Literary Matters 11.3
Spring / Summer 2019
The Permanence of the Temporary: Like by A. E. Stallings
By David Havird
By A. E. Stallings
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 137 pp., $24)
The title poem of this new collection, Like, by A. E. Stallings is “Like, the Sestina.” Where’s “Like, the Villanelle”? you wonder. But never mind. If Like were a goddess, as Stallings observes, her name might be Simile, which is the form that Like, as like as not, takes in Like. Whole poems even take the form of epic similes, several of these deriving from the Iliad and the Odyssey: “Colony Collapse Disorder” (which I especially like), “Epic Simile,” “Half of an Epic Simile Not Found in Hesiod” (this one too), “Similes, Suitors.” But then, as the description on the jacket flap points out, the simile is the “engine of the lyric poem.” Unsurprisingly, this collection of lyric poems (the one narrative exception is “Lost and Found,” a 288-line dream vision whose model is a stretch of stanzas in Orlando Furioso) abounds in figurative comparisons, whether similes or metaphors, the simile being the germ cell of the latter: a washing machine whose broken door stands ajar is like the “jar” given Pandora by the gods; the Minotaur, writing as an early Greek from “left to right, then right / To left,” does so “as a broken beast furrows a field” (as Stallings’s simile knows, this type of script has a name, “boustrophedon,” itself a figure of speech: “ox-turning”); bedbugs in the marriage bed are like doubts, and when gone, “They are the negatives you cannot prove,” misgivings that persist if vaguely; an iron skillet with its cure of oil soaped off is like “a hero stripped of his arms”; a hive bereft of bees is like a palace fallen to ruins, so many “brittle wax hexameters” with still some “golden stores” for looting (no doubt by poets); glitter is “catching, like the chicken pox, or lice”; in a cemetery a priest speaks “of the rest and rising of the dead / As if they were so many loaves of bread / Tucked in their oblong pans”; “Night thoughts” (not so benign as Edward King’s) “are not like bats” that “fall into flight / Into the upside-down / Colander of the night,” but rather like stalactites, which “hang, but do not fly,” and “weep … limestone tears” and “sweat” and “petrify”; sea urchins, which “star / the seafloor,” are “like sunken mines / from a rust-smirched war // filmed in black and white,” but dead, they’re “baubles // like mermaid doubloons, / these rose-, mauve-, pistachio- / tinted macaroons.”
The title poem, as I was saying, “Like, the Sestina,” is about the easy ubiquity of the word “like” in social media (notably Facebook) and “real speech,” where it has replaced such “crutches” as “um.” Stallings’s sestina stresses the ever-presence of “like” by making it the end-word of every one of the poem’s 39 lines. In the concluding envoy, one of the “likes” becomes the “lich” in “lichen.” Addressing in a satirical way some fellow poet (or critic) who champions “Plain English as she’s spoke,” the speaker says, “Yes, we’re alike / How we pronounce, say, ‘lichen.’” It came as news to me (which YouTube confirms) that “lichen” with a short “i” and a “ch” (as opposed to a “k”) is an alternate pronunciation.
Words as words, especially their etymologies, fascinate Stallings: in “Lost and Found” she informs us that “To consider means to contemplate the stars” and that “Haste … is Violence in Greek” (as, let me add, it is in Old English); another poem, “Denouement,” reminds us that this element of plot (or rather of a “yarn”) is literally an “unraveling” and wittily observes that “to ravel,” as Penelope does (weaving, as it were, her husband home), can also be “to unravel,” as Penelope comes to learn, unweaving (the suitors) afterhours; and in “Parmenion,” a civil defense drill in Greece, with its “howls” of air-raid sirens, “dubbed ‘Parmenion,’” occasions a lesson in ancient history as well as etymology (as happens in Hapax, though not in a professorial way, when Stallings informs us that “The Modern Greek for ‘Nightmare’ Is Ephialtes”).
Anyway, except for its satirical bite, “Like, the Sestina” is like a lot of the poems in Like: formally clever (sometimes almost too), verbally eclectic (with its levels of diction ranging from slang, “diddly”; to literary, “sans”; to formal, “desuetude”; to archaic, “belike”), funny (if not so witty), and fun. Since we both, the poet and that hypothetical “friend” who champions “real speech,” pronounce “lichen” the same “and both “dislike / Cancer and war,” “like this page,” the poem concludes; as though we were online, “Click Like.”
Though “like,” as the description on the jacket flap points out, “can be nearly any part of speech,” I took the title of the book to be a verb—imperative for sure, but not (absent an exclamation point) emphatic. And like I do—for three reasons. The first has to do with Stallings’s conception of the lyric, its relation to the simile, the “lyre’s note in the epic”—and, consequently, the “archaeology of the domestic” (to quote again from the jacket flap), which is what much of this collection represents. I like it that Like is a collection and not a “programmatic book”—a collection of poems whose alphabetical organization (by title) draws attention to its plotlessness, a plotlessness wherein each of its lyrics has integrity as a “momentary stay against confusion,” as Frost describes a poem’s aim, or as Dante Gabriel Rossetti describes the sonnet, a “moment’s monument.” (Of course, the plotlessness challenges us to find coherence, and this collection deliciously rewards the challenge.) Finally, there is Stallings’s exploitation of language, which is on obvious display in her use of meter and rhyme and in her use of formal versification as well as verbal allusions to engage a tradition that includes not only Homer, Herodotus, and Horace, but also George Seferis (a gorgeous version of whose “Upon a Foreign Line of Verse” she published in Poetry in 2006, but has not collected) and Kostas Ouranis, Ludovico Ariosto, Christopher Smart and Lewis Carroll (whose Alice is something of an alter ego, as readers of Hapax and Olives will know)—all of whom she frankly adapts. (Her adaptation of Herodotus, his account of the aftermath of the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, consists of five rhyming sonnets in iambic pentameter, which appear on the page as blocks of prose—to mimic the prose history?) I like this display. Stallings’s delight in words, even her pedantic delight, recalls that delight of ours, when we were children, that made us want to play with words as poets did, though we as yet had hardly a self to express much less a cause to trumpet.
In the Iliad how many of the similes open, in the heroic plot, windows on the home front. There the audience is, cultivating the land, herding and tending livestock, hunting and fishing, weaving, and there the soldiers too would be if they weren’t epic heroes: “Far hence removed” in “Phthia’s spacious vales,” “whose fruitful soil luxuriant harvests grace”:
Bless’d in kind love, my years shall glide away,
Content with just hereditary sway;
There, deaf for ever to the martial strife,
Enjoy the dear prerogative of life.
This is Pope’s Achilles envisioning his alternate life. More often than not, the lyric casts its eye on that life, which has only a provisional plot, and takes as its subject momentary disruptions. For instance, the iron skillet, which you need to use, has been scrubbed with soap by someone who “Meant to cleanse, not kill it”:
But since its black and lustrous skin
Despoiled of its enrobing oils,
Dulled, lets water in,
Now it is vulnerable and porous
As a hero stripped of his arms
Before a scornful chorus.
Here in “Cast Irony” a simile opens, in the domestic scene, a window on a scene as in Greek tragedies and “ancient oral epics.” Stallings wryly observes that in those epics, heroes from different ages (Bronze, Iron), owing as they do their armor to different, sometimes anachronistic technologies, engage each other—as away from the battlefield, “in the kitchen … mother-in-law and daughter” must have “Wrangled over the newfangled.” While the window remains open on the ancient past, it closes now, with this analogy between warriors of different eras and women of different generations, on the epic scene and opens on the domestic, and then that kitchen where “Brazen youth [is] subject to iron age” fades out and the present-day kitchen, where the “re-seasoning” of the skillet will take place, fades in. “Cast Irony” is a reflective lyric that moves cinematographically from its contemporary domestic setting, a kitchen, the scene of a momentary inconvenience, to a battlefield as depicted in ancient epics and from there, as a simile in an ancient epic might do, to the home front, where women, the wife, say, of one of the epic heroes and one of their daughters, enact their drama in the kitchen, and finally back to the kitchen where the lyric plot had its inciting moment and now plays out. I love it.
“Ajar” also responds to an unexpected, momentary (week-long) disruption to the plot of daily life. How Stallings monumentalizes that week of inconvenience, by figuratively linking it to classical myth, is not atypical of her approach in Like. I like the matter-of-fact statement that begins the poem: “The washing-machine door broke.” Consequently, “We hand-washed for a week.” Soon enough, owing to this inconvenience, the couple are exchanging angry words:
Left in the tub to soak, ….. the angers began to reek,
And sometimes when we spoke ….. you said we shouldn’t speak.
(The poem is written, by the way, in rhyming triplets, and you will notice, thanks to the caesuras, that the hexameter lines also rhyme internally on the third accented syllable. “Ajar” is one of many poems that testify to Stallings’s delight in the sounds of words.) With the washing machine “ajar,” another jar (Stallings enjoys puns) comes to mind: the one given Pandora—as a wedding gift, it appears—by the gods. A “can of worms” indeed! What emerges when Pandora opens her jar—“Every mortal bane” afflicting humankind—becomes, as the poem completes its circle, the couple’s angry words:
Sickness, war, and pain, ….. nerves frayed like fretted rope,
Every mortal bane ….. with which Mankind must cope—
The only thing to remain,….. lodged in the mouth, was Hope.
Or so the tale asserts— ….. and who am I to deny it?—
Yes, out like black-winged birds, ….. the woes flew and ran riot,
But I say that the woes were words, ….. and the only thing left was quiet.
As often as not, events on the home front seem to signify in relation to myths. The looming adolescence of the poet’s daughter, whose “long and difficult name” is Atalanta, finds a monitory parallel in the footrace with its golden apples; the suicide of a friend conjures up “the moon-dim ladies of the dead— / Phoenician Dido’s solemn sisterhood”; the annual return of swallows, “to put their homestead in repair,” brings to mind, of course, “a buried / Secret, rape, a cut-out tongue, / Two sisters wronged” (Procne and Philomela). There are many other examples.
Sometimes—not only because of the poems’ irruptions in myth but also because of their engagement with tradition and their use, deft and witty to be sure, of conventional forms and tropes—sometimes, as I was saying, you may feel that these moments’ monuments are more interested in themselves as monuments than in the things of the moment. Then, if you’re like me, you will find yourself wishing that there were more broken windowpanes with tape and TVs “out of whack”; more reek, like the couple’s “angers,” “Left in the tub to soak”—even that the monuments themselves could be more like that scrubbed-clean iron skillet, “Despoiled of its enrobing oils,” more like the “out-of-tune / Accordion from the street,” which the poet figures she’ll die listening to, “just as when we first came / And rented a freezing flat on a steep hill.” I like it that she’s a “faded blonde / On the brink of middle age [who] goes to the salon / To brighten up her outlook and her spirits”; I like her blushing when a hand brushes her neck and “it’s not desire, not anymore— / Just someone’s urge to flick away” a “star” of glitter “borrowed” from her daughter. I like it that this six-year-old daughter “can’t swim,” that her son has a broken arm. I like it when the mother, watching her daughter “scratch unthinking- / ly behind her ear,” discovers that the child has lice. I like it that “like,” this ubiquitous word, is like “Invasive zebra mussels.” I like, yes, the “Female. Nine years old. Found wearing a blouse / And a pair of sweatpants patched with Minnie Mouse,” as the write-up of an autopsy depicts “an unknown drowning victim,” this refugee.
“O Serendipity! O Randomness!” Stallings exclaimed (as she reports in an interview) when seeing the poems arranged in alphabetical order. It is interesting and fun to find connections—imagistic as well as thematic connections—between and among these monuments of random moments, just as it is interesting (if not always fun) to discover how a phase in your own life coheres. For instance, to take a sequence, an apparent sequence, almost at random, now (in “The Erstwhile Archivist”) the poet reflects on a summer in adolescence when she “felt grown-up in love” and then (in “First Miracle”) on motherhood, the seemingly miraculous transubstantiation of the mother’s blood to milk: “She can’t change water into wine; instead / She fashions sweet milk out of her own blood.” Right away (in “For Atalanta”) she’s anticipating her daughter’s adolescence. Meanwhile, there’s “Glitter,” those sparkles of makeup which are “everywhere,” because “You have a daughter now”; and when the random hand “brush[es] your neck” (“to flick away the fleck”), it throws into relief that you aren’t yourself anymore an object of desire—a feeling enacted “at the winter solstice” (in “Half of an Epic Simile Not Found in Hesiod”) by the “faded blonde … [who] goes to the salon.” Horses “have seen better days go by” (in “The Last Carousel”), but “As one giddy generation mounts, / And another sulks into the night,” the poet eyes with tenderness “their ragged comet tails of genuine horsehair.” Then from your daughter’s hair (in “Lice”) you’re “picking nits / with a fine-toothed comb.” … A consciousness of transience—of the permanence of the temporary—gives this generous collection a thematic coherence. As a Greek proverb (translated by Stallings in the poem, a villanelle, that opens the collection) observes, “Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.” Here is at once the collection’s unifying theme and the thing that motivates the poet. As Stallings states at the conclusion of “Lost and Found,”
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.
Write it down she does from the perspective of a middle-aged woman, a wife and mother of two young children, who also happens to have the “philosophic mind” of a scholar. In fact, one of the pleasures of making your way through this collection of random moments’ monuments is coming to know, if not exactly the real-life author, a vital, individual personality different from yourself, who doesn’t so much develop (as does the point-of-view character in a linear plot) as accretes—a central intelligence in this case (as you will come to know even if you’ve never heard of Stallings and assume that A. E. must be, like Housman, male) who’s a wife and mother, as described above; who spent her youth in Atlanta, where Gone with the Wind had had its premiere, and enough time in England to pick up the slang; who’s now been living in Greece “for the time being” for at least “a dozen years,” an expatriate who works with refugees; a professional scholar, a classicist; who knits, gardens, and swims (I especially like “Denouement,” “Autumn Pruning,” and “Sea Urchins”); who has a summer birthday; whose father was a statistician; who experiences insomnia, maybe even night frights; who’s prone to second-guessing; who can be bitchy (if only when “knackered”).
Despite the concrete particulars of life with children—“A three-wheeled Matchbox car,” “Microscopic bits of Playmobil,” “lunches to make”—no poem here is more self-conscious of itself as a monument (unless it’s “The Myrtle Grove,” a pair of elegiac sonnets) than “Lost and Found.”
At the same time, no poem more extravagantly exemplifies my third reason for liking Like—the delight that Stallings takes in the formal potential of English words—than “Lost and Found,” the one substantial narrative poem, a narrative of 36 stanzas in ottava rima (with its eight lines of iambic pentameter and challenging rhyme scheme: a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c). Stallings’s is not the comic, satiric ottava rima of Byron’s Don Juan but rather the heroic stanza of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, though it begins amusingly in the domestic, everyday realm of lyric, with the poet, this mother of small children, “on my hands and knees / Searching for what was lost—beneath a chair, / Behind the out-of-tune piano”: “Some vital Lego brick or puzzle piece / … / A ball, a doll’s leg popped out of its socket, / Or treasures fallen through a holey pocket” (rather Byronic, that rhyme) … begins here and presently unfolds in a dream—“That night I was still seeking in my dreams, / Still groping after fragments and the maimed”—in which she finds herself on the moon, in “‘the valley on the moon / Where everything misplaced on earth accrues,’” and in the company of Mnemosyne, the divine personification of memory, who is the mother of the Muses. (Readers will have discerned, midway through the book, that Stallings knows her classics—they will not credit her ignorance of her guide’s identity for 30 stanzas.) It’s neat that the release of the song from Mary Poppins Returns, “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (that is, the dark side of the moon) coincided with—in fact, it followed by a couple of months—the publication of Like. A salutary reminder, this coincidence, of the intersection between popular culture and elite, as Stallings’s poem is itself a salutary reminder that, historically, serious poets write in relation to “the towering dead” (as Dylan Thomas refers to his predecessors) as well as to their contemporaries. Anyway, in “Lost and Found” Stallings writes in relation to such Romantic poets as the Keats of “The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream” and the Shelley of “The Triumph of Life,” behind whom there is Dante; for “Lost and Found” is a dream vision as the model stanzas in Canto 34 of Orlando Furioso are not—in fact, are fantasy. But in those stanzas an English knight, Astolpho, finds himself also on the moon—his guide is John the Apostle—in search of a cure for Orlando (a.k.a. Roland) who’s lost his mind, crazy in love as he is with an Asian princess. There on the moon the knight (in William Stewart Rose’s 19th-century translation),
… led by the disciple of our Lord,
His way towards a spacious vale pursues;
A place wherein is wonderfully stored
Whatever on our earth below we lose.
Collected there are all things whatsoe’er,
Lost through time, chance, or our own folly, here.
There Astolpho finds a flask whose label reads “Orlando’s Wit.” (He also finds a smaller one containing his, what little of his mind he’s lost. This flask he sniffs.) The quest by this knight-errant restores the martial hero’s mind. The end for Stallings, however, is another day of trying “To live in the sublunary, the swift, / Deep present, through which falling bodies sift”—an unheroic lyric of a day.
I can imagine that as the day unfolds, it becomes for the poet a “Woolgathering afternoon” about which she’ll reflect (in “Denouement”):
All I’ve accomplished, all,
Is to untangle a wine-dark skein
And coil it into a ball.
I did not knit a swatch
For gauge—or cast a stitch—
Or pick a plausible pattern out,
I just unworked one hitch
After another …
I see her later at dinner (as in “After a Greek Proverb”)—they “dine,” she and her family do, “sitting on folding chairs” (which were “cheap but cheery”) and “eating off the ordinary,” the everyday dishes (“We left our wedding china behind, afraid that it might crack”). Witness the “gauche gesture” (in “Shattered”) that makes of a glass a “wine-dark sea wreck” on the linoleum. There she is, as always it seems, “barefoot, // nude-soled in a room / fanged with recriminations, / leaning on a broom” … repeating to herself, as I imagine her, “Nothing is more permanent than the temporary,” that proverb … meanwhile envisioning the yarn no sooner balled than dropping “out of [her] lap” and coming “undone”:
Leaping over the floor
Like swift ships outward-bound,
Unfurling the catastrophe
That aches to be rewound.
At that word “catastrophe,” which designates the tragic denouement in classical drama—which etymologically is an “overturning”—her mind returns to the literal if minor catastrophe of the wine glass. As the yarn aches to rewind its epic, catastrophic plot (launching as it’s done those ships, with sails unfurled, to Troy), so aches this wreckage of “shards” to “puzzle” itself together, to reassemble the glass. Or not. “Wholeness won’t stay put.” Later, in bed, with maybe the “wine-dark skein” and “wine-dark sea wreck” both on her mind, she begins to ponder a current seaborne catastrophe of an altogether different order of magnitude and cannot but confess to her bedmate, her “love” (in “Empathy”):
… I’m grateful tonight
Our listing bed isn’t a raft
As we dodge the coast guard light …
as do the Syrian refugees and others, who fled catastrophe only perhaps to meet it again:
… glad that our six-year-old daughter,
Who can’t swim, is a foot off the floor
In the bottom bunk, and our son
With his broken arm’s high and dry,
That the ceiling is not seeping sky,
With our journey but hardly begun.
It isn’t “nice” to say so, but, as she confesses, “I would pay any price / Not to be those who’d die to be us”—transitory as our lives may be.