Review by Christopher Moran
By A.E. Stallings
Northwestern University Press
629 Noyes St.
Evanston, IL 60208
2012, 80 pp., $19.95
A.E. Stallings has established herself firmly between the realms of traditional poetry and modern life. In an age of experimentation and poetic extremes it may be tempting to scorn her loyalty to form, but do not be fooled: Stallings is not merely parroting the voice and form of the Grecian classics, but rather putting new wine in old bottles. Her poems honor the form and tone of her predecessors while placing modern life at the center of the classical lens.
Olives is her third book, after Archaic Smile and Hapax. The back cover contains a poem that shares a title with the book and is the first poem in the collection. Though it may resemble her previous publications at first glance, Stallings makes new meaning by playing with and rearranging a single piece of language. The title “Olives” becomes a question as the word contorts in its anagrammatic repetitions (“Is love/ so evil?”), and changes to represent her formal strategy (“I love so/ I solve”).
“Olives” preludes the tone of the work: “Sometimes a craving comes for something salt, not sweet.” Many of her poems carry a sense of foreboding—of delicacies “pickled in a vat of tears,” as the poem puts it. But the metaphor goes beyond this level of melodrama.
Of toothpicks maybe, drowned beneath a tide
Of vodka and vermouth,
Rocking at the bottom of a wide,
Shallow, long-stemmed glass, and gentrified,
Or rustic, on a plate cracked like a tooth …
She places the martini, normally positioned in a higher social space, next to the cracked country plate which is better suited for home than it is for presentation. The olive becomes a metaphor for the poetry: it is consumed by both the upper and lower classes for pleasure and for sustenance. And so should poetry, the poem seems to be claiming. Stallings continues to evoke the delicious taste of country olives and wine, and ends on a note that perhaps is an attempt to present her take on the classic form to the reader: “These fruits are mine—/ Small bitter drupes/ Full of the golden past and cured in brine.”
Stallings breaks the book into four named sections, a trend that I meet with some trepidation. There is some subtitling and explaining that occurs in grouping poems together, such as with the section ‘The Argument.’ While it is nice to have a connecting theme and an event to allude to, it also makes it more difficult to connect certain poems to their echoes in other parts of the book.
In another poem, “Burned,” Stallings unabashedly accepts her missteps and even uses them to create some startling and funny imagery. “You cannot unburn what is burned./ Although you scrape the ruined toast,/ You can’t go back. It’s time you learned.” To me, this household blunder perfectly evokes the idea of an irreversible mistake. Perhaps it does not match the gravity of a personal tragedy, but with those words the reader can feel the desperation of striking a burned piece of toast with a knife as if trying to redeem the unscathed bread. No. The toast is burned. It is what it is.
The poems in the second section draw the reader closer to a more personal world. One of the most startling pieces is “Extinction of Silence.” The way that she anthropomorphizes silence, in this case into a bird, is quite fitting. “Where legend has it some once common bird/ Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.” The image circles around to the idea that silence is dead. The amount of information that a person receives in modern times, even in the most remote corners of the world, is overwhelming. The entire planet and all of its contents are spilling in constantly, and everyday life can no longer be the same. Perhaps it was never truly peaceful and stagnant, as “silence” is often eluded to as an idealistic vision and not an attainable state.
Silence also stands in for other facets of the world that are vanishing, as she references museum exhibits and preserved remains: “Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed/ And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.” That we do not notice silence is also to understand that we do not notice when something is missing from the world. We cannot know the creatures that are extinct beyond our time, or those dying outside of our perception. The poem gives the reader a sense that we are grasping for perspective, but the more we see, the more desperate and lonely we become.
The third section is dedicated to the lore surrounding Psyche in Greek mythology and inspired theater. The legend refers to the sister who becomes romantically involved with Cupid, whose identity must remain unknown. At the goading of her sisters, she demands his identity and he reveals himself, only to be forced to abandon her. After her struggles with death and the gods, she eventually perishes, but Cupid defies the will of Venus and Jupiter brings her to become immortal, allowing the two to be together.
A familiarity with this particular mythos aids the impact of these pieces, as Stallings utilizes Dramatis personæ to great effect. The first in the trio creates an accusation from one sister and then creates a counterpoint by inverting the lines and changing only some punctuation. A line, “You dared not look. A human voice,/ You thought. You never had a choice,” is later echoed, “You thought you never had a choice, you dared not. Look, a human voice.”
The three pieces capture the progress of this myth, and the last poem comes a little closer to a modern persona, with meditations on birth, marriage, and the plight of womanhood.
The last section is the most intimate, with direct references to family and life immediate to the speaker’s home. Most notable to me is the reoccurring presence of a son, a child, through which the world is seen and explored, as in the short poem “Hide and Seek.” The boy imagines himself as a shadow simply by shutting his eyes. His mother is both amused and startled by this: “I laughed and kissed him, though it chilled me a little,/ How still he stood, giving darkness his shape.” The poem, though brief, captures so many of the fears of parenting and of humanity. The child is pretending to be darkness, accepting the metaphor of restricted vision, and his mother admires the power of his imagination. But at the same time she fears this power and its possibility to lead to darkness.
The “darkness” also alludes to greater evils. She worries that the child may pretend to be something far nastier, or that even in the act of pretending he may take on the qualities of darkness. He stands on the verge of transforming from a child to an adult, positioned between innocence and malice. He is reaching the point of defining himself and the speaker is being faced with an inability to affect the child’s ultimate fate. She feels trapped on the outside of her son, shut out by the squeezing of those eyes. It is a mixed feeling that in a moment captures all the fears and wonders of raising a child.
The boy, or another boy, perhaps, appears in “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three,” and contains another startling moment. The child is in love with the story of Peter and the Wolf, and the song itself, “Balanced between the thrill of fear and fear.” He insists that his mother listen to the song and explain the story it tells each time it plays. This is business as usual until the speaker wearies of his antics:
And weary of the question and the classic,
I ask him where the wolf is. With grave logic
He answers me, “The wolf is in the music.”
And so it is. Just then, out of the gloom
The cymbal menaces, the French horns loom.
And the music is loose. The music is in the room.
Again it is the ability of the new generation to draw the wild and the dangerous out of the tired and the oblique. He discovers a raw power within a classic song that the speaker finds played out and opens a window to the reader to find the wolf within the old music. The new life in old songs and the creature lurking in between the lines us both threatening and exciting.
Stallings captures so many of these moments that it can be a little bit of a let-down when a cliché rears its head, but then they may be a matter of taste and belong to the texture of Stallings’ book. There is a delight in rhymes and motions of language she uses that other poets have abandoned in favor of startling formats and abstract explorations. Stallings manages to write poetry that reads, without a doubt, like poetry. “Olives” speaks to the human reader whether they live antiquity, or in the 21st century and beyond.
Like her use of form, I find that the shape of her books may be deceiving. When I first picked up Olives, it bore such a similar feel to her second book, Hapax, that I began to look for the same brushstrokes. But there is new life in here, new sounds and exciting moments that readers will be able to explore again and again. Stallings’ work as a poet continues strong and I am eager to see where she takes it next. Olives is a book that dares the reader to dig through the old attic of poetry and discover a new energy and meaning.
Christopher Moran is in his third year at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ MFA Poetry program. His works and interests span literature from short form poetry to doorstopper novels. (firstname.lastname@example.org)