"String Theory: The Poetry of A.E. Stallings" by Angela Taraskiewicz



So powerful, in fact, is simple string in taming the human world to the human will and ingenuity that I suspect it to be the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth. . .We could call it the string revolution.

     —Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 years.


String can be looked upon as an extension of all other techniques of communication.  String joins just as it also helps in the wrapping up of objects and in the holding of unintegrated material. In this respect string has a symbolic meaning for everyone.

     —D.W. Winnicott.


Here are the lines I pulled from my own belly—

Hang them with rainbows, ice, dewdrops, darkness.

     —A.E. Stallings, “Arachne Gives Thanks to Athena”



String Theory: The Poetry of A.E. Stallings


According to Elizabeth Wayward Barber, the Paleolithic discovery of string sparked a revolution for human life no less substantial than those brought on by steam power or the internet: “Soft, flexible thread. . .is a necessary prerequisite to making woven cloth.  On a far more basic level, string can be used simply to tie things up—to catch, to hold, to carry. From these notions come snares and fishlines, tethers, lashes, carrying nets, handles and packages, not to mention a way of binding objects together to make more complex tools.”[1]  The development of string seems not only to have made certain tasks easier but to have altered the way human beings behave and think.  Spinning and weaving involve rhythmic repetition: spinning gives form and strength to raw material, while weaving creates broad patterns from individual strands. Psychologist D.W. Winnicott has observed that “string can be looked upon as an extension of all other methods of communication.” Neuroscientist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington describes the coming into consciousness of the human brain as “an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern.”  Thus metaphors of string, of spinning and weaving are deeply rooted in human consciousness. This is perhaps the most far-reaching result of “The String Revolution.”[2]

     As a classical scholar, formalist poet, and self-taught knitter, A.E. Stallings is well aware of the power of string: its associations with wool-working, women’s poetry, and the human psyche.  In this essay I’d like to draw attention to how string and its manipulation figure throughout her work.  First, I would suggest that when Stallings reworks a poem about an ancient myth, she engages in the time-honored act of reclamation that female storytellers and poets have always performed.[3] Public poetry has been dominated by men from the beginning, but as the chorus of Euripides’ Medea points out, in private, women have maintained their own perspective on things: 

     No more we’ll hear the age-old songs

     Celebrating women’s faithlessness.

     Till now Apollo, lord of song, has not bestowed

     The gift of inspired lyric song

     On women’s minds; or we’d have echoed back a hymn

     Against the race of men. The length of time

     Has many tales to tell of men as well as women.[4]


     Stallings also has a few things to say to Apollo and the masculine monopoly of music.[5]  In her deeply ironic “Apollo Takes Charge of His Muses,” she casts him as a patronizing editor, explaining his “policies, his few minor suggestions.” Meanwhile the Muses, unfazed by his bureaucratic address, simply ask “what had poetry to do with reason/Or the sun?” It would be overstating matters to say that Stallings’ approach to gender in ancient myth is subversive; rather she takes pains, like the women in the chorus of the Medea, to “sound a hymn in reply to the male sex,” one which highlights elements of female experience often muted, but certainly present, in the ancient texts.

     A second strand of Stallings’ poetry explores the domestic context of loom-work, and the tension that can arise between domestic production and two of its metaphoric referents: poetic creation and the Epicurean conception of the physical world.  On the one hand women’s poetry arises with wool-work: singing and storytelling are arts which, picking up the rhythm of spindle and shuttle, may be plied at home while the kids play and the pots simmer.  On the other hand, the demands of domesticity can “lay waste” the poet’s powers, especially if she cannot carve out a sanctuary from life’s more prosaic demands.  Stallings reflects on the difficulty of balancing art and life in a post to Harriet, the Poetry Foundation Blog, “You don’t need time to write. You need space”[6]:


Somehow the writing gets done while you are doing something else—walking to the grocery store (or taking, as Ange describes here, a long short-cut), or riding the tram, or washing dishes, rocking a baby during the night feedings, watching children at the park, hanging out the clothes, cooking supper.


     Ambivalence toward housework is more than a problem of the division of labor or time-management; it has existential implications. In her Epicurean poems, Stallings often shows that only by overriding our hostility to a world in need of perpetual repair do we become free to observe its motions, its stubborn, ephemeral physicality, and our place within it.

     The last strand of Stallings’ poetry I want to discuss involves the psychological function of string.  String often serves as a metaphor for what ties us to one another, to our past, and to our future.  We speak of “the ties that bind” and “close-knit” relationships; when we need to reconnect with people we “drop them a line” or engage in “social networking.”  These expressions capture how we continue to think of connectivity in terms of string.  Similarly, we think of closure as a kind of knot, a “tying up of loose ends.” Stallings observes, “The only thing that approaches the satisfaction of finishing a poem is completing a sweater.”[7]  The harmonics of order and closure that poetry and knitting achieve is psychologically satisfying.  The ancient philosopher Pythagoras thought so too. The discovery of the relationships between the chief musical intervals of a vibrating string is attributed to him, and achieving harmony was thought to be the chief aim in life for Pythagoreans.  In the last poem I’ll discuss, “On Visiting A Borrowed Country House in Arcadia,” Stallings explores the implications of Pythagorean string theory.



Stallings has studied her myths well and reads them with great sensitivity.  By inflecting her mythological poems with the female voice she gives them the tenor of loom-songs.  Thematically, she is often concerned with how ancient heroines respond to traditional female plots and characterization. In “Ariadne and the Rest,” she explores how women are bound by traditional narrative from a very young age.  The tales are concocted “To beguile the little girls indoors,/ To keep them out of fights, discourage/Curiosity in swords, to keep them still/ While nurses yanked out knots from tangled curls.”  Unruly attributes will not be permitted; knots will be “yanked from tangled curls,” and self-defense and self-discovery (outdoor play, fighting, and weaponry) will be strictly prohibited.  Moreover, string finds its only approved use in “laces to make all the vital organs/Fit into a waist two hands can close.”  Acceptance of such physical bonds seems to instill an acceptance of narrative bonds:

     Ariadne, more so than the rest,

     Learned by rote the happy-ever-after,

     Kept one eye peeled for princes, and ignored

     Her cuckhold father’s horns, and all the laughter,

     The rumors of her mother’s wild affair,

     The cellar where they kept deformity

     Hungry in the dark beneath the stair.

     Instead she watched for ships on the horizon,

     The shroud-sailed ships that came with sacrifice.

     When finally there was a prince on board,

     She whispered in his sun-burnt ear, “At Last!

     Oh, free me from my labyrinthine days!

     Oh, how each moment is so like the next,

     Each leading to another just the same,

     Each branching-off of time so like the rest,

     A wearisome, well-ordered maze.”


     Here, Theseus’ plot and Ariadne’s ‘thread’ fuse.  To her surprise, plying her thread to complete his plot does not lead toward “happy-ever-after,” but into the maze of her own redundancy:

     All lost, suspended on that thread. Her mouth

     Unhinged with disbelief—alone on Naxos

     As the coward sailed. She wandered through

     The puzzle of her hours, winding up

     The filaments of dreams upon a spool.


     Ariadne’s abandonment, the wrong dénouement, causes her mind to fray in disillusionment:

     Sometimes half-way through a fairy tale,

     She’d stop, announcing to an empty room,

     “That’s not it. The ending is all wrong.”


     Stallings uses Ariadne’s plot to expose how the traditional fairytale engenders passivity in women and imprisons them in a labyrinth from which they can plot no escape.

     In “Tour of the Labyrinth,” Stallings takes an even darker look at agency and self-determination.  The poem describes a post mortem tour of the labyrinth in which the unnamed Minotaur was trapped: “and this is where they kept it, though their own,/ Hungry in the dark beneath the stair.”  Although the thing’s howls would shake the house, “No one thought to go unlock the door.”  Its inability to negotiate its own release eventually leads to its demise. “Archaeologists, amazed to find/ A skeleton they were not looking for,” perform excavation and autopsy.  “They’ve unravelled the last days of the thing:/ It lived awhile on rats and bitumen,/ And played with its one toy, a ball of string,/ to puzzle out the darkness it was in.”  Having access to thread does not guarantee one the capacity to find one’s way or to weave a new plot, one must know how to use it.

     The expert weavers of ancient myth stand in contrast to these unhappy endings: Arachne who rejects traditional femininity to become fused with her art and Penelope who can spin a tale with the best of them.  In “Arachne Gives Thanks to Athena” we see how the poet is freed from the traditional plots of marriage and motherhood: “It is no punishment. They are mistaken—/ The brothers, the father. My prayers were answered.” Here Arachne contrasts her perspective on her transformation with that of the men in her family, perhaps addressing their expectations of a female life.  Instead, she celebrates herself as a demiurge, a creator of ideal forms rather than material goods subject to decay:

     I was all fingers. Nothing was perfect:

     What I had woven, the moths would have eaten;

     At the end of my rope was a noose’s knot.


     Now it’s no longer the thing, but the pattern,

     And that will endure, even though the webs be broken.


     Here the “I” is flesh, “all fingers,” the work of those fingers equally mortal.  Stallings plays on the myth here. In Ovid, Arachne attempts to commit suicide before Athena transforms her into a spider.[8] In Stallings’ poem, death is the inevitable ending to a mortal life anyway: a thread destined to be cut by the Fates.  In the final stanza, Stallings emphasizes the female poet’s freedom from traditional reproduction:

     I, if not beautiful, am beauty’s maker.

     Old age cannot rob me, nor cowardly lovers.

     The moon once pulled blood from me. Now I pull silver.

     Here are the lines I pulled from my own belly—

     Hang them with rainbows, ice, dewdrops, darkness.


     Neither infertility, the whims of “cowardly lovers,” nor female physicality can blunt her creativity.  Instead of children, “Here are the lines I pulled from my own belly—.” The poet is mother and father of her poem.  And as in Ovid, Arachne’s lines shimmer and sparkle with their chromaticism: “Hang them with rainbows, ice, dewdrops, darkness.”

     Penelope, “The Wife of the Man of Many Wiles,” is another of myth’s famous weavers.  She, like “Ariadne and the Rest,” seems to have been abandoned by a “cowardly lover;” left to her room and her loom while he “saw many cities of men and learned their minds.” Unlike Ariadne however, Penelope challenges the traditional plot saying: “Believe what you want to. Believe that I wove,/ If you wish, twenty years, and waited, while you/ Were knee-deep in blood, hip-deep in goddesses.”  Next, she spins her tale, peppering it with double entendres: “Believe I unravelled/ At night what I stitched in the slow siesta, How I kept them all waiting for me to finish.”  Odysseus may expect her line to end with “Laertes’ shroud,” but she ends it with, “The suitors.” “Slow siesta” implies idleness, but also suggests dalliance: “I’ve not much to show for twenty years’ weaving—/ I have but one half-finished cloth at the loom./ Perhaps it’s the lengthy meticulous grieving.” In her guile, of course, Penelope proves herself her husband’s equal, but their separation has taken a toll on them.  He may wonder whether this is the same woman for whom he has fought his way back, spiky in her agency and willful independence. Meanwhile she unravels the plot she’s just woven: “Believe what you want to.  That they never touched me./ Believe your own stories, as you would have me do.”  The poem ends an in an icy stalemate rather than a warm reunion.

     Stallings presents a softer variant of the myth in the poem “Homecoming.”  In Homer, Penelope earns her kleos for her keen intellect and her ability to weave a desirable outcome within the constraints of the walls of her home and the expectations of her gender.  In this poem, Penelope reels Odysseus to shore, calls him home to rocky Ithaka with a song more powerful than any Siren’s.  He loves to “spin yarns” with her and watch her in her fabrications; he wants, in the end, to be embedded in her text:

     It was as if she pulled a thread,

     Each time he saw her, that unravelled

     All the distance he had travelled

     To sleep at home in his own bed,

     Or sit together in a room

     Spinning yarns of monsters, wars,

     Hours counted by the chores.

     He loved to watch her at the loom:

     The fluent wrists, the liquid motion

     Of small tasks not thought about,

     The shuttle leaping in and out,

     Dolphins sewing the torn ocean.


     The poem begins with the psychic thread of attachment which binds these two across all the vicissitudes of life.  Here, Odysseus and Penelope do not compete in tales; truth is not either/or. Instead, their like-mindedness, homophrosune in Greek, is brought out by Stallings in rhyme: “unravelled” and “travelled” arrive in “bed” together. “Together in a room” are “wars” and “chores.”  Penelope’s wrists are as fluid as Odysseus’s travels at sea. The motion of the “shuttle leaping in and out,” is compared to “Dolphins sewing the torn ocean.”  “Homecoming” is a poem that captures the sentiment Odysseus wishes to Nausicaa on Phaeacia: “husband, house, and especially ingenious accord within that house: for there is nothing so good and lovely as when man and wife in their home dwell together in unity of mind and disposition. A great vexation it is to their enemies and a feast of gladness to their friends: surest of all do they, within themselves, feel all the good it means.”[9]


The Nature of Things (Including Laundry)

Weaving did not become a metaphor for poetry by accident. Both require manipulation of the raw and unruly material of life, and like all cultural work there is scarcely time for it: “It is good to work/ the dumb, obsessive/ muscles. Exertion draws/ the mind from hope/ to a more tangible object” (“Sisyphus”).  In another of her posts on Harriet, “Texture,” [10] Stallings discusses the similarities between writing metrical verse and knitting:

The relation between knitting and purling seems to me exactly the same as the relationship between iambs and trochees, for example—the same stitch seen from different angles. The number of stitches cast on is something like determining the syllables in a line. The pleasure is making something out of nothing, or rather, something out of the raw material—wool or cotton or silk, acrylic or cashmere, strange nubby blends. And there is the sensual feel of the thread running through your fingers, just as I feel the texture of words in the mouth, some smooth, some rough, some “natural,” some “synthetic,” some thick, some fine. “Texture,” “textile” and “text” of course are all cognate. “Complexity,” “perplexity,” “implication” all have to do with knitting. When we tell a tale, we “spin” a “yarn.” We “weave” a plot. The word “subtile” means “finely woven.” Even the word “line”—which is related to “linen”—means a thread or a string.

     Not only is the transformative nature of textile-work and poetry similar, but the manipulation of raw material, its resistance to order, schools one in the mutable, temporary, and transient nature of the world.  Economics (from the Greek oikos, “house,” and nomos, “law”) may be viewed as a microcosm of the operation of matter in the universe at large.  In the same article, Stallings continues:


The Roman poet Lucretius. . .“weaves” textile metaphor throughout his great poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), not only as a metaphor for poetic creation, but for the structure of the universe. “Order” comes from the Latin for laying the warp of the loom. The atoms or “first-beginnings” are the warp and the woof of the world. It is a bold—and arguably feminine—metaphor. In Greek myth, weaving is how women tell their stories, whether it is Arachne, Philomela, Helen or Penelope. Beautiful cloth, a necessity made luxurious, was as much a treasure in the ancient world as gold or silver. (“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt…”) But it rarely survives, and as textiles decomposed, so did the stories–the voices–of those women. . . .Is knitting something I am doing instead of writing right now? Possibly. But it is something I can do while, say, watching a toddler in a wading pool. I guess that is why women did the spinning, the weaving, the cloth-making. I worry about the conflict between ambition and motherhood. I want to store my words where moths cannot get at them.


     If weaving is to poetry as order is to the universe, then it follows that housework must be revelatory.  We don’t work and dream in textile metaphors as much as the ancients did, but we certainly engage in the Sisyphean business of housework.  At the place where weaving as poetry and weaving as cosmological order meet, stands the translator/poet/housewife.  Although Stallings avows that writing (like knitting) can get done while one is doing other things, just as easily friction may develop between poesis and economics. A second strand of Stallings manipulation of string explores the nexus of housework and the Lucretian Nature of Things.

     In a household where husband and wife both have professional careers there will be tension about the division of labor.  “To Speke of Wo That Is in Mariage,” is a far cry from the domestic tranquility of “Homecoming.” Here, the mechanics of housekeeping serve more as a context in which to brood, than a Zen experience that aligns one with the essential rhythms of life.  This poem, like the rest I will discuss in this section, bears the imprint of Stallings’ work translating Lucretius’ Epicurean poem, De Rerum Natura: The Nature of Things.  In that poem, Lucretius describes how our occupations become us, even in our sleep:

     And whatever interest fascinates us, whatever thing we make

     Our business, what occupies the mind when we’re awake,

     Whatever we’re most focused on, it is that thing, it seems,

     That we are likeliest to meet with in our dreams:

     Advocates keep arguing cases, and have claims to settle,

     High commanders take the field and lead troops into battle,

     Sailors keep on dueling it out with the winds, their sworn foe,

     And even I strive at my work—ever seeking to know

     The Nature of Things, and scratching down my findings as I go[11]


     According to Lucretius, the repetitive labor we engage in while waking (what Freud called “day-residue”) seeps in our subconscious and follows us into our dreams; likewise, “To Speke of Wo That is in Mariage” describes knowledge gained by repetitive housework:

     To sweep is to know what gathers there

     Beneath the bed; sloughed cells, lost strands of hair.

     To wash clothes well is to taken certain pains

     The sad and sordid stories of the stains.


     This poem shares its title with a Robert Lowell poem and both poems allude to the rambling tale of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.  The dialogue with Lowell and Chaucer infuses Stallings’ poem with intertextual complexity.  The Wife of Bath laments “The Wo That Is in Mariage” because it requires her to embody the gender expectations of modesty, industry, and even chastity. Lowell inverts her lament, imagining how a wife might cope with the sexual excess of the husband instead.  With all this in the background, Stallings asserts that the real “Wo That is in Mariage” is not due to promiscuity but to the isolation that results from the division of labor.

     The opening stanza of the poem sketches a formulaic kind of marital communication. The couples’ talk is marked by its superficial and temporary nature, enfolded in the business of life:

     It is a choreography as neat

     As two folding up a laundered sheet,

     The way we dance around what we would say:

     Approach, meet, touch, then slowly back away.


     Once the pair back away from each other, the poem goes on to recount what one learns from solitary, domestic work.  If one asks why “it is a choreography,” or why “we dance around” in this sheet-folding way, or what we learn by sweeping “what gathers” beneath the bed, we find ourselves in the realm of atoms, their natures, and their motions.

     The ordered “dance of atoms” is one of Lucretius’ most famous cosmic metaphors:

                        There’s a model, you should realize,

     A paradigm of this that’s dancing right before you eyes—

     For look well when you let the sun peep in a shuttered room

     Pouring forth the brilliance of its beams into the gloom,

     And you’ll see myriads of motes all moving many ways

     Throughout the void and intermingling in the golden rays

     As if in everlasting struggle, battling in troops,

     Ceaselessly separating and regathering in groups.

     From this you can imagine all the motions that take place

     Among the atoms that are tossed about in empty space.

     For to a certain extent, it’s possible for us to trace

     Greater things from trivial examples, and discern

     In them the trail of knowledge. Another reason you should


     Your attention to the motes that drift and tumble in the light:

     Such turmoil means that there are secret motions, out of sight[12]


     Stallings’ innovation in this poem is to equate the motions of persons with that of their smallest particles.  In Lucretius, our composition of atoms can be viewed as hopeless or inspiring by turns.  If we dwell on the basic entropy of order and matter, as is suggested by the remainder of the poem we observe only half the dance. We see, as Yeats writes, how “things fall apart,”[13] or as Lucretius writes:

                                                            It is therefore,

     No wonder that things pass away, seeing how they become

     Enfeebled by the ebb of atoms, and since all succumb

     To outside blows. At length, with age, the food supply will fail,

     Add lethal particles with their external blows assail

     Ceaselessly, and pound things into submission and decay.[14]


     From this perspective, to clean is to know the truth of our inevitable decline, “the sordid story of the stains.”  But for Lucretius “to sweep is to know” also something of the “infinite supply” of atoms and “creation’s vigour”[15]:

     And so the war is ever being waged and ever tossed

     Between creation and destruction, neither won nor lost—

     Now here, now there, the forces of vitality prevail,

     And now they are defeated in their turn. The funeral wail

     Is mixed together with the sound of newborn babies’ cries[16]


     The friction of this ceaseless motion, between husband and wife (or wife and laundry), creates tension:

     Although my anger may be slow to boil,

     I have the smoking point of olive oil.

     Every time I wield a knife, I cry.

     He has become the onion of my eye.


     Ultimately, however tedious labor may be, however feeble our ability to communicate, the parting of death will come.  The final couplet of the poem recognizes this fatality:

     I dwell upon, it’s true. He will not linger.

     When I grow cold, the ring slips from my finger.”


     “He will not linger,” but neither will she.  The cold may refer equally to the loss of passion or vitality.

     The manipulation of physical matter in housework puts one in a direct relationship with the Universe: “To sweep is to know what gathers there.” “Where We Moved To” provides another meditation on the tangible, frangible, nature of the world:

     I sweep and you find fault with sweeping:

     I have failed corners. Dust remains.

     But in your cup, the tea is steeping,

     The train shudders the windowpanes.

     The tea is steeping, sending up

     Its steam, leaking its amber ink

     Into the crazing of the cup.

     So much dust. It makes me think

     How the skin cells softly rain,

     Invisibly upon the floor

     Which we shall have to sweep again.

     I cough. We’re so close to the tracks

     Both sides are wrong. The window glass

     So old it ripples. All is flux,

     Windows trickle like molasses.

     The train, pacing to and fro,

     Rails against its ties, a bore,

     But like a river, it must go

     Along the path it went before.

     The liquor of your tea grows cold

     Before you drink it. How erratic

     The motes sway in the rippled gold

     To the radio’s sweet static.

     I am almost done with sweeping.

     You nod, even though dust remains.

     The cough returns. The clock is keeping

     Time to the keening of the trains.

     The last broom stroke—the dust balls bustle.

     I take my breath in jagged sherds.

     And in my lungs I hear a rustle

     Like a shuffling of cards,

     A fortune teller at her Tarot

     Telling the future: dust tomorrow.


     Here, Lucretian images abound: dust, and its perpetual sweeping, but also its iconic swerving: “The motes sway in the rippled gold.”  Tea steeps, porcelain crazes, “windows trickle like molasses,” “dust remains” and insinuates itself into the body: “in my lungs I hear a rustle.”  Our fates are already sealed: “A fortune teller at her Tarot/ Telling the future: dust tomorrow.”

     Once resigned to the dance of atoms one can find a kind of peace in them.  There is a certain resignation to be found in many of these poems, an acceptance of the constant repair the world requires, an acceptance of its state of flux.  In “Airing” there is even an acceptance of laundry:

     Each partner has a task, and this is mine:

     That there is always something on the line.

     The laundry dances in its emptiness.

     The shoulders shrug, the sleeves reach to caress. . .


     Like so many other of Stallings’ poems, this one is delightful for its wordplay. “There is always something on the line” can refer equally to a line of verse or a laundry line.  Here again the laundry “dances in its emptiness”; it is blown by the unseen particles of wind[17] which ruffle it through the void of space.  Once again, the motion of the atoms can be taken for better or for worse. Do the shoulders shrug in indifference or do they reach out to caress?  Again the motion of the atoms is likened to the commingling of marriage:

     The wind is pacing through the upper floors,

     Opening and slamming all the doors,

     Like an argument in married love

     Repetition will not cure it of.


     The wind is responsible for openings and closings, marriage engenders arguments and love, and it all goes on ad infinitum.  The poem ends with the suggestion that the bed-clothes, waving like a white flag, provide a temporary sanctuary from all life’s upheaval: “The white bed sheets tender/ A sort of peace, the terms of their surrender.”  Nonetheless, as we should have learned by now, there will be more laundry tomorrow.

     A possible escape from the purgatory of repairing losses might be found in not resisting change but flowing with it.  This emancipation is suggested in “For the Losers of Things”:

     She is shedding belongings wherever she goes—

     Necklaces, combs, virginity, lovers,

     Bus-money, phone-numbers, gifts, and their givers,

     In the laundry perhaps, in the pockets of clothes


     This poem seems to owe a debt to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” where “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” for here the central figure exists in a state of constant molt:

     She is shedding her dress, like scales, like love,

     A dry, silk hide she has cast off—

     She is ranging abroad in her new skin.


     Yet maintaining a state of constant flux deprives one of the pleasures of place, of the rapport that develops between atoms accustomed to each other’s style of bombardment.  In “The Poet’s Sister” Stallings observes the tension which exists between a dependence on things and a submission to flow:

                                    If the poet’s bones

     Don’t twinge, foretelling snow, and if her love

     Dawns steady from the east, and if she owns

     Health-benefits, a cat, too much to leave


     Or cut her losses with a pocket knife

     That chains her to her keys and carefulness:

     The poet’s sister lives, which is enough

     Of loose rope-bridges and the sky’s abyss.


     The last two lines sketch a dialectical bridge between matter and flux; the poet is chained “to her keys and carefulness,” while participating vicariously in the “loose rope-bridges” her sister strings across “the sky’s abyss.”

     Again in “Moving Sale” Stallings describes the bargain which must be struck between the comfort of attachment and the necessity of change:

                                    We are sunk

     Deep in things.  That hermit crab, the soul,

     Crawled up tight into its borrowed shell,

     Grows attached to where it must dwell.

     The world is furnished with the physical.

     But one by one, the strangers lift away

     What we have touched and worn, to curse and bless

     Our things to a new life of usefulness,

     And we, the sunlight spent, call it a day,

     And rising up at last, feel rich and strange.

     It is the weight and weightlessness of change.


     In Lucretius, to enjoy and then relinquish life is the central Epicurean principle:

     No one is given life to own; we all hold but a lease.

     Look back again—how the endless ages of time come to pass

     Before our birth are nothing to us. This is the looking glass

     Nature holds up for us in which we see the time to come

     After we finally die. What is there that looks so fearsome?

     What’s so tragic? Isn’t it more peaceful than any sleep?[18]


     Those of us who loathe the laundry and “think philosophy’s a bitter pill to swallow”[19] should give credit to Stallings for providing us with “honey for the physic,” twice over: once in her fluid and fluent translation of Lucretius’ poem, and again for gracing our prosaic labors with her own verse.


The Ties That Bind

Child psychologist D.W. Winnicott, known for his studies on the importance of early infant attachment, “good enough mothering,” and transitional objects, wrote a short essay called “String,” based on his interactions with a young child suffering from separation anxiety.  That child had suffered a separation from his mother early in life and had developed a habit of communicating with others with a length of string which he kept with him at all times.  The child’s attachment to the string led Winnicott to observe:

String can be looked upon as an extension of all other techniques of communication.  String joins just as it also helps in the wrapping up of objects and in the holding of unintegrated material. In this respect string has a symbolic meaning for everyone.[20]


     Psychologically, string may be viewed as a symbolic attachment, a hyperlink to the beloved caretaker that helps the once and future child negotiate separation and develop an independent identity.  String frequently serves in this capacity in Stallings’ poetry.

     There are three poems that illustrate the umbilical nature of string and its function as a transitional object.  The first one, “The Catch,” is the least explicit of these.  This may be partly due to the fact that it is a poem about early infancy when social bonds are in the process of being knit:

     Something has come between us—

     It will not sleep.

     Every night it rises like a fish

     Out of the deep.


     It cries with a human voice,

     It aches to be fed.

     Every night we heave it weeping

     Into our bed,


     In this poem Stallings imagines a mother’s stirring from sleep to feed her infant as a kind of fishing.  This night fishing is cast against a watery landscape that is appropriate for the forging of new psychic objects, since water very often serves as a symbol of the unconscious in dreams.  The infant, the new “object” which must be integrated, is appropriately designated “it.” Its liminal status is continuously referred to: it “rises like a fish,” cries “with a human voice,” is “like a mer-creature.”  That it is “heaved” into bed suggests it is reached by means of a metaphoric net.  Although “The Catch” initially separates “husband from wife/ lover from lover” it also embeds itself into a new relation by settling “in the interstice.” At the beginning of the poem “The Catch” is what is hauled “out of the deep,” but by the end it is transformed into a net itself which “catches” the parents in a new relation: “This is the third thing that makes/ Father and Mother.”  New psychological organizations do not come without loss however, there is always a catch.  The poem’s speaker realizes this and utters in ambivalence: “The fierce love of our fashioning/ That will have no brother.”  The observation is as amusing as it is discomfiting. On the one hand the child is an interloper: “something has come between us.”  The line betrays nostalgia for the intimacy that preceded the child’s arrival, and suggests that the child will not have a sibling.  On the other hand “the fierce love of our fashioning” may not refer to the child at all, but to the couple’s original passion for each other and for such “fashioning” as resulted in the child.  If now that love “will have no brother,” no parallel, the three are caught up securely together.

     Time passes.  Children grow up and sleep in their own beds.  If they’ve developed strong ego identities, chances are they have attached to some sort of transitional objects. Enter “The Mother’s Loathing of Balloons,” [21] a poem which is itself slender and elongated, like a balloon on a string.  Arguably it is a maternal rant about being replaced with things.  For the mother, this transference is bittersweet: “(Soon, soon/they will grow bored/ Clutching your/ Umbilical cord)—.”  Yet the nature of this transitional object reveals the nature of its antecedent. The light and luminous balloon recalls the mother the child desires but must not keep.  What precisely does the mother loath about balloons?  That they replace her?  Perhaps, but this is a fleeting envy.  What is worse is their unreliability, their temporary charm, the way they can “pucker,” pop, or fly off into the abyss: “you break for her who wants you worst.”  The reality, which the mother knows well, is that this transitional object has the capacity to inflict its shattering on the tiny little ego at the other end of the string.  Yet, it is the wanting, not the possessing, that matters to the child:  “Who tugs you through/ The front door/ On a leash, won’t want you/Anymore.” The balloon is an empty signifier: “Containing nothing/ But the force/ That blows everyone/ Off course.” Perhaps the balloon’s unreliability and insubstantiality are embodied in the way the last stanza breaks its vertical form, and uprooted, drifts away:

     O loose bloom

             With no root

                         No seed.


     The mother’s bond on the other hand remains in its “good-enough” way, watching, as the child moves on to other loves.

     Despite the mother’s ambivalence, transference is a necessary and sometimes enchanting experience.   In “Clean Monday” we are shown a glimpse of the childish ecstasy that “has the world on a string.” This time our dreams are hitched to kites, “As if the clouds were moored with so much string.”  But kite flying (like balloon buying) is not without peril, and this kite, set loose into the Lucretian void, soon “suicide[s] in the trees.”  Fortunately the adults are there to do repair: “We untied knots, and called each other names.” Once again the kite is raised, and the adults “wrestled the angel of the air/ Until we got his blessing, and the kite/ Reared up against the string with all its might.”  The child returns delighted:

     Then, “Let me hold it please!” he wheedled me.

     “But with both hands,” I said. And he, “I will.”

     For a moment he was sailing standing still,

     Then in his joy, forgot, and set it free.


     After being warned, in a pointedly Daedalan fashion, to hold tight, the child realizes the dream of flight.  But rather than ending with another Icaran crash, here, in joy, the kite is “set free.”  The kite is still a metaphor after all, and the pull of freedom may be as strong as the desire for possession, as we saw in “The Poet’s Sister."

     One can only write this well about the bonds that children cultivate if one has recognized them in one’s own life.  D.H. Lawrence has a lovely poem called “Piano,” in which he recalls the Edenic perfection and the famously snug integration of childhood:

     Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;

     Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see

     A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings

     And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.


     Lawrence’s remembrance of his mother as a pulsing, echoing embrace of sound comes close to describing that “oceanic feeling” of which Freud claimed we all experience in the womb.[22]  Stallings invokes a similar memory in “The Tantrum,” though here it is the loss of the childhood mother rather than the possession that forms the poem’s epicenter: “Struck with grief you were, though only four,/The day your mother cut her mermaid hair/ and stood, a stranger, smiling at the door.”  Memory endows the childhood mother with mythical characteristics, in this case “mermaid hair.” As in both Winnicott and Lawrence, the child in the poem seeks comfort in strings in response to the loss:

     They frowned, tsk-tsked your willful, cruel despair,

     When you slunk beneath the long piano strings

     And sobbed until your lungs hiccupped for air.


     In the eyes of the shrewd child, the haircut is not a change of fashion but a sea change. She will accept no substitute for her mother, “curses, cake, or playthings,” or consolation: “That it would grow back, and just as long.”  “The Tantrum” was never about the severed hair but the severed relation: the mother’s turn from the child “to the world in [her] place.”

     As Lawrence acknowledges in the closing stanza of “Piano,” the psychic space occupied by parents is never replaced,

     So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor

     With the great black piano appassionato. The glamor

     Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast

     Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.


     Stallings explores the enduring persistence of the parent’s image in her sonnet, “Sine Qua Non.” If we become knit into our families in the manner described in “The Catch,” those bonds endure well after those who have formed them pass. With the strange double vision of a waking dream, or an amputee, we observe the loss with our eyes, but do not acknowledge it.

     Your absence, father, is nothing. It is naught—

     The factor by which nothing will multiply,

     The gap of a dropped stitch, the needle’s eye

     Weeping its black thread. It is the spot

     Blindly spreading behind the looking glass.

     It is the startled silences that come

     When the refrigerator stops its hum,

     And crickets pause to let the winter pass.


     Your absence, father, is nothing—for it is

     Omegas’s long last O, memory’s elision,

     The fraction of impossible division,

     The element I move through, emptiness

     The void stars hang in, the interstice of lace,

     The zero that still holds the sum in place.


     The octave describes the loss of the father as a palpable, functional, “absence.” In a double negative it “is nothing.”  It is a “nothing” that exerts both a negative and a positive force: “nothing will multiply.” It is “the gap of a dropped stitch, the needle’s eye;/ Weeping its dark thread.”  Both the dropped stitch and the weeping eye recall Stallings’ association between knitting and poetry, and suggest an inability to compose, an inability to be composed.  Yet the sonnet form asserts upon this grief a bracing regularity and prepares us for an epiphany in the sestet.  The sestet repeats the first half-line of the octave, but now in place of “naught,” the absence “is.”  The negativity of absence proves illusory; the division is “impossible.”  As in Lucretius, where the world is made of atoms and void, the self of the child persists in its relation to the absent father who remains: “The void stars hang in, the interstice of lace,/The zero that still holds the sum in place.” This “interstice” recalls the one that insinuates itself between the lovers in “The Catch”; and like that interstice this one also establishes place value.

     If the father’s absence “is nothing,” then the poet might retrieve him from memory just as Orpheus searches for his lost Eurydice.  This is how I read the vivid recollection described in “Fishing.”  We begin again in water, the element of the unconscious, but this time it is flowing in the nature of time and matter. Father and Daughter meet in the transitory space of time and memory: “the current slipping away, quick and cold.”  This is a shimmering place in memory: “The sun slow at his zenith, sweating gold,” but as it takes on the aura of lived time it is only a hot summer day, ordinary, and dull: “Once, in some sullen summer of father and daughter.”  The daughter, in her teenage ambivalence, can think of places she’d rather to be: “Maybe he regretted he had brought her—/She’d rather have been elsewhere, her look told—/Perhaps a year ago, but now too old.”  Yet this is precisely the moment the poet strains to recall, to catch on the line. Aware now, in a way her younger self was not, that “there is nothing that exists so great or marvelous/That over time mankind does not admire it less and less,”[23] the poet strains to recollect the day.  But even then, wading in the river, “she remembered lessons he had taught her,” and the poet recalls them again now.  The literal fishing of that day fades into the metaphorical fishing of memory, as the daughter remembers:

     To cast towards shadows, where the sunlight fails

     And fishes shelter in the undergrowth.

     And when the unseen strikes, how all else pales

     Beside the bright-dark struggle, the rainbow wroth,

     Life and death weighed in the shining scales,

     The invisible line pulled taut that links them both.


     Here as the poetic line plumbs the depths of the unseen and hooks its quarry: the epiphany of inter-connectedness that rises from the deep.


“The Pythagorean music of a string”

In the poetry of A.E. Stallings, child, wife, poet, and philosopher exist in the same stubborn universe, where it is all too easy to get snagged on the rough edges of discord and to despair of life’s futility.  Again and again her message is to push through the discord and wait for the resolution of the line.  Poetry, especially when infused with philosophy, performs a healing function.  Its harmonics can guide us toward resolution.  This idea is an old one, one of the central tenets of Pythagorean philosophy, called “String Theory”: 

[Pythagoras] is credited with the discovery that the relation between the chief musical intervals produced on a vibrating string can be expressed as ratios between the first four whole numbers: octave, 2:1; fifth, 3:2; fourth, 4:3.  From this evolved the idea that the explanation of the universe is to be sought in numbers and their relations of which objects of sense are representations.  According to Aristotle, even abstracts like ‘opinion’ or ‘opportunity or ‘injustice’ were numbers in the Pythagorean system, and had their place in the Pythagorean cosmos. Since the first four whole numbers are important in expressing musical harmonies and since their sum can be represented as an equilateral triangular array of ten dots in rows of one, two, three, and four, it was thought the tetraktys, “foursome’, of the decad, was of mystical significance, embracing the whole nature of number.[24]


     The proposition that proportion effects harmony, both in poetics and in life, is a concept that will strike a chord with a formalist poet.

     Stallings presents a measured meditation on Pythagorean string theory in “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia.”  Here, as in Pythagoras, modulation across numbers leads to resolutions both in meter and in life.  Structurally, the poem consists of interlocked “foursomes” which resolve in rhyme every octave:

     To leave the city

     Always takes a quarrel. Without warning,

     Rancors that have gathered half the morning

     Like things to pack, or a migraine, or a cloud

     Are suddenly allowed

     To strike.  They strike the same place twice.

     We start by straining to be nice,

     Then say something shitty.


     Like a Pythagorean triangle, the lines start short, expand, culminate and repeat.  The six internal lines of the octave rhyme in couplets, while the stanza is marked by a rhyme in the first and eighth lines: abbccdda.  On the page the resulting shape is similar to that of a lyre in which strings start short, lengthen, and shorten again, or the triangular tetrakys.  Stallings does not demarcate the stanzas with blank lines. Instead they interlock with each other, as does their content.  The poem consists of what may be called eight Pythagorean “octaves.” Each octave moves us a step through an emotional progression from self to cosmos and culminates in a revelation of the nature of things. The ninth stanza resolves in four rhyming couplets: again, the number eight.

     “One is the loneliest number,” and in the first octave it reflects the discord that arises from the mutual antagonism that can exist between individuals.  In the second octave mediation in the form of meditation patches things:

     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 conflict exposes the need for resolution, it is not repressed, but released and in the third octave it is left behind: “But if instead/ Of turning back, we drive into the day,/ We forget the things we didn’t say./ the silence fills with row on row/ Of vines or olive trees.”  The private storm gives way to the local landscape, immersing these human agents in the natural world.

     In the fourth octave disappointment rears its head again.  This world is not pristine; it has been marked by history and culture:

     Beyond the legend of the map

     Through footnote towns along the coast

     That boast

     Ruins of no account — a column

     More woebegone than solemn —

     Men watching soccer at the two cafés

     And half-built lots where dingy sheep still graze.

     Climbing into the lap


     Rather than the primitive bucolic Arcadia of the poets, this is a place touched by a history which lacks even the majesty of grand narratives, boasting “Ruins of no account—a column/more woebegone than solemn—” and “dingy sheep.”  But the spoiled and dilapidated countryside does not ruin the progress; it is a manifestation of the world as affected by time.  So in the fifth octave, “Yet to be lost here/ still feels like being somewhere.” In the sixth octave the separation from the quotidian leads to reflection on the universal: “The earth has turned her back/On one yellow middling star/ To consider lights more various and far.”

     Finally, in the seventh octave, Stallings draws attention to the philosophical premises of her meter and matter: 

     The shaggy mountains hulk into the dark

     Or loom

     Like slow, titanic waves. The cries

     Of owls dilate the shadows. Weird harmonics rise

     From the valley’s distant glow, where coal

     Extracted from the lignite mines must roll

     On acres of conveyor belts that sing

     The Pythagorean music of a string.

     A huge grey plume.


     The natural and the cultural occupy one world.  The titanic mountains provide a habitat for Athena’s owls.  This Arcadia does not hum so much with crickets and cicadas as with “conveyor belts that sing/ The Pythagorean music of a string.” In the eighth octave we reach the resolution:

     And it is all the same —

     The power plant, the forest, and the night,

     The manmade light.

     We are engulfed in an immense

     Ancient indifference

     That does not sleep or dream.


     The ninth stanza provides the summation; in its neat couplets it resembles a mathematical Q.E.D.  What the modulation from self-center to periphery provides us is not a return to Eden, but the ability to relax into, become part of, the world as it is:

     Call it Nature if you will,

     Though everything that is is natural —

     The lignite-bearing earth, the factory,

     A darkness taller than the sky —

     This out-of-doors that wins us our release

     And temporary peace —

     Not because it is pristine or pretty,

     But because it has no pity or self-pity.


     This poem, by far her most cosmic in scope, showcases Stallings’ ability to move nimbly between private drama and public myth.  She shows us how our fleeting experiences can weave their nests into the branches of more durable truths. By so doing, Stallings certainly stores her words “in a place where moths can’t get them.”

[1] Barber, 1994: 45.

[2] I would like to thank Catherine Tufariello and Edward Byrne whose comments and suggestions on earlier drafts have greatly improved the clarity and precision of this essay.

[3] Tatar, Maria. “Introduction.” The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Norton, 2002. Doniger, Wendy. “Mother Goose and the Voices of Women.” The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth.  New York: Columbia UP, 1998.   Flueckiger, Joyce Burkhalter.  Gender and Genre in the Folklore of Middle India.  Cornell: Cornell UP, 1995. Maclean, Marie. “Oppositional Practices in Women’s Traditional Narrative.” New Literary Theory. 19:1 (1987) 37-62.

[4] 420-430. Trans. John Harrison. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

[5] For another Apolline challenge see “Cassandra,” in Hapax.

[6] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2010/04/you-dont-need-time-to-write-you-need-space/

[7] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2010/04/knitting-for-poets-elizabeth-zimmermann/

[8] Metamorphoses, 6.134-138.

[9]  Odyssey VI. 180-185. Trans. T.E. Lawrence

[10] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/09/texture-2/

[11] All passages from the De Rerum Natura are taken from Stallings’ translation, and refer to the book and line numbers of that edition.  Lucretius. The Nature of Things. Trans. A.E. Stallings.  London: Penguin, 2007. 4.962-970. 

[12] 2.112-128, emphasis mine.

[13] “The Second Coming”

[14] 2.1138-43.

[15] 2.568, 571.

[16] 2.571-576.

[17] I. 265-279.

[18] 3.971-976.


[20] D. W. Winnicott. “String.” Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (London 1965).

[21] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=236866

[22] Freud, Sigmund. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and Its Discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

[23] II.1028-1039.

[24] “Pythagoras.” The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. 2nd Edition. Ed. M.C. Howatson. Oxford: OUP, 1989.



Angela Taraskiewicz is a Lecturer in Foreign Languages and Literatures at Valparaiso University, and a Ph.D. candidate in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation research examines ritual and narrative intertextuality in Euripidean Tragedy.  Her essay, “Motherhood as Teleia: Rituals of Incorporation at the Kourotrophic Shrine,” is forthcoming in Mothering and Motherhood In Ancient Greece and Rome, Eds. Lauren Petersen and Patricia Salzman.