by Lily Herd
AE Stallings, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019
Like is the twenty-first century’s answer to classical formal poetry. An alumna of Classics at Lady Margaret Hall now living in Athens, A E Stallings integrates the ancient world into her day-to-day experiences with confidence and ease.
Ancient ideas feel fresh in her hands; ‘Ajar’, the second poem of the collection, handles both a broken washing machine and Pandora’s box with admirable deftness. It is her ability to glamorise the mundane – to reveal it as weighty, universal – that makes her collection a joy. As Horace apostrophises caskets of wine, so Stallings is capable of focusing her attention on a pencil, a pair of scissors or a stain on an item of clothing. Seen with Stallings’ intellect and wit, these everyday details become laden with significance.
Stallings’ most notable poetic hallmark is her constant commitment to form. Rhyme is second nature to her; about half of the collection is committed to a rhyming form, with a further fifteen or so poems casually utilising internal and half rhymes. This gives the majority of the collection a determined pace – it is rhyme that makes the opening poem, ‘After a Greek Proverb’, such a triumphant beginning. Then comes ‘Ajar’, a poem aggressively divided in half on the page, implying the possibility presented by a slight opening, just as a door might be ajar. ‘Cyprian Variations’ and ‘Lost and Found’ are both comprised of multiple stanzas of eight lines. Despite its classical roots, Like is wholly contemporary in its form, using not just language, but the page itself to make its points about poetry.
The title, Like, is simple, but in employing a single particle of speech, Stallings evokes a number of linguistic features and invites the reader to consider all of their functions. Most significantly, it alludes to the epic simile. Yet the ‘like’ is also ‘the currency of social media’, and a speech filler – evidence of Stallings’ wide-ranging fascination with language. So in the collection’s title alone, the classical, the contemporary and the mundane are united. Stallings’ classical education suffuses this collection. Her musings on mortality and on the function and experience of writing poetry are reminiscent of a Roman elegist:
Then are those
The poems lost, or pages of sure prose –
Maybe even something that would sell
(A book about a young aspiring warlock?) –
That disappeared when something broke the spell
When toddler learned to work the study door lock...?
A Classics student might cast their mind to Propertius 3.23, a lament on the loss of his writing tablets. Like the poets she is inspired by, Stallings constantly ruminates on what poetry means to her, and why she is putting it into the world.
On occasion mortality weighs on Stallings, and the reader is allowed glimpses of how it might have been sitting heavily on her chest since her childhood. ‘The Myrtle Grove’ constructs the resting place for a lost soul:
Among the moon-dim ladies of the dead –
Phoenician Dido’s solemn sisterhood –
Who wander in that dark-leaved, fragrant wood
Sacred to Venus – in the myrtle grove
Where dwell the shades of those who died for love.
An interpretation of the Underworld is likewise the setting for ‘Lost and Found’, the murky, in-between place for shadows of things, half remembered, once loved. Grief is both made worse and mundane by the passage of time, in this harrowing stanza of ‘Summer Birthdays’:
The anniversaries arrive
Un-clockwise, with the clockwork earth:
Sister, mother, daughter, son,
Yourself – and then the other one,
Your father, were he still alive:
Every August, you have cried
When you celebrate his birth
Ten days after he has died.
And then there is ‘Variation on a Theme by Ouranis’, which dwells on the poet’s own death, on how little will change on the Monday in October on which she expects the ‘summons’, indistinguishable from any other Monday on her Athenian street. It refers to Kostas Ouranis, who was not an ancient poet; born in 1850, he is sometimes known as the last Greek Romanticist. Greek culture in all of its incarnations seeps into Stallings’ poetry. The collection bursts with allusion, but we never lose the poet’s distinctive voice. If anything, her references to the tradition before her seem to reveal more and more about the poet herself.
Make no mistake – Stallings’ poetry is not only informed by the past. The frenzy of modern Athens is never far from Stallings’ point of reference. And then there are, to my mind, the collection’s most poignant poems: ‘Empathy’, and ‘Refugee Fugue’. ‘My love, I’m grateful tonight / our listing bed isn’t a raft’, ‘Empathy’ begins, and we sense the tone has changed. These poems add themselves to a new tradition in poetry of verse which tries to make sense of the crisis of forced migration. Classical poetry has journeys, it has drownings, it has oppressions and it has grief, but there is no luxury in imagining this as classical poetry. It is with a maternal desperation that Stallings declares ‘Empathy isn’t generous, / it’s selfish. It’s not being nice / to say I would pay any price / not to be those who’d die to be us.
United by the desperate apostrophe ‘my love’, ‘Refugee Fugue’ revisits a well-explored series of allusions, pitched carefully at the gravity of her theme. ‘The ferryman says we cross tonight; and everyone pays cash. / Charon don’t take Mastercard, you have to pay him cash.’ The parallels she draws between classical legend and stark, terrible contemporary reality are arresting. The Aegean, older than any literature, is throwing up young bodies who were promised safety and welcome. Hospitality is a critical facet of Greek culture, but in this tragedy, it cannot always be offered. Stallings’ children have learnt to swim in the seas that are drowning other mothers’ children. Yes, there is reference to Charon, there is the senseless tragedy of Icarus, there is a quote attributed to Aeschylus, but for these poems, humanity is far more important than a classical education. This is modern Greek culture, and the poet can do little more than try and make sense of its tragedy through her typical points of reference. The reader needs nothing more than empathy.
‘Refugee Fugue’ is a poem in four parts, and the fourth, 'APPENDIX A: USEFUL PHRASES IN ARBIC, FARSI/DARI, AND GREEK' (found poem, from the Guide to Volunteering in Athens, as updated for March 17, 2016)’ indicates that these arrivals should still bring hope, and encounter that ancient virtue of hospitality.
Give yourself a break (comforting words)
Free (no charge)
In her contribution to this new tradition of poetry, Stallings reminds us that humanity prevails. Through ancient culture, form and tradition, Stallings and her reader make sense of the chaotic modern world together.
LILY HERD reads Classics and English at Lady Margaret Hall. She will not shut up about
Art by Abigail Hodges