by A.E. Stallings
Triquarterly Press, 2006
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A.E. Stallings is a classicist, and would be
if she never used a Greek or Roman
reference. Intelligence, balance, an
unerring sense of which form will further
the material: these are classicism's
characteristics, and hers. She makes you
realize how much poetry is simply a mess. In some cases a striking and imaginative mess; still...
One hates to think what Silvia Plath would have done with the situation in "Last Will." A father in the NRA?
What he really wanted, she confesses,
Was to be funnelled into shells and shot
Across a dove-field. Only she could not
The kick of shotguns knocks her over. Well,
I say, he'd understand. It doesn't matter
What becomes of atoms, how they scatter.
The priest reads the committal, something short.
We drop the little velvet pouch of dust
Down a cylindrical hole bored in the clay
And one by one, the doves descend, ash-gray,
Softly as cinders on the parking lot,
And silence sounds its deafening report.
I could point out such classic devices as in medias res and oxymoron, but will let you search them out yourself. My point is that she can be absolutely contemporary and recognizably classicist at the same time.
Stallings does not shy away from her heritage. Persephone appears more than once. I have to say I find her one of the drearier figures, along with Dido and Ariadne (even with the aid of Richard Strauss), but the poet makes a good case for her.
The place he took me to:
The livelier figure in any Greek line-up is always Cassandra.
a. was dark as my shut eyes
b. and where I ate bitter seed and became
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
d. is called by some men hell and others
e. all of the above
"First Love: A Quiz"
If I may have failed to follow
Your instructions, Lord Apollo,
So all my harping lies unstrung,
I blame it on the human tongue.
Our speech ever was at odds
With the utterance of gods:
Tenses have no paradigm
With those translated out of time.
Do not fail to appreciate the double meaning of 'harping'.
But no amount of discipline alone could account for Stallings' achievement. She passes the test of genius in that the simplest devices turn to gold in her hands. Incidentally, the test applies in music as well, if not always in the visual arts. "Song for the Women Poets" reminds us that rhyme is an eternally renewable resource.
And she will grant you your one wish:
To fetch across a river
Black and sticky as licorice
The one you lost forever.
"Song for the Women Poets"
'Wish' and 'licorice' is, as we say, to die for.
Not all the echoes in her poems are Mediterranean. Behind "The Village in the Lake" I seem to hear Poe's "City in the Sea."
There are those who tell me down
At the bottom is a town,
Flooded years and years ago:
Houses and a Texaco.
Somewhere a cemetery lies.
How could it be otherwise?
Yet I wonder of those dead
(All that water overhead),
Who were buried underground:
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?
"The Village in the Lake"
From a proud tower in that town
Death looks gigantically
Being so excessive himself, Poe is hard to parody, but the Texaco station nails him.
Pluto may have been evicted from the nine planets, but as a god he is very present in these poems. Equating death with the masculine principle seems less classical than pre-classical, an atavism from a time of rape and rapine (not that classical Greece was without either).
King of the appetites,
King of shade and dust.
I met him at the cross-
Roads of love and lust.
. . .
Now I mask and flavor
Decay beneath the breath,
To the King of Death.
Morpheus, or his absence, is also a conspicuous presence here. Insomnia looms large.
Go back to sleep. The hour is small.
A freight train between stations
Shook you out of sleep with all
Its lonely ululations.
Through the stillness, while you slumber,
They trundle down the track,
Lugging cattle, coal, and lumber,
Crying, "alack, alack."
It's cheap to pay the engineer:
The moon's a shiny dime.
Shut your eyes and you will hear
The Doppler shift of time.
The hour is small. Resume your rest.
Tomorrow will be kinder.
Here comes a freight train nosing west,
Pulling the dawn behind her.
"Lullaby Near the Railroad Tracks"
Onomatopoeia ordinarily turns me totally off, but "alack, alack" for the sound of the wheels on the track is both absolutely accurate and a stroke of imaginative genius.
In "Bad News Blues," Stallings takes on the late Thom Gunn on his own ground, and may well surpass him:
When Bad News comes to town, hold on to your heart.
When Bad News comes to town, the troubles start.
He's a hit, marked with a bullet, climbing the chart.
His smile swings open like a pocketknife.
He smiles like he could slice right through a life.
Nobody's daughter is safe. Nobody's wife.
He plays the odds. He needs just half a chance.
Sooner or later he'll ask you to dance.
He gets his own way like an ambulance.
He's got your number, and he dials direct.
He's calling you long distance and collect.
You gaspsomething is wrong, somebody's wrecked.
He's standing outside your door. It's quarter to three.
You know he's out there, and it's quarter to three.
There's no knock. He's got the skeleton key.
The rhyming triplets cut closer to the bone than two generations of San Francisco Beats... Hippies... Bikers... I find it hard to keep current. It is interesting that Stallings and Gunn, both of whom had strict Oxbridge educations, handle the Counterculture better than their dropout contemporaries.
In "Two Rhymes for Grown Ups" she can be equally plain.
1. Drinking Song
The moon is chalky, white & thin.
The moon is bitter as aspirin.
She drinks it down with a glass of gin.
Clear and strong the moonbeams fall
As the proof of alcohol,
And everything they touch, appall.
But there are stars for all her ills
A scattering of spilled, white pills.
The glass is sweating as it chills.
The telephone is threatening suicide,
As a jilted bride,
Trilling, I will, I will.
When has it ever lied?
Its black umbilical slinks
Into the wall,
It's listening in. It thinks,
Nudging toward the brinks,
We never call.
It waits in its cradle, look,
What we forsook,
Angry as cancer.
And we will never be off the hook,
And there's no answer.
"XII Klassikal Limnaeryx" (pronounce it) would make good mnemonic devices for students who have trouble keeping mythology straight. I especially like these two:
Cried Theseus, "I'm at a loss!
Perplexed by this puzzle, and cross!"
"You can solve it! Don't whine,"
Ariadne said, "twine
Does the trick. In a pinch, dental floss."
An atomist known as Lucretius,
Uttered, and wasn't facetious,
"Death's nothing to dread.
You can't feel once you're dead!"
But I still find the argument specious.
I must be one of rather few poets who have never written a sonnet. I have not consciously avoided the form; it may be simply that my subconscious distrusts the predictable. If you think my couplets are predictable, look again. In any event I am able to comment on sonnets with a certain degree of detachment.
I admit that the continuing popularity of the form puzzles me, as both the Italian version and the Shakespearean have built-in problems. In the former the writer has to shift gears after line eight, and most of us, in any literary form, have trouble shifting the gears without grinding them. After the three quatrains of a Shakespearean sonnet, the poet has probably said everything he has to say and still has to come up with a final couplet.
One would think that in the great onslaught of free verse in the 1920s, the sonnet would have been the first traditional mode swept away. Except for the success of the ever retrograde Edna Millay, it probably would have been. Interestingly, the other great retrograde, A.E. Housman, the best Latinist of his time, never wrote a sonnet, possibly because no classical model exists.
The lack of a Greek or Roman model has not deterred A.E. Stallings. In Parax
she offers some of the most original and attractive fourteen-liners I have seen in years.
That they are only glimpsed in silhouette,
And seem something else at firsta swallow
And move like new tunes, difficult to follow,
Staggering towards an obstacle they yet
Avoid in a last minute pirouette,
Somehow telling solid things from hollow,
Sounding out how high a space, or shallow,
Revising into deepening violet.
That they singnot 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.
"Explaining an Affinity for Bats"
Before launching into a sonnet sequence, D.G. Rossetti led off with a defense of the form. Perhaps in fear of Anglo-Saxon prejudice, he chose the Shakespearean over the Italian.
A Sonnet is a moment's
Memorial from the
To one dead deathless
hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own intricate fulness reverent:
Carve it in ivory or in
As Day or Night prevail;
and let Time see
Its flowering crest
impearled and orient.
A Sonnet is a coin: its
The soul,—its converse,
to what Power 'tis due:—
Whether for tribute to
the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in
Love's high retinue
It serve; or, 'mid the
dark wharf's cavernous breath,
In Charon's palm it pay the toll to Death.
from "The House of Life"
I am afraid the operative word is arduous. Fortunately, Rossetti did not always follow his own prescription. His sonnet on Lilith is one of the better poems of the Victorian period.
Of Adam's first wife Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth's eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.
The first sonnet of Meredith's Modern Love used to be very famous. Notice that it has sixteen lines. I call it a sonnet because he called it a sonnet.
Thus piteously Love closed what he begat:
The union of this ever-diverse pair!
These two were rapid falcons in a snare,
Condemned to do the flitting of the bat.
Lovers beneath the singing sky of May,
They wandered once; clear as the dew on flowers:
But they fed not on the advancing hours:
Their hearts held cravings for the buried day.
Then each applied to each that fatal knife,
Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole.
Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!
In tragic hints here see what evermore
Moves dark as yonder midnight ocean's force,
Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse,
To throw that faint thin line upon the shore!
There have been other attempts to expand the
form, but none has caught on.
My choice for the best sonnet ever written is one of the earliest. It is by Michael Drayton (1563-1671), an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, whose sonnet CXVI illustrates the problem I alluded to earlier. In effect, it ends too soon, and the final couplet is a desperation measure. In the Drayton, the argument does not turn around until the last word of the last line. I know that Drayton's is a better sonnet as a sonnet, and I have come increasingly to think it is a better poem. The deathbed scene is like an advance parody of the death of Little Eva, or, if you prefer, Little Nell. Here they are so you may compare them, the Shakespeare first:
Let me not to the
marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love
is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixéd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken,
Love's not time's fool,
though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Since ther's no helpe, Come let us kisse and part,
Nay, I have done: You get no more of Me,
And I am glad, yea glad
with all my heart
That thus so cleanly, I my Selfe can free.
Shake hands for ever, Cancell all our Vowes,
And when we meet at any time againe,
Be it not seene in either of our Browes
That We one jot of former Love reteyne.
Now at the last gaspe, of Loves latest Breath,
When his Pulse fayling, Passion speechlesse lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of Death,
And Innocence is closing up his Eyes,
Now if thou would'st, when all have given him over,
From Death to Life, thou might'st him yet recover.
If I had modernized the spelling, would you have guessed the poem's age? Stallings knows a good thing when she sees itall good poets doand does not hesitate to echo the Drayton:
Come, let us kiss. This cannot last
Too late is on its way too soon
And we are going nowhere fast.
. . .
The head that does not look at me,
And in its face, the shadow cast,
The Sea they call Tranquility
Dry and desolate and vast,
Where all passions flow at last.
Come let us kiss. It's after noon,
And we are going nowhere fast.
"Variations on an Old Standard"
Stallings reminds us that poems are structures. The best, like hers, are rational structures. Too many are like those of the notorious Winchester House in San Jose, where the only principles were vanity, intention, and addition. Curiosities may survive, but only as curiosities.