January 23, 2019
he ordinary becomes the extraordinary in the hands of A.E. Stallings. Whether it’s the metaphor, the sound, or the words themselves, Stallings has the gift of seeing things in a way no one has seen them before and arranging even the most commonplace words into surprising new images and sounds.
In Like, her latest collection of poems, Stallings’ metaphors are often based on everyday items, as a glance at the table of contents reveals: scissors, a pull toy, lice. In “Pencil,” she describes how youthful certitude diminishes with age in terms of the switch from pen—“Once, you loved permanence/Indelible”—to pencil:
And you were sure, so sure,
But now you cannot stay sure.
You turn the point around
And honor the erasure.
The poem evokes hesitancy through the sound and action of writing with a pencil, onomatopoeic without being overly so:
All scratch, all sketch, all note,
All tentative, all tensile
Line that is not broken,
But pauses with the pencil.
Stallings’ uncertain pencil begins to make sense in response to the uncertainty of life. Notice how, in this entirely iambic trimeter poem, Stallings uses tetrameter only once, to draw attention to the shift in the metaphor from the pencil to Time itself.
And all choice, multiple,
The quiz that gives no quarter,
And Time the other implement
That sharpens and grows shorter.
“Shattered,” turns that most ordinary of household events, cleaning up after a broken glass, into a metaphor for anxiety and remorse. The reader is placed in the scene, the “Archeologist/ of the just-made mistake,” and each moment is immediately recognizable, but also brand new in the way Stallings relates it to guilt and worry:
Always, you’re barefoot,
nude-soled in a room
fanged with recriminations,
leaning on a broom.
How can you know what’s
missing, unless you puzzle
all the shards? What cuts
is what’s overlooked,
the sliver of the unseen,
faceted, edged, hooked,
of remorse broadcast across
As with metaphor, Stallings heightens language and sound by using them in new and surprising combinations. Phrases jump off the page: the night sky is “the upside-down/Colander of the night”; the poet wakes, “Hearing behind the typing of the rain.” She also uses meter, rhyme, assonance, and consonance to intensify the language. In “Autumn Pruning,” clocks nag a reluctant pruner:
Fall back, cluck the clocks:
The hour you’re dreading
Comes with time on its hands
For the deadheading.
You water them and feed them
And call yourself a gardener.
You coddle and you pardon:
Be harder and hardener.
The wordplay, sound, and chill of that last line is worth the whole book.
Stallings studied classis at the University of Georgia and Oxford and was both a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow. She includes a number of poems based on classics such as Herodotus, The Iliad, and Horace. She updates myths in “Pandora” and “Sounion,” and uses classical references throughout, such as in “Denouement,” where the afternoon is spent untangling a “wine-dark skein.”
Whatever the source or subject, she uses ordinary words in striking new ways. Sometimes the effect is humorous, as in “Peacock Feathers,” where the peacocks “leave ubiquitous piles of poo, as drab/As any other poo.” The same birds “honk to out-goose geese.” The tour de force of this technique is the title poem, “Like, the Sestina.” In a traditional sestina, there are six end words rotated through six stanzas of six lines each, then repeated in the final three-line stanza. In this poem, the six end words are all “like,” so, in effect, Stallings has written a 39-line iambic pentameter poem in which 36 of the lines end in the word “like.” All in all, she uses the word “like” 51 times. And somehow, beyond all understanding, it doesn’t sound repetitious, or at least not in the boring way sestinas can, but in exactly the way she means it to. Of course, the poem starts with a social media reference:
…So we like
In order to be liked. It isn’t like
There’s Love or Hate now. Even plain “dislike”
Is frowned on: there’s no button for it. Like
Is something you can quantify: each “like”
You gather’s almost something money-like.
She moves through other uses of the word, and then arrives at perhaps the impetus for the poem, poets:
…who just like
Plain English as she’s spoke—why isn’t like
Their (literally) every other word? I’d like
Us just to admit that’s what real speech is like.
Stallings wields emotion like a knife. Never sappy or sentimental, she drives home all the awkwardness of not fitting in in “Summer Birthdays,” a poem about a young girl at summer camp: “You stared down at your ugly sandals/Hating the song and the stupid candles.” A section in the poem “Cyprian Variations” creates an almost sci-fi creature with the qualities of both a cat and a nightmare:
Gets up from its bed,
Arches its back, and stretches all its toes, very neat.
It crosses without passports
On padded feet
And curls up in another head
In another street.
Stallings has a number of poems about the refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Her no-nonsense language and dark humor drive home the pathos of their experience more than any direct plea. In the poem “Refugee Fugue,”
The woman from Leros said:
“Small bodies wash ashore,
Sea-chewed, a few days dead.
I don’t eat fish anymore.”
And in “Empathy,” she ends this way:
Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.
Stallings includes a long poem, “Lost and Found,” that starts with the hunt for a toy—I sympathized, as a poet and mother, with “The hours drained as women rearrange/The furniture in search of small, lost change.” The poem feels a little too long, using a dream sequence where she is led from one category of lost things to another, but the ending captures perfectly the passage of time:
The light on my children’s hair, my face in the glass
Neither old nor young; but bare, intelligent.
I was a sieve—I felt the moment pass
Right through me, 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.
From a “crappy plastic toy” to the meaning of life, that is what A.E. Stallings has done in Like, transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary, writing down the “bright, loose change” that is life.