The audience for contemporary poetry, like the audience for child pageants, is made up mostly of aspirants and their loved ones. Sure, Instagram sensation Rupi Kaur sells books, but she is the Instapoet who proves the rule. The poetry world is insular; a large, independent readership for the real stuff remains a fantasy.
But A. E. Stallings, an American poet, translator, and critic who lives in Athens, Greece, writes as if the whole world is reading. It certainly should be; Stallings’s new book, This Afterlife: Selected Poems, is a major event. A mid-career retrospective, This Afterlife gathers work—witty, moving, and engaging poems on parenting, everyday life, and mythology—from her first four books. Stallings’s beat is the universal, and her poetry assumes the existence of yeti: smart non-specialists who read poems for pleasure.
Here’s the final stretch of “Silence”:
It’s the room
In which melody moves, the medium
Through which thought travels, it is golden, best,
Welcome relief to talk-worn tedium.
Before the word itself, it was the womb.
It has a measure. Music calls it rest.
The lines are packed with payoffs: alliteration (“talk-worn tedium”), rehabilitated cliché (“it is golden”), metaphorical aplomb (“it was the womb”), and that final, arresting observation about music.
The poem itself is musical—a sonnet. Stallings, a virtuoso when it comes to writing in traditional forms, is not afraid to rhyme. “There are no tired rhymes,” she wrote over a decade ago in Poetry magazine, where I first discovered her. “There are no forbidden rhymes. Rhymes are not predictable unless lines are. Death and breath, womb and tomb, love and of, moon, June, spoon, all still have great poems ahead of them.” For a time, under Christian Wiman’s shrewd editorship, Poetry threatened to command a large general readership. The presence in his pages of writers such as Stallings—alongside the likes of Clive James and Christopher Hitchens—was a big part of the reason why.
This Afterlife is not quite a greatest hits. The competent poems from her debut, Archaic Smile (1999), comprise the weakest leg of the book and should’ve been culled. No matter: by her third collection, 2012’s Olives, Stallings was discovering eternal truths such as this one, from “Another Bedtime Story”:
One day you realize it. It doesn’t need to be said—
Just as you turn the page—the end—and close the cover—
All, all of the stories are about going to bed
Stallings’s poems about her kids are among her best. She concludes a piece to her daughter, Atalanta, with a string of sonic effects that carries the unresisting reader to an ingeniously abrupt ending:
O apple of my eye, the world will drop
Many gilded baubles at your feet
To break your stride: don’t look down, don’t stoop
To scoop them up, don’t stop.
That “stop” is startling, resolving the rhyme with “drop,” confidently left dangling a few lines earlier.
Stallings is the sort of poet who can seemingly do anything. She’s a dab hand at personification. (See, for instance, “Accident Waiting to Happen,” where she writes, “I’m bright and unstable / As a just-mopped floor, / I’m a curtain near a candle, / Finger in the door.”) She can knock out an entire poem using nothing but the letters in the word “olives.” (“Is love / so evil? / Is Eve? Lo, / love vies / evolves.”) And she can animate the inanimate—from jigsaw puzzles to glitter—with panache. Here are four lines from “Scissors”:
Knives at cross-purposes, bereaving
Cleavers to each other cleaving:
Open, shut; give and take,
All dichotomy in their wake.
We don’t usually think of poetry as a form of entertainment—a degraded word—but mischievous formulations such as “bereaving / Cleavers to each other cleaving” leave you feeling giddy.
The poetry world tends to reward opacity and mediocrity. Poems that give pleasure are suspect. But Stallings is the sort of poet who actually deserves her plaudits: an outlier with a commitment to the reader’s delight.
She has come close to a Pulitzer and a National Book Critics Circle Award, but prizes are ultimately a feint; they belong to the realm of reputation, politics, career. Poems are either memorable or not, and This Afterlife is loaded with the real stuff, the right stuff, the kind of lines you remember.