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"Archaic Smile" by A. E. Stallings

Archaic Smile
by A. E. Stallings










by A. M. Juster       






          It feels a bit impolite, but necessary, to note that New Formalism is no longer new. Its spiritual leader, Dana Gioia, turned fifty earlier this year and most of his prominent followers and fellow travelers are now in their fifties. Even poets who have recently earned their way into the inner circle, such as Timothy Murphy and Rhina Espaillat, enter as experienced practitioners rather than youthful prodigies.
          Since the “rebel angels” have aged, it is timely to ask whether they have sparked a short-lived rebellion or a sustained insurrection. Although no anthology showcases “Newer Formalism,” younger poets are starting to provide reinforcements for the older generation. With all due respect to Greg Williamson, most of the strongest new recruits tend to be women, particularly Kate Light, Catherine Tufariello, Leslie Monsour and the poet of this generation who has undoubtedly generated the loudest buzz, A.E. (Alicia) Stallings.
          Stallings, a classics scholar from Georgia living permanently in Greece, is still only 32, and yet she has won Poetry’s Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, appeared in the Best American Poetry series, and delighted readers of formalist journals for a decade with a mix of serious poetry, light verse and Latin translations. Her first book, Archaic Smile, won the 1999 Richard Wilbur Award of the University of Evansville Press.
          Archaic Smile is a dazzling and distinctive debut that includes several poems that deserve to be considered contemporary classics. My two favorites, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Plant Willow Trees” and “Hades Welcomes His Bride,” reveal some of Stallings’ talent.
          In the first poem, Stallings takes the tired symbol of the willow and jauntily twists it into something exciting, new and true:

                             Willows are messy trees. Hair in their eyes, 
                             They weep like women after too much wine 
                             And not enough love.

          Instead of blitzing us with a succession of increasingly unlikely comparisons (a style prized by too many of our poets), Stallings patiently extends her original insight while adding apt description to her clear-eyed vision:

                                                              They litter a lawn with leaves 
                             Like the butts of regrets smoked down to the filter.

                             They are always out of kilter. Thirsty as drunks, 
                             They’ll sink into a sewer with their roots.

          This vision begins to feel inevitable; momentum builds with the unanticipated rhymes that pull the reader from the last word of each stanza into the middle of the next line.

                             They have no pride. There’s never enough sorrow.
                             A breeze threatens and they shake with sobs.

                             Willows are slobs, and must be cleaned up after. 
                             They’ll bust up pipes just looking for a drink.

          The poem then twists into a two-line conclusion that has the force and feel of a traditional couplet although it has only the faintest echo of a rhyme:

                             Their fingers tremble, but make wicked switches. 
                             They claim they are sorry, but they whisper it.

          In just twelve lines, Stallings turns the cliché inside out and gives us a brilliant riff on the consequences of frustrated love, instead of a wallow in the emotion of the experience.
          In “Hades Welcomes His Bride,” Stallings again infuses vitality into a familiar subject. Speaking through the voice of Hades, she knocks us off-guard with Hades’ unexpectedly kindly tone:

                             Come now, child, adjust your eyes, for sight
                             Is here a lesser sense. Here you must learn
                             Directions through your fingertips and feet 
                             And map them in your mind. I think some shapes 
                             Will gradually appear.

          Hades’ lack of malevolence allows his observations to speak more eloquently than speech by Persephone. Slowly and skillfully, his tour guide’s offhand manner leads he leader’s imagination into Stallings’ horrific vision:

                                                           The pale things twisting
                             Overhead are mostly roots, although some worms
                             Arrive here clinging to the dead.

          Hades even becomes a somewhat sympathetic character and engages in the same self-deception as mortal lovers:

                                                                        Turn here.
                             Ah. And in this hall will sit our thrones,
                             And here you shall be queen, my dear, the queen 
                             Of all men ever to be born. No smile?
                             Well, some solemnity befits a queen.

          The story builds in loose but elegant blank verse for another twenty lines, and then concludes with the magnificent:

                             What? That stark shape crouching in the corner? 
                             Sweet, that is to be our bed. Our bed.
                             Ah! Your hand is trembling! I fear
                             There is, as yet, too much pulse in it.

          I heard Stallings read this poem several months ago; the hushed silence before the enthusiastic applause was memorable.
          For all of Stallings’ formal virtuosity, few of her poems are strictly metrically regular. Indeed, one of the pleasant surprises of Archaic Smile is the number of superb poems in the gray zone between free and blank verse. I particularly admired the droll “How the Demons were Assimilated & Became Productive Citizens.” No American poet is writing lines as brilliantly loopy as:

                             The demons were more beautiful than angels. 
                             They had no qualms about plastic surgery.
                             They took to wearing black: didn’t show dirt
                             In the city like Innocence, which anyway 
                             Couldn’t be worn between Labor Day and Easter. 
                             They tired of grudging angels their gilded hair
                             & had theirs done. Their complexions were so pale 
                             The blond looked natural, only more so.
                             They shrunk their wings into fashionable tattoos 
                             So cashmere suits draped better from their shoulders. 
                             Elocution lessons turned hisses to lisps.

          Few even come close.

          Stallings’ more formal poems exhibit considerable metrical inventiveness. Although most of her base rhythms are iambic, she uses anapestic and trochaic substitutions freely. In fact, she is one of the few poets who can shift into anapestic lines without letting them careen out of control:

                            Believe what you want to. Believe that I wove,
                            If you wish, twenty years...(“The Wife of the of Many 

                            We are shorn now of tasks, and the lovely work—
                            Not toiling, not spinning—like lilies that shirk...(“The
                                                 Machines Mourn the Passing of People”)

          Stallings’ ear for rhythm does occasionally fail her. In her otherwise exquisite opening sonnet, “A Postcard From Greece,” several rough lines mar the rest of the poem:

                            Hatched from sleep as we slipped out of orbit...

                            Our car stopped on the cliffs brow. Suddenly safe...

          These are small and rare faults, however, and the worst thing I can say about Archaic Smile is that the author held back her translations and, more significantly, the dazzling light verse that made her the youngest poet ever featured in Light and could make her this country’s answer to Britain’s Wendy Cope.
          I should note that Archaic Smile is a handsome and reasonably priced hardback at fifteen dollars. I had some difficulty trying to order it from my two local independent bookstores, but it is available through or directly from the University of Evansville Press, 1800 Lincoln Avenue Evansville IN 47722 (remember to add a few dollars for postage.) I recommend buying three—one to enjoy yourself, one to give to a friend who hates formal poetry , and one to auction off years from now when it is a collector’s item.

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