Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

On First Looking into Stallings's Homer
a review of A. E. Stallings's
Archaic Smile
Hardback, University of Evansville Press, 1999; $15

by Jennifer Reeser

all poems cited are from Archaic Smile by A. E. Stallings
copyright ©1999 by A. E. Stallings

In writing well, as in loving well, much of the art lies in knowing what not to say, then in having the self-discipline not to say it. It seems fair, then, that good verse especially - by its demand for distillation and artifice - must be a loss of self and, as an ancient once said of wisdom: the practice of dying. A. E. Stallings appears to die often and well.

"Archaic Smile" opens with 'A Postcard from Greece,' a poem in which the speaker describes a car accident experienced while driving 'round a clothespin curve new-watered with the rain,' (a verse whose technique toward centrifugal-force-on-a-page has come back to me many a time I should have been paying attention to toddlers or the traffic light). The sestet's premier line begins 'To those who lost...', and this theme - loss - continues throughout the book, until the fourth and final section, which is not surprisingly titled 'For the Losers of Things.' Loss, loss, loss: of sleep, of custom, love, life, innocence, beauty, belongings -- all spoken through a cast of vehicles, where at every turn I was moved by the clarity of the poet's purpose combined with her powers of hooking that purpose to the corporeal. I found myself thinking of these poems as bridges using both form and objective detail as compression under the tension of their messages. More than that, though, I was touched by their gravity and grace, which convinced me of deep pathos for the living, and their keen focus on speaking to the human condition. Her poems are lucid, intriguing, and self aware, while managing not to be self-absorbed.

This is the first book from a poet who, at the age of 32, has already accrued the 1997 Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry, inclusion in two editions of the Best American Poetry series, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology XXII.  Dana Gioia chose this collection to receive the 1999 Richard Wilbur Award, and it is divided into four sections: Underworld, Bestiary, A Tour of The Labyrinth, and For the Losers of Things, with some fifty poems overall.  As subject matter, most of the third and first sections are psychological pieces using the stuff of Greek myth, (such as Arachne's transformation and the rape of Persephone), always treated to a contemporary idiom that avoids archaisms and ornamental slang borrowed from 18th century translations.

In the initial section, I was most moved by 'Eurydice Reveals Her Strength.' Ms. Stallings executes this poem beautifully, in the voice of Eurydice to Orpheus, using iambic quatrains in abab rhyme, a form some might indict as undercutting the solemnity of such a piece, but a scheme which was used (as one example) by Anna Akhmatova in her native Russian, to dignified ends. The poet varies her stresses to avoid a jog-trot rhythm and sets up a fair dose of enjambments and latinates with internal accents, thereby elegantly presenting Eurydice's ambivalence toward her lover's 'rescue' from Hades, and her potential preference for:

'..this clarity of mind, this death
Of all the body's imperious demands:
That constant interruption of the breath,
That fever-greed of eyes and hands
To digest your beauty whole.'
She goes on reflecting, with this to say of understanding:
'I think, how do the living hear?
But I remember now, that it was just
A quiver in the membrane of the ear,
And love, a complicated lust.'
The aptness of the title struck me, proven as it is by the pragmatism of these lines. The style is straightforward, accessible, and literal, which might unnerve lovers of titanic levels of ambiguity, difficulty or concretion in poetry, (of whose club I confess to being a sometime-member) but I felt there was more than enough resourcefulness and abstract statement -- combined with Ms. Stallings's facility with implication -- to satisfy even a hardened Romantic. The dramatic monologue 'Hades Welcomes His Bride' I also found particularly engaging, mainly due to the wealth of interface between Hades and Persephone. Hades is a chilling figure by virtue of his congeniality, and all the more convincing for the fact that he is not only acting, but reacting to his new possession, in Browning-esque fashion. These poems rely on public rather than private mythology not only for their tropes, but also for their emotional impact; primal touchstones like light and darkness recur to good effect, and never did I find the verse pedantic or mundane.

If the mundane isn't a hallmark of this book, neither is monotonous reflection. Ms. Stallings turns from the dispassion of Eurydice and Hades to present Odysseus's wife, in the form of a tercet sequence whose repetition, runaway triplets and staccato, incomplete phrasing effectively portray much more the bitter tone in Ovid's Hypsipyle than our faithful, mild Penelope archetype.
The poems of section two, Bestiary, are a wonder of ingenuity and joy in language, whether word play like 'glorious/uxorious' in speaking of Mr. Cardinal's affection for Mrs. Cardinal, wrapped up in a sad occurrence on the pavement, or an explanation of why the crow merits his own cliché for directness. From 'RepRoach:'

'There are times that I reproach
Myself because I loathe the roach,
For I've hymned spider, slug and snail,
Whatever's awkward, ugly, pale,

Whatever's many-legged, at fault,
Whose skin is permeable by salt,
Whatever creatures creep abroad
Unloved by anyone but God.'

And from 'Listening to the Monkeys of the Nearby Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center':
'I want to call before they stop,
To bridge our two captivities,
But I would wake my neighbors up
Who frown on such proclivities

Of poets or of indigents
Abusing words and alcohol,
Confusing the experiments,
To ask the meaning of it all...

No answer comes, no answer comes--
But owls, air-conditioning, trains,
The silence of opposing thumbs,
Superior and sober brains.'

In addition to her urbane wit -- something I appreciated in various and unexpected spots throughout the book -- these are examples of the satisfying way she compassionately links nature to some unsatisfying aspect of relevance to human nature, elevating her subjects to more than the sum of their parts and making disharmony all the more poignant (not to mention sanguine) by the beauty of form and attitude with which it's treated. This whole section is full of formal delights - and though most are rhymed couplets or quatrains in tetrameter, there is a muscular  sonnet in the mix, while the last of the group is a blank verse lament with one of the loveliest syntactical inversions I've seen in formal verse in some time.

These first two sections are solid ones, and worthy of repeated visits for their striking simile and metaphor, but I find myself returning most often to the back half of the book, where (I feel) Ms. Stallings's work is at its empathic height.  To walk through these chapters is to walk between lines of mist-like beauty, by turns stern and tender, always melodic.  Everything seems to incite her to versification, to our enlightenment and pleasure.  Her imagination, insight, tone and craftsmanship combine into a maze in which, just when you think you've succeeded in pinpointing her influence in the archives of world prosody, you flow unexpectedly into another.  'Study in White' is a haunting piece which touches on the theme of conflict between the drive to excel, and those things which pose a danger to one's own nature and those who  depend on it -- a theme, at heart, not wholly unlike 'The Tantrum,' which deals more directly with a child's perceived loss of her mother to the world.

'Vale' is a surreal dream sequence,  by far the longest selection in the book, at just over 100 lines, fascinating for its symbolism and connotation.  It begins with the speaker waking with the memory of running and being pursued, but then being dragged down into a world where '...the dead have no pockets, must carry coins in their mouths, / Till everything, even saliva, tastes like money.'    The reader finds there a regular catalogue of death's ever-imitative and stale bureaucracy. At about the point when the dream-party's hostess 'turned and lifted her veil of dusk / And laughed like leaded crystal,'  my thoughts were cast back to the words of an inscription from an Egyptian temple to Neith -- Nature: 'I am all that is and that was and that shall be, and no mortal hath lifted my veil.'  The poem is interspersed with high lyrical moments, such as:

O slow and ceaseless weeping of the glass
That ripples windowpanes, O showers of dust
>From life-bright skin that fall and blanket the floor,
O motes caught in the sunbeam's amber, O
Moon-round face and tidy hands of Time...

This sort of thing might not be for everyone, but it was certainly my cup of tea.  On a purely technical level, however, I think the crowning achievement in this group was 'Arachne Gives Thanks to Athena.'  From the first line, 'It is no punishment.  They are mistaken,' this poem is established in unrhymed lines of  dactylic tetrameter catalectic (at times finely varied), or, speaking in NonTechnoBabble : three dactyls in a row, followed by one foot which has 'lost' a syllable ( '-- '-- '-- '- ).  The physical effect this meter gives to Arachne's praise is something akin to waltzing across the floor and having your partner pull you in closely on a fourth step.  As a writer who experiments quite a bit with non-iambic meters, I was thrilled to see it.  But this is only one example of Ms. Stallings's numerous (and refreshing) excursions outside the bounds of iambic pentameter.  Terza rima, villanelle, envelope stanzas, more sonnets -- she does it all, and well.

I'd like to cite one poem in its entirety, from the last chapter, 'For the Losers of Things.'  All my admirations of the other poems aside, this was simply the one that touched me most, and remains the most memorable.  Every time I revisit it, the poet persuades me into my own loss, that of a fashionable kind of cynicism.  I recommend this book.

The Poet Dreams of Herself as a Young Girl
            by A.E. Stallings

How talented, my daughter,
In all media of art --
Oils, charcoal, water,
The rending of the heart.

They told you you were clever,
But the heart is not an egg
That breaks once and forever;
It's a dog that learns to beg

For bones dropped on the floor,
To lick up spilt milk there
Curdled with tears, to adore
>From the shelter under a chair.

You thought that you were wise,
But the brain is not a box
Inlaid with galaxies;
It's the steel trap and the fox

Gnawing its foot to escape
While buzzards dial the sky
And you see the huntsman's cape
Crimson as liberty.

For your sake, I still loathe
The way he made you trip
On the long sleeve of your love,
Your innocence let slip

Like a bra-strap over your shoulder.
But you already know the rest:
How you died, then got older,
How you buried your heart in my chest.

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