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A. E. Stallings (1968-)
by Kim Bridgford

. E. (Alicia Elsbeth) Stallings is known as the best New Formalist poet of her generation. The initials she uses as part of her pen name both mask her gender and link her with A. E. Housman, her "favorite poet" (Murchison, "Interview"); the two share a love of classic texts and many common themes. She has also been compared to Elizabeth Bishop and Edna St. Vincent Millay and, in her facility with form, to Richard Wilbur. As she writes in "Crooked Roads Without Improvement: Some Thoughts on Formal Verse"--refuting claims that traditional form is "elitist" and "patriarchal"--"I view myself as the rightful heir of all that is human" ("Crooked Roads").

What is consistent about her is her ability to surprise, or as Mark Jarman wonders in The Hudson Review, "What will she say next and how will she say it?" ("Good Company"). Witty both in her argument and word choice, she is known for her masterful use of rhyme and, paradoxically, her looser interpretation of traditional forms and metrical rules. Her compelling, somewhat incantatory method of delivery links her with Sylvia Plath. She is nothing if not ambitious. As she has noted, "I suppose every poet's secret ambition is--or ought to be--to be great" (Forbes).

One of her most common themes is loss. As Adam Kirsch writes, "She has a coolly ironic sense of the way things fall, not dramatically apart, but unsettlingly askew" ("Young Poets Calling"). Steffen Horstmann underscores this point, writing, "Her attention is continually fixed on that which is fleeting or has been lost" (Rev. of Hapax, CR).

Stallings grew up in Georgia, with an unconventional and happy childhood. She says, "My father, who was a professor at Georgia State, was both intellectual and outdoorsy; so he could discuss Proust or skinning deer, and we, my sister Jocelyn and I, grew up, not exactly tomboys, but I did know how to gut a fish when I was four. I think my parents had a theory that children should be treated as if they had no gender" (Murchison). In "A. E. Stallings on Power, Ambition, Glory" she adds that "He was a brilliant man of wide-ranging interests, who could talk about Proust or deer hunting, Mozart or Hank Williams" (Forbes). Her mother, who was a librarian, allowed Stallings and her sister to fill a laundry basket with books and bring them home (Murchison). As Stallings notes, "I was aware. . . from a young age that books were written by people and that one could be a writer, and I wanted to write books" (Murchison).

Early on in her life, she was drawn to Blake, and later to T. S. Eliot. While she admits to experimenting with free verse, she has always returned to traditional forms. She has been astonished that some poets have elected not to write in form: "To arbitrarily say I'm never going to use those things seems as absurd to me as a painter deciding he will only paint in black and white" (Murchison) She points out that "people love rhyme. Rhyme and meter make things memorable. And that's a physical thing--they work differently upon the brain, I'm sure of it" (Murchison).

Publication for Stallings came relatively early, with an acceptance of the first poem she ever submitted as well as publication in Seventeen magazine, again echoing her predecessor Plath. She was publishing in Poetry by her mid-twenties.

She attended the University of Georgia, where she majored in classic studies and music, then went on to do graduate work in classic studies at Oxford. In addition to her work in poetry, she is known as a translator, having done work for the film The Sum of All Fears, and having translated De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things) (Penguin, 2007), a book-length poem by Lucretius, all in fourteeners. She received the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize in 2010. She jokes, "I seem to have an affinity for curmudgeonly didactic male poets in dead languages" (Byrne). She also notes the paradox that "The ancients taught me how to sound modern" (Forbes).

She is the author of the chapbook Aftershocks (Aralia Press, 2003), and two full-length collections, Archaic Smile, which won the Richard Wilbur Award, selected by Dana Gioia (University of Evansville Press, 1999), and Hapax, which won the Poets' Prize (Northwestern University Press, 2006). In addition, her work has received the Frederick Bock Prize, the Pushcart Prize, the Eunice Tietjens Prize, the James Dickey Prize, and the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. She has twice appeared in The Best American Poetry anthology, and she is a frequent contributor to Poetry, as a poet, reviewer, and blogger. Stallings also regularly runs a writing workshop on the Greek Island of Spetses.

Since 1999, she has lived in Greece with her husband John Psaropoulos, the editor of Athens News. They met while she was working as a tea-girl in London, and he was pursuing graduate studies. They have two children, Jason and Atalanta.

"Aftershocks," the title poem of Stallings' chapbook with Aralia Press and the opening poem of her second collection Hapax, underscores both her theme of loss and her facility with form. The poem is a play on Bishop's villanelle "One Art" with the nod to its disaster/master/vaster rhyme. While Bishop's poem is ostensibly about the death of Lota Soares--the "you" in the poem--it is also about the way in which the poet reaches for perfection in writing, and finds such a quest impossible. Moreover, the poem emphasizes the way in which life and art can be built on such small things, but have an enormity of consequence.

Stallings' sonnet, while not about the death of a loved one, has the same emphasis on life's fragility:


We are not in the same place after all.
The only evidence of the disaster,
Mapping across the bedroom wall,
Tiny cracks still fissuring the plaster--
A new cartography for us to master,
In whose legend we read where we are bound:
Terra infirma, a stranger land, and vaster.
Or have we always stood on shaky ground?
The moment keeps on happening: a sound.
The floor beneath us swings, a pendulum
That clocks the heart, the heart so tightly wound,
We fall mute, as when two lovers come
To the brink of the apology, and halt,
Each standing on the wrong side of the fault.
This Spenserian sonnet, with its interlocking rhymes between stanzas--ababbcbccdcdee--helps to underscore its connection to Bishop's villanelle, as the very nature of the villanelle brings its rhymes back more frequently (as there are only two), and also such a form more closely intertwines the literal and metaphorical implications of the earthquake. In the end, we ask ourselves, Which of these gets more of our attention? It's a little like asking, Which is more important--the body or the soul?

There are moments--whether literal or figurative--that change everything. As Stallings notes, "We are not in the same place at all" (1). An earthquake can happen; a relationship can shatter. That then Stallings goes on to borrow the Bishop signature rhyme--in the aftermath of the earthquake--is very clever. While Bishop builds from small to large in her poem, from lost keys to lost continents, Stallings looks at the literal damage from the earthquake/lovers' quarrel that doesn't seem much at first, but then resonates:

The only evidence of the disaster,
Mapping out across the bedroom wall,
Tiny cracks still fissuring the plaster--
A new cartography for us to master,
In whose legend we read where we are bound:
Terra infirma, a stranger land, and vaster. (2-7)
The sense that there is a new emotional terrain to cross parallels the Bishop poem as well, and the emphasis on mapping and travel. Perhaps instead of Geography III, this is Stallings' Geography IV (and Stallings would undoubtedly have a pun on IV, as in for, a dedication--to Bishop? to a loved one?--doubling back on itself). There is the delightful play on words in "terra infirma" too, making us notice the shaky place in the language itself.

The literal and metaphorical meet in the middle of the poem (ironic, given the poem's topic), almost with a linguistic kiss. The turn comes a little early--line 8, continuing on to line 9--and the question is: What is the main story of the poem: the earthquake that has occurred or the earthquake in the relationship? The interlocking rhyme resonates as a couplet in the middle of the poem: "Or have we always stood on shaky ground? / The moment keeps on happening: a sound" (8-9).

Perhaps this shape-shifting--or earthquake settling--poem comes down to the interpretation of the last three lines: "We fall mute, as when two lovers come / To the brink of the apology and halt, / Each standing on the wrong side of the fault" (12-14). The key phrase is "as when," which can be a comparison, as in "just as," signifying that the central story is the earthquake story, and the relationship is simply a comparison. At the same time, the phrase can mean "in the way that lovers do (ourselves being lovers)," showing that this lovers' quarrel is typical of lovers' quarrels in general. Such an interpretation makes us re-read the poem and interpret what we may have taken initially as literal as metaphorical.

In either case, a fissure, or fault, has been created by the end of the poem. "Fault" is also a mistake, and so there is a moment as each lover waits for the other to apologize. There are "sides" in both as well, and there is a yearning to cross what has been changed.

In addition to using interlocking masculine and feminine rhymes--and quatrains--and literal and metaphorical meanings, Stallings also exhibits a masterful use of pause, in underscoring her theme. It is unusual to use so many end-stopped lines; in fact, most of the lines in the poem are end-stopped. Such a strategy underscores the abrupt nature of change. At the same time the opening up of fluidity--and more enjambment--at the end of the poem shows the deceptive way in which we go on after a change, only to be stopped short by what has happened. Things catch up with us, and there is a pause--almost seemingly outside time--as we reflect upon what has happened and what is just about to happen.

Stallings is also a masterful practitioner of light verse, and the following example typifies her approach. Certainly the large body of her work is essentially serious--from lost umbrellas, to weeping willow trees (like women who have a little too much to drink), to lost and reoriented Persephone--yet to get a sense of Stallings' range, it is essential to look at a poems that exhibits her humor, like "RepRoach" (from Archaic Smile).


There are times that I reproach
Myself because I loathe the roach,
For I've hymned spider, slug and snail,
Whatever's awkward, ugly, pale,

Whatever's many-legged, at fault,
Whose skin is permeable by salt,
Whatever creatures creep abroad
Unloved by anyone but God.

And yet, somehow, it makes me sick,
How aerodynamic they, and quick:
When porch-light interrupts a knot
Of roaches hatching out some plot,

How they run like rumors scattered
By ersatz friends who lately flattered,
And sleek and shiny, slip from sight,
Through the loopholes of the night.

I shrink from nothing else that crawls.
It is their elegance appalls:
Tapping away into the bruise
Of dark like patent leather shoes.

The pun of the title--"RepRoach"--has us laughing at once. There is, of course, "reproach," as well as the fact that the roach has a bad "rep." Yet the rest of the poem is not as obviously funny, moving from the serious, to the light, and back again. In this case, Stallings reminds me of no one more than Frost in "Design," with its resonant concluding couplet: "What but design of darkness to appall? If design govern in a thing so small" (503).

Stallings' poem has a lighter touch, of course, in its form--rhyming iambic tetrameter couplets in quatrains--and in its content. I think of Sylvia Plath's use of the term "light verse" in terms of her famous poem "Daddy." Stallings' piece is not as macabre or frenetic as that poem, but there is a certain twist in the subject matter that moves us beyond a light rhythm, to another place.

For example, because the reader is still chuckling over the title, the first lines read rather easily: "There are times that I reproach / Myself because I loathe the roach" (1-2). The tone slowly changes, as the speaker shows empathy by reaching out to "creatures. . . / Unloved by anyone but God" (7-8).

Then Stallings goes out of her way to creep us out, saying the roaches "make [her] sick," as well as linking roaches with people we cannot stand, widening the roach circle. We can almost picture them, gathering about, ready to betray Caesar:

When porch-light interrupts a knot
Of roaches hatching out some plot,

How they run like rumors scattered
By ersatz friends who lately flattered. (11-14)
The word "hatching" puns on both creating intrigue and more roaches, and the conflation of the rumors with the "scatter[ing]" of the roaches is genius. The unexpected "ersatz," with the resonant assonance in "flattered," is also noteworthy. One forgets, for a moment, that the poem is about roaches, while still being aware in the background of one's mind of their movement and multiplicity.

However, for me, the poem comes down to the last three lines:

It is their elegance appalls:
Tapping away into the bruise
Of night like patent leather shoes. (18-20)
To me, the allusion to Frost--and the design (or Design) that can create a cockroach--as well as the subtle little clicking of the cockroach feet is Stallings at her Alfred Hitchcock Family Plot best. She makes the reader's skin crawl with the dance of the cockroaches--although she might add that they dance prettily in their shoes, the shoes that little girls wear for Easter. In this case, she holds tonal hands with Sylvia Plath.

That other poets come so quickly to mind--Millay and Bishop, Wilbur and Frost--says much about why Stallings resonates so much with readers. Her work abounds with allusions and puns, and has a conversation with Greek and Latin texts and with the tradition of English and American poetry. To use a line from Plath's "Lady Lazarus," "I guess you could say [she has] a call" (263). The understatement of this in the midst of the drama of rising from the dead speaks as well to Stallings' talent. For, after all, it is her range--in everything from tone, to allusion, to subject matter--that makes her extraordinary.

Works Cited

Byrne, Edward. "A. E. Stallings Interviewed by Edward Byrne." 12.1 (Fall/Winter 2010/2011)

Frost, Robert. "Design." An Introduction to Poetry. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 13th ed. Boston: Longman, 2010. 503.

Horstmann, Steffen. Rev. of Hapax, by A. E. Stallings. 4.1 (2007) Contemporary Rhyme.

Jarman, Mark. "Good Company: Six Voices." 59.2 (Summer 2006) The Hudson Review: 317-26.

Kirsch, Adam. "Young Poets Calling: Part 2." Contemporary Poetry Review

Murchison, Ginger. "The Interview with A. E. Stallings." 19 (2002) Cortland Review

Perlroth, Nicole. "A. E. Stallings on Power Ambition Glory." Forbes.com/2009/06/18/ae-stallings/classics-leadership-stallings.html>

Plath, Sylvia. "Lady Lazarus." An Introduction to Poetry. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 13th ed. Boston: Longman, 2010. 262-65.

Stallings, A. E. "Aftershocks." Aftershocks. West Chester, PA: Aralia Press, 2003. N.p.

---. "Aftershocks." Hapax. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2006. 5.

---. "Crooked Roads Without Improvement: Some Thoughts on Formal Verse." Reprinted from The Alsop Review.

---. "RepRoach." Archaic Smile. Evansville, IN: The University of Evansville Press, 1999. 24.

A. E. Stallings
Years: 1968-
Birthplace: United States
Language(s): English, Latin, Greek
Forms: mainly fixed forms, some free verse, translations from classical texts, satire
Subjects: mythology, Greece, the ancient world, loss, animals, family, childhood, motherhood, fame
Entry By: Kim Bridgford
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