While I am reading her, A.E. Stallings is my favorite living poet. (Only while I’m reading her, because as a poetry-appreciator I am fickle and faithless, exchanging favorites by the month.) She combines in her work what I most value in writing—and pursue in my own—which is: a real commitment to honest and original thinking, using formal strictures as a spur to creativity. In her case, those strictures are meter, rhyme, and traditional poetic forms. The rhymes in particular often get her type-cast as a neo-formalist, a characterization she has sometimes deplored in interviews. Her commitment is not necessarily to the reproduction of forms; she simply finds—as everyone does in some way, but she’s honest about it—that true creative freedom (which has an intimate connection to originality) exists within a frame. Creative freedom abhors a vacuum. The high-wire act of great art is to inhabit a frame in a liberating way… But enough about that: the point is, Stallings inhabits her frames in a profoundly liberating way.
Most of her work connects the archaic-heroic to the contemporary-ordinary. She will write a poem of everyday description, about mothering or a household chore or something observed in the street, relying on extended metaphors from Ancient Greek literature. Even when the connection to classical antiquity is not explicit, I can feel it somehow in the clarity, quality, and simplicity of her images, and the translator-erudition of her puns. Likewise, even when she appears to be writing only about antiquity—invented monologues from characters in Ancient Greek literature, say, or a poem like “Epic Simile“—the contemporary is present in the notes of deflationary realism and the specificity of the details. In any of these cases, she connects antiquity and the contemporary without falling into Dunciadic bathos. The effect is not one of satire—though humor suffuses her work—but of sublime double vision.
Stallings’ double-vision is something I would say she has given her life to. She even moved to Greece and has lived there for many years, inhabiting the physical location of her poetic imagination. And in a very interesting way, the double-vision of her art seems to have led her to a direct political concern. Greece is one of the front-lines in the new age of migrants and refugees—an age whose dislocations are diven, on the surface, by wars and civil wars, but in a deeper way, as has been the case throughout human history, by climate change—and the headlines are full of tragedies and atrocities. Stallings is very concerned about the fate of lost souls on the Aegean, whose deaths fill her newspapers. Some of the best poems in Like—such as “Refugee Fugue”—have both a political and moral urgency because of this subject matter and seem, at the same time, like a kind of climax in the double-vision that characterizes her poetry as a whole.
There was a boy named Icarus; old Daedalus’s son. / He turned into a waxwing, black against the sun. / Drowned because he tried to fly. (He’s not the only one.) // Why would a kid lie in the sand, and not take off his shoes? / Why would he lie there facedown, the color of a bruise? / The sea can make you carefree, nothing left to lose.
This is like that: the fundamental intuition of Stallings’ work (and, arguably, of poetry in general). Like is her most recent collection, and while the title undoubtedly refers to simile in general, it is also the title of one of the poems in the collection: “Sestina: Like.” The poem exemplifies another mode of her work, one I appreciate less than than the double-vision poems: sheer verbal cleverness. These are a fun and plentiful subgenre within her work, often relying upon grammatical jokes. They can seem merely clever to me; but then I am a notorious buzz-kill. What I love about them, however, is the pacing they give the collection overall.
Too often I struggle with readerly glibness when assaying poetry collections. What is readerly glibness? It’s the counterpart of writerly glibness: when the words go in at the eyes in an easy, unbroken stream, and fail to connect to anything deeper inside you. For this reason, it will sometimes take me much longer to read a slim poetry collection than a long novel. This in turn works against the optimal way to read poetry, which is to reread it. Ideally you can read a collection of poems straight through with attention, then start over and linger on the poems that struck you; but readerly glibness gets in the way of that: at the end of the first reading, it’s as if you haven’t read at all. I don’t have this problem with Stallings. The sublimity of her longlimbed poems jar against the chop and thrust of her short witty jingles, forcing a tempo change, a reset of consciousness. I can read her books straight through with unflagging attention, thanks to these tempo changes, and then get on with the real work of contemplative rereading.