled stars (maybe to discern the milky way, and with it, God's own plan, in the nacre inlay mirrored in half a clam). What the
rock lusted after was much more than merely sight and sense; its farthest flicker lusted for
knowledge, some certitude how everything was governed, how each and every part imbued the
whole. In the passing of Time, the immense distances reaching always toward us, fold over
themselves along a fault line, a cosmic curtain wafting in celestial breezes. Undulations fan from
dead center to the edge, from large and near to small and far, and the reverse, exhibiting the
infinite in all its insignificance. To the rock, all of what has happened might have been predicted;
the shape of the world resembling familiar whorls inside familiar seashells. All worlds grow, the
gods from rows of planted teeth; everything unfolds until it runs up against our stone
idiosyncrasies—our philosophies will then certainly mount up.
This rock considered farthest worlds as subject to the field of its mirror; they could be dragged into the jar, and put under glass. Remote was just another instance of seen close by. If it fitted
into the mirror, how strange could it be? How hard to understand? The shells themselves had
never moved of their own accord; sometimes when the jar was jostled or revolved, the shells
appeared at odd angles. The rock's sweeping gaze edited the jockeying calcite matrices,
composing tableaux framed to show only their very best sides like oil on water spreading
rainbows of soft violet, blue, and pink. When the sun stood just above the picket fence, and the
rain had gone, the rock could paint seashell patterns in the sky, could imagine clouds as
trompe l'oeil bowls of fruit, could fashion mythic war chariots, the mirages of their steam-snorting
horses quivering in a rising patch of pale blue sky. In the rock's mind the world gave up its
secrets in the mirror; what the mirror could imagine, from familiar to odd and weird, is farther
than the distance traveled back, when we hold our discoveries in old cloth sacks sewn from
common knowledge. Nothing was ever entirely new. Blue light off the pretty shells, bent oddly
as we know (don't forget the imperfection on the mirror's face, that unseeing shattered smidgen)
the farther away what it surveyed stood, in that distance, the farther the rock's estimates were
off. The larger errors presently began to haunt the intimates within the jar. No shell was long
allowed to mean just what it meant. Shells became embodiments of vaster implications; they
wrongly stood for whimsy and embodiment. The rock could not turn to face away from any
blemished shell, could not ignore an imperfection (it was powerless in that regard). It could not
move nor see just how wrongly it saw, so it read less meaning in the places where its own
reflection spread. Those sad stars received the names of lesser deities—panic, narcissism,
cupidity—in the rock's garden, they were simply moved into the shade, where they vied with
There are two senses, the rock averred, of center; the jar that held the rock and the rock itself. The rock contained the world, and the jar held the rock, but could not hold the rock's roving eye. Knowing no limits, the rock imagined also God in two persons, one that does, and another that
makes possible. The rock was the moving center, going where it saw things on the cracked,
distorted glass, inventing fabulous objects and creatures, three winged blackbirds pecking insects
on a twisting fence, or rooftops droopy in the center, bowed with imaginary weight. The jar was
the center that held still. What moved was then moving around it. See it and you were justified
and could understand how to drag objects under the lens and read out each's name—"
fence, flower, shell, cloud, star," edicts from proclaimed divinity, vain and arrogant, insisting Time and Motion owed their Being to its Will (the rock in the jar). No other Genesis was countenanced.
Word gets around—the Cat is out.
The fence was created for shade and made rows of frequently dappled dark and lighter stripes
along the flowers; the flowers were born from the need for a capricious yellow offered up to the
rock. The clouds and the stars among them sing a music silent in the yard, heard only by the rock
itself within the jar; the cracks were plastered up with mysteries— "listen"—
the rock begins to hum. Some excess energy blows, as a little wind will sometimes through a
whistle-notched reed, hardly audible at first, but soon a rattling was noticed among the
seashells, sending brittle echoes along the curved see-through glass of the jar, the table
swayed in sympathy and the whistling, ever shriller, passed through the windows to the yard,
past the fence, into the waiting sky. As if the world had been tapped like a tuning fork, the
pitch infects glass, rock, wood, plant, and stars. They squirm in oscillating rhythms—No one can sleep.
After a long career teaching political theory, I retired and began to write poetry in 2006. One of my main interests has been prose poetry (and the wonderful mixture of prose and verse called tanka prose). "Touching Fire," a collection of my ekphrastic prosimetra will come out this winter, published by KYSOFlash.