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A Feature Review of
Hardback: FSG Books, 2018
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Reviewed by Sarah Lyons
When I was growing up, I was like many other kids and infatuated with the myths of Greek and Roman gods. I would pull reference books from the library, hunting for narratives of men and women interacting with the divine. With each new discovery I grew to both adore these stories and hate them—the arbitrary punishments, the rise and then deaths of heroes, the bright-burning romances and their ensuing jealousies, agonies, heartbreak. I distinctly remember sitting down, pen and paper in hand, and attempting to make a list of myths that I could identify with; I wanted to keep track of ones that “ended well,” that offered some piece of hope toward the future.
A.E. Stallings’s latest volume of poetry feels a bit like a dream an academic might have. LIKE is a beautiful, perfectly synthesized conflation of the modern and ancient world, filled with so much mythology and culture that it is almost impossible to know where to begin in describing it. Consider the following opening lines from the poem “Like, the Sestina”:
Now we’re all “friends,” there is no love but Like,
A semi-demi-goddess, something like
A reality-TV-star look-alike,
Named Simile or Me Two. So we like
In order to be liked.
“Like” is ubiquitous. It fills space, stalls for time, modifies and softens descriptions, makes comparisons. It represents our overpowering need to be well-thought of, to be received favorably but with less commitment than love. Here, Stallings invites us to question our culture and our language, and she does so by offering commentary on the small gods and goddesses that we make out of everyday things.
Stallings’s ability to blend the mystical with the mundane often reminded me of poet Li-Young Lee, especially in the ways her classical imagery and imaginative language similarly alludes to spiritual elements for her readers to dwell on. There is a long poem midway through the collection titled “Lost and Found” in which the narrator holds a conversation with the mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne. As the two speak, they move about to different misplaced objects or concepts, finding lost keys, dropped pills, sunglasses, threads of conversation, unwritten and unsent letters, and moments of lost sleep. Mnemosyne reveals her name to the narrator at the poem’s close, and the narrator wakes with these lines:
I saw the aorist moment as it went—
The light on my children’s hair, my face in the glass
Neither old nor young; but bare, intelligent.
I was a sieve—I felt the moment pass
Right through me, currency as it was spent,
I could not keep it; I could write it down.
Stallings travels from topic to topic in her poems much like the narrator of “Lost and Found” travels from missing item to item. While some pieces handle the joy of small things—dyeing Easter eggs, a crow, a pair of scissors—others move on seamlessly to address motherhood and historical events. It is in these poems that LIKE shines its brightest. Stallings, who was born in Georgia but has lived in Greece for almost two decades, includes some powerful poems on the refugee crisis. She is able to reach into this moment, still so present and fresh for us, and connect it to stories from the past. “Refugee Fugue,” for example, is divided into sections, one of which is titled “Aegean Epigrams” and another of which is titled “Charon” after the ferryman of Hades who took the souls of the dead across the River Styx. This merging of mythical and real was moving, even if I frequently found myself googling the lesser-known references in order to understand the allusion being made.
Some have described Stallings as a New Formalist. Pick up most recent poetry collections, and you’ll notice a tendency toward free verse over form. Writing modern sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles is a challenging task, but Stallings’s work is engaging and elegant. The limitations of form that she works within lend her poetry a structure and lyricism that grounds her work in tradition, rooting LIKE even more strongly in a history that is far behind us and yet still so relevant. Her poetry reminds me, among other things, to look behind me for answers even as I am striving forward, and for that reason alone this collection is one that should be read and meditated upon.
Sarah Lyons is an M.A. student in creative writing at Illinois State University. Earlier this year, she helped pilot a program as graduate poetry editor for Spoon River Poetry Review. Her chapbook lectio divina for reborn things will come out this winter with PRESS 254. She interned with The Englewood Review in 2015 and 2016.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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