When I was seventeen years old, I joined my first organized baseball team. I’d been a soccer player all my life, but that year, my school didn’t field a team, so my coach asked me to come out for baseball instead. At the first practice, I was sent to the outfield, where I toed the grass in right and waited for a ball to be hit my way. It didn’t take long to discover that my throwing ability was somewhere between awful and non-existent. Even then, I understood that my problem was one of stability. I had no form. Each throw was from a different position. The first time, my hand cocked at the end of the throw, cart-wheeling the ball straight up in the air. The next time, I did a little hop before I drilled the ball into the dirt ten yards in front of me. On some throws, I put all the torque on my shoulder; on others, I put it on my wrist. I didn’t know how to correct these different approaches, how to consolidate them into a single, smooth throwing motion. My coaches tried their best, but I was a bench-warmer, and we all knew it, so they didn’t take much time to work with me on my lack of throwing ability.
Eventually, I decided to try to figure things out for myself. When I got home in the evenings, I’d take a tennis ball onto my back porch, where I hurtled it against the brick wall over and over, trying to merge my techniques into a manageable approach to the game. I did that for weeks, listened to the pong-pong-pong of the ball, trying – unsuccessfully it turned out – to figure things out.
Reading Bianca Stone’s poetry collection Someone Else’s Wedding Vows reminded me of throwing that tennis ball. The poems in this splendid collection ask questions – big questions, ones about love and intellect and relationships and family – and they throw words and images at those questions again and again. Answers don’t manifest in this book; there is no finality of meaning, but that seems beside the point. What matters are Stone’s attempts to parse the world around us.
Repetition plays a role in how Stone does all of this. In one of the book’s best poems, “Reading a Science Article on the Airplane to JFK,” the speaker opens by talking about the article, a questionnaire, but soon the poem shifts to a questioning that is rooted in snippets of the questionnaire and snippets of the interior life of the speaker:
And in everyone’s skulls
complex régimes went on and on and on.
I seek forever the right way to know this.
That there are bridges
not built in me. That there are areas
that do not light up—
You are at a party having a conversation
with an interesting stranger.
You are in a restaurant and the service is bad.
You have experienced profound grief—
how do you react to this?
Down on the ground your family
writhes. Down on the ground
you are surrounded at Starbucks
with a terrible glow.
There is a mixing and blending there, a cycling back to previous structures and phrasings that creates a wall of idea and image. By the end of the poem, Stone has brought us to a point that is deceptively simple in its yearning:
And you want to be good.
And you want to be liked.
And you want to recover.
The repetition in these poems often results in a sense that we are shifting from concrete to surreal. Take these lines from “Outpost”:
I was going down a river
lulled by the 21st century.
I was staring out of my compound eye
with monochromatic vision.
I was turning into folio.
I was eating. I was ultramarine
with flaming ideas.
I took your picture
without any flash.
I take your dark picture with me.
Only the European dog
behind the wall
knows. And the rooms
are narrow, but the self
over a pile of dust.
The opening repetition in those early lines makes us revise as we read. Each new “I was” is creating a new reality. The result feels surreal, but I’m not convinced that it is. More than anything else, the repetition in Stone’s poems feels like an effort to create concrete meaning by trying again and again. We repeat ourselves when we want to be understood. We repeat ourselves because we want to understand. Metaphor, boiled down to basics, is just a new way of saying an old thing.
Stone’s poems avoid clear meaning, they even avoid concrete, static images at times, but what they don’t avoid are those questions. Her speakers want to know why things are the way they are – in society, in love, in families – and she lets them ask, again and again, until they begin to toe the edge of understanding. In her great essay “Metaphor and Memory,” Cynthia Ozick writes that through metaphor, “We strangers can imagine the familiar hearts of strangers.” That’s what Stone is after in these poems. It’s a pleasure to see her metaphors bounce and ping off the wall, hammering toward some clearer imagining.