A.E. Stallings and the Afterlives of Antiquity

A.E. Stallings and the Afterlives of Antiquity

Hic et Nunc

The poetry of A.E. Stallings

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A.E. Stallings is the author of four collections of poetry: Archaic Smile (1999), Hapax (2006), Olives (2012), and Like (2018). Born in Decatur, Ga., in 1968, Stallings studied classics at the University of Georgia and at Oxford before decamping in 1999 to Athens, Greece, where she lives with her husband and two children. One of America’s leading poets, Stallings is also a translator of Hesiod and Lucretius as well as a book critic. Her body of work—which has drawn comparisons to Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elizabeth Bishop, but which also recalls the urbane style of her fellow American expatriate in Athens, James Merrill—is notable for two things: its sustained engagement with the literature and material culture of antiquity, and its use of rhyme, meter, and fixed verse forms. In her work, traditional forms like the Sapphic stanza, the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina, the haiku, the triolet, and the ballad stanza can be found alongside forms of a newer vintage, like the multiple-choice poem, the poem whose syllabics are determined by the Fibonacci sequence, and the poem whose words are composed exclusively of a fixed series of letters. 

Strange as it may seem now, the use of meter, rhyme, and form once provoked considerable controversy. Starting in the late 1980s and continuing throughout the ’90s, when Stallings was writing the poems that would be collected in Archaic Smile, perhaps the most heated debate in American poetry was between the proponents of the free-verse lyric and those of what was then called the New Formalism. Set against the background of debates about the canon in the literature departments of American universities, these two modes of poetic composition were attached—via various specious metaphors—to political positions, with free verse standing for progressivism, inclusivity, and self-expression, and formal verse standing for conservatism, elitism, and traditional cultural hierarchies. Critics went so far as to call neo-formalist poetics a “dangerous nostalgia” and “literary fascism.” 

As with most culture wars, the axes of conflict did not bear much scrutiny. The confessional free-verse lyric, then as now the dominant mode of poetry in the United States, was hardly the marginal, insurgent literary mode its proponents claimed it to be, especially when compared to contemporary efforts by the Language poets; new experiments in found, concrete, and documentary poetry; and the dawning American interest in the constraint-based avant-garde of the French OuLiPo. It proved difficult to use the rubric of regular meter and rhyme schemes to neatly sort the politics of the poems or the political commitments of the poets themselves—least of all Stallings. Covering an Association of Writers & Writing Programs panel about the work of female and Black American formalist poets such as Tara Betts, Erika Dawson, Allison Joseph, and Afaa Michael Weaver in a blog post for the Poetry Foundation, Stallings turned the terms of the debate on its head. She argued that an adherence to form was not about “exclusion or elitism,” let alone “kowtowing to dead white males.” Rather, it “was about inclusion and access and taking all things human as belonging to everybody, about the ongoing conversation, dialogue really, of the dead and the living, about owing the canon not an obligation of respect and deference, to put it in a museum, but an obligation to pass it forward, to add to it, enrich it, keep it alive, take it into the future.” 

In any case, by the 1990s, the debate was already stale. “Vers libre…is a battle-cry of freedom and there is no freedom in art,” T.S. Eliot had already concluded as far back as 1919. “[T]he division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.” Nearly a quarter-century after the publication of Archaic Smile, American politics and poetry have moved on, for better or for worse, to other debates, other culture wars. The publication of Stallings’s This Afterlife: Selected Poems, which brings together work from her four collections, as well as 12 uncollected poems and three new translations from modern Greek, offers readers the chance to appreciate the rich possibilities of expression and insight activated in and through the use of poetic form—as one option among many—in a new publishing context, free from the distractions of tendentious political polemics. In doing so, it gives the poems themselves, as the title has it, a kind of afterlife.

Consider “A Postcard From Greece,” the modified Italian sonnet that opens the selection:  

Hatched from sleep, as we slipped out of orbit
Round a clothespin curve new-watered with the rain,
I saw the sea, the sky, as bright as pain,
That outer space through which we were to plummet.
No guardrails hemmed the road, no way to stop it,
The only warning, here and there, a shrine:
Some tended still, some antique and forgotten,
Empty of oil, but all were consecrated
To those who lost their wild race with the road
And sliced the tedious sea once, like a knife.
Somehow we struck an olive tree instead.
Our car stopped on the cliff’s brow. Suddenly safe,
We clung together, shade to pagan shade,
Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.

“Postcard” is easily paraphrased: A tired driver loses control of his or her vehicle on one of those treacherous Greek mountain roads, but is saved, along with a passenger, from certain death when, instead of plunging into the sea below, the car crashes into a tree at the edge of the cliff. The poem achieves its experiential effects by redoubling narrative description at the level of sound, through the combination of internal rhyme (“hatched” and “slipped,” “out” and “orbit”) and the phonesthemes of “sleep” and “slipped” in the first line, which mimics the careening of the car on the wet road; through the use of enjambment in the second line, which mimics its travel around the curve; and through the three successive full stops (in lines 10 through 12), which in turn mimic the collision with the tree, the recoil of the car, and its coming to rest. Theoretically, effects like these could be achieved at a local level in free verse, but it is Stallings’s variation of metrical patterning between decasyllabic and hendecasyllabic lines throughout—a technique that goes back to the origins of the sonnet in medieval Sicily—that enables her to sustain a complex series of correspondences between the road, control, and the pentameter line on the one hand, and the wheel that goes over the edge of the road, loss of control, and the extra syllable on the other. 

In fact, “Postcard” could be read as an allegory for the debate between traditional form and free verse. Dotting the clothespin curve, “antique” shrines serve as the “only warning” to drivers (whose automobiles are a 20th-century technology frequently associated with freedom) of the perils of losing their “wild race with the road.”  Like traditional verse forms, some of these shrines are “tended still,” while others have been “forgotten” and are “empty of oil.” It is not a stray detail that what ultimately saves the driver (who does not heed them) and the passenger (who does) is an olive tree—that is, the tree whose fruit produces the oil that is used to consecrate the shrines. The crash does not conclude the poem, but precipitates instead another turn around a curve, this time a formal one: the sonnet’s volta. In the volta, the terms of unrealized probability (death) and realized improbability (survival) are twisted into a Möbius strip that reproduces for the reader the surprise experienced by the driver and the passenger in the last line. Just as the passenger, the speaker of the sonnet, tends to and gives life to an antique form, the antique form tends to and gives life to the speaker and his or her companion in return. The two are reborn as “pagan shades” in the front seat, where they begin their “afterlife” together.

The deceptively humble olive makes a number of subsequent appearances in This Afterlife. The trees appear again through the window of a car during an ironically tense trip to Arcadia (“On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia”); the fruit as a snack or garnish (“Olives”); the oil as an ointment in a religious ceremony (“Evil Eye”), as an ingredient in colored dye (“Dyeing the Easter Eggs”), as a recipe ingredient (“Cast Irony,” “Sea Urchin”), as a medium that transmits heat (“To Speke of Wo That Is in Mariage”), as a simple instance of liquid (“The Stain”); and, finally, as a linguistic sign whose letters (o-l-i-v-e-s) furnish the parts for all but one of the words in the poem that closes Stallings’s selection from Olives. “Full of the golden past and cured in brine” like the memory of a fading summer, the fruits whose various colors “chart the slow chromatics of a bruise” are metonyms for the poems themselves, which preserve the traces of the past as it is “modified,” to cite Auden, “in the guts of the living,” and record how the living are transformed by the past in their turn.

This plays out most obviously in the poems from Archaic Smile that take Greek myth as their subject matter. These usually center the experiences and perspectives of the goddesses and heroines who are marginal in the versions that have come down to us from Hesiod, Homer, and Ovid (though not, for what it’s worth, the tragedians, especially Euripides). In “Eurydice’s Footnote,” for example, the wife of the poet Orpheus attempts to supply an addendum to the legend of her husband’s failure to recover her from the dead, only to imagine his reply coming “in some catalogued and hardbound learned journal / Speaking with the 100 iron tongues of respected criticism,” which preserves the ”revision” of the story we mistakenly treat as the canonical one. 

In “Apollo Takes Charge of His Muses,” the god is portrayed as an oblivious male CEO who greets his nine new employees in the cant of the boardroom. Penelope has a sardonic laugh at her supposedly wily and notoriously untruthful husband’s expense for believing the fiction that she tells him about the shroud in another poem, “The Wife of the Man of Many Wiles.” And so on for Persephone, Ariadne, Medea, Daphne, Arachne, Pandora. (The only non-mortal male who receives a poem is Pasiphae’s son, the infamous “Art Monster” who lives at the center of Daedalus’s labyrinth on Crete.)

It is tempting to classify these poems in the popular contemporary genre of feminist retellings of myth, but while the narrative personae are enhanced by Stallings’s psychological acuity, such a designation would nonetheless underrate the degree to which such stories form, in a place like Greece, part of a living culture. Just as paganism was far more welcoming of new gods into the pantheon than monotheism, Greco-Roman mythography has historically been far more open to narrative variants than biblical mythography. (“Four Fibs,” a poem that exposes the ”genesis of the lie” about Eve’s temptation and the Fall, is thus, of necessity, much more antagonistic toward its source material.) “Eurydice’s Footnote” and “The Wife of the Man of Many Wiles” could be described as modernizations, but they could just as easily be described as continuations of a literary practice that dates back to the classical period. After all, it is only in the land of the dead, as Stallings writes, that “things can be re-invented no longer.”

The flip side of modernization is what we might call, to coin an unlovely term, antiquification. In Stallings’s poetry, viewing the distant past through the prism of the contemporary goes hand in hand with viewing the contemporary through the prism of the distant past. Living in Athens, Stallings is surrounded not just by the inheritance of an ancient literary culture but by archaeological sites and museums: the material remnants of the past and the institutions devoted to their preservation. Her friends include people who work with potsherds and give guided tours on horseback. An everyday occurrence is the discovery of an ancient dog grave by construction workers; the “blue beads” on a dog’s collar, which is found along with its “curved bones” beneath the city, inspires a meditation on the loyal pet’s meeting with his fellow canine Cerberus on the other side of the Styx (“An Ancient Dog Grave, Unearthed During the Construction of the Athens Metro”). 

In poems such as these, a note of melancholy creeps in. “Why… / Did this thing, not that / Survive its gone moment…?” Stallings wonders in “Ubi Sunt Lament for the Eccentric Museums of My Childhood.” An ubi sunt—from the Latin phrase Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?, meaning “Where are those who were there before us?”—is a medieval poetic genre reflecting on the transience of all things. The question Stallings poses in “Ubi Sunt Lament” is unanswerable: Some things are lost, some things are found, and no one knows why. Yet few people escape the overwhelming desire to pose it; in fact, it is no small part of what it means to be creatures aware of our limited passage through time. “We’re here for the time being,” as Stallings writes in the penultimate line of the villanelle “After a Greek Proverb,” so “we answer the query.” The poem concludes with the Heraclitan refrain: “Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.”

What is true for cultures and artifacts is also true for individual lives. “Lost and Found”—at 36 octets, the longest poem in This Afterlife—begins with a scenario that will be familiar to any parent: The speaker is on her hands and knees looking beneath the furniture for a small item her 7-year-old son has lost, which triggers an argument between them about the need for him to tidy up. The speaker, a poet, reflects on the time that could be used for writing that is lost to such trivial activities, especially for writers who are also mothers and have historically shouldered the burden of an unequal allocation of domestic labor: “The hours drained as women rearrange the furniture / In search of small, lost change.” That night, in a dream, the speaker is visited by the allegorical figure Mnemosyne (Memory), who takes her, in a narrative trope drawn from Boethius and Dante, on a voyage to the moon, where all the things that have been lost in the sublunary realm—keys, hair bands, tangents of conversations, drafts of poems, youth—are stored. (On the moon, she converses with the Muses—as is standard for the genre—but also—and here is the twist—with the poet’s female and mostly-American precursors: Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop.)  

The morning alarm returns the speaker to making lunches and doing paperwork, but the dream has induced a “change of mind”: “to live in the sublunary, the swift / Deep present,” rather than in an imagined state of greater permanence. “I felt the moment pass / Right through me,” she says,

              currency as it was spent, 
That bright, loose change, like falling leaves, that mass
Of decadent gold leaf, now turning brown—
I could not keep it; I could write it down.

The polysemic play on the metaphors that our culture uses to yolk together time and money, introduced earlier in the poem (“currency” as cash and contemporaneity; “spent” as payment and depletion; “change” as coinage and alteration), is renewed here in the final stanza, where it acquires a further meaning in light of the speaker’s epiphany about living not merely in the present, but in the “deep present”—two temporal states distinguished by the attention one chooses to pay to them. No experience, no matter how apparently banal, is truly wasted on a poet, who can write it down and give it an afterlife.

As with “A Postcard From Greece,” “Lost and Found” contains a subtle argument for the advantages of poetic form. What its allegorical dream plot borrows from poetic tradition is not its authority, but its oddity: By narrating in meter and rhyme, which no longer sound ordinary to modern ears, the poem defamiliarizes what it describes. The reader, too, is invited to share in a mode of experience that is always there, but which tends to be obscured by the minor errands, obligations, tasks, rhythms, and, indeed, ways of speaking that contemporary social and economic arrangements have persuaded us to accept as inescapable, natural. In the poems collected in This Afterlife—especially the ones set in the here and now—Stallings demonstrates that in the right poet’s hands, the putative everydayness of the hic et nunc can be transformed into something every bit as rich and strange as even the most ancient myths. 

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