Tag Archives: refugees

Review: A.E. Stallings, ‘Like’

‘Like’ is the fourth volume of poetry from A.E. Stallings, the best poet that I know of who is writing in English today. The themes in ‘Like’ are the same as in her earlier collections: American childhood, Greek adulthood, children, memory, local wildlife, Greek mythology… and concern for the abused, whether women in the patriarchy or refugees in the Mediterranean. There is a difference of organization, though: instead of four or five different sections, ‘Like’ lumps all the poems together and arranges them alphabetically by title; the result is a smooth, wide-ranging read.

Stallings has a superb mastery of form, and plays endless tricks with it. Start on ‘Battle of Plataea: Aftermath’ and the apparent prose in 11 lines when read alertly turns out to be a rhymed sonnet in iambic pentameter. Or take the eponymous ‘Like, the Sestina’ which uses the word “like” as the rhyme for every one of the requisite 39 lines plus 3 mid-line rhymes (with such variations as “unlike”, “dislike”, “look-alike”). See how the most substantial poem, ‘Lost and Found’, carries its rambling dream-and-memory dissertation on for 36 stanzas of ottava rima in iambic pentameter, whereas the shorter and more time-sensitive ‘Swallows’ uses 6 stanzas in iambic tetrameter. Her ‘Refugee Fugue’ attacks the unmanageable and unimaginable horrors of the desperate and drowned through a blues poem, a host of epigrams, a found poem – an appropriately confused assemblage of forms for a situation not amenable to coherent resolution.

But forget the technicalities! The beauty is in the easy music of her verse, the casual wordplay as with the doorbell that
Portended importunity from Porlock,
the throwaway etymological observations as of nighttime thoughts:
To consider means to contemplate the stars,
the poem on a ‘Pencil’ that ends
And Time the other implement
That sharpens and grows shorter,
the playfulness of ‘Night Thoughts’ that begins
Night thoughts are not like bats
and then goes on to describe the flight of bats in extended lyrical detail, before finally ending with how night thoughts are different…
And always the underlying awareness of thousands of years of history, showing through in the description of sky, contemporary but ancient, as
the contrailed palimpsest of blue.

And that leads me to my only regrets about Stallings’ verse: too much Greek literature with which I’m barely familiar. I’m not saying it’s a failing on her part, it’s merely a regret on my part that I can’t keep up. Although I would love to come across work by her with Norse themes…

But I will settle for what she offers: a very wide range. She can be very succinct as with ‘Paradox’:
Of the ones that happened to die, the little ones and the old,
Of hypothermia, or drowning, all died of cold.

Equally, she can be extensive and thorough in her exploration of a theme as with ‘Lost and Found’, where she is wandering through a dream of mountainous moonscapes, landfill landscapes, of things lost – toys, gloves, loves, baby teeth, time, opportunities, keys, coins – led by Mnemosyne, Memory herself, the mother of all the muses. The smooth formal stanzas of ottava rima, maintained steadily for 288 lines, provide the same meditative state as the 250 lines of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Scholar Gypsy’ or Edward FitzGerald’s even longer ‘Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam’.

My personal favorite in ‘Like‘ is her semi-formal ‘Crow, Gentleman’ (whose title I am guessing was changed from the original ‘Gentleman Crow’ to prevent it from coming between two poems in ‘Like’ addressed to her daughter). It begins:
Pacing to and fro
Along the autumn shore
Among the wrack and reek

With your arms clasped behind your back
And sporting your grey frock coat
Trimmed in black

And your black hat and your lean long-legged stride,
Up and down the strand perusing
The headlines of the tide:

and ends:
Life is a joke you crack,
Wry and amusing,
And death a dainty snack.

I find Stallings’ work altogether delightful: by turns sardonic, detached, passionate, compassionate, always observing carefully, always expressing wittily, always in masterful control of rhythm and rhyme. I repeat: I don’t know of a better poet writing in English today.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Michael R. Burch, ‘Neglect’

What good are tears?
Will they spare the dying their anguish?
What use, our concern
to a child sick of living, waiting to perish?

What good, the warm benevolence of tears
without action?
What help, the eloquence of prayers,
or a pleasant benediction?

Before this day is over,
how many more will die
with bellies swollen, emaciate limbs,
and eyes too parched to cry?

I fear for our souls
as I hear the faint lament
of theirs departing …
mournful, and distant.

How pitiful our “effort,”
yet how fatal its effect.
If they died, then surely we killed them,
if only with neglect.

Michael R. Burch writes: “This original poem has over 3,000 Google results, perhaps because it has been published by Daily Kos, Black Kos, Course Hero, Think Positive, Katutura (Namibia), Vanguard News (Nigeria), Best Naira News (Nigeria), The World News Platform, Darfur Awareness Shabbat, Genocide in Art, Genocide Awareness, and other human rights organizations including the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency).”

Photo: “Carrying a lifeless and dying child (Famine Memorial)” by Can Pac Swire is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

My own comments: The statue in the photo is at House Quay, Dublin, and relates specifically to the Great Famine, the Great Hunger, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 in which a million died and two million left the country then and in the next couple of years. The potato blight also impacted continental Europe, causing a further 100,000 deaths there and becoming a contributory cause of the widespread Revolutions of 1848.

So let us be clear: whether children are dying from famine, climate disaster, pandemics, government inaction, or warfare (all present in today’s world)–dying without in any conceivable way being culpable–there is not just a moral duty to help, there is self-interest in helping, self-interest in preventing civil unrest and floods of refugees. Refugees are the product of an intolerable domestic situation: all other things being equal, people would rather make their future in the place they were raised, with familiar friends, family, foods, festivals. It is the duty of all governments to make all places so pleasant that no adults or children feel forced to leave, that no one is left to die.

Happy Easter. Happy Passover. Ramadan kareem.

Sonnet: “The Walls of Planet Three”

On this wild planet, in its seas and sand,
forests and ice, lie ruins of perverse
attempts to overrun the universe:
the crumbling walls of failed human command–
Hadrian’s, China’s, Texas, Jerusalem…
fallen, decayed, functionless, desolate,
with scribbled mentions of their fears and hate:
Rivera… Pyramus… Pink Floyd… Berlin…
their stones – cut, mined and blasted – left land bare,
leave plants still struggling over gouge and groove.
Planet-fall’s made, but no one dares remove
their helmet in this dangerous atmosphere.
Infections lurk in water, air and ground–
walls’ poisoned Keep Out signs are all around.

Another of my sonnets that has been first published by Bewildering Stories. Maybe I just write bewildering verse…

I love walls when they are decorative, walkable, climbable or otherwise friendly. I’ve always loved the low garden walls along Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina:

But I dislike the use of walls to destroy the lives of other people, whether Palestinians, refugees or any other unfortunates who are struggling to survive. This poem, of course, is about the destructive walls–not the charming ones. In the far future, which ones will Old Earth be known for?