May 3, 2004

New Stone book shares Music from Apartment 8     

By Michael Terrazas

John Stone pays attention to the world. Retired from Emory’s full-time faculty since 2002, the cardiologist and former director of admissions in the School of Medicine has kept his eyes wide open, and devotees of the written word continue to be grateful.

Music from Apartment 8, Stone’s fifth book of poetry, has just been released by Louisiana State University Press. At President Jim Wagner’s Inauguration on April 2, Stone read “The Spirits of This Lawn,” composed especially for the occasion and one of the highlights of the ceremony. Such prolificity from a man who has “slowed down” from his days of active teaching and the practice of medicine may come as a surprise to some, but for Stone creativity is not so much a dogged pursuit. In the words of author Lorrie Moore, it is simply inevitable.

“A poet’s responsibility is to call the attention of us all to the things we might otherwise take for granted,” Stone said. “Paying attention is a good thing. It renews the world for us to see it from a poet’s point of view and make our own daily assessments of it.”

Stone knows about renewal of the world. For the past few years, he has watched it happen through the eyes of his mother, Pauline, who since 2001 has resided in an Atlanta assisted-living facility. The title of his new book refers to his mother’s residence, and its first seven poems are about all his mother has taught him during her time in “Serenity Gardens.”

Pauline Stone lives in the present. To some degree, this is forced upon her since, at age 95, her memory is not what it used to be. But in another, more encouraging sense, Pauline’s enjoyment of life in the Now holds a lesson for us all, according to her son. When she does venture into the past—for example, when she rediscovers her ability to play the piano, or to communicate in American Sign Language—Pauline encounters it anew, like a child, only with the added appreciation that comes from having lived for nearly a century.

“One nice thing about writing poetry is that, in its most felicitous circumstances, one discovers something,” Stone said. “My mother has taught me a lot in the last three years. She enjoys her journeys into the past with a bit of amazement, and she has a joy in the present that’s really to be envied.

“The main thing she’s taught me is how to accept with equanimity the approaching years,” he continued. “If one can’t remember the past, that’s OK. There are still plenty of things to be thankful for.”

Indeed, a tone of thankfulness and celebration permeates nearly all of Stone’s poetry. Music from Apartment 8 includes not only new verse but also selections from his four previous books, observations scattered over three decades that attempt in written form to illustrate the simple beauty that surrounds us every day.

“To enter Stone’s poetry is to enter the territory of the heart,” David Bottoms, Georgia’s poet laureate, has said. “He is one of the few contemporary poets who actually tries to show us why life is worth living. Reading the poems of John Stone is like getting a house call from an eminent physician of the spirit.”

“Poetry,” Stone said, “is responding to the epiphanies of our lives—it’s the noticing of seemingly small experiences that turn out to have significance.”

These experiences range from the many truths about life—and death—Stone has gleaned from his career as a cardiologist, to the tiny pleasures of birdsong on a college quadrangle, to noticing the grace of a soap bubble or the humor there for the taking on the streets of Atlanta. For example, in “The Truck,” from 1981’s In All This Rain, Stone reflects on a truck he saw that carried the sign “Progress Caskets: Arthur, Illinois.”

“A casket/may be Progress up in Arthur,” the poem concludes, “but it’s thought of/down here/as a setback.”

“I like to speak in terms of the watchful heart, which is what both the poet and the doctor should possess,” Stone said. “It’s seeing the humor and the pathos of life, seeing the suffering, but also seeing the resiliency. Like my mother.”

Stone will hold a reading and book signing on Tuesday, May 4, at 6 p.m. in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library.

The event is free and open to the public.