A.E. Stallings, Olives: Poems
The first trait new readers will discover when they crack her books is that A.E. Stallings rhymes. Though a handful of living poets like Dana Gioia and (to a lesser degree) Paul Muldoon use rhyme in their verse, the poetry establishment, readers and writers alike, substantially frown on direct end rhyme. Such aesthetic conservatism doesn’t sit well with the in-crowd these days.
But in reading, one gets the feeling Stallings doesn’t write for the in-crowd. Despite her use of conventional forms, especially sonnets, villanelles, and terza rima, her poetry is plainspoken, humble, and vernacular. Her blend of casual language and sophisticated form embodies what I think Wordsworth meant when he advocated a modern poetry in the language of the people.
Indeed, Stallings’ poems rely on such contradictions. She makes the timeless artifacts of her adopted homeland, Greece, vanish into the banal backdrop of a continuing memoir, while at the same time adding unexpected grandeur to ordinary events: making a phone call, a baby spitting up. Reading her verses, we feel the ground of our expectations shift violently under our feet.
In such an environment of unexpected paradox, her use of comprehensible rhyme gives us something firm to grasp. We follow her ideas’ volatile movement by the guideposts of her deceptively comforting language. This especially comes across when she talks about transcendent verities, as in this passage from her villanelle “Burned”:
You cannot unburn what is burned.Sometimes the rhyme is less obvious. Sometimes she’s oblique, rhyming “glass” with “vast,” a rhyme so fleeting that you miss it if you aren’t looking. Or in “Alice in the Looking Glass,” her rhymes are thematic rather than sonic: “pass” rhymes with “stay,” “bottom” with “top,” “here” with “there.” Only when you recognize the parallels do you spot the pseudo-rhyme.
Although you scrape the ruined toast,
You can’t go back. It’s time you learned
The butter cannot be unchurned.
You can’t unmail the morning post,
You cannot unburn what is burned
We trained poets find it easy to mock readers who demand that poetry must rhyme, perhaps, because we think of words and verses as units of meaning. Because we write silently, expecting audiences to read silently, we lose sight of what I think rhyme’s layman advocates love: that language is comprised, not of the ideas we would convey, but at its most basic, of sound.
Stallings understands this. As a classicist rather than a trained poet, she handles the words of poets who wrote so that their work could be read aloud. Greek and Latin poetry was never read silently; poets were orators, and their verse was written for speech. We get a feeling for this when Stallings writes something that bridges the ages, like this from “Persephone to Psyche”:
Me and my man, we tried a spell,But Stallings does not merely recreate the splendors of the past. Poetry students have to be trained out of recreating their favorite highlights from Shakespeare or Browning, but Stallings accomplishes what students strive after. She shifts effortlessly between the linguistic panache of her poetic forebears, and her contemporary world. Consider this from “Sea Girls”:
A pharmacopoeia of charms,
And yet... When I am lonesome, well,
I rock the stillborns in my arms.
“Not gulls, girls.” You frown, and you insist—This story starts out with Stallings attempting to teach her son to pronounce circumflex consonants correctly. But as it progresses, the similarity of words in a child’s mouth unlocks the essential similarity of concepts, the ways in which seagulls somehow resemble vibrant young women. Language proves slippery, not because of ideas, but because of sound.
Between two languages, you work at words.
(R’s and L’s, it’s hard to get them right.)
We watch the heavens’ flotsam: garbage-white
Above the island dump (just out of sight),
Dirty, common, greedy—only birds.
OK, I acquiesce, too tired to banter.
This conversational tone makes poetry, a notoriously opaque literature beloved most often by those who create it, accessible to those outside the academy. Stallings creates verses that speak in regular language, without sacrificing the complexity that makes the best verse feel so substantive. Her work rewards casual reading or intense scrutiny.
Hopefully, Stallings represents a vanguard, a “new” breed of poet who writes for the audience, not the tenure committee. But even if she proves a minor oasis in the poetic desert, she has positioned her work amid her generation. Whether she produces a new verse movement or not, she has claimed a place in her audience’s spirit.