Like by A. E. Stallings
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux 2018
There’s just a whole lot to love about this particular book of poems by A. E. Stallings. Stallings is what we in Nashville refer to as a “triple threat,” except instead of having a great voice, great guitar-playing skills, and great songwriting skills, she has great skill at form, great skill at creating musicality with her words, and great skill at marrying simple, memorable images with profound feelings. And as these things go, a triple threat of a writer results in a triple treat for the reader (I couldn’t help myself with that one, I mean, once you’ve invoked country music, you just have to go there.) Anyhow, Stallings’ poems present a very cogent argument for the persistent use of form and rhyme in contemporary poetry. The strong structures of her poems provide a safe, liminal space to explore the tenuous ground of time’s passage in people and relationships.
In Stallings’ opening poem, a villanelle titled “After a Greek Proverb,” the poet, like Bishop before her, uses the repetitive nature of the villanelle to reinforce the repetitive nature of time. The opening stanza draws the reader in with a familiar feeling:
We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query—
Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary (3).
We all understand this sense of what it’s like to have time pass imperceptibly, until we look back and realize we’ve spent it in a way we never planned, unthinking and unaware.
And while on the surface this poem is all about not having a sense of a permanent place to call home, “(w)e dine sitting on folding chairs—they were cheap but cheery”, the pathos of the poem comes from the narrator’s acknowledgement that even more is at stake, “(t)welve years now and we’re still eating off the ordinary:/ (w)e left our wedding china behind, afraid that it might crack” (3-4). Stallings has deftly intimated that concrete items of a home, chairs and china, are indicative of a far more delicate place—the very landscape of the marriage relationship that they serve.
“Glitter,” a sonnet, details the ubiquity of this shiny accessory of contemporary girlhood. A sonnet written in a highly musical iambic pentameter, it has almost a nursery-rhyme feel to it when read aloud. Too, it is filled with assonance and consonance,
(y)ou have a daughter now. It’s everywhere,
(a)nd often in the company of glue.
You can’t get rid of it. It’s in her hair:
(a)wink of pink, a glint of silver-blue (49).
What’s not to love about “(a) wink of pink”? But this is no childish game for the narrator. As the poem proceeds, skimming over childhood afflictions like chicken pox and lice, the narrator begins to reveal herself and her own ambivalence over becoming the mother to this daughter,
(y)ou know it by a hand’s brushing your neck—
(y)ou blush—it’s not desire, not anymore—
(j)ust someone’s urge to flick away the fleck
(o)f borrowed glamour from your collarbone—
(t)he broken mirror Time will not restore,
(t)he way your daughter marks you as her own (49).
It’s not just the glitter that marks her as a mother to a daughter, but the scars she bears in her own being, mental and physical, that have left her indelibly marked as the mother of this particular daughter.
Finally, in her spare poem, “Night Thoughts,” six squarish quatrains of almost perfect tetrameter in a tightly alternating rhyme scheme, Stallings spends a majority of the poem describing what night thoughts are not like. The narrator pontificates through the majority of this poem about how night thoughts are not at all like bats, filling the lines with wonderful batty imagery and sounds. Stallings’ high-flying bats are no match for the crush of the end of the poem, “(t)he thoughts at night that come/ (a)re midnight’s afternoon,/ (d)esolate and dumb” (83). More like the mute stalactites of cave, night thoughts “...weep their limestone tears,/(t)hey hang, but do not fly,/ (a)ccretion of the years,/ (t)hey sweat. They petrify” (83). Here all of the solidness of the form of the poem comes into focus, the implications of what the thing is not focusing all of the reader’s attention on the time-layered heaviness of all of the things that keep us awake during the night.
It was just a delight to read this book by Stallings. For all of Stallings’ formal precision, the poems never sound forced or contrived. She keeps her word choice remarkably simple, relying a great deal on sound and syntax to elevate the language of the poem rather than idiosyncratic vocabulary. In the hands of Stallings, form and rhyme become sturdy containers for all of the amorphous and ill-defined sensations of being and feeling that pervade contemporary life.