What I’m Reading: Selected Poems of A.E. Stallings

A. E. Stallings, an American poet living in Athens, Greece, is one of the most accomplished living American poets writing in English meter, and for this alone, her Selected Poems is a keeper.

Yet I borrowed it from the library, and literally the day I am writing this, it’s overdue. I very much enjoyed her last two books, Olives and Like, and had only read her first two books across a few poems seen in magazines until this year. Selected Poems let me dive into her first two books for the first time. I did not have time, before returning this today, to dive much further.

Stallings has both lived and intellectual insight into the mythology of Ancient Greece, and as a result, the poems are expert, felt, and fun. Especially in her first two books, the fluid, beautiful verse often offers intriguing new twists on old tales. Her poetic lines flow at ease, bite with wit, and are concisely sculpted. Her ability to “make it new” is what elevated Stallings from the get-go; it’s no small task to say something new about myths thousands of years ancient.

Sometimes Stallings writes what seems like a contemporary scene, but it is infused and informed by Ancient Greek myth behind it, and so bolstered with resonance, such as in “Song for the Women Poets,” which I had never read before. Looked at as myth, the poem retells the Orpheus story from the internal psyche of a female poet, “who are both Orpheus / And She he left in Hell.” An intriguing thought–a female poet has this dual root and role. It lends itself to further parsing, such as only Persephone lives past Orpheus’ singing. Reading this analogy further through feminism, the female poet now sings her own song, more so than years ago.

Stallings uses this same technique brilliantly in “Asphodel,” from her second collection, which is spoken in the voice of a tour guide about the flowers, and yet eerily retells the story of Hades and Persephone and how spring can be eerily linked with death even as we admire its resurgence.

I think the Internet has made the daily feel busier. Anytime I get away from a computer and phone, the world quiets down to a human pace. The well-wrought metrical poetry of Stallings feels shaped for this more human pace. Her poetry presents itself as an art object, framed with thoughtfulness and cleverness, compared to the free-verse voice-driven poem that arguably is a form of realist art: seeking to seduce the reader into theater of the voiced character, forgetting for a second that one is reading a poem, such as with Sylvia Plath, Philip Levine, or Jericho Brown.

In this sense, Stallings and her fascination with Ancient Greece presents a sort of rarefied air, more so than the Selected Poems of Carol Ann Duffy, the British metrical poet with a street smart, sassy poetic voice in these selected earlier poems. Compared to the Irish master poet Seamus Heaney, Stallings does not use diction to create a unique Irish sound, nor is she enmeshed in contemporary settings in her poetry like farming, Ireland, and family. When Stallings does write about her domestic life, often it is quite touching. This all said, Selected Poems offers many delights, to be read again and again.


G. H. Mosson