by Bill Carty | Web and Book Reviews Editor
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. A.E. Stallings reads at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, November 13 at McCaw Hall.
While pondering an approach to the poetry of A.E. Stallings, I found myself thinking unexpectedly of Velcro. This was Mary Ruefle’s fault. I’d just read a passage in her recent prose chapbook, “On Imagination,” in which she ruminates on the shifting-upon-the-sands-of-the-hourglass relationship she feels with her students. Ruefle finds that as she ages, “I don’t look forward now to much more than constant demise, and what with the endless explosion of postmodernism and technology into which all my current students were born (it never occurs to them that I was born into a world without Velcro) I am now more than ever not even vaguely interested in the things that interest them.”
Ruefle was born in 1952. Velcro was inspired by a walk the Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral took with his dog in 1941. After witnessing burrs snare upon his pants, de Mestral began a decade of research and testing to develop his synthetic hook-and-loop technology, eventually filing a patent for his new-tangled fastener in 1955. The timing of de Mestral’s invention, especially encountered in the context of Ruefle’s rumination on poetry and the imagination—plus perhaps a personal penchant for digression—led me to consider how Velcro’s proliferation is roughly contemporaneous to that of free verse poetics. While the roots of free verse obviously extend farther back (as outlined here by Edward Hirsch), such poetry boomed in the mid-twentieth century, becoming eventually so omnipresent in the American poetic landscape that many of Ruefle’s students would be unlikely to recognize a world without it, as they would one without Velcro. The world one is born into becomes the world one learns, without tripping over laces or (metrical) feet.
Stallings writes that “Rhyme is not the essence of our poetry, but it is I think the honey of it.”
The poetry of A.E. Stallings stakes a claim for the continued importance of metrical forms despite the current prevalence of nonmetrical verse. In her translator’s note to Lucretius’s The Nature of Things (Penguin, 2007), Stallings writes that “Rhyme is not the essence of our poetry, but it is I think the honey of it.” Statements such as this—coupled with articles such as her Poetry Foundation piece “Presto Manifesto”—position Stallings as a champion of formal poetry, though a reading of Stallings’s work demonstrates the precise reasons poetry need not be separated into free and formal verse. Indeed, as Lucretius writes (in Stallings’s translation), “Nothing can be made of nothing,” and Stallings’s poems demonstrate an interplay between sound, line, and sentence that answers Robert Creeley’s call for “viable attention paid to syntactic environment” and reveals how formal elements are endemic to all verse.
One such example of a poem able to propose, then fully inhabit, its formal environment is “First Love: A Quiz” from Stallings’s second book Hapax. The poem adopts not a classical form, per se, but the form of a multiple choice test in which each “question” proffers a scenario (the first: “He offered me:…”) and then a range of options, of possible truths: perhaps “a ride,” “dinner and a movie,” or “a narcissus with a hundred dazzling petals.” Stallings follows this pattern for a few stanzas, altering the final response such that the form doesn’t grow stale, and that the subliminally sinister content becomes explicitly threatening, while also echoing the myth of Demeter and Persephone):
The place he took me to:
a. was dark as my shut eyes
b. and where I ate bitter seed and became ripe
c. and from which my mother would never take me wholly back, though she wept and walked the earth and made the bearded ears of barley wither on their stalks and the blasted flowers drop from their sepals
d. is called by some men hell and others love
e. all of the above
The form inherited from earlier in the poem—and from grade school, and from Greek mythology—becomes an expectation that is subverted to cumulative effect. Stallings’s poems use such subversion of expectation to strong result, whether through variance in rhyme scheme or use of what she calls “distant rhymes”—Stallings often pairs rhyming lines from much earlier in the poem, in the manner of a comedian’s “callback.” Discussing the formal elements of her poetry with Lightbox, Stallings refers to the sonnet, triolet, and villanelle as her “default” forms, though the resulting poems are ones that she often “throws back,” preferring the “keepers,” those poems that discover their own formal energy.
Another such poem is “Noir,” also from Hapax, in which Stallings follows a non-symmetrical rhyme scheme in lines of varying meter:
Late at night,
One of us sometimes has said,
Watching a movie in black and white,
Of the vivid figures quick upon the screen,
“Surely by now all of them are dead”—
The yapping, wire-haired terrier, or course—
And the patient horse
Soaked in an illusion of London rain…
As this meditation on the passage of time unfolds, the narrative of the poem focuses on one particular actor, a young girl, who could conceivably still be alive in the present, sharing a space with the speaker/viewer:
Watching this somewhere at eight-five,
The only one who knows, though we might guess,
What the kidnapper whispers in her ear,
Or the color of her dress.
Power rests in this ominous whisper; indeed, the unknown is most resonant. While the rhyme here provides congruity, the poem’s overwhelming stance is one of uncertainty.
Stallings describes how she arrives at a form: “There’s a sound which might be in the first couple lines, and you start reinforcing it.”
Stallings poems are strongest when they embrace such surprise, a fact Stallings herself acknowledges as being vital to her process. In an interview with Subtropics, Stallings describes how she arrives at a form: “There’s a sound which might be in the first couple lines, and you start reinforcing it.” She makes a similar point when discussing her translations of Lucretius, noting that her decision to make use of heptameter lines (as opposed to the “polished” couplets common in classic translations such as those of Alexander Pope) wasn’t so much preordained as “stumbled” upon, and once the process had begun, “it seemed natural to continue.” Form, in other words, is not fait accompli. Her translation (frequent scientific and literary anachronisms included) envisions a version of The Nature of Things meant to reflect our times:
There’s nothing that does not consist of different seeds combined,
And the more powers and qualities a thing has, so we find
The more it must contain shapes numerous and diverse.
This openness towards diversity, of forms first “stumbled upon” and then “made natural,” echoes other comments Stallings has made of her process. In conversation with The Cortland Review, Stallings observes, “The nice thing about form and especially about rhyme…is that rhyme schemes often tap into the subconscious because a word will suggest itself.” In “Presto Manifesto,” she writes, “Rhyme frees the poet from what he wants to say.”
Often, the formal constraints of Stallings poems may provide not only the surface—not to say superficial—impression of the poems, but equally a means to explore the poem’s substrata. “The Village in the Lake” appears pleasurable on the surface: water-skiers, teenaged beer drinkers, scuba-divers beneath them both. Rhyme provides a continuity and stability that is eventually subverted, as the landscape becomes ghoulish, coffins flooded in double-death-by-drowning:
Can ghosts swim? Or are they drowned,
Sinking slowly in the mud,
While in the treetops fishes scud,
And through the murky heavens floats
The shadow of the pleasure boats?
Stallings’s poems frequently explore the embedded history of her adopted hometown of Athens, as in “An Ancient Dog Grave, Unearthed During the Construction of the Athens Metro.” Here we see the colloquial present (“dog-paddlings”) collide with the mythological past (“current of oblivion,” “Cerberus”):
Dog-paddling the current of oblivion.
A shake as she scrambles ashore sets the beads jingling.
And then, that last, tense moment—touch noses
Once, twice, three times, with unleashed Cerberus.
Stallings’s poetry demonstrates that the School of Rhyme should not be equated with the Office of Exhumation, though Stallings does write of the latter (it’s a real office in an Athenian cemetery) in a short prose piece for the Poetry Foundation. Indeed, Stallings’s prose dispatches from Athens on the botany of the Greek language, on Athens’s resonant history, and other topics, are wonderful. Here, Stallings speaks of how in the midst of Greek political crisis, she often heard people comment that the arts must be thriving. Her personal impression was that, however much so that may be the case, she feared that it would be, as usual, “the young who suffer.” Later in this piece, Stallings quotes her translation of the Greek poet Stamatis Polenakis:
Gentlemen, don’t let anything,
anyone, deceive you:
we were not bankrupted today,
we have been bankrupt for a long time now.
The fault-lines between past and future are clear. Lines such as these hint toward an exciting future in Stallings’s poetry—one she has investigated in recent poems such as “The City (After Cavafy)” (“Here among this urban squalor, maybe, you’ll grow grey, / If they do not deport you back to Turkey, if you stay”)—poems that connect history to the bankrupt policies of the present. Old debates between free verse and formal poetry seem irrelevant when poets such as Stallings demonstrate how what’s “free” always has form, how metrical structures need not suffocate, the two seeming antipodes forever interconnected, snared by the hooked synthetics of Georges de Mestral, or possibly the barbed atoms of Lucretius:
…those substances which seem to be hard or dense
Must be made of matter held by close entanglements,
Interlacing branches, hooked together tight and snug.
Bill Carty is Web and Book Review Editor at Poetry Northwest. billcarty.com