‘Archaic Smile’ was the debut poetry collection by A.E. Stallings, an American who moved to Athens, Greece, a couple of decades ago. Published in 1999, it won that year’s Richard Wilbur Award and its opening poem, ‘A Postcard from Greece’, is perhaps my favourite of all her work. It is a sonnet with slant rhymes describing a car accident:
Hatched from sleep, as we slipped out of orbit
Round a clothespin curve new-watered with the rain,
I saw the sea, the sky, as bright as pain
That outer space through which we were to plummet.
Stallings lives in the modern world of cars and planes and thinks in terms of orbits and outer space; the Greece of this poem is not there yet – there is no guardrail on the cliff-sided road, the only warnings are the memorials to those who have died there, who
sliced the tedious sea once, like a knife.
Luckily, her car hits an olive tree on the edge of the cliff and they don’t go over.
We clung together, shade to pagan shade,
Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.
And so the ancient world steps in to save her from rash modernity, and in this first poem she weaves the present and the past together, living as a pagan shade in a refreshed existence. And the rest of the book, and indeed all her work, carries on this integration of past and present.
The first section of the book is titled ‘Underworld’, appropriate for that near-death event, but mostly being poems such as ‘Hades Welcomes his Bride’ and ‘Persephone Writes a Letter to her Mother’ – there is a lot of Greek mythology in Stallings’ work, but filtered through a modern sensibility:
Death, the deportation officer,
Has seen your papers and has found them wanting.
In the second section, ‘A Bestiary’, she writes of her American experiences of animals and birds, in life and death and freedom and captivity, with her customary detached amusement. Take ‘Watching the Vulture at the Road Kill’:
We stopped the car to watch. Too close.
He bounced his moon-walk bounce and rose
With a shrug up to the kudzu sleeve
Of a pine, to wait for us to leave.
She observes that most other birds have to get in and out in a hurry, whether raptors or prey, and draws a lesson from it:
There is no peace but scavengers.
The third section, ‘Tour of the Labyrinth’, returns to Greek themes, but again weaving past and present, as in the reaction to an antique pot being broken. The final section is ‘For the Losers of Things’, echoing the sense of loss or near-loss in the rest of the book, but staying in the present – ‘Watching the News After the Tornados’ – or even the far future, with another of my personal favourites, ‘The Machines Mourn the Passing of People’:
The air now is silent of curses or praise.
Jilted, abandoned to hells of what weather,
Left to our own devices forever,
We watch the sun rust at the end of its days.
As can be seen from the excerpts quoted, Stallings is a formalist, and very comfortable with whatever form and metre is appropriate for the particular piece she is producing. ‘Archaic Smile’ is a superb collection, readable and rereadable, memorable, quotable. Her subsequent collections have been equally impressive. If there is a better poet currently writing in English, I haven’t run across them.
Photo of A.E. Stallings by Milos Bicanski