(N.B.: my apologies for rescuing another review from development hell. I hope it still makes an impact.
Olives is a great book)
Olives is a great book)
Olives opens at its end, with an eponymous anagrammatic poem:
Is Eve? Lo,
I love so
More than a collection of great poems, Olives is a book. In Kevin Kelly’s “What Will Books Become,” a book is “a self-contained story, argument, or body of knowledge . . . it contains its own beginning, middle, and end.” Frost declared that from a collection of twenty-four poems the book should become the twenty-fifth. Few books of poetry live up to these ideals. A.E. Stallings’ third book of poetry, Olives, exceeds them, “full of the golden past and steeped in brine.”
“Olives” is also the title of the book’s opening poem:
Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet,
For fruits that you can eat
Only if pickled in a vat of tears—
A rich and dark and indehiscent meat
Clinging tightly to the pit—on spears
Of toothpicks maybe,
Paradigmatic summers that decline
Like singular archaic nouns, the troops
Of hours in retreat. These fruits are mine—
Small bitter drupes
Full of the golden past and cured in brine.
Like every poem in the book, “Olives” is both immediately rewarding and able to be endlessly mined. This hymn to “dark and indehiscent meat” is, by its name, a hymn to the book, the collection, and poetry. Olives is an ambitious collection; not merely a smattering of poems published in the last decade or so but a whole built from distinct parts. Its integrity as a book is, in Stallings’ sublime way, a subtle answer to found poetry and flarf. If your idea of poetry is to build something from disparate, tangential parts then Olives is truly “the twenty-fifth poem.” The speaker says “these fruits are mine” and the reader responds—these fruits, these olive-poems, are ours. Craving to be drowned beneath the tide of Stallings’ verse we are submerged “in a vat of tears” as she packs us in a treasury of poetry.
“Jigsaw Puzzle,” reimagines the indehiscent olive-poem as a puzzle unable to shed its “lost borders” and “dizzy ledges.” It should live prominently in every English literature classroom as, like a jigsaw puzzle, it dances between chaos and completion:
First the four corners,
Then the flat edges.
Assemble the lost borders,
Walk the dizzy ledges,
Hoard one color—try
To make it all connected—
The water and the deep sky
And the sky reflected.
And lock shapes into place,
And random shapes combine
To make a tree, a face.
Slowly you restore
The fractured world and start
To re-create an afternoon before
It fell apart:
Here is summer, here is blue,
Here two lovers kissing,
And here the nothingness shows through
Where one piece is missing.
The missing piece, of course, is the puzzle, the journey to completion that is our substantive search. The missing piece is what we crave.
By “Recitative,” a story begins to emerge—there is a couple at the center of Olives, “frayed like ravelled sleeves” when faced with the world, but together:
“. . .we were young, did not need much
To make us laugh instead, and touch,
And could not hear ourselves above
The arias of death and love.”
As the story progresses, the young lovers of Olives are engulfed “beneath the tide” of “arias of death and love,” emerging after death, hell, and birth.
“Sublunary” is indispensible in three ways. First it cements Stallings as having, among living poets, the greatest command of and fluency with the power of the sound of English. The conflicting consonance and assonance in the first two lines alone and its reflection of the conflict between the speaker and her lover is staggering:
Midsentence, we remembered the eclipse,
Arguing home through our scant patch of park. . .
More than anyone else now writing, Stallings’ work sounds good in the way poetry should. Clearly this is a bold statement. Since realizing (some time in between being told so by Michael Hofmann and William Logan and writing for my blog Strong Verse) that my knowledge of contemporary poetry was narrow to negligible, I have increased the scope of my reading, from Christian Bök to Timothy Murphy, from the new avant garde to what Silliman calls “the school of quietude,” from the children of Language Poetry to the Neo-Formalists.
What I have looked for is not simply writing that “makes me feel as if the top of my head were taken off,” not only writing that is “the best words in the best order,” but writing that successfully juggles sound, image, and form, where each “person of the trinity” informs and enhances the other.
Where I found that was not in the work of Rae Armantrout or K. Silem Mohammed. Indeed, it is only in those whose work is sneered off as belonging to “quietude” that I, perhaps ironically, found good sound. Every poet is interested in “saying something.” Current poets’ experimentation with forms of all kind is perhaps unparalleled in the history of writing. No poet since Ezra Pound walked the earth has dared to ignore image. But since the birth of Rock & Roll whole troops of poets have seen fit to ignore poetry’s sonic nature. Stallings’ work is not just “the best words in the best order” but the best sounding words. Stallings is not only “saying something” with her poetry but saying it in the best way.
The second is that it introduces the concept of “arguing home” that is seminal to the growth of Olives’ speaker and her lover in the first section, “The Argument.” Set importantly against an eclipse, “Sublunary” demonstrates that these two may be cleaved from their family, past, and home, but will always cleave together.
The third is that in “Sublunary” we are introduced to the dominant symbol of Olives, the shadow. The importance of shades and shadows in the book peaks in the third section, wherein the speaker is revealed as Psyche, who is herself a soul and shadow. Throughout the book, shadows play consciously against the ripeness and fleshiness of by the olive.
On first reading, “The Compost Heap” seems out of place. Lovely, certainly, and, with its line “we left the garden in the fall” it naturally follows “Four Fibs,” a poem about Adam and Eve. Once you have read Olives in its entirety, however, the poem’s place within the greater narrative is solidified. It was upon reading this poem during my second read-through that Stallings made me aware this was no mere collection of verse. Not only does the poem work much better once you know the entire collection, it even points to its own quiet importance as “latent in its heart,” a subtlety of placement not seen since Ariel, which is perhaps the only American book of poetry in the last fifty years that can match the integrity and quality of Olives.
Understanding the deft construction of Olives as a whole, we should all be allowed to grin that the first sonnet in a collection of a poet known for her facility with formal poetry is titled “Deus Ex Machina.” As with “Four Fibs,” “The Compost Heap,” and “The Dress of One Occasion,” “Deus Ex Machina” continues to catalog the stresses that surround the now married young couple:
Because we were good at entanglements, but not
Resolution, and made a mess of plot,
Because there was no other way to fulfill
The ancient prophecy, because the will
Of the gods demanded punishment, because
Neither recognized who the other was,
Because there was no difference between
A tragic ending and a comic scene,
Because the play was running out of time,
Because the mechanism of the sublime
To stay in working order needed using,
Because it was a script not of our choosing,
Because we were actors, because we knew for a fact
We were only actors, because we could not act
The lack of punctuation at the end is no typo. Not only does Stallings here channel Eliot, notable opposite her previous channeling of Dickenson in “The Dress of One Occasion” but she leaves the scene incomplete. The titled god never appears from the machine. The actors—the lovers—are left waiting, unable to act, at this point in their life unable to distinguish “between / a tragic ending and a comic scene” which both foreshadows the next section’s dealing with death and the important symbolism of intrusion which will figure in the speaker’s future pregnancy and birth, summed up in “Telephonophobia”:
At any hour, the future or the past
Can dial into the room and change our lives
to which “The Argument,” “Burned,” and “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia” reply, leaving the speaker and her lover with the uncertainty of “Burned”:
You cannot unburn what is burned.
You longed for home, but while you yearned,
The black ships smoldered on the coast;
You can’t go back. It’s time you learned
That even if you had returned,
You’d only be a kind of ghost.
You can’t go back. It’s time you learned
That what is burned is burned is burned.
The final poem of the first section, “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in
not only necessitated an immediate read-aloud to my wife of the first
To leave the city
Always takes a quarrel. Without warning,
Rancors that have gathered half the morning
Like things to pack, or a migrane, or a cloud,
Are suddenly allowed
To strike. They strike the same place twice.
We start by straining to be nice,
Then say something shitty.
But steals Penelope’s false dream of “the unseen ivory gates,” revealing the gulf of the “immense / ancient indifference / that does not sleep or dream” as a pitiless strain that tears at the edges of all love. Here Stallings leaves her lovers spent with the night cold between them.
In “Extinction of Silence,” Olives' second section, elegies and other funeral poems are introduced with the painfully named “Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Ascribed to Martin Luther.” Its questioning refrain summarizes the death to come:
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
The booze and the neon and Saturday night?
The next poem, “Two Violins,” with its Frostian choice and critique of artistic influence arguably belongs to the opening ofOlives. It serves here, however, as an introduction to the deaths of the speaker’s teachers and mentors, reinforcing their deaths and “sad notes” on which she has built her life.
One was fire-red,
Hand-carved and new—
The local maker pried the wood
From a torn-down church’s pew,
The Devil’s instrument
Wrenched from the house of God.
It answered merrily and clear
Though my fingering was flawed;
Bright and sharp as a young wine,
They said, but it would mellow,
And that I would grow into it.
The other one was yellow
And nicked down at the chin,
A varnish of Baltic amber,
A one-piece back of tiger maple
And a low, dark timbre.
A century old, they said,
Its sound will never change.
Rich and deep on G and D,
Thin on the upper range—
And how it came from the
Was anybody’s guess—
Light as an exile’s suitcase,
A belly of emptiness:
That was the one I chose—
Not the one of flame—
And teachers turned in their practiced hands
To see whence the sad notes came.
The next five poems, “Country Song,” “Sabbatical,” “The Ghost Ship,” “Handbook of the Foley Artist,” and “Extinction of Silence” explore not just metaphors for death but for rebirth as well, signaling the change that is to come, both in Olives and the life of its speaker. This is perhaps made most clear in “The Ghost Ship,” which:
. . . flies no flag,
Has no allegiance to a state,
No registry, no harbor berth,
Nowhere to discharge her freight
Upon the earth.
Two graveyard poems, “Funereal Stelae: Kerameikos,
Athens” and “The
Cenotaph: First Cemetery of Athens” close out the section. It is hardly
surprising that at the physical center of Olives should be a poem about an empty tomb, a pit, “the
grave of nobody.” It is in these two poems where the musicality of
Stallings’ verse, and especially her rhymes, is at its most lovely.
“Funereal Stelae” is delivered with a hint of Coleridge and Tennyson:
The marble dead on either hand:
Each seated formally on a chair
In profile, with a mild, blank stare.
Here Stallings bends the boundaries of a funereal ruin into fragments by which verse is shored. Conversely, in “The Cenotaph” (which is what Robert Lowell likely wanted to sound like), Stallings’ speaker realizes, like H.D.’s speaker in Trilogy, that what she seeks is not to be found among the dead:
The day I went to the
Looking for famous graves, the sky was blue
As wild irises in February
And there were mourners walking two by two
And gravediggers who had folk to bury
Along the cypress-vaulted avenue:
Priests and florists, all that’s understood
In the solemn bustle of death’s livelihood.
I came there seeking the adventurer,
The poet, the novelist, composer of song,
And though I had no map, yet I was sure
I’d come upon them if I wandered long
Among the plaques and formal portraiture,
The rows of marble headstones hundreds strong,
Eponymous mausoleums with their claim
To immortality, at least in name.
Then in the lesser alleys of the dead
Among the graven years mumbled with moss,
I felt somebody watching and turned my head,
And there a small girl stood, as at a loss,
And looked at me, as if something I’d read
Aloud was too loud, as if she might toss
Her curls and put her hands upon her hips,
But pressed instead a finger to her lips
To say, “Don’t wake them,” and she seemed to smile
To find herself and someone else alone
Sharing a secret for a little while,
Though I could walk away and she was stone.
I could not find among the rank and file
Among the rude democracy of bone
Any of the famous men I sought
Although I scanned the legends plot by plot.
But I found widows bent over the task
Of tending shrines, and women washing the grime
Patiently from angels who wore a mask
Where acid rain turned marble into lime.
A woman stopped me on the path to ask—
As someone asks a stranger for the time—
Where she could find the Sleeper, to lay a rose
Upon that breathless beauty’s long repose.
But roaming lost amidst death’s anterooms,
I did not find the exile or his bust,
Nor the swashbuckling ransacker of tombs
Who sifted stories for the golden dust
Of kings and queenly ladies at their looms,
All that was not devoured by moth or rust;
Nor the composer, nor the novelist.
The more I looked for them, the more I missed—
It was the grave of nobody I sought—
It was the purling of the ash-gray dove
In cypress boughs, and plastic flowers bought
To be the token of undying love
Some twenty years ago—they could not rot
But faded to a kind of garish mauve
Just like the fading afternoon—while I
Wandered between two dates, and earth and sky.
More than any poem in Olives, this one at the dead center of the book lays bare the seeking speaker with subtleties word-by-word (“I scanned the legends plot by plot”), construction-by-construction (there is a page break that is nearly baffling between lines three and four of the third stanza—until you realize that line four is where you discover the girl is a statue), and omission-by-omission (of all the people she is unable to find, a poet is not one of them).
“The Cenotaph” ought to be the final poem in “Extinction of Silence” but it is followed by “Pop Music,” a poem that on first reading seems to belong in Section IV, “Fairy-Tale Logic.” Once read a few times, however, it is clear that “Pop Music” is a riff on “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” suggesting that unheard music will, instead of being sweet, be “the music that your son will listen to / to drive you mad,” making “Pop Music’s” place in the book not just sensible but integral. “Extinction of Silence” becomes not simply a section of poems about death. Coming after the relationship-building “arguing home” of “The Argument,” the “Extinction of Silence” is not just the intrusion of the past that changes lives but the intrusion of the future as well. Silence will be extinguished not through death but because a child is coming into the life of the speaker and her husband. “Pop Music” serves as an elegy to what was once hip, a hymn to the unwilling passing of the torch of “cool.”
The next section, “Three Poems for Psyche,” is “a bold and reckless light” following the elegies of “Extinction of Silence.” Here our speaker becomes Psyche, Life, Breath, Spirit, Soul, the Shade, the solitary female hero of antiquity.
The first poem of the triad, “The Eldest Sister to Psyche” is a line palindrome (the 16th line is the 17th and so until the last is also the first) in which the “ugly sister’s” envious advice gets turned on its head so, as in all good stories, the complications, doubts, and dangers she warns of are eclipsed by the majesty and mystery of “this palace, those invisible hands.”
The central poem of the triad, “The Boatman to Psyche, on the River Styx,” is a terza rima style-check to Dante with Olivian shadows in full swing. A pregnant Psyche (“a double tug upon / the earth, and twice the trouble”) weighs down Charon’s scow not only with “the thing itself” but also weight
Out of the queasy future, ticking and ticking
Like a kind of bomb,
An X-ray developing in your chemical bath,
Your dark room.
Psyche has come with her weighted womb to seek Persephone. Charon delivers her, but not
If she gives you a wooden box
Yea big—scarcely big enough for an infant—
Don’t open it, though you crave
A peek, a free sample. You say you won’t,
But the living have a flair for narrative.
What if I tell you all the beauty ever worn
By loveliness was borrowed from the grave
And belongs to the unborn?
Here Stallings taps into emotion and fear at its naked core. This is the emotional center of Olives. Stallings has led us through love and death into hell—but it is a hell not of fire but of waiting and advice. Every expectant mother is both terrified and thrilled at the change of life her child will wreak. Charon, with his own “flair for narrative” can’t help but pile fear on trepidation, like so many “helpful” mothers and their own horror stories.
The third section’s third and final poem, “Persephone to Psyche” is as stunning and devastating as Persephone’s stolen beauty. Here Stallings’ fearlessness of English rhyme and her deftness with multiple meanings give birth to a poem as tragic as it is catchy. Here the voice of ancient, lovely, childless wealth speaks to the young heroine, who possesses the only gift the queen cannot have:
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.
Me and my man, we tried a spell,
A pharmacopeia of charms,
And yet… When I am lonesome, well,
I rock the stillborns in my arms.
This place is dead—a real dive.
We’re past all twists, rewards and perils.
But what the hell. We all arrive.
Here, have some pomegranate arils.
I heard an old wives’ tale above
When I was a girl with a girl’s treasure.
The story went, Soul married Love
And they conceived, and called her Pleasure.
In Anhedonia we take
Our bitters with hypnotic waters.
The dawn’s always about to break
But never does. We dream of daughters.
In the two lines “and yet. . . When I am lonesome, well, / I rock the stillborns in my arms” I find everything that is excellent in Stallings’ work. There is the deft control of sound; as “When” becomes “well” and “-borns” becomes “arms” we see the connection between time and health, between death and life. The double meaning of “well” reminds us that Persephone is a creature of dual nature—she literally lives in two places. The image of the queen of the dead whose desire for children can only be assuaged by rocking those who
never lived is both heartbreaking and beautiful. I stand at the abyss of these two lines and know I am in the presence of poetry.
Section IV, “Fairy Tale Logic,” finds our protagonist now a mother. The section begins with an eponymous poem which by virtue of its leading off the section tells us that parenthood is “full of impossible tasks” and “the will to do whatever must be done.” The difficulties in parenting are continued in “The Catch,” a poem that recalls Plath’s “Mirror”: “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish,” though here the “terrible fish” is not the speaker but her child:
Something has come between us—
It will not sleep.
Every night it rises like a fish
Out of the deep.
It is hardly surprising that Stallings should recall Plath. Apart from trivial parallels about expatriate female poets who write about their children, Plath (or perhaps Heaney) is the only poet to whom it seems fair to compare Stallings, all others resting in her shadow. Stallings, of course, has the distinct advantage of being alive and well.
The next two poems, originally published separately, “Lullaby for a Colicky Baby” and “Baby Talk” are here printed on the same page as “Two Nursery Rhymes: Lullaby and Rebuttal.” Though I give Stallings wide berth when it comes to her artistry, I find these poems in need of polish, especially the ending of “Baby Talk”:
Now there is a sorrow you call teeth
That gnaws at me, that’s cutting its way through.
You cannot comfort me. I used to weep,
But now I keen: I sharpen and I cry.
Here is where Stallings verse should fall “in the gray zone between free and blank verse” (Mike Juster, writing for Able Muse) but instead falls short, disserving her verse. The lines scan in iambic pentameter (with a headless first line):
/ x x x / x / / /
Now there is a sorrow you call teeth
x / x / x / x x / /
That gnaws at me, that’s cutting its way through.
x / x / x / x / x /
You cannot comfort me. I used to weep,
x / x / x / x x / /
But now I keen: I sharpen and I cry.
While the sentiment expressed is excellent--appearing to be the very height of what a teething baby feels (and I applaud the pyrrhic feet) the end falls clunky. The awkwardness begins with the second line’s superfluous second “that” and ends with the doubly awkward italics and repeated “I”s of the final line. I see no reason other than metrics why the ending phrase should not be “I sharpen and cry.” One could make a fine argument that the baby’s only frame of reference is the I; indeed this is a well-worn psychological path. It doesn’t, however, make the third “I” necessary unless there is a very bad mystical pun I am missing. Moreover, the italics feel like a hamfisted (or babyfisted?) reminder that we are being given split definitions of “keen.” Thank God it’s not a footnote but its on the nose nature is just as disruptive and it is also a bit insulting that the reader is not trusted here.
The next olive-poem is the sonnet “Containment,” tying the reader and the speaker back to Charon and a concern about how the past and the future’s intrusion upon the present creates a “harmonizing doubt from many ifs.” “Accident Waiting To Happen” (in which Plath’s “thumb stump” or Heaney’s “snug as a gun” would not be out of place) harmonizes that doubt by having the Psyche-Mother-Speaker and her child occupy the same poetic space. By the the end of the poem:
And my aim is steady.
You’re falling for me,
I feel it. I’m
One is aware that you, the reader, along with Stallings’ Psyche, are “ready” for the plenitude of parenthood, having been so prepared by the first half of the poems in “Fairy Tale Logic.”
In the remaining poems we are inhabiting fully a world of parents and children--a world far richer than the sterile promontories of most poetries. It is here that Stallings plays with language as a child plays with blocks, that is to say to her and our delight, even dusting off the old gem “hirple” to find a rhyme with purple in “Dinosaur Fever.”
“Tulips” at first appears to be exactly as lighthearted as “Dinosaur Fever.” In the context of the remainder of the book, however, deeper meanings can be seen in the poem’s last few lines:
The tulips make the other me
(The backwards one who’s in the mirror,
The one who can’t tell left from right),
Glance now over the wrong shoulder
To watch them get a little older
And give themselves up to the light.
Apart from the fact that in my reading notes I wrote “Alice!” after the mirror line and the poem being followed by “Alice in the Looking Glass” (to which I noted “of course.”), one understands that while the tulips stand in for the children, there is also the fact that the tulips will not live forever; though the mortality of one’s children is not a popular or pleasant topic, it is one we publicly acknowledge all too scarcely in the 21st century West. Here the shades and shadows of Olives that had previously pointed to Hades, remind us, as parents, that there is always a shadow around our children. It is that shadow that makes us creep in
to their bedrooms at 2 am just to check their breathing. It is that shadow that so terrified
Darling. Stallings’ Psyche, however, acknowledges the shadows of her
children, accepting their power and thereby strengthening ours.
in the Looking Glass,” “where everything reverses save for time,” where once
the speaker could herself inhabit the world of shades and shadows and
reflected images she can no longer return. “The time is past for going
back” and her past exists only in memory, in reflection.
“Umbrage” and “Hide and Seek” close the direct usage of shade and shadow in Olives, with “Hide and Seek” seeing the importance of shadows coming into its fullness:
My son was pretending. He said, “I am a shadow!”
He did this simply by shutting his eyes:
Inhabiting the same space as his body
While keeping all the light from coming in.
I laughed and kissed him, though it chilled me a little,
How still he stood, giving darkness his shape.
This is an unconscious ars poetica that serves art far better than so many intentional manifestos. What is art but “giving darkness [our] shape,” letting it “inhabit the same space as [our] body”? We sublimate to language, risking losing ourselves to find great art, which even at its most uplifting leaves us “chilled a little.”.
At the point in Olives where one could nearly drown, “Sea Girls” come to the rescue. These are not the wreathed girls of Eliot, though, but mispronounced “gulls,” “some metamorphosis that Ovid missed,” changed by the child of Psyche who at first resists such “spellbound maidens” but in the end acquiesces: “it is I who am mistaken; / But you have changed them. You are the enchanter.” If we are to read Olives as a great book, one that speaks not only to us but through us, we ought to be struck by the power Stallings is
imbuing us with; we “are the enchanters”; it is through our misreading and reading (or is it metamorphic reading?), in “the work[ing] at words” that we “watch the heavens’ flotsam” and glimpse that which is “almost human” in us all.
The final three poems engage, in a way reminiscent of the earlier poem “The Catch,” what is between the mother and the child--which is also what is between the artist and the art and the audience and the art. In “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three,” “the wolf is in the music” and “the music’s in the room,” as is the poetry, released in speech. “The Mother’s Loathing of Balloons,” a screed against empty and false comforts, joys, and distractions, finds Stallings’ Psyche at her Plathiest, worried that her children who:
. . .grow bored
will ultimately forget her as they forget the balloon “on the ceiling” and that the balloon
. . .float like happiness
To the sun,
You’ve left behind?
Where a hundred familial fears play themselves out at the end of a
. . .loose bloom
With no root
Olives’ final poem is “Another Bedtime Story,” a Puck-like coda to “Fairy-Tale Logic” and the book itself, in which Olives are poems and fruit, shadows are Hades and children, and going to bed is lovemaking and death.
One day you realize it. It doesn’t need to be said--
Just as you turn the page--the end--and close the cover--
All, all of the stories are about going to bed:
Goldilocks snug upstairs, the toothy wolf instead
Of grandmother tucked in the quilts, crooning closer, closer--
One day you realize it. It hardly needs to be said:
The snow-pale princess sleeps--the pillow under her head
Of rose petals or crystal--and dreams of a lost lover--
All, all of the stories are about going to bed;
Even the one about the witches and ovens and gingerbread
In the dark heart of
children save each other?--
You start to doubt it a little. It doesn’t need to be said,
But I’ll say it, because it’s embedded in everything I’ve read,
The tales that start with once and end with ever after,
All, all of the stories are about going to bed,
About coming to terms with the night, alleviating the dread
Of laying the body down, of lying under a cover.
That’s why our children resist it so. That’s why it mustn’t be said:
All, all of the stories are about going to bed.
I know of no better collection of poetry than Olives. There are books to which it is equal but as a pure a work of poetry, as a gathering of scattered olive-poems into one jar (anecdotal or not), it is unsurpassed. Buy this book and buy it for everyone who loves and reads--not just poetry but words, the “bitter drupes” of meaning A.E. Stallings has here gathered into Olives.