Book Review: A.E. Stallings’ Olives (reviewed by G. H Mosson)


A.E. Stallings

TriQuarterly Books (Northwestern University Press, 2012)

69 pp.

$16.95 paperback

ISBN (13): 9780810152267

Olives is a strong third book by award-winning metrical poet A.E. Stallings, who again displays her talent for precise word choice, noir use of rhyme, and fun marriage of traditional poetic techniques, spoken lingo, and dry humor.  For readers who prefer concision and song in poetry, Olives is worth snacking on.  At the same time, the book finds Stallings at the crossroads of personal subject matter compared to the retelling of Ancient Greek myths with which she has made her name.  Choose today’s myths, I say.  This crossroads trips up a few poems here.  Further, the ancient poems don’t suspend disbelief, for this reader.  Overall, the mix prevents Olives from delivering a powerful holistic punch.  Yet the book presents a number of worthwhile poems.  The entire closing section of the book devoted to tales of new motherhood is endearing, seen anew, urbane, and witty.

Stallings is an American poet living in Athens, Greece.  In 2001 at age 43, she won the McArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship.  Stallings’ third book offers three kinds of poems, really, a snack plate: Ancient Greek retelling as in the longish “Three Poems on Psyche,” personal poems wryly written in meter, and contemporary folk tales.  These folk tales feature the lyric I, but rather than the typical autobiographical me me me, these folk “I” speakers communicate as hip, casual everygals & guys.  Of what I term folk poems, the villanelle “Burned” is one and opens:

You cannot unburn what is burned.

Although you scraped the ruined toast,

You can’t go back.  It’s time you learned.

 It is, isn’t it…?  (But I can’t!).  The opening tercet handles in a breezy manner that age-old theme of you cannot turn back the hands of time.  Behind this ease, the language of “Burned” is well organized.  Iambic tetrameter (four beat lines) is organized by natural grammatical pauses (“medial caesuras”) in the middle of each line.  Lines two and line three are linked as one sentence, allowing a little quicker pace when reading there. This varies the medial-pause and whole-line rhythms, a tad.  Line one, like the broken subject matter, contains a trochaic half-line in “what is burned.”  The half-line of two beats is missing an unstressed syllable.  This technique paints Stalling as slightly more risqué than some formalists.  Buckle your seatbelts, folks.  In my metrical reading, “what” and “burned” are stressed.  The other unstressed syllable is absent and silent, like loss.

“Burning” ends with a final stand-alone line, which is unconventional for a villanelle typically featuring a closing four-line quatrain.  “Burned” closes:

 That even if you had returned,

You’d only be a kind of ghost.

You can’t go back.  It’s time you learned.

That what is burned is burned is burned.

 Some poets would be afraid of the blunt repetition in the final line.  I think it emphasizes her philosophical point by being shrill.  The repetition creates a shouting effect that maybe undermines the surface message.  The poem-speaker here shouts because we cannot learn this lesson.  Like the Keats speaker in Ode to a Grecian Urn who longs for a perfect world without pain, the longing itself becomes so insistent, you know the speaker is struggling.  Here, even if we know as we do, we still try to “scrap[e] the ruined toast.”  Some people linger in the past as a “ghost.”  Stallings’ natural tone is not as darkly and gleefully theatrical as this throughout.  Still, “Burned” would have been a great title for this third book or at least the opening section (a chapbook).

Stallings achieves a similar folk-like balance of general reference and particular voice and diction in a few other poems (“Blackbird Etude,” “Fairy Tale Logic”).     “The Argument” focuses on a couple’s argument and opens:

After the argument, all things were strange.

They stood divided by their eloquence

Which had surprised them after so much silence.

 When Stallings writes like this, she combines contemporary ease with classical poise that makes for lasting poetry.  Anyone in a long-term relationship might read their lives into these lines.  The eloquence here, “after so much silence”—after bottling things up—becomes in the poem a kind of undoing.  “The Argument” ends just as insightfully:

. . . . Something made

Them each look up into each other’s eyes

Because they were both suddenly afraid

And there was no one now to comfort them.

 What I like about the transition at the poem’s end here is the realization that the “argument”—glimpsed in the opening—however objective and principled it may have been—comes down, in the end, to the utterly personal.  The actors look around and realize they are their own stage and are their own only audience.

In less successful poems, Stallings writes from a surface governing concept disconnected with the subject matter.  This disconnect especially occurs when the governing concept refers to mythology or poetic craft.  For instance, why is this book titled Olives?  One might surmise it is to further associate the book and Stallings with Greece.  Hey, she lives in Athens.  Plus, she is well-known for her poems re-envisioning Ancient Greek myth.  Yet as synecdoche, olives stand for Greece on the level of cliché.  The eponymous opening poem argues that, like olives, Stallings is bitter, or prefers more dangerous flavors:

 Sometimes a craving comes from salt, not sweet,

For fruits that you can eat

Only if pickled in a vat of tears—

 This doesn’t quite work.  While Stallings has an eye for ambiguity, her tone is generally buoyant.  Stallings does not use the dark tones and stressed meters of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath.  Further, olives are really not as bitter as “a vat of tears.”  The poet Charles Simic could turn olives into a “vat of tears” in one of his surreal poems, but not here.  The back page of the book, cleverly, has another eponymous poem called “Olives.”  There the occasion is to make each line (often, not always) out of the letters in the title word “Olives.”  Again, the poem’s title and game become disconnected with the subject matter.  In the end, this highlighting of technique comes across as a bit arbitrary.  A formal poem, in many ways, has to make a reader both enjoy and forget the form.  As Robert Frost implied, its tennis with a net, yet, as in all of Frost, it’s a game and a transparent window pane.  It is artifice writ large yet pungent as summer air or burnt as burnt toast.  Of the second “Olives” poem, the poem concludes: “I love so / I solve.”  This is an anthem for Stallings, especially her closing poems on motherhood, some of the best in this collection.

Again, in a clunky titled poem called “Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther,” Stallings goes for a title pointing to the poetic form (eight lines, rhyming “ABaAabAB”).  Okay.  Elizabeth Bishop, when possibly blanking on a title, titled one of her poems “Sestina,” and a great one.  Maybe this “Triolet….” should have been called “Saturday Night.”  That being said, after the title is digested, it shows off Stallings’ adroit use of an everyman, lyric “I” speaker, her fun lingo, and her smooth and song-like poetry.  I quote in full:

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,

The booze and the neon and Saturday night,

The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?

Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons

And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite?

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,

The booze and the neon and Saturday night?

 As the Irish master W. B. Yeats said, if a verse does not appear to be a moment’s thought, all stitching and unstitching has been for naught.  Here, Stallings does just that in what appears to be an easy, effortless poem.  In fact, the diction stumbles a little at lines five and six because while sonically artful, people simply don’t say phrases like “hum them” and “sing them for spite.”  As a result, the spell of disbelief is pin-pricked.  The poem, which I’ve enjoyed, maybe should have been five lines.  Ah, this difficult art!

 Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,

The booze and the neon and Saturday night,

The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?

The booze and the neon and Saturday night?

 Reviewing poetry is akin to venturing into the comfortable unknown: comfortable because familiar, unknown because poems are paths, not signposts.  Polish poet and Nobel Prize-winner Wislawa Szymborska has written: “[T]he fact that with one writer the words fall together into units that are alive and enduring and with another they do not is decided in a realm that’s not easily comprehensible to anyone.”  [Preface, Monologue of a Dog: Harcourt 2006].  Stallings’ work, using this lens, is grounded.  She’s an ‘Apollonian writer’ whose craft in poems like “The Argument” brings together detailed experience and makes a momentary stay against confusion.  [Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, trans. W. Kaufman, Modern Library 2000].

As Stallings explains in one of her “Olives” poems noted above, her poetry tries to solve problems inherent in everyday living within a single poem’s narrative resolution.  I take this any day over the vague and verbose experiments of cool dude writing.

As James Longenbach emphasizes in The Virtues of Poetry, poetry’s virtues are plural.  Effective poetic approaches may even be contradictory.  Technique and taste ebb and flow in use with the times, argues Longenbach.  For Stallings, her strengths are applying formalism to living lingo, and nuanced insight from her own life transformed into broader contemporary folk tales.  Whether Stallings embraces this strength, and expands it, or goes in another direction, is worth watching.

G.H. Mosson


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