June: Water and Stone

This month’s theme is partly inspired by the starting of open swim (June 15th), but mostly by these lines from Mary Oliver and Richard Siken:

It is the nature of stone
to be satisfied.
It is the nature of water
to want to be somewhere else.

Everywhere we look:
the sweet guttural swill of the water
Everywhere we look:
the stone, basking in the sun,

or offering itself
to the golden lichen.

“Gravel”/Mary Oliver

Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—

The Language of Birds/Richard Siken

I wasn’t sure what I would do with this theme, I just knew I wanted to spend some time with water and stones and how they are understood in poetry. Then, on June 3rd, I revisited Lorine Niedecker’s (the nie is pronounced knee) beautiful poem, Lake Superior, and her notes from a 1966 vacation, traveling around Lake Superior (found in the excellent book Lake Superior).

from Lake Superior

In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock

from Lake Superior Country, Vacation Trip ’66

The journey of the rock is never ended. In every tiny part of any living thing are materials that once were rock that turned to soil. These minerals are drawn out of the soil by plant roots and the plant used them to build leaves, stems, flowers and fruits. Plants are eaten by animals. In our blood is iron from plants that draw out of the soil. Your teeth and bones were once coral. The water you drink has been in clouds over the mountains of Asia and in waterfall of Africa. The air you breathe has swirled thru places of the earth that no one has ever seen. Every bit of you is a bit of earth and has been on many strange and wonderful journeys over countless millions of years. 

Niedecker weaves together geological facts she acquired with accounts from explorers and details from her vacation. I decided to review my old notes on the geology of the gorge, and read more about the history of this area, particularly in terms of how white settlers arrived and occupied (stole) Dakota land. I made a timeline of key events near the gorge, read through the terribly shady treaties that Pike made with the Dakota, discovered a little more about how the gorge formed when Lake Agassiz spilled over the ice shelf on the edge of western Minnesota, remembered the layers of gorge rock–St. Peter sandstone, Glenville Shale, Platteville Limestone, studied geological time–Eons, Eras, Periods, Epochs, and Ages–and read more about how some scientists believe we are still in the Holocene Epoch, while others believe we moved into the Anthropocene.

A few reasons I’m excited about Niedecker

  • She writes about the lake I was born on, Lake Superior, and geology and geography that resonates with me
  • Her process: all the notes condensed down to a pithy, beautiful poem + the type of notes: history mixed with her travel stories, critical commentary on land and language and globalization
  • The forms of her poems and how the later ones might be influenced by her vision diagnosis when she was 46–she had nystagmic (your eyes constantly move, struggle to focus)
  • Her attention to and writing about rocks and water
  • The impact of her work through the WPA Writers program on the guide for Wisconsin + her work with Aldo Leopold
  • This brief essay, Switchboard Girl, in which she writes about her struggle to find work with her eye condition. I’m planning to read this closely; it might give me some useful language for understanding and communicating my own struggles with work after my diagnosis

From the Emily Dickinson Lexicon, entry for stone

stone (-s), n. [OE stán, wall; Gk. ‘pebble’.] (webplay: body, buildings, cold, dead, earth, express, eye, fall, fences, forgot, glance, gold, great, hard, heart, lie, lifeless, means, mirror, myself, perfectly, Philosopher’s, sense, set, small, stand, still, supposed, turning, universally, use, walls, water, weight).

  1. Hard mineral substance.
  2. Piece of rock; [fig.] thing which has a characteristic of a rock: unbreakable, inanimate, unfeeling, immovable, lack of consciousness, used to throw at things, used to break things, used in building structures.
  3. Jewel; precious gem.
  4. Grave; sepulcher; crypt; mausoleum; burial vault; [fig.] large stone covering the entrance of Jesus Christ’s sepulcher which was removed at the time of his resurrection.
  5. Coffin; casket; solid enclosure holding a dead body.
  6. Headstone; monument marking a grave.
  7. Imaginary substance thought to be able to turn other substances into gold. 
  8. Phrase. “[Written / set / stamped] in stone”: unalterable; prescribed by fate; will of God.

Things Learned That Might End Up In A Poem

  • Traveling north from the confluence to Minneapolis, the falls moved, on average, 4 feet per year
  • Due to commerce–lumber and flour mills–and damming the river, the pace of the falls retreat increased. By the early 1860s, just before the Eastman tunnel collapsed and destabilized the falls, it was retreating 100 feet a year
  • About 1000 feet past where the falls was stabilized by the Army Corps of Engineers (1870), the limestone stops. If the falls had not been stabilized, it would have eventually disappeared at this point. We still rely on the concrete apron, first built in 1870, for the stability of the river–and the continued delivery of water to about 1 million Minneapolis homes
  • St. Anthony Falls was the name given by Father Hennepin when he visited them in 1680. The falls already had (at least) 2 names: Owamni-yomni is ‘whirlpool’ in the Dakota language, Gakaabika is ‘severed rock’ in the Ojibwe language. Emphasis on water (Dakota), emphasis on rock (Ojibwe)
  • Longfellow never visited Minnehaha Falls. He wrote his famous poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” based on his reading of Henry Schoolcraft’s accounts of Indian legends. It takes place in the UP, near the pictured rocks
  • The Song of Hiawatha is a very popular source for city/town names around the country. There’s a Nokomis, Florida
  • Lake Itasca is named by Schoolcraft. It’s not a variation on an indigenous name, but the mashing up of the latin phrase for true/head source: verITAS CAput
  • The sacred Spirit Island was removed/destroyed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s for the Lock and Dam

The Poems I Read

An exercise not yet tried

Gather together as many different definitions, understandings, descriptions for stone and rock as you can find in the poems you read for this month. Write a poem or poems using some of them.