What an illusion this one presents. What a dream this one becomes. What a fantasy. What a wish: take all the less-than-perfect aspects of your life, all of the nostalgic longings, the disappointments, the memories that hurt and the memories that simply drag, the embarrassing haircuts, the useless items, the hopes that went unfulfilled and the seemingly promising moments that slipped by without delivering anything that mattered, anything that would last. Take all of this and toss it in the rock polisher. Let it churn for a week, let it all tumble around, the disappointments with the loss, the petty nonsense with the hurt, and let it emerge brilliant, perfect, and pure.
A fantasy. A beautiful fantasy (at least at first), but a fantasy nonetheless. And in this fantasy, even God’s mercy gets perfected (“at last”). I love that, love the implication that the mercy had been imperfect, had been in need of polishing – that that mercy, like a Christmas without snow when snow was all one wished for, had disappointed. And I love how the poem compresses everything that gets put in the polisher, how it equalizes everything: your school shoes, your eighth grade haircut, your parents, your God, all get elevated to the same status, to the same level. They are made equal. The poem reminds us that it’s a nonsensical pursuit to try to rank our disappointments, our failings, to try to claim that one thing hurt more than another. It’s not a matter of one thing needing polishing more than the next, but that all things are imperfect, and that if we’re going to polish one, we better be prepared to polish them all.
And with that, the poem reveals that this fantasy is not as beautiful as it may have appeared. It took me a while to catch this fragment of a line from about the middle of the poem: “It’s way past lights out now.” But there it is. See it? See the suggestion that this process becomes a trap, becomes a prison? Once you start, once you make the decision that all of these disappointments should be polished, should be perfected, you become trapped in the process. You can’t stop. It imprisons you. You try to perfect the way you love. You try to perfect the ocean, itself a rock polisher, but one that works too slowly. You try to perfect the sky, the sky that was good enough for Christ, good enough for Mozart – but not, in this prison, good enough for you.
Why can’t the moment when the girl on the track team touched your wrist be enough? Why can’t you see that as a perfect moment in and of itself?
Or, as Robert Bly, in “Wanting Sumptuous Heavens,” puts it: “There is no end to our grumbling: we want comfortable earth and sumptuous heaven.”