Apr 15 2023
Poetry review – THIS AFTERLIFE: D A Prince admires the blending of big themes and everyday experience in this selection of poems by A E Stallings
A.E.Stallings has a considerable presence as a poet in the United States yet this is her first publication in the UK. Now Carcanet has remedied her relative lack of exposure to UK readers with this generous selection from her four full-length collections plus a handful of uncollected poems and translations. Her first collection, Archaic Smile, published in 1999, won the Richard Wilbur Award of the University of Evansville Press and established her distinctive style. That was only the first of a long list of prizes and nominations. She is a formalist but not one who is limited by form and tradition; she plays with form and rhyme patterns and in her hands they are flexible and shape-shifting. Her background is in the classics: after graduating from the University of Georgia she studied at Oxford and since1999 has lived and worked in Athens. Her translations from the classics include Lucretius (De Rerum Natura) and Hesiod (Works and Days) for Penguin,
But let’s start outside this collection, with ‘Presto Manifesto!’, published in Poetry Magazine (USA) early in 2009. It consists of a series of punchy points about rhyme and how it affects both poets and readers. These are just a few:
The freedom to not-rhyme must include the freedom to rhyme. Then verse
will be “free’. Rhymes may be so far apart you cannot hear them, but they can hear each
other, as if whispering on a toy telephone made of two paper cups and a
length of string. Rhyme is an irrational, sensual link between two words. It is chemical. It is
I could have quoted the entire manifesto but I’ll end with these: “Rhyme frees the poet from what he wants to say”; and “Rhyme annoys people, but only people who write poetry that doesn’t rhyme, and critics.” Witty, thought-provoking, simultaneously serious and funny, the manifesto defends what have for centuries been the inner workings of poetry: meter and rhyme.
What’s striking about This Afterlife is the consistency of her voice but don’t expect all the poems to rhyme: she is equally at ease with unrhymed blank verse, especially in monologues such as, ‘Hades Welcomes His Bride’, or ‘Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother’).
First—hell is not so far underground — My hair gets tangled in the roots of trees & I can just make out the crunch of footsteps, The pop of acorns falling, or the chime Of a shovel squaring a fresh grave
She is assured from the outset. The opening poem, ‘A Postcard from Greece’, gives this collection its title. It’s a sonnet but one that stretches the form: the turn comes in the eleventh line, the rhyme scheme isn’t fully regular. Despite the promise of the opening four lines, where rhymes imply this will be a tidy Petrarchan sonnet, the poem slips into half-rhyme, irregularly — a good structure for a poem about a near-miss road accident. It ends
Somehow we struck an olive tree instead. Our car stopped on the cliff’s brow. Suddenly safe, We clung together, shade to pagan shade, Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.
In the sharpened sensations after near-death Stallings finds the springs of her poetry, as she acknowledged in a recent Radio 4 interview. In ‘Explaining an Affinity for Bats’ — a traditional Petrarchan sonnet this time —she explains how heightened sensitivity to sound works in the same way for both bats and poets
That they sing—not the way the songbird sings (Whose song is rote, to ornament, finesse)— But travel by a sort of song that rings True not in utterance, but harkenings, Who find their way by calling into darkness To hear their voice bounce off the shape of things.
That idea of finding a way through the shapes of the world is at the centre of this book. What’s refreshing is how outwardly-focussed Stallings is. She is curious about society and its changes, her surroundings, other people, evolving language; and she is willing to play with words. She has an eager curiosity, a lightness and sureness of touch, a questioning voice. Not all recent poetry collections aspire to this, making me question when—and how—this outward focus became almost as unfashionable as rhyme.
When she draws on Greek myth (as with Persephone, quoted above) Stallings often uses the first person, giving voice to the softly-spoken characters. In ‘The Wife of the Man of Many Wiles’ Penelope’s weariness towards Odysseus and his tales comes through in the repetitions
Believe what you want to. Believe that I wove, If you wish, twenty years, and waited, while you Were knee-deep in blood, hip-deep in goddesses.
The collection Olives (2012) opens and closes with a poem entitled ‘Olives’, but each very different. The first begins
Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet, For fruits that you can eat Only if pickled in a vat of tears — A rich and dark and indehiscent meat Clinging tightly to the pit — on spears
and continues by bringing the solidly physical fruits so alive it has you hunting through the store cupboard. The second ‘Olives’ poem plays with anagrams — “Is love/ so evil?/ Is Eve? Lo,/ love vies/” — and on for a further fifteen lines. She slips in an extra letter or two along the way, simply to extend the game and, incidentally, to make a better poem. No one would want a whole collection of anagram poems but they remind us that words are the medium, and there’s a lot of fun to be found in tickling them.
‘Like, the sestina — with a nod to Jonah Winter’ plays with both language and form. Forget the familiar six-word pattern for the ends of lines, this poem seizes that filler-word ‘like’, the standby of social media clickers, and uses it as the end of every line. Here’s the opening stanza (plus a couple of lines) to give the flavour
Now we’re all “friends”, there is no love but Like, A semi-demi-goddess, something like A reality-TV-star look-alike, Named Smile or Me Two. So we like In order to be liked. It isn’t like There’s Love or Hate now. Even plain “dislike” Is frowned on: there’s no button for it. Like Is something you can quantify:
It’s relentlessly funny in its message: that a lack of vocabulary diminishes everyone and everything.
She knows how to set the villanelle free to underpin mood, having observed that it’s the ideal form for a nagging or repetitive subject, one that goes round and round. In ‘After a Greek Proverb’ she writes of her life in Athens —
We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query— Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back. Nothing is more permanent than the temporary. We dine sitting on folding chairs—they were cheap but cheery. We’ve taped the broken windowpane. TV’s still out of whack. We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query.
She’s observant around domestic details, how they define lives — hers, of course, but with echoes in ours. The personal details here — “Twelve years now and we’re still eating off the ordinary:/ We left our wedding china behind, afraid that it might crack.” — would, I guess, find equivalents in any relationship where the larger world is more important than a perfectly-groomed household.
Family life and its tensions — a lost but vital Lego brick, missing house keys — are the starting point for the longest poem in this collection, the thirty-six stanzas of ‘Lost and Found’. The poet/mother — and it’s always the mother who solves domestic problems — is still searching in her sleep, unable to escape the day’s demands. That includes finding rhymes (“because the mind has no free time/ But keeps at night to its diurnal task”) until finally she meets a guide: “My name’s Mnemosyne; I am divine./ I am”, she said, “the Mother of the Muses—/ Imagine, you have two, but I have nine!” It’s an enjoyable mix of classics and the mess of real life.
Stallings knows the larger world of Athens; she is an active volunteer. ‘From Refugee Fugue’ is a found poem, using phrases translated from Arabic, Farsi/Dari and Greek, letting the words build the picture
Sorry, it has run out We do not have it now New shoes only if yours are broken Wait here, please
ending with “Sorry/ Stay calm/ One line, please// Next person”. There are no full-stops in this endless line of struggling humanity.
Members of her own family appear around the edges of poems, often as part of another subject. ‘Empathy’ has a personal honesty —
My love, I’m grateful tonight Our listing bed isn’t a raft Precariously adrift As we dodge the coast guard light, And clasp hold of a girl and a boy. I’m glad we didn’t wake Our kids in the thin hours, to take Not a thing, not a favourite toy.
Her description of rhyme as “alchemical” seems particularly apposite here, where in the first stanza it holds the couple together, the bed no largely than some of the boats used by refugees. There’s no cosy consolation in her rhyme. The final stanza acknowledges
Empathy isn’t generous, It’s selfish. It’s not being nice To say I would pay any price Not to be those who’d die to be us.
But there’s a larger context for human lives: Death and Time—two of the themes holding the poems together, and connecting the twenty-first century with the classical world. Stallings frequently returns to these at the end of poems, sometimes through a classical reference but also through the natural world. ‘Swallows’, towards the close of this book, is one example and this is the final stanza
They have no time for tragic song, As dusk distills they dart and flicker, The days are long, but not as long As yesterday. The night comes quicker, And soon the season will be wrong. Knackered, cross, they bitch and bicker, Like you and me. They never learn. And every summer they return.
I have enjoyed the range of this collection with its humour, its humanity, generosity, intelligence, love of the richness of life and the attention to the craft — that good, old-fashioned craft — at every level. This is poetry about the everyday stuff of life and the Big Themes that the ancient Greeks understood as well. Few poets can achieve this.