Olives by A.E. Stallings (Northwestern University Press)
Olives is Alicia Stallings’ third book of poems. She has also published a translation of Lucretius’ The Nature of Things. Just before Olives came out, Stallings was named a MacArthur Fellow. Soon thereafter, she was named a Guggenheim Fellow. Reviewing her is intimidating. Reading her is not. Her poetry is erudite but unpretentious; she draws on her immense learning, her mastery of craft and her broad experience to tell stories that link to a general reader’s experiences, excite the reader’s curiosity about unexplored realms of knowledge, and revel in the varied splendor of metrical verse.
Stallings’ confidence emboldens her to take risks. While the obligatory blurbs from various poetry luminaries adorned the back cover of her first collection, Archaic Smile, the back cover of her second book, Hapax, featured an original poem, an “Antiblurb.” Olives’ back cover also features an original poem, one consisting mostly of words formed from the letters of the word, “olives.” This feature of Stallings’ books is like a declaration of independence. She will not be bound by conventions, by expectations or by traditional notions of form. Stallings reminds us that ultimately poetry is about playing with words and with the components of words. She demonstrates on every page that great writing, regardless of the subject matter, is a celebration of the possibilities of language in which the poet invites her audience to join.
The new book revisits themes that Stallings explored in her first two collections, and yet each book has a different focus. Archaic Smile features modern retellings of Greek myths and its “Beastiary,” a collection of macabre poems about animals—mostly dead animals. Hapax includes a number of poems in which Stallings worked through her father’s death. She revisits that subject in Olives in “Sabbatical,” which laments her father’s failure to arise like a cicada after seven years underground. In the poem, Stallings beautifully describes the cicadas,
Casting off the gold film from their eyes,
Raptured out of their translucent shells
The leaded windows of their wings with sun . . .
And then, after they have returned underground, like the absent father, “Their sudden silence [is] giant as sound.”
Her experience of motherhood informs her sage poem, “Pop Music,” as well as the final section of Olives, “Fairy Tale Logic.” In her poems about her son Jason, it is not clear if the child has unlocked the poet’s observational skills or if the poet has made sense of the child’s perspective on the world. For example, the central realization in the villanelle, “Another Bedtime Story,” could be that of the parent or the child:
. . . it’s embedded in
everything I’ve read
The tales that start with once and end with ever after,
All, all of the stories are about going to bed. . .
Each of the poems in “Fairy Tale Logic” is delightful, but they are not children’s poems, nor are they sentimental. Quite the contrary, poems like “The Mother’s Loathing of Balloons” and “The Catch” could generate a great number of sympathetic comments (“me too’s”) on True Mom Confessions, a website in which mothers share their non-maternal thoughts.
Stallings’ greatest gift may be her female, if not necessarily feminist, perspective on ancient myths. Love and death are the subject matters to which poets return most often. Rarely, however, has a poet occupied the space at the intersection of love and death as has Stallings. Many of her bold retellings of ancient myths focus on the lovers’ journeys into the underworld. Her first book included two poems each about the Hades/Persephone myth and Eurydice. Olives devotes a section to three poems for Pscyhe. The first, in the voice of one of Psyche’s jealous sisters, is an extraordinary piece of virtuosity. The poem consists of two stanzas, the second of which consists of the first with the lines in reverse order. The poem is a mirror, offering the reader two images of the sister. The other Psyche poems capture the voices of the Boatman on the River Styx and Persephone, both of whom offer Psyche wise advice that she will not follow.
In “Four Fibs,” Stallings ruminates on the Adam and Eve myth. Fibs are poems based on the Fibonacci series, and so each line has as many syllables as the two lines that precede it. Most Fibs are sterile little exercises, because the cramped form does not permit the development of an idea before the lines become unwieldy in length. But Stallings’ Fibs are as witty as they are exacting, since she heightens the challenge of the form by adding rhyme. Her snake Fib imitates the sounds associated with snakes with the rhymes miss/this/bliss/abyss/kiss/hiss. And if that weren’t enough, Stallings squeezes “is,” “wisdom,” “visceral innocence,” and “whisper” into her short poem, making the whole poem one long hiss.
Quite a few of Stallings’ poems are about lovers’ quarrels. Hapax opens with “Aftershocks,” which culminates
. . . as two lovers come
To the brink of the apology, and halt,
Each standing of the wrong side of the fault.
Olives opens similarly with a section entitled “The Argument,” the title poem of which describes two lovers who “stood divided by their eloquence.” She returns to this theme in “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia” (“On Visiting”) which begins with the observation, “To leave the city / Always takes a quarrel.” As described in Stallings’ poems, relationships feature such sudden bursts of anger, which break long silences. After the eruption, the lovers relapse into the silence in which it seems that Stallings’ love poems gestate.
Although “On Visiting” starts with a quarrel, it is dedicated to her husband and it is a celebration of a shared life. As in several of Stallings’ poems on this subject, relationships here are not viewed through rose-colored glasses:
Isn’t it funny
How it’s what has to happen
To make the unseen ivory gates swing open,
The rite we must perform so we can leave?
Always we must grieve
Our botched happiness: we goad
Each other till we pull to the hard shoulder of the road,
Yielding to tears inadequate as money.
The couple does not turn back but drives onward, forgetting “the things we didn’t say” while “silence fills with row on row / Of vines of olive trees.” The stanzas that follow describe the Greek countryside in lines as beautiful as any in contemporary poetry. But Stallings describes this natural world that restores and soothes with a clear-eyed ambivalence. Although the couple climbs “in / To the lap / Of the mountains . . . ," when “The earth has turned her back / On one yellow middling star,” the “shaggy mountains hulk in the dark.” The couple is engulfed “in an immense / Ancient indifference.” We give the name “Nature” to the outside world that gives us “release / And temporary peace,” the poem concludes,
Not because it is
pristine or pretty
But because it has no pity or self-pity.
Despite the familiar themes, it is hard to generalize about the subject matters, tones or voices in Stallings' poem. She can pretty much do it all, and she does. She can write about mundane topics, but her poems are never trivial. She has written light verse but none of her poetry is slight. She has poems about children and childhood, but she writes for adults. Her “Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Ascribed to Martin Luther” takes this Lutherfrage (“Why should the devil get all the good tunes?”) in a direction the good monk would not have anticipated. Her sonnet, “Country Song,” assumes the idioms of her subject matter—“my daddy’s pickup truck,” “the hour of broken luck,” “beyond the muddy river,” “the one that’s cold as ice.” But few country songs can achieve the precision of the “dashboard’s oubliette” or her “tributary veins.”
Two poems about burial grounds in Athens highlight Stallings’ formal and tonal range. The narrative voice in “Funereal Stelae: Kerameikos, Athens” speaks in tetrameter couplets and remains relatively disengaged, a dispassionate observer that describes the scene. By contrast, “The Cenotaph,” in ottava rima, is a first-person narrative, much less about the surroundings than about the “I” who experiences them.
In the powerful “Two Violins,” Stallings uses a ballad meter to demonstrate what can be communicated through form. She introduces the favored, second violin in the closing line of a stanza about the first.
Bright and sharp
as a young wine,
They said, but it would mellow,
And that I would grow into it.
The other one was yellow.
The yellow violin, introduced as an afterthought, slowly gains prominence as Stallings describes its qualities. We grow fonder of this “other” violin, which is “Light as an exile’s suitcase, / A belly of emptiness” and which, not surprisingly is the one that the speaker chooses: “And teachers turned in their practiced hands / To see whence the sad notes came.”
Although she writes in form, Stallings invents new stanza forms with great facility. The resulting verse is disciplined yet unconstrained. Her title poem, for example, “Olives,” consists of five, five-line stanzas. In each of the first four stanzas, all lines are pentameter, except for the second, which is trimeter. In the final stanza, the penultimate line is short. Although she uses only two rhymes per stanza, the pattern of rhymes varies. The form seems serendipitous. The formal elements are unobtrusive but also undeniable. As a result, the formal aspects of the poem in no way distract the reader from the poem’s argument, but they also make the poem both memorable and musical. Stallings' virtuosity with rhyme is on full display here in vermouth/tooth, tide/wide/gentrified, and troops/drupes.
Mirrors and shadows are a theme in a number of the poems in Olives. In “Alice in the Looking Glass,” the speaker of the poem ruminates on her mirror image. The mirror image is enigmatic, detached and clearly different from the speaker, reading from right to left and looking as if to pose a question that is never asked. Still, the speaker notes:
… it’s to you I
look to set things right
(The blouse askew, hair silvering here and here)
Where everything reverses save for time.
The poem too is a mirror. The first and the last line end with “time.” The other remaining end words match up accordingly: there/here, left/right, top/bottom, Still/disquiet, pass/stay, and why/because. Stallings had a good day when she hit on this device. When form and meaning match up in this way, poetry accomplishes its purpose on earth.
Stallings is among the most inventive, interesting and enjoyable poets writing in English today. She has a lot to say on innumerable subjects, and she says them well.