Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Like Poems by A.E. Stallings




 

Like
Poems by A.E. Stallings
Farrar Straus Giroux
175 Varick Street, New York 10014
New York
ISBN: 9780374187323
137 Pages
$24.00

Review by Dennis Daly

Alexander Pope famously defined “true wit” as “what oft was thought, but n’er so well expressed.” More than any other contemporary poet, A.E. Stallings, an American expatriate living in Athens, Greece, exemplifies this pedigree of versifier. Her poems make that which seems quite ordinary or just everyday sing.

Stallings’ new book, Like, doubles down on what she has done before in her three earlier volumes of original poetry— identifying and, on occasion, inviting irony, tragedy, and most of all, a deeper understanding of human nature into her formalist domicile. Her narrative conclusions can be biting.

The meditations of Stallings often include domestic objects such as a pair of scissors, a cast iron skillet, a pencil, a pull toy, and colored Easter eggs. Her descriptions for each of these sedentary items or groupings create both a great depth and an array of un-tranquil perceptions. For instance Stallings describes the common careening of a pull toy this way,

It didn’t mind being dragged
When it toppled on its side
Scraping its coat of primary colors:
Love has no pride.

 Or consider Stallings’s piece Dyeing the Easter Eggs, the pun firmly placed on “Dyeing,”

… Resurrection’s in the air
Like the whiff of vinegar. These eggs won’t hatch,  
My daughter says, since they are cooked and dead.”
A hard-boiled batch.

I am the children’s blonde American mother,
Who thinks that Easter eggs should be pastel—
But they have icon eyes, and they are Greek.
And eggs should be, they’ve learned at school this week,
Blood red.

Other sorties into nature, the classics, and even current news headlines by Stallings amass a hoard of well-expressed insights.  With her poem Little Owl, the poet engenders a world of predation observing human organisms stroll through their habitual landscapes or seascapes along life’s way. Danger also exhibits its warnings in equal measure. Stallings, speaking of her subject owl, says,

A drab still vessel attuned to whatever stirred,  
Near or far:  
Hedgehog shuffling among windfall of figs,
Gecko, mouse.
Then she swiveled the orbit of her gaze upon us
Like the Cyclops eye-beam of a lighthouse.

Pure irony flows, line by line, out of Stallings piece entitled Parmenion. The title is taken from the name of an air raid test. Originally, however, Parmenion was the second in command of Alexander-the-Great’s army. He was wrongly accused of treason by his own son and executed. Stallings connects the false alarms, which in turn excite and puzzle the populace, to this historical breach of justice. The poem begins as if describing a god’s pontifications and builds into very earthly anxieties,

The air-raid siren howls
Over the quiet, the un-rioting city.
It’s just a drill.
But the unearthly vowels
Ululate the air, a thrill

While for a moment everybody stops
What they were about to do
On the broken street, or in the struggling shops,
Or looks up for an answer
Into the contrailed palimpsest of blue.

Centered by serendipity (The poet arranges her titles in alphabetical order), the collection’s masterpiece, Lost and Found, sprawls over eighteen pages and thirty-six stanzas. The poem is wonderful. A mother, frantically and unsuccessfully looking for a child’s plastic toy, continues her search into a metaphoric dreamtime. Arriving in the Valley of the Moon, she peruses continuous landfills of mindlessness and lost opportunity. Along the way this protagonist-seeker and Stallings’ persona is guided by the mother of all muses. Here the poem becomes a parable on creativeness and artistic choices. Some stanzas have a very specific point to make, like this one,

Not water, though, I knew as I drew near it—
It was a liquid, true, but more like gin
Though smelling of aniseed—some cold, clear spirit
Water turns cloudy. “Many are taken in,
Some poets seek it, thinking that they fear it,
The reflectionless fountain of Oblivion.
By sex, by pills, by leap of doubt, by gas,
Or at the bottom of a tilting glass.

Empathy, the most emotionally efficacious poem in Stallings’ collection, rewrites the plight of today’s northern African emigre into a more familiar interior venue. Stallings’ family-centric verse is as personal as it gets. The poet concocts a thought experiment with her own lineage. She posits them precariously adrift and then gives cosmic thanks that this scenario is not so. She explains,

I’m glad we didn’t wake
Our kids in the thin hours, to take
Not a thing, not a favorite toy,

And didn’t hand over our cash
To one of the smuggling rackets,
That we didn’t buy cheap life jackets
No better than bright orange trash

And less buoyant.  

Amazing as a poetic tour de force, perfect as the title poem, and outrageously funny as an angry rant, Stallings’ Like the Sestina moves determinedly to its droll facebook-like conclusion. The ride alone is worth it. The poet ends each line in “like.” She enumerates every clich√© type (or most) that uses “like” as a space filler. And finally she initiates a versified crescendo,

…Like is like
Invasive zebra mussels, or it’s like
Those nutria things, or kudzu, or belike

Redundant fast-food franchises, each like
(More like) the next. Those poets who dislike
Inversions, archaisms, who just like
Plain English as she’s spoke—why isn’t “like”
Their (literally) every other word? I’d like
Us just to admit that’s what real speech is like.

But as you like, my friend…

For those readers who, incongruously, still believe that the medium is the message, or at least a good part of it, don’t miss this Stallings’ collection. Like may be her best book yet, her opus supreme. For those others, who aren’t formalist aficionados—read it anyway; you’ll more than like it, you’ll love it.


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