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Everything Old is New Again: A.E. Stallings and This Afterlife

Ethan McGuire at Literary Matters

Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande / Unsplash

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 revisionAs reality, to poet or politicianIs but the first rough draft of history or legend.So your artist’s eye, a sharp and perfect prism,Refracts discreet components of a beautyTo fix them in some still more perfect order.(I say this on the other side of orderWhere 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.

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