A.E. Stallings’ Olives

A.E. Stallings writes lovely poems. Lovely poems that are also of the gritty real, but they look at the world through clear, feeling but not crying, eyes. A classicist by training, she works in rhyme-and-meter forms (with the sort of deft touch that kind of makes all this free verse emphasis feel silly), and she’s won a number of awards, including a MacArthur “Genius” grant. Her poems tend to balance as equally well the demands of emotion and intellect as they do form and content.

Olives, published in 2012, has poems about ancient Greece, poems about daily life, poems about motherhood and children, poems about arguments and olives and telephones. When one, as one does, starts to talk about “the state of contemporary poetry,” her books should be part of the argument for a strong state of contemporary poetry, full as they are of both fine craft and thought.

Her poems are also often funny (it’s really tempting here to make some sort of joke about an archaic smile, but I won’t). The first section of “Four Fibs” (the form of which uses the Fibonacci sequence to determine the number of syllables per line) for instance, goes,

Did Eve
believe
or grapple
over the apple?
Eavesdropping Adam heard her say
to the snake-oil salesman she was not born yesterday.

Telephonophobia” is another example of great humor, this one about that old relic the land line phone, but it builds to a lovely melancholic punch of truth at the end true of any sort of phone. I love the descriptive logic of the second stanza, “It doesn’t bite, you say. That isn’t true. / We keep it on a leash; it isn’t tame.” But the real fear is something more fundamental. “I avoid / The thing, because it holds what I most fear: // At any hour, the future or the past / Can dial into the room and change our lives.”

On the next page comes “The Argument,” which is one of the best descriptions of a complicated emotional relationship moment, and its unexpected consequences, that I can think of. The united “they” the poem uses works brilliantly here in a poem about two people who have just now broken up. “They stood divided by their eloquence / Which had surprised them after so much silence.” And “they were inclined / To be kind as sometimes strangers can be kind.” At every turn two things are happening simultaneously, a containment of opposites united in a single moment (and in this explanation of the poem is too an explanation of the power of well-executed formal forms). And like the “they” the repeated generic “something” — “Something was done,” “Something was beginning. Something would stem / And branch from this one moment. Something made / Them each look up” — become perfectly concrete and specific.

The two villanelles in Olives, “Burned” (“You cannot unburn what is burned”) and “Another Bedtime Story” (All, all of the stories are about going to bed”) can be added to the list of usual best-villanelle suspects (“One Art,” “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” “The Freaks at Spurgin Road Field“).

And “The Ghost Ship,” about a ship who “plies an inland sea. Dull / With rust, scarred by a jagged reef. / In Cyrillic, on her hull / Is lettered Grief” uses so completely the metaphors and double entendres to their fullest. A boat called Grief which “travels by / Dead reckoning.” A boat whose “heart is a stopped clock. / In her wake, the hours drag.” And so on, throughout all four tight-packed but spare stanzas.

Other favorite poems in Olives:

Recitative
The Compost Heap
“Country Song”
“Handbook of the Foley Artist”
Pop Music
Containment
Listening to Peter and the Wolf With Jason, Aged Three
The Mother’s Loathing of Balloons

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