This Afterlife: Selected Poems
by A.E. Stallings
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, 240 pp. $28)
We clung together, shade to pagan shade, Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife. (From “A Postcard from Greece”)
In his Chronicles, Bob Dylan wrote, “The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in. It had no relevancy, no weight. I wasn’t seduced by it. What was swinging, topical, and up-to-date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel… This was the news that I considered, followed, and kept tabs on.” This Afterlife: Selected Poems finds the classicist, translator, and poet A.E. Stallings in a similar mode. Relying on Greece and Greek mythology rather than on American mythology, she explores a different tangle of America’s roots, drawing her insight from the past, from old folklore, literature, and news, using the past as a lens to view both the present and the future.
Stallings was born in Decatur, Georgia, but left her home behind to immerse herself in Greek culture as a classicist, citizen, and poet. In 1999, the year her first book was published, she moved to Athens, Greece, where she still lives with her husband, the Greek journalist John Psaropolous, and their two children. She made herself a part of her classical literary tradition, even styling her name to echo that of early 20th Century classicist and poet A.E. Housman.
In 2021, Stallings told Rattlecast that the classic felt more modern to her than contemporary poetry:
Every age has its mannerisms and its time. You may think that something is cutting edge, but there is a kind of sameness to any age of poetry—this is just writing in your age. I really felt, though, going to a Catullus seminar that I had at the University of Georgia that these poems just seemed so much more modern than the things I was reading in magazines. Catullus was writing of course about heartbreak and his girlfriend and about her dead pet sparrow and also various very obscene lyrics, but also there’s a poem inviting a friend to a dinner party except he’s broke because he’s a poet so he’s like, “This is going to be a great party if you bring the food and the booze,” which seemed in college very current. And there’s a poem about someone stealing a napkin at a dinner party. This idea that anything in life, whether it was obscenity or stealing a napkin, could be put into a poem and that it didn’t have to be . . . that kind of maybe middle-class poem where you’re sitting at the window in the morning with your coffee and you see a bird and you have an epiphany about the ordinary and the everyday and your comfort and how special but ordinary the world is. . . There was a sameness to things, and it was just exciting to me to realize that people so many thousands of years ago had very similar things to write about—their friendships and their love affairs and their pets . . . the idea that you could put anything in. And it could be in a very tight metrical form and still have slang words. Catullus writes a kind of Latin that you don’t have in Cicero and so forth. He’s got local words and slang words and things. . . It was something to realize that—so many thousands of years past—you could have more of a connection with that than the literary magazine sitting next to you.
Stallings realized, then, that every literary age has its preferences, but the aim of a good poet should be to seek glory in timelessness. As she puts it in “Eurydice’s Footnote”:
Love, then, always was a matter of revision As reality, to poet or politician Is but the first rough draft of history or legend. So your artist’s eye, a sharp and perfect prism, Refracts discreet components of a beauty To fix them in some still more perfect order. (I say this on the other side of order Where things can be re-invented no longer.)
Thus began Stallings’ love affair with the past, but she does not live solely in the past. She brings her knowledge of history to bear on contemporary feelings, moods, and events too. Stallings claims she never writes with particular overarching themes or narratives in mind, but as one’s life unfolds and the work comes out, common threads reveal themselves, and Stallings’ most common narratives have to do with the Greek Underworld, archaeology, heroines, and monsters, as well as such non-Greek literary figures as Alice in Wonderland and universal themes like motherhood, feeling foreign, and mortality. She writes mainly in traditional forms, but like the best New Formalists (with whom Stallings is often and reluctantly grouped) such as Dana Gioia, she wields both metrical verse and free verse well, mixing them too, occasionally creating nonce forms and, like T.S. Eliot, employing at minimum the ghost of meter. Even so, Stallings’ poetry always leans toward form, a longing her writing can never deny. Stallings’ best poems are like carefully chiseled marble statues: whether they are traditional or experimental, they always feel timeless.
If any contemporary poet deserves a volume of selected poems—and most who release them do not—Stallings does. Her bid for a form of relevant immortality, her potential afterlife, requires testing, and one way she and we her readers can test this during her lifetime is through such a collection. As Stallings herself said while reviewing Robert B. Shaw’s 2022 selected, What Remains to Be Said, for Literary Matters, “A volume of ‘Selected’ poems can be a way for a poet . . . to climb a hill and get a clearer view of the work. . . For readers, a ‘Selected’ represents both an overview and a convenience—an assurance that we have the greatest hits at the ready in one handy volume. Individual collections, even if they have won prizes, have a way of becoming ephemeral, of dropping out of print and critical attention within a year or two. A ‘Selected,’ which is to say a poet’s anthology of their own work, aims to dig in its heels.” If the poet is either worthy or lucky, a selected collection can help the poet secure their literary afterlife.
In This Afterlife, Stallings presents one-hundred twenty-eight poems from across her career for our consideration: twenty-two from Archaic Smile (1999), twenty-seven from Hapax (2006), thirty-one from Olives (2012), thirty-three from Like (2018), twelve previously uncollected poems, and three previously uncollected translations. This selection varies delightfully—in years of experience, harmony and dissonance, subject, character, technicality, energy, traditionalism and experimentation, conceit, and more—even while remaining within the thematic world Stallings has created over the years.
As a lyric poet, Stallings cuts right to the chase. Nearly three-quarters of the poems included in This Afterlife are less than a page long. Consider “Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Ascribed to Martin Luther”, which combines the rowdy music of a drinking song with Stallings’ masterful ear and eye, as well as a historical significance cued by the title:
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes, The booze and the neon and Saturday night, The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons? Why should the Devil get all the good tunes? Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons, And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite? Why should the Devil get all the good tunes, The booze and the neon and Saturday night?
At first glance, this appears to be a fun bit of light verse, but with a second look we can discover a few deeper things too. There is the implementation of a French form with its roots in medieval Picardy; the invocation of Martin Luther, both a deeply Christian figure and one who helped facilitate the modern world, a bridge between Medieval and Enlightenment Europe; the dubious authenticity of a memorable quotation; the Devil as a persistent character, much like the Devil of American Blues songs (I thought of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”); and the playful use of anapestic tetrameter. And as a Southerner myself, I can’t help but think of The Charlie Daniels Band’s tongue-in-cheek classic “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Even a poem as light as this triolet is consistent with Stallings’ mission to prove the Old World’s relevance to the New.
Stallings enriches many of her poems with such multifaceted references, but, for the sake of clarity, she does so without ever making excessive demands of the reader. In “First Love: A Quiz,” the disturbing turn in the third stanza alludes to the tale of Hades and Persephone (certainly a favorite myth for Stallings). Knowledge of that story allows us to consider how some terrible things never seem to change and yet are often more nuanced than we know. But readers unfamiliar with the myth can still enjoy much about the poem: the charming nonce form, the transition from blamelessness to evil, the contrast between innocence and the loss of innocence, and the clash of contemporary and ancient imagery.
He came up to me:
- in his souped-up Camaro
- to talk to my skinny best friend
- and bumped my glass of wine so I wore the ferrous stain on my sleeve
- from the ground, in a lead chariot drawn by a team of stallions black as crude oil and breathing sulfur; at his heart, he sported a tiny golden arrow
(From “First Love: A Quiz”)
Stallings breaks This Afterlife into six sections: one for each of her four previous collections, a “‘Lagniappe’ of Uncollected Poems (1999-2017),” and a final section of “Uncollected Translations.” The Archaic Smile section of This Afterlife is the exemplar, serving as a fantastic introduction to Stallings’ body of work. After “A Postcard from Greece,” which opens the section and gives it its title, the poems progress from the ancient (“Hades Welcomes His Bride,” “Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother,” “Eurydice’s Footnote”) to the clash of the ancient and the modern (“How the Demons were Assimilated & Became Productive Citizens,” “Consolation for Tamar,” “Apollo Takes Charge of His Muses,” “Crazy to Hear the Tale Again (The Fall of Troy),” “The Wife of the Man of Many Wiles,” and “The Tantrum”) to the present and the future (“Fishing,” “Study in White,” and “The Machines Mourn the Passing of People”). Even the exceptions to this progression serve to further the theme of the ancient world’s clash with the modern.
The Hapax section feels more personal, even occasionally bordering on the confessional, which is surprising after the largely impersonal and historical view of Archaic Smile. Poems like “Lovejoy Street,” “Last Will,” “First Love: A Quiz,” “‘To Speke of Wo That Is in Marriage,’” and “Ultrasound” bare the narrator’s soul much more than any of the poems in the Archaic Smile section, and more obviously sometimes than This Afterlife’s later poems. Here, Stallings includes lyrics about new motherhood, marriage trouble, melancholic feelings toward a dead father, and—most disturbingly and unusual in Stallings’ work, though protected by a mythological allusion—underage rape and incest. Stallings does not abandon ancient Greece, though. Even “Asphodel,” a personal poem that boldly employs the “I,” discusses the thin barrier between the ancient and the current in Greece.
In Hapax, Stallings’ verse craft has improved, but the Archaic Smile section contains better lines. Nothing in the Hapax section beats “Yet no dog is so loyal as the dead” (“Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother”) or “Once in some sullen summer of father and daughter” (“Fishing”). I feel her confidence wavering as well, especially when she struggles to maintain the convergence of the ancient and the modern, such as when her heightened poetic language jarringly drops to contemporary image and idiom in lines like:
… It is the spot
Blindly spreading behind the looking glass.
It is the startled silences that come
When the refrigerator stops its hum,
And crickets pause to let the winter pass.
(From “Sine Qua Non”)
However, Stallings regains her footing in the collection’s Olives section, where we find her completely capable and confident. Here she executes clever poems like “Jigsaw Puzzle” and “Telephonophobia”: she utilizes titles excellently (for example, “Umbrage,” for both its current meaning of “annoyance” and its archaic meaning of “shadow”), and she pulls off numerous witty lines. For example:
Come sit with me here at the bar. Another Lethe for the bride. You’re pregnant? Well, of course you are! Make that a Virgin Suicide. (From “Persephone to Psyche”)
Olives gives us our first real glimpse of Mother Stallings too, in such exceptional poems as “Pop Music,” “Hide and Seek,” “Sea Girls,” “The Mother’s Loathing of Balloons,” and my favorite of all her poems, the masterful “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three,” where a child’s awe at Prokofiev’s symphonic fairytale yields insights into musical storytelling. (For an excellent examination of “Listening to Peter and the Wolf,” read Jeffrey Bilbro’s essay “The Hope of Unknowing.”) Stallings also embraces motherhood and writes beautifully about her children both as people and as muses, which she merges effortlessly with her investigations of the past and present, even when she fears the future. As Donald Hall reminds us in “My Son, My Executioner,” to embrace parenthood is to embrace history and the fact that we must die. Stallings knows this well, especially when she gives ominous voice to an unborn child:
Two shadows rhyme,
Two moving hands
That tell the time.
I am the room The future owns, The darkness where It grows its bones.
The selection from Stallings’ third collection, Like, could have used a bit more culling. As the years roll on, she experiments more and gains new mastery. Still, I miss the directness and concision of her early poems. Additionally, each section of This Afterlife loosely follows the arrangement of the book it is taken from, and since Like’s contents are ordered alphabetically, the selection from Like is too. In both cases, the resultant arbitrariness can lead to tedium.
The poems from Like also stand out in their concerns. As Stallings ages, her poems become ever more obsessed with time itself, as evident in poems like “After a Greek Proverb” (one of her best villanelles), “The Last Carousel,” “Memorial (Mnemosyno),” and “Pencil.”
We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query— Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back. Nothing is more permanent than the temporary. (From “After a Greek Proverb”)
It made him sad, it made him livid: How she construed from the imperfect past A future less vivid. (From “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda”)
Like also seems more interested in the modern and postmodern than the rest of This Afterlife. Stallings uses more Christian references in the selections from Like than in the earlier poems, most vividly in “Dyeing the Easter Eggs,” which alludes to Christ’s Resurrection, and “Memorial (Mnemosyno),” which discusses Christian burial practices and “the rest and rising of the dead.” She examines current issues and events for the first time too, further emphasizing the modern. Sometimes this is insufferable, as in “From ‘Refugee Fugue’,” a found poem consisting mostly of phrases taken from an instructional pamphlet. Its finale—a two-word, single line stanza—“Next person.”—is nowhere near as poignant as the poem might suggest. Sometimes, though, the incorporation of current events adds something to Stallings’ work, most notably in “Empathy,” which honestly explores the narrator’s response to Greece’s refugee crisis by admitting selfish gratitude for her family’s situation:
My love, I’m grateful tonight Our listing bed isn’t a raft Precariously adrift As we dodge the coast-guard light,
And clasp hold of a girl and a boy. I’m glad that we didn’t wake Our kids in the thin hours, to take Not a thing, not a favorite toy.
Like is less self-serious than the previous sections but also occasionally too clever for its own good, as in the overworked “Like, the Sestina.” The section is overindulgent as well, a tendency that reaches its peak in the eighteen-page, thirty-six-part “Lost and Found.” Some of the “Lost and Found” poetry is masterful, especially in its solid iambic pentameter and ottava rima. However, while this can be pleasant—as in the final stanza’s “That bright, loose change, like fallings leaves, that mass/Of decadent gold leaf, now turning brown”—the poem overstays its welcome, even if it is technically and thematically brilliant.
This Afterlife concludes with the uncollected poems and translations. The former are competent, witty, and commanding, but it is easy to see why Stallings did not previously collect them; they do not leave the same mark her best work leaves. The collection does well, though, to end with the three translations, since the act of translation suits Stallings’ classicist sensibilities, and it is a joy to watch her work in that arena.
This Afterlife gives readers an excellent view of Stallings’ career thus far. She loves, embodies, and expresses Greek mythology and the Western canon as experiences, not just distant observations. She teaches us about the relationship of the past to the present, exemplified in This Afterlife’s construction and the anchoring of poetic language that is both heightened and contemporary to old forms and knowledge. She proves ancient stories can still entertain us and can provide us with the insight of historical distance, in contrast to using only contemporary means to observe our current era. Stallings has filled This Afterlife with wry, skillful, sonically excellent poems that both teach us and supply us with musical pleasure.