Like, by A. E. Stallings
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018. 131 pp.
Reviewed by Susanna Lang
In late October 2014, A. E. Stallings gave a reading at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. Eight months earlier, I had suffered a catastrophic break to one arm, and when I couldn’t even focus on a murder mystery, I could listen to my husband read Stallings’ poems to me. As I continued to recover, I read all three books she’d published to that point: Olives (2012), Hapax (2006), and Archaic Smile (1999). I do not usually choose to read contemporary formalist poetry so I was surprised at myself, but still fell in love with the poetry and was delighted to hear Stallings read her new work.
One of the poems she read that evening was “Lost and Found,” 18 pages of ottava rima patterned on Dante’s voyage through the Inferno. It begins with the poet on her hands and knees, searching for a toy belonging to her young child who is in the depths of despair over its loss. Dreaming that night, the poet finds herself in the valley on the moon/Where everything misplaced on earth accrues,/And here all things are gathered that you lose. Her guide is Mnemosyne, the Muse of Memory—Stallings is a classicist as well as a poet—rather than Sappho or Elizabeth Bishop or Emily Dickinson, the speaker’s first guesses. In this unearthly lost and found are not only misplaced keys and orphaned socks, but the rooms we can’t return to, forgotten conversations, our absences of mind as well as body, unwritten letters, sleep lost to insomnia or daily tasks, childhoods embodied in baby teeth—some bright with joy and others “eaten up with sorrow.” Finally, Mnemosyne sends the poet back to her life with the task of remembering, among the many calls of her present life, and of writing what she remembers. After the reading, I asked where I could find the poem to read, but it had not yet been published. It stayed with me, however, and I felt a shock of recognition when I opened Like and found it immediately at the center of this collection whose titles are organized by alphabetical order. It is as gorgeous and wise as I remember, the complex form supporting its ambition rather than hindering it. Though form seems to come effortlessly to Stallings as it always does with master craftsmen, one line in “Lost and Found” admits that she “stalks a skittish rhyme/Behind her lidded eyes, beneath the mask/Of sleep….” It takes both effort and skill to write so effectively within these self-imposed strictures.
Nor do the poems limit themselves to the poet’s family life and her studies of ancient Greece. Instead, her love for her family and for her adopted country allow her to address broader issues, imagining in “Empathy” what it would be like to bundle her children into a leaky dinghy in order to seek asylum as so many families have traveled at great risk to do, landing on Greek beaches with nothing but their lives, and sometimes not even that much. “Refugee Fugue” returns to that topic, using a variety of frames—epitaphs, the old stories of Charon and his ferry to the Underworld as well as a list of “Useful Phrases in Arabic, Farsi/Dari, and Greek”—to mourn with those who cross. “Colony Collapse Disorder” plays on the epic simile suggested by the book’s title (as do other poems in the collection) to mourn another epic loss of our time, the ongoing degradation of our environment.
Still other poems take delight in our world, reaching for precise descriptions of the natural world as in “Sea Urchins” or finding humor in her own clumsiness (“The Stain”) or the sloppiness of our lives on social media (“Like, the Sestina”). All in all, this is a collection well worth our wait, and a voice that enriches our ongoing conversation in poetry.
Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems have appeared in such publications as Little Star, Prairie Schooner, december, American Life in Poetry and Verse Daily. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language. Among her current projects is Self-Portraits, a chapbook collection of ekphrastic poems focused on women artists. She lives with her husband in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.