A friend recommended the poetry of Robert Hass to me, which is why I spent half of a weekend this summer in the library reading his Time and Materials cover to cover. This might not be the best method for poetic appreciation – rather like a boa constrictor swallowing its prey whole for later digestion – but it proves more effective than returning the book unread.
One poem in particular, “State of the Planet,” arrested me mid-read. Composed for a conference of the same name, it meditates on Earth’s history and considers man’s place within it. The principle focus is certain environmental problems: polluted, overfished, carrying on nonetheless. Hass imagines a Californian schoolgirl, both as an allusion to future generations of stewards, and to ruminate on how one learns about the world. There are friendly textbooks and voices of authority instructing her about the cosmos, as well as the informative delights of experience: raindrops pelting her crimson backpack, copper-colored Japanese plums, leaning into the face of the wind, the possibility of Petoskeys.
That last was what made me pause, the fifth section in:
If she lived in Michigan or the Ukraine,
She’d find, washed up on the beach in a storm like this
Limestone fossils of Devonian coral. She could study
The faint white markings: she might have to lick the stone
To see them if the wind was drying the pale surface
Even as she held it, to bring back the picture of what life
Looked like forty millions years ago: a honeycomb with mouths.
It grabbed me, but oddly: no one ever bothers calling a Petoskey stone a fossil of Devonian coral. Possibly it was his way of including Charlevoix stones, or whatever folks in the Ukraine call their particular coral fossils; theirs wouldn’t be named for Chief Petosogay like ours are.
More than the mention of Michigan, I was caught by she might lick the stone, which squares up so neatly with reality.
However lovely it is to walk a Michigan beach – or swim, or read, or watch a sunset – the rocks are my greatest lure. Peering at them, poring over them, eyes peeled for that particular array of hexagons, those faint lines made distinct by the wash of a wave.
As Hass notes, it’s more difficult when the stones are dry. Licking the stone is the quickest test if you’ve stepped away from the shore.
I love this about them: that they hide, even as you look at them, especially when you take them further from the water. That mute honeycomb cries out, long after the coral has died, to be returned to the sea.