This year’s monthly series focus will be on music poems (2012 was Months poems and 2013 was Animals). First up, the incomparable A.E. Stallings’ “Country Song” from her collection Olives.
“Death was something that hadn’t happened yet,” is how it starts, one of the many lines which does many things at once. Death was something that hadn’t happened yet, in the song? to the speaker? The answer to both being yes. Another line that does similar multitasking comes just a few later, “It seeped up through the dashboard’s oubliette.” What does, the “hour of broken luck” in the line just before? Death from the first line? The country song? All of the above, even though grammatically of course the subject of that sentence comes in the following line, “Clear voice through murk”. “Oubliette” is an outlier in this poem, diction-wise, which some readers I know protest but it’s such a perfect word, radio as the hole in the top of a dungeon with no other exits (or entrances). A place where that which cannot be seen is kept, locked up but still alive, etc. And it’s a great tone-setting word, along with “broken luck,” “stuck,” “regret,” “muddy,” “melancholy.”
This poem is a sonnet, and as with all A. E. Stallings’ poems one hardly notices the form at all until it’s pointed out, her language is so natural. Natural-feeling, but look at how carefully chosen her words are, she’s in her “daddy’s pickup truck,” “daddy” being a word that just belongs in a country song, especially when paired with “truck,” and it’s “at some late hour”— how wonderful that “some,” rather than “a late hour” or “that late hour.”
Two other moves this poem makes I want to mention before I get to my favorite thing about it (which comes at the very end)—first, the turn at the end of the first stanza, where “I was suddenly struck” changes from being an emotion to a metaphor, “I was suddenly struck / Like a gut string in the key of flat regret.” The song has made of the listener an instrument, vibrating. And it saves “I was suddenly struck” from being a somewhat mundane if appropriately colloquial phrase to something, well, really poem-y, really doing that thing language in a poem can do that other language can’t.
The second move comes in the second line of the second stanza, the specifying of the “muddy river,” — “You know the one, the one that’s cold as ice.” That turn to the reader, “You know the one,” man that’s wonderful. And what a rapid set of sensations that pass over the reader in the middle of the poem, from being struck like a string to being “cold as ice.” I think it’s that combination of the visual of the muddy river followed by the physical sensation that makes you feel it so, and of course then it expands with the “tributary veins.”
But my favorite move of this poem is at the end, the two-fold punch of delaying revealing that this is specifically a Hank Williams song until the very end, and the change in rhythm in the last few lines. Although they’re not all end-stopped, pretty much all the other lines of the poem end on a natural grammatical unit’s end. But that breaks down in the last three lines. “Through my tributary veins—but twice” leaves you hanging during the enjambment down to “As melancholy to me now, because” in a way no other line break in “Country Song” has yet done. And then she does it again in the next line, and the way that poem hangs for so long on that single word “because” as you swing around that last enjambment just goes to show you what a little rhythm can do. That last line, especially because of the rhythm change just before it, is so succinct and sad, “I’m older than Hank Williams ever was.”
And notice that in the penultimate line we’ve moved into the present? “As melancholy to me now.” In previous lines the poem was in past-tense, past tense in that present-tense-feeling way. But “I’m older than Hank Williams ever was” is in the now, and is in the perpetual now, because the speaker will always, from now on, be older than he ever was.