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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
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Milling Stone

The way a review’s argument takes shape is not dissimilar to the way an artwork’s premise comes about. Selected from the lot of pebbles-cum-premises, the rock is given some time in the tumbler, from which it emerges smooth, clear, yet with enough of an edge to feel distinctive. The process is subtractive. See just how much is enough, at what point the structure no longer holds. Get close, attend to the mechanics. (Subtraction is still subject to a certain order of operations; citations and multiplications may be executed first. Less may be positioned within a bracketed expression.)

The tumbler holds more than this one stone. Other mineral clusters rise and fall, too. Water is the matrix within which all is shaped, the gentle carrier, persistent agitator, temporary container. Here it is more acidic than basic, its bite amplified by a bit of grit—productive friction, critique, editing, and conversation. Use rougher particles at the start, finer grains toward the end. Nothing happens to a rock in a vacuum. The relative forces, conditions, and interactions of these elements (rocks, water, grit), will shift the target stone’s final shape.

This rock is not unlike its cousins. They may have been formed in different places and times, and they may be destined for different ends, but they share literal elements and are influenced by each other’s presence in the matrix. (Some can bruise others.) The target may later be confused with or taken out alongside its twin, or another rock might beckon instead. The grit affects the whole group, but it works differently on each candidate. A few lose their distinctions. The stone from the river looks pale green now, the one from the mountain clouded blue. Both were previously gray.

A precursor to this process is the search for rocks to tumble—inevitably frustrating yet necessary and usually pleasurable. A wide, deep search helps one clarify and defend a certain focus. Not every rock will perform well in the tumbler. Look for pre-existing lines of fracture (rocks have the appearance of solidity but are often porous or flaky). Many will be structurally compromised to a fault; others will reveal just a hairline crack, which could be fruitful to test.

Plenty of sources index the best stones for tumbling, from fancy jasper to tiger’s eye. Read them, but experiment with lesser-known stones—see what you can make of and learn from them. Consider your overall roster. Combining varieties, you might demonstrate differences between minerals; tumbling a number of the same, you could illuminate internal variegations. A pleasing alternative is to exceed the category altogether, dropping in, say, petrified wood. Occasionally, throw in a stone that seems to be a dud. Over time, it may prove worthwhile and affect what you tumble next.

Check on the tumbler frequently. The stone removed early stays jagged, but the stone kept in too long becomes precious. Clean the drum periodically. Don’t let the mud settle. All those traces of excess will clog the system. Things harden.

All of this takes time, hundreds of rotations, so much energy. (Another reason to choose all of these ingredients carefully and maintain your machine.) But if it were otherwise, the exercise would be far less rewarding. You’ll give more consideration to a rock you’re tumbling than to any other. Still, I’ve found that some stones—works or ideas—ask not to be run through the tumbler. Their intrigue could be compromised by its turns and extractions; they might have to be broken down to fit; they might benefit from a different treatment altogether. Leave some stones unturned.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues