Olives by A.E. Stallings. Triquarterly Books. 70 pp., $16.95.
The cover of Olives, A.E. Stallings’ third collection of poems, shows a detail from a late sixth-century-B.C. amphora depicting the harvesting of olives. One figure sits among the branches with a stick, while two others, sticks in hand, stand below. They knock fruit from the tree as a fourth figure, kneeling on the ground, holds a basket and collects the fallen olives. We know little of the artist, who worked in Athens and specialized in the black-figure technique, rendering human forms as sparsely detailed silhouettes. His falling olives might be lumps of coal.
Some one-hundred-fifty works have been attributed to the Antimenes Painter, many of them in praise of Herakles, but we prize the olive-harvesting scene, even if we’ve never seen an olive tree, because it is familiar and workaday, without conventional heroes or gods, and because its design is geometrically elegant but leaves room for human particularity. The bearded stick-holder on the right appears to be smiling as the olives fall, rather like the author of Olives, who seems to be enjoying her work. In her title poem, Alicia Stallings, a young American poet and classicist who has lived in Greece since 1999, writes:
“Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet,
For fruits that you can eat
Only if pickled in a vat of tears—
A rich and dark and indehiscent meat”
Her best poems are like that—tart but toothsome, cured in tears but never tearfully tear-inducing, at once sustaining and pleasure-giving. She’s a witty realist who camouflages seasoned maturity with lightness, grace, and good cheer. Take that rare word “indehiscent,” a botanical term describing fruits that do not open as they mature but retain their seeds until they decay. Olives, like other indehiscent plants, do not open when ripe. Stallings’ poem is such a fruit, one that requires curing, the intervention of the human hand, to be readied for consumption. In the final stanza she writes:
“These fruits are mine—
Small bitter drupes
Full of the golden past and cured in brine.”
As a classicist, Stallings is ever mindful of the “golden past.” In 2007 she translated The Nature of Things into rhyming couplets, turning Lucretius’ dactylic hexameters into iambic (mostly) heptameters. In her prefatory note to that poem she says the original Latin possesses “something of the pleasure of a crossword puzzle, though one to which there were no guaranteed answers,” and declares: “Rhyme is not the essence of our poetry, but it is I think the honey of it.” (Consider the rhymes in the first stanza of “Olives”: sweet, eat, meat.) Together, these offhand statements define Stallings’ approach to writing poetry. She prizes music and linguistic legerdemain, only infrequently turning technique into empty gesture. She is seldom flippant, never didactic, and avoids fashionable nihilism. Like an inspired writer of light verse, Stallings revels in the fun of form, the opportunities it presents for comedy and aphoristic wit. In a recent interview, while talking about the difficulties she has faced getting her formal verse published, she refers to the “irrational pleasures” of rhyme. A good but not dogmatic formalist, she’s alive to the happy serendipity of rhyme and meter. In “Lines for Turner Cassity,” she writes of the late poet and fellow Southerner:
Inimitable voice—for never cruel—
Impatient only of the pompous fool
And vagueness that gesticulates at truth.
Clear and styptic as a dry vermouth,
You taught the courtesy of kindness meant
By shaming false and floral sentiment.
Death’s crude arithmetic only exacts
The estimate of flesh and bone for tax;
You it has taken—and yet misconstrued—
For it has left us your exactitude.”
Stallings’ poems are seldom as barbed as Cassity’s, though she writes in “Accident Waiting to Happen”: “I’ve got an edge, / And I hang by a thread.” How many poets can link two American colloquialisms with a classical allusion and not make a big deal out of it? In Cassity, I suspect, Stallings sees her own, slightly blurred reflection. Like him, she abhors vagueness and cant, the empty gestures so typical of much contemporary poetry. She strives for precision. Often, as in the title poem, she devises metaphors for her art. In “Jigsaw Puzzles” she writes:
And lock shapes into place,
And random forms combine
To make a tree, a face.
Stallings’ weakest poems, I’m sorry to say, are those devoted to her children (an almost forgivable lapse). Occasionally hobbled by the taint of sentimentality, the book’s fourth and final section, “Fairy-Tale Logic,” consists of fourteen poems about kids, mostly her own. None is less than clever but some are merely clever, as in “Dinosaur Fever”:
Tots tell you what things mean in Greek,
In tones superior and mammalian;
It seems they only just learned to speak
And now they speak sesquipedalian.”
This would have been a superior poem for Ogden Nash to write, and Stallings almost redeems herself in the final stanza (“that vast prehistory to their birth”).
Often these family poems suggest just how treacherous is the tonal tightrope she walks. Her puzzle-minded and cerebral gift is tempered by human sympathy, and if a poem tips too far toward either extreme it founders. Stallings’ best poems are marvels of gyroscopic balance and technical adroitness. In “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia,” she writes: “Always we must grieve / Our botched happiness.” In short, Stallings is most successful when writing as a grownup, for grownups, with full knowledge that life is loss and death is gain, utopia is hell and every triumph is qualified. Perhaps the quintessential Stallings poem is “Deus Ex Machina,” in which, I trust, the absence of a period at the end of the sonnet is intentional:
Because we were good at entanglements, but not
Resolution, and made a mess of plot,
Because there was no other way to fulfill
The ancient prophesy, because the will
Of the gods demanded punishment, because
Neither recognized who the other was,
Because there was no difference between
A tragic ending and a comic scene,
Because the play was running out of time,
Because the mechanism of the sublime
Was in good working order, but needed using,
Because it was a script not of our choosing,
Because we were actors, because we knew for a fact
We were only actors, because we could not act
The chant-like repetition of “because,” ten times in fourteen lines, summons another poem: “Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me.” Like Dickinson, Stallings is at heart a comic writer, especially when addressing mortality. Constance Rourke devotes much of a chapter in American Humor to Dickinson as “a comic poet in the American tradition.” She says Dickinson “contrived to see a changing universe within that acceptant view which is comic in its profoundest sense, which is part reconciliation, part knowledge of eternal disparity.” Like Dickinson, who addresses Death as though he were a proper gentleman, Stallings is an adept of the slyly comic putdown. Comedy trumps rage and despair, and the actors at the conclusion of “Deus Ex Machina” might be Estragon and Vladimir. In an interview, describing the sort of contemporary poetry she dislikes, Stallings skewers “the deeper-than-thou smugly serious.”
Olives contains a second poem titled “Olives,” printed only on the back cover and consisting of nineteen lines recombining the letters, in anagrams and near-anagrams, that go together to make olives. Stalling concludes her poem with the lines “I love so / I solve,” and so resolves our taste for “salt, not sweet,” for form and sustenance.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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