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    a girl with blue hair and butterflies

    An Exile’s Suitcase

    A. E. Stallings’s latest collection, This Afterlife, confirms her remarkable talents as a poet.

    By Jeffrey Bilbro

    May 2, 2023

    A. E. Stallings is one of the two or three most consistently excellent poets writing today. Born and raised in Georgia and educated at Oxford, she moved to Greece in 1999, the same year her first collection of poems was published. In the following decades, she has published three more volumes of poems as well as several translations and critical essays. She is currently standing in the election for the Oxford Professor of Poetry. At the end of 2022 she published This Afterlife, a book of selected poems that confirms not only her remarkable talents as a poet but the wisdom of her imaginative vision.

    Stallings approaches the task of verbal making as a kind of creative restoration: like olives, the fruit she calls “mine,” which are “full of the golden past and cured in brine,” her poems make a lost past present, and they offer a rich flavor to the reader’s palate, a flavor set in tear-like brine. To borrow an analogy from another of her poems, she makes music on an Old-World violin, its sound box like an “exile’s suitcase” whose emptiness provides the possibility for resonant music. For Stallings, the proper response to death and loss is redemptive, restorative art.

    This description of a violin “light as an exile’s suitcase” comes from “Two Violins,” in which Stallings contrasts two instruments between which a young student must choose. One is made of reddish wood from “a torn-down church’s pew, / The Devil’s instrument / Wrenched from the house of God.” As a new instrument, its tone hasn’t yet set. The other violin is old and marred, and its “sound will never change” –

    And how it came from the Old World
    Was anybody’s guess –
    Light as an exile’s suitcase,
    A belly of emptiness:

    That was the one I chose –
    Not the one of flame –
    And teachers turned in their practiced hands
    To see whence the sad notes came.

    The contrast Stallings establishes sheds light on her poetic art. One instrument comes from a ravaged and destroyed religious building. While many poets today rely on the fragmented vocabulary and images of a religious faith they no longer profess, Stallings chooses another path. Even though she is an American, a poet born and raised in the so-called New World, her art reverberates within a classical heritage. Like a violinist, a poet needs a tradition within which to work, a set of common stories and referents from which to draw. When Stallings does refer to Christian narratives in her poems, she doesn’t take the agonistic stance of an instrument wrenched from a wrecked faith, and she more often chooses to play within the classical tradition and its store of myths and characters.

    Further, the instrument she chooses excels at producing “the sad notes,” and Stallings’s life as an American living in Greece gives her an empathy with other exiles – from Persephone exiled in Hades to the refugees from Syria and elsewhere who take desperate measures to reach European shores. Hers is an exiled tradition suited to an exile’s life. And of course in the Christian account, we are all exiles from Eden, living on the earth as “strangers and exiles,” in the words of the author of Hebrews. Stallings’s poems address themselves to those in this condition, and they offer us the hard-won fruits of suffering and loss, a wisdom cured in tears.

    But wisdom is not mere brilliance, and someone with Stallings’s technical brilliance always faces the temptation to display that brilliance for its own sake. The virtuoso violinist might indulge in a cadenza to exhibit her talents rather than to serve the musical whole. Some of Stallings’s poems, particularly her earlier ones, seem to verge on such hollow brilliance. But as the collection progresses, the reader grows more likely to find that her stunning formal talents illuminate a poem’s theme rather than stand as an impressive performance for the sake of performance. The difference is akin to that between the songbird, whose song aims at “ornament, finesse,” and the sounds of bats, “who find their way by calling into darkness / To hear their voice bounce off the shape of things.” For instance, Stallings manages to compose a sestina with only one end-word – “like” – and render it a brilliant commentary on the shape of contemporary discourse, social media, and analogies.

    Among the many forms she masters – villanelle, sonnet, ottava rima, triolet – is the unusual Fib. Created by Gregory K. Pincus in 2006, the Fib is a 6-line poem in which the number of syllables in each line corresponds to the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so forth. Stallings’s “Four Fibs” explore the origin not only of natural phenomena – which is appropriate given the Fibonacci sequence’s connection to the growth of many plants and shells – but also of fibs, of lies and the loss of truth and harmony they engender. The first three trace the lies told by Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the opening chapters of Genesis, and the last poem in the sequence begins with the “awful oath of childhood”:

    heart and
    hope to die,
    stick a needle in
    your eye.

    This promise is the “genesis of the lie,” the verbal cover children use to cloak their deceit. But the rhyming vow is also a reference to Christ’s atoning death on the cross, the redemption that Christians see foreshadowed in the judgment God pronounces on the serpent in Eden. Divine truth-telling and covenant-keeping form the underlying structure of the created order and restore even the cosmic destruction caused by the human propensity to prevaricate. The verbal play, the mixture of ancient narrative and contemporary domestic life, and the underlying moral wisdom are all typical of Stallings’s poetic vision.

    The vein of wisdom she probes most deeply entails how to respond to the inevitable losses we endure in a world marked by sin and death. Loss pervades these poems, from the barely averted death in the opening poem to the seemingly trivial deaths of pets and the cosmic deaths that mark classical myths. “A Postcard from Greece,” the sonnet that opens the volume and provides this collection with its title, recounts a drive along a narrow road carved into a cliff face. Along its edge stand shrines commemorating those who drove too fast and trespassed over the edge, plunging to their deaths. Failing to heed the warnings of these memorials, the driver slips off the road and is saved by crashing into an olive tree. Driver and passenger turn to one another, startled to a new gratitude for life by this close brush with death: “Suddenly safe, / We clung together, shade to pagan shade, / Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.” This experience becomes a memento mori, a challenge to remember the proximity of our deaths so that we may hope to redeem the time we are given.

    An early poem titled “Lament for the Dead Pets of Our Childhood” recounts a child’s loss of innocence: seeing the dead bodies of beloved creatures brings home the finality of death. And this realization makes even the child’s  dolls appear as icons of loss: they are “a cold thing in the image of a warm thing, / Limp as sleep without the twitch of dreams.” Stallings challenges us to see through the simplistic stories we tell about the finality of these losses, to turn from those “lying always about loss” and search for truer stories. One perhaps surprising source for such narratives lies in the seemingly innocent bedtime stories we tell to children. In a masterful villanelle, Stallings builds an ominous case that all the fairytales about going to bed are, in fact, also about dying. The most often repeated end words all rhyme with “dead,” but in this poem where death is the central preoccupation, the word itself never appears. Instead, like the stories themselves, the poem gets at the harsh reality of death through the misdirection of going to bed:

    All, all of the stories are about going to bed,
    About coming to terms with the night, alleviating the dread
    Of laying the body down, of lying under a cover.
    That’s why our children resist it so. That’s why it mustn’t be said:
    All, all of the stories are about going to bed.

    Perhaps reciting the old wisdom recorded in these stories will prepare children – and adults – for dealing well with the inevitable reality of death.

    In other poems, Stallings wanders through museums and cemeteries, where past lives are put on shelves and death is made visible. Sometimes the ancient past stays dead, but sometimes these stale artifacts resonate. In “An Ancient Dog Grave, Unearthed During the Construction of the Athens Metro,” Stallings responds to a long-forgotten person’s effort to honor a beloved pet’s death:

    It is not the curled-up bones, nor even the grave
    That stops me, but the blue beads on the collar
    (Whose leather has long gone the way of hides) –
    The ones to ward off evil.

    This ancient act of hope is a kind of silent witness, waiting for an attentive observer to notice it. The work of noticing, of attention, forms the first step in restoration. Stallings considers this kind of active response to the past as well in a poem about teaching dead languages to schoolchildren. She marvels at the way ancient stories and grammatical constructions still make sense of young lives and yearnings:

    I think, as they wait for the bell,
    Blessed are the young for whom
    All languages are dead: the girl
    Who twines her golden hair, like Circe,
    Turning glib boys into swine.

    Even in poems not explicitly about death, images of the lost and missing recur: tulips dropping their petals, an unplayed note, an unpainted work of art, a missing puzzle piece, the last carousel of faded horses spinning vacantly. In thirty-six elegant stanzas of ottava rima which form “Lost and Found,” Stallings journeys through a lunar dreamscape of absence and ponders how varied forms of loss might be mended. Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the nine muses, acts as her guide as she travels from the domestic to the mythic, from lost baby teeth to extinct species.

    She discovers that some things we think are lost nonetheless reappear. The poet encounters a shattered mirror that holds “a woman’s loveliness that’s spoiled / With age.” When she gazes into this glass, she sees not her own youthful beauty but her daughter’s present beauty staring back at her. And Mnemosyne confirms that her beauty is “not truly lost”: Some things “are not lost, but somehow furled / Back in the heart of things from which they rise.” Myths draw Stallings’s attention for a parallel reason; they are stories that recur again and again in different guise across times and cultures. Like the swallows who spend each summer in the same nest, “every summer, they return.” These stories are types of human yearnings and loss that can guide our present efforts to live well. Hence Mnemosyne tells her not to “wet / Your lips here with the waters of Forget.” Lethe lures us with the ease of forgetting, the delightful oblivion of amusement, the luxury of no longer attending to what we are in danger of losing, but such amnesia is a draught that we who live in hope of redemption must forgo. Instead, the challenge is “To live in the sublunary, the swift, / Deep present through which falling bodies sift.” Stalling responds to this challenge by imagining herself as one through which life passes:

    I was a sieve – I felt the moment pass
    Right through me, currency as it was spent,
    That bright, loose change, like falling leaves, that mass
    Of decadent gold leaf, now turning brown –
    I could not keep it; I could write it down.

    And through what she writes down, she helps all of us inhabit this posture, a posture marked by courageous gratitude for even those goods that entail suffering, those goods we will enjoy only briefly.

    The Achilles heel of such poetry is the demand it makes on its readers. In the educational circles in which I run, there is a lot of talk about the consequences of faltering biblical literacy. When readers no longer have deep acquaintance with the biblical narrative and its accompanying set of images, words, and categories, poets no longer can count on their readers hearing these allusions. The resonance of Stallings’s poems depends as well on readers knowing the classical myths and their characters. Without this shared set of references, her poems can’t sound as they are meant to.

    In the face of such cultural amnesia, Stallings turns to what these almost forgotten stories might tell us about the possibilities of recovery and redemption. Several poems probe Persephone’s response to the loss of her mother and her above-ground life. In “Lost and Found” Stallings recalls one of Jesus’ parables, not the one about the lost sheep, but the more neglected story of the woman who lost a coin and turns the house upside down to find it.

    No doubt, she was a mother,
    I think, and laugh, and then I want to weep:
    The hours drained as women rearrange
    The furniture in search of small, lost change.

    Such thankless, forgotten labor exacts a high cost. Despite its apparent futility, however, it might result in transformation. And indeed eventually the lost coin becomes part of the “bright, loose change” that passes through the poet herself.

    “First Miracle” points to an analogous hope. While we tend to see Jesus turning water into wine as his first miracle, Stallings imagines an earlier one performed by his mother:

    Now her breasts ache and weep and soak her shirt
    Whenever she hears his hunger or his hurt;

    She can’t change water into wine; instead
    She fashions sweet milk out of her own blood.

    Mary feeding Jesus, turning her life blood into the milk that sustains this newborn infant, is a miracle of love. She transforms her loss into a gift that nourishes and sustains others. This possibility of making loss and absence bear fruit recurs again and again in Stallings’s poems. In the sonnet “Silence,” Stallings shows that what seems a blank, a void, can in fact be “pregnant,” “before the word itself, it was the womb. / It has a measure. Music calls it rest.” Out of the loss of words, like the silence that shapes a melody, like Mary’s womb that received the incarnate word, comes the possibility of meaning, relationship, and redemption.

    Our human participation in this work of restoration is never finished. It is called for as often as the ravages of time and sin and entropy etch their damages. In this way, our restorative work resembles the work of parenting, the round of cleaning and cooking and caring in response to the unending needs of young children. In one of the last poems in the collection, “Arsenic Hour,” Stallings describes that moment near the end of every day when a mother’s attention gets pulled in too many directions: finishing dinner, overseeing baths, helping a frustrated student with long division, answering a ringing phone. “Now is the husbandry that falls to wives,” she concludes, “Wrestling the insurgents off to sleep, / The chore that never ends, until it ends, / The work of days, the work that will not keep.” The quotidian, ongoing work of verbal making and remembering is, like parenting, the work of days, the work that will not keep but must be done anew in the deep present. This is the work of generous attention that ought to mark the afterlife of those unexpectedly plucked from death. And it is through such work that we can hope to make the empty ache of loss and frustration sound with beautiful music.

    Contributed By JeffreyBilbro Jeffrey Bilbro

    Jeffrey Bilbro is the editor-in-chief at Front Porch Republic and the author of several books.

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