This Afterlife is A. E. Stallings’s new Selected Poems, drawing on her four full-length books, and including a “lagniappe” or bonus of previously uncollected poems and translations. Stallings, a poet who was raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, has made Athens, Greece, her home for almost two decades. Her education in Classics, Latin, and Greek prepared her for a life preoccupied with the Grecian peninsula, but the move was not preordained—it’s rather as if her work over the years led her there, from her debut collection Archaic Smile, a book of rewritings of myths and riffs on sayings, her second book Hapax, her translations of Lucretius and Hesiod and George Seferis, on through her third book, Olives, and her fourth, the Pulitzer Prize finalist collection Like, which begins with an epigraph in Greek and a poem that responds to it. That the poem is a villanelle tells us on the one hand that she is a poet whose strongest work often emerges out of inherited forms, and that her sensibility was European before she herself knew it was—the poem recalls that journey in the slow boil of the villanelle, building, and recasting:
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.
We dine sitting on folding chairs—they were cheap but cheery.
We’ve taped the broken windowpane. TV’s still out of whack.
We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query.
When we crossed the water, we only brought what we could carry,
But there are always boxes that you never do unpack.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary …
This Afterlife takes its title from its first poem, the first poem in Stallings’s first book, a piece called “A Postcard from Greece.” A poem written, maybe, one of the first times the poet visited the place, in the wonder of life by those dazzling white-blue seas, when the place first called out to her in its dreamy realness. The poem is a sonnet—Hapax also started with a sonnet—and it begins like this:
Hatched from sleep, as we slipped out of orbit
Round a clothespin curve new-watered with the rain,
I saw the sea, the sky, as bright as pain,
That outer space through which we were to plummet.
No guardrails hemmed the road, no way to stop it,
The only warning, here and there, a shrine …
What seems fatal, here at the very outset of the poet’s published life, is instead a near miss:
Somehow we struck an olive tree instead,
Our car stopped on the cliff’s brow.
In the shock of it, safe, breathing, stunned, the passengers are “surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.” The knife-sharp turns of the poem, intensified by word-rich words like “new-watered” and “guardrails” and “clothespin curve,” are suggestive of the great style and élan Stallings’s work will deliver. But it is the framing that I find most moving: that everything that came after that first poem, a survivor’s postcard from Greece, has been an afterlife—a gift, a lagniappe—growing out of, and in the face of, its prospective nonexistence. So we are lucky in more ways than one to be reading This Afterlife, the work of an immensely talented and craft-wise poet whose oeuvre has apparently been as salutary to her as it is for us.
JESSE NATHAN: The sound of words is a matter both of rhythm and tone, includes cadence and vowel, is a matter of the way the words seem to move our mouths. How do you think about diction? And how does it interact with your sense of meter? I’m curious both in an abstract sense or in practical experience. If, as you’ve described to me, meter is not something that you think many readers can even spot as they read (or hear) anymore, why do you think it’s been important to you nonetheless? What does it do for your poetry?
A. E. STALLINGS: I love thinking about diction: sound, vowel-music, syllable-count, etymology, register. I’m always particularly pleased when I get a word in a poem that is unexpected, that I haven’t used in a poem before, or that is rubbing shoulders with words it wouldn’t usually hang out with. I suppose the king of that is really John Ashbery. But I don’t want the word to stick out like a sore thumb, either, I want it to be the natural and precise word, but surprising because it is in a poem. I liked getting “shitty” into the “On a Borrowed House in Arcadia” poem, but all the more so because it is there with other words like Pythagorean. I liked getting “Etch A Sketch” into the Daedal villanelle (a new poem, so not in the Selected), but all the more so because I also have “fractal” and “labyrinth.” Philip Larkin is a poet I admire particularly for his diction. It’s a worthwhile exercise to present a Larkin poem to a class with the adjectives in particular removed, and see what adjectives you would put in yourself. Because you absolutely will not hit on what Larkin hits on: they are impossible to guess. (And often elaborate negatives, something else I am intrigued by.) Consider “At Grass” with its “stop-press” columns and its “unmolesting” meadows. How did he arrive at these? The mind boggles. Of course he is also very good at diction in other parts of speech. I love “Next, Please,” (my own “The Ghost Ship” is distantly related to it), with its “brasswork prinked” alongside the figurehead’s “golden tits,” but that huge and disturbing “birdless” silence! Gives me chills everytime. Elizabeth Bishop is another poet who often hits on the perfect and surprising word, such as her “finical” sandpiper focused on grains of sand, and ending on that beautiful purple word “amethyst.”
Rhyme of course can be a driver of diction, and vice versa. (That “amethyst” above rhymes with “obsessed,” which gives it permission to happen.) I recently wrote a little triolet responding to a newspaper article about robots taking over pollination from bees. I knew I wanted/needed an “ee” rhyme for the third line, but I didn’t want an easy “ee” word—no monosyllables like tree or see. I wanted something abstract-y in a line about bees and honey, and toyed with “geometry” (thinking of the hexagons of the hive). I considered anarchy. But ultimately I landed to “anthology,” because, while it sounded abstract and maybe Latinate, it was actually specific, Greek, and multivalent: an anthology is both a collection of poems, say, but literally is also a gathering of flowers, a bouquet, and that suited honey down to the ground.
Meter often is a factor in diction—maybe you need a one-, or two-, or three-syllable word, for instance, and that might guide you toward something more Latinate, or something more Anglo-Saxony. I say “guide” because of course you can adjust larger units than a single word—meter isn’t the only driver.
I think readers do feel meter, but it might not be a conscious recognition. An iambic pentameter line, for instance, has a way of sounding “right.” Quite often a free verse poem will land on an iambic pentameter line, and it will feel like an ending, whether this was consciously thought out or no. I’m interested too, though, in other meters: short songlike hymn meters, mixed Ogden-Nashy meters, Classical meters, and syllabics. I really enjoy writing in syllabics, particularly haiku-shaped stanzas, and often with rhyme to punctuate the ends of lines.
Syllabics offer a completely different approach to diction, for instance. You want some lines to be full of chunky monosyllables, and other times one long five-syllable word, you want some extreme mid-word enjambments where the pressure of the syllabic line is acutely felt, or line breaks on “the,” and then everything in between. I am always pleased when I can get rhythms of speech to slot into a metrical line. I guess one of the dangers is that it can sound too good, too mellifluous, so then I like to rough things up, not metrically necessarily, but in terms of register, syntax, diction. But mostly what meter does for me is that it limits my choices and makes me focus on what is important. It’s a constraint that I work against and that, paradoxically, frees up the unconscious. With non-iambic meters, too, something more songlike or chantlike can enter the poems. So those poems might percolate up from the subconscious, because I am walking around the house with a kind of rhythm earworm, and words attach themselves to it. This was true, for instance, of the “Why Should the Devil” triolet, a poem that has itself been set to music at least half a dozen times. An experiment with non-iambic meter that was important to me early on was James Dickey’s Early Motion, which explores the triple rhythms of, say, Poe’s “The Raven,” or “Annabel Lee” without the chiming of rhyme, resulting in poems of a mysterious melancholy.