Category Archives: collection

Review: ‘Archaic Smile’ by A.E. Stallings

‘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

Review: ‘Snowman’s Code’ by Midge Goldberg

‘Snowman’s Code’ won the 2015 Richard Wilbur Award. And the first poems are all right, most of them being competent sonnets with a strong final line or couplet – ‘On Getting a Record Player for Christmas’ strongly evoked that era when a high point of childhood was having a couple of albums that you could replay when you wanted, ending with
I memorized not only every word,
But all the scratchy silences I heard.

But gradually the collection goes downhill, into villanelles (a verse form that is exceptionally difficult to make interesting, needing the oratorical power of a Dylan Thomas), and short insights arranged on the page as though they were verse – as in the title poem, with its
Be proud of lumpy hereness,
made by hands that carry
you, scoopful by scoopful,
to this place, at this moment,
patting you into existence.

In short, though there are poems I like in this book, I didn’t find enough to justify it as a prize-winning collection.

Review: Helena Nelson, ‘Starlight on Water’

Helena Nelson’s 2003 poetry collection ‘Starlight on Water’ is quiet, reflective, beautiful and intensely intimate. Not necessarily personal – in some of the poems the poet has no children, in others a daughter or two, so there is no guarantee Nelson is writing of herself – but intimate with the senses and memories of existence. One of my favourite poems is ‘Ironing Day’:

I’ve never had an ironing board cover that fits
or a baby of my own.
None of the doors here properly shuts
and the garden wall’s come down.

But I shouldn’t ever want to lose my iron.
Pressing hard, I remember
grass between my toes
and the soft rain of September.

This speaks to several of my biases: going barefoot, enjoying rain, tolerating imperfection, triggering memories… and the music of casually rhythmical rhymed verse.

Not all of her verse is in the same style. Some poems are formally structured, some are free; the bulk of the book wanders all over internal and external landscapes, while the last third circles around and around Mr. and Mrs. Philpott, first one and then the other, a very caring couple of very distinct individuals in their mature second marriage. Here are some opening lines at random from the 19 Philpott Poems:

At the kitchen window
in his dressing gown,
Philpott stands alone
his sons have gone.
He’s on his own.

and

The sweetness of June, a summons conveyed
from strawberry fields, calls her to pick.
She drives to the farm, the car arrayed
with Tupperware tubs.

and

His father died at fifty-eight
and so he will die at fifty-eight.
He fetches a tumbler.
Two years to go.

and

Philpott’s anger lives in his shoes.
It tangles in the laces
and he wrestles like a lover

The first part of the book is about all manner of things – the spirit of a dead cat, say, or a night in an isolated Scottish cottage, or the teasing poem ‘Genderalisation’:

Women keep scales in their bedrooms;
Men keep weights.

The latter part of the book is just the Philpotts. What the whole book has in common is, without any sentimentality, the deep love that comes from respect, patience and close observation. It is all very intimate, and Nelson appropriately ends the Philpotts and the book with this short poem, ‘Love’:

He has tipped, he has spilled
his soul into her
and she carries it still
like starlight on water.

Review: ‘That Shakespeherian Rag’ by Edmund Conti

The problem of being
a 17-year
locust
is trying to stay
for 16 years
focused.

That poem is ‘Short Attention Span’ from Edmund Conti’s latest collection of verse. Originally the title was to be ‘O O O O’ in reference to T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land where the poet is being criticised by his wife:

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
But
O O O O that Shakespeherian rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

It seems that the publishers sensibly preferred a title that would be more comprehensible, without the confusions of O and 0. So the next part of the quote was chosen–still idiosyncratic, but more useful. And, yes, Conti seems to have poetry singing rhythms in his head all the time, and he produces beautiful jazz-like drawings as in the book’s cover.

Both titles for the collection are pure Conti–he has a playful, Zen-like approach to life, highly literate, constantly referencing other writers (and other writers referencing other writers), expecting a level of knowledge and engagement from the reader, and often reducing his expositions to the shortest possible. So this latest volume is full of memories and meditations, jokes and puns, and threaded through with the words of others. Conti divides the book into 11 Shakespearean sections, starting with memories of childhood and youth, and then weaving through reading and writing, books and poetry, his neighbors and family (and their views of his verse), into a closer and closer look at mortality: the last four pieces having respectively four lines, two lines, one line, and nothing.

Conti writes both formal and free verse, depending what kind of playfulness he’s up to. When he parodies Emily Dickinson, of course it’s in her standard ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ meter and rhymes ABAB. But he’s a lot more free when he just wants some snide commens and a punchline. Here’s ‘Losing Battle’:

In a final desperate attempt
at survival, the sun sets
fire to the western sky.
Overblown, say my poet friends.
Cute, say my non-poet friends.
What does it mean? asks my neighbor.
How much will you get paid for it?
That’s from my wife.

My father’s an astronaut,
my son lies.

Engaging, amusing, thought-provoking, with many short passages that stay in the memory. A fun book for all poets. Just published this month by Kelsay Books.