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Carolyn Forché's poem, "The Museum of Stones," seems to be about war and destruction, presented in brief glimpses of the former lives of stones before their structure was destroyed, and images of hope for the future.
At first the poem does nothing more than list stones. Whereas the image of a "museum" brings to mind a singular place, I believe that Forche lists many places all over the world that are museums: collections of the very old, of building and cities that no longer exist, based on the poem's conclusion.
An image of war is present in the following lines that describe not just the destruction by tanks by the deep history of the city where those stones rested before the tanks arrived ("ink on linen"):
...stones loosened by tanks in the streets
of a city whose earliest map was drawn in ink on linen.
And perhaps a child, dead in the rubble:
schoolyard stones in the hand of a corpse
The diversity of the stones is widespread, encompassing ancient industry, churches ("ruins of choirs") and shipyards:
...millstones, and ruins of choirs and shipyards...
The stones run wildly throughout the world, civilizations and time. They come from tombs and temples, catacombs lined with bones, and even a place such as Pompeii—a city walled in by the flow of lava. There are places of light—the lighthouse that may symbolize knowledge; jail cells which may symbolize the loss of any kind of freedom (even intellectual); and, the scriptorium, a place of writing.
The image of battle rises again, referring to those who placed paving stones and whose hands also battled an encroaching enemy, where bell towers and bridges were blown apart.
...paving stones from the hands of those who rose against the army,
stones where the bells had fallen, where the bridges were blown...
Religions are not untouched—also accounted for are the stones of Buddhist temples, pieces of an abbey, and three crosses at a crypt. (The "Buddha mortared at Bamiyan" refers to beautiful carvings into the sandstone side of a mountain in Afghanistan that the Taliban ordered bombed in 2001, declaring that the carvings were idols.)
Forché's poem subtly shifts when introducing "stone apple, stone basil," terms of her own making (I assume), as all these fallen stones become enmeshed in nature's growth: apple, basil, beech, berry, fern, lichen, liverwort, etc. This metamorphosis the author describes may well be a "consecration" of sorts, a dedication to a holy purpose.
...with hope that this assemblage...would become
a shrine or holy place, an ossuary, immovable and sacred,
like the stone that marked the path of the sun as it entered the human dawn.
The author's theme from her earliest writings has been "the individual’s responsibility to the past and to others." This can be seen in this poem. For all the destruction, the author seems to hope that it might be possible for humankind to take the rubble and broken stones and create a place of peace, much like the first stone at creation, when the sun first rose for the first dawn. It is here that I find the theme:
Let there be war no more, brother fighting against brother, with lives lost and lives ruined. There is no glory in war, no pomp, no ceremony, only heartache and hate for both sides.*