Book Review

Though I don’t follow sports in general, I never miss the Olympics. Each Olympic sport has its own highly detailed set of rules—boundaries that athletes push up against to showcase the absolute potential of the sport. Swimmers shave hundredths of seconds off of world records, skateboarders land complicated tricks that will later be named for them, gymnasts execute one more rotation than was previously believed possible. These feats of strength and skill are inspiring to watch.

It is with a similar reverence that I read A. E. Stallings’ This Afterlife, which combines selections from her previous four collections—Archaic Smile, Hapax, Olives, and Like—as well as a “lagniappe” of as yet unpublished poems. In the realm of contemporary formal poetry, Stallings is an Olympic-level athlete, and this mid-career retrospective demonstrates how she has been redefining the field for over two decades.

Across 129 poems, Stallings ticks all of the formalist boxes one could hope for: sonnets, villanelles, triolets, haiku, terza rima, pantoums, and so forth. However, there is a constant restlessness in her poetry, a drive toward further invention that keeps her poems fresh and unpredictable. For instance, the sestina form traditionally calls for six end words to be repeated in a set order over six stanzas of six lines each, plus a three-line coda which again uses the six words; in “Like, The Sestina” Stallings employs the word “like” as all six of her repeated words, creatively repeating variations on the word fourty-nine times—seven times more than would be strictly required even within the perverse challenge she sets for herself.

               . . . Those poets who dislike
Inversions, archaisms, who just like
Plain English as she’s spoke—why isn’t “like”
Their (literally) every other word? I’d like
Us just to admit what real speech is like.

As we see in “Like, The Sestina,” it is never enough to simply fulfill the requirements of an expected form. “OLIVES” is nearly entirely composed of anagrams of the title (“Is love / so evil? / Is Eve?”). Stallings employs visual cues, such as the visible crack which runs down the middle of “Ajar,” a poem about opening Pandora’s box. When she does commit to a more predictable pattern, such as ABAB quatrains, she may break them into tercets to unbalance the rhyme. My personal favorite innovation is what Stallings calls her “cat’s cradle” rhyme scheme, where sets of rhymes are broken apart and scattered willy-nilly across an entire poem instead of appearing in their usual places; Stallings uses cat’s cradle rhymes most frequently in sonnets, but the device also appears in longer poems that nearly appear to be free verse.

Stallings is also drawn to more idiosyncratic forms, such as the “Fib,” developed by writer Greg Pincus. Playing on the mathematical Fibonacci sequence, the Fib follows a set syllable count: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13. Not to be outdone, Stallings’ Fibs naturally also rhyme. From “Four Fibs”:

or grapple
over the apple?
Eavesdropping Adam heard her say
to the snake-oil salesman she was not born yesterday.

At the height of idiosyncrasy might be “Alice in the Looking Glass,” which is at first glance an unrhymed sonnet in the voice of the storybook character Alice in Wonderland as she addresses her mirrored self. However, much more scrutiny—let’s slow down the footage to marvel at how this Olympic diver positions her arms in the entry—shows that Stallings is actually using a full set of (what else to call it?) conceptual rhymes. In this case, “left” rhymes with “right,” “bottom” with “top,” “why” with “because,” and so forth. Not only that, but in keeping with the theme of mirrors, these rhymes are precisely reversed across the sonnet. A final flourish: the first and last lines both end with “time,” which makes sense only upon reaching the final line itself: “Where everything reverses save for time.”

It is tempting to break down every poem’s unique structure here—to demonstrate how Stallings shifts between meter and syllabics, how she endlessly invents surprisingly complex nonce forms, how she leans on consonance as an organizing principle—but I don’t wish to give the impression that this collection requires academic study. The truth of Stallings’ work is that it operates the way that exceptional verse should: invisibly and pleasurably, on the subconscious level.

Stallings is not only a poet of cleverness but also of substance, and This Afterlife subtly charts the changes in her concerns over the years. We meet Stallings in Archaic Smile (1999) as the poet examines her sense of self, often by inserting herself into myth. Hapax (2006) dabbles in themes of early marriage and domesticity, ending poignantly with the poem “Ultrasound”:

What butterfly—
Brain, soul, or both—
Unfurls here, pallid
As a moth?

(Listen, here’s
Another ticker,
Counting under
Mine, and quicker.)

Stallings’ third collection, Olives (2012), muses often on the lives of young children, and in Like (2018) those Athens-born kids have questions and opinions of their own, such as in “Dyeing the Easter Eggs”:

I am the children’s blonde American mother,
Who thinks that Easter eggs should be pastel—
But they have icon eyes, and they are Greek.
And eggs should be, they’ve learned at school this week,
Blood red.

“Blood red” also describes Stallings’ unabashed take on motherhood and femininity. The ample wit within her poems is used to draw attention to, not avoid, difficult truths. Consider her poem “Empathy,” which reflects on Greece’s refugee crisis through her lens as a mother:

My love, I’m grateful tonight
Our listing bed isn’t a raft
Precariously adrift
As we dodge the coast guard light,

And clasp hold of a girl and boy.
I’m glad we didn’t wake
Our kids in the thin hours, to take
Not a thing, not a favorite toy . . .

. . .

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.

Apart from her formalist sleight-of-hand, Stallings is perhaps best known for her canny way of blending mythology and the mundane which elevates both, making ancient Greek stories feel wholly new and relevant, and at the same time rendering daily life as worthy of attention as The Odyssey. In her thirty-six-poem sequence, “Lost and Found,” Stallings transforms a mother’s constant hunt for her child’s lost things—“Some vital Lego brick or puzzle piece”—into a mytho-domestic epic featuring Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, as a Virgil-like guide to the poet herself. As Mnemosyne guides the speaker through a cosmic world of the many things we lose, from hours of sleep to baby teeth, the epic gradually becomes a larger rumination on the speed of childhood and the passage of time, common themes throughout the collection.

“Look there,” she said, and gestured to the keys,
“Those are the halls to which we can’t return—
The rooms where we once sat on others’ knees,
Grandparents’ houses, loving, spare, and stern,
Tree houses where we whispered to the trees
Gauche secrets, virgin bedrooms where we’d burn,
Love’s first apartments. As we shut each door,
It locks: we cannot enter anymore.”

Stallings is one of the most dazzling technicians of our time, as well as an immensely skilled translator, but the pyrotechnics of an artfully crafted poem aren’t enough on their own. This new career-spanning collection shows us both Stallings’ range and her depth, her intelligence, and her heart. As the Hellenophile herself could no doubt tell you, medals were awarded for arts such as literature for the first decades of the Olympic games; a collection with the muscle and grace of This Afterlife deserves a place on that podium.

About the Reviewer

Erica Reid lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. She earned her MFA at Western Colorado University (’22) and serves as assistant editor at THINK Journal. In 2022 she was nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize.