A. E. Stallings is an American poet who has lived since 1999 in Athens. She has published two collections, Archaic Smile (which won the Richard Wilbur award) and Hapax (which won the Poets’ Prize). Her verse translation of Lucretius, The Nature of Things, is out from Penguin Classics, and she recently received an NEA translation grant for work on the Medieval Cretan epic/romance, The Erotokritos. She teaches an intensive poetry seminar in the summer on the island of Spetses.
Were it not August, I’d have called it snow,
The way the sky sagged low enough to touch
And fragments of some blank, pluperfect silence
Came floating out of it, and in the street
How people marveled, and held out their hands
As if to catch bright feathered hexagons.
Were it not August, with that lurid light,
I would have thought the hush that hung in air
Was the hush of snow, and that the flakes we swept
Out of the yard were snowflakes. But it was
The dead of summer, the air was dry as death,
And what we’d thought was snow were needles once,
Entire forests cremated to ash.
There was no water left, or we’d have wept.
(first appeared in Mare Nostrum)
Briefly, newspapers recite
The facts about the fisherman
Who for two months, day and night,
Went out fishing for his son,
His only child, aged 23,
Who in a winter squall was drowned—
Washed overboard and out to sea—
And whose body was not found
Till the hour his father’s net,
Heavy with what he could not keep
And could not throw back or forget,
Heaved up streaming from the deep—
Identified only by the cross,
Gold, incorruptible and pure,
Chained about the neck of loss
And glinting like a fishing lure.
(first appeared in Mid-American Review)
Visiting the Grave of Rupert Brooke
the island of Skyros, Greece
Rupert, this was where, I’m sure you knew,
The sea nymph Thetis took Achilles to,
And hid him, with his smooth cheek and gold curls,
Among the royal retinue of girls,
As any mother might, to save her son,
From war and death, by arrow or the gun.
Odysseus, recruiting, in disguise,
Set out for sale a range of merchandise,
Stuffs no princess easily resists—
Fine brocades, and bangles for the wrists,
All manner of adornments, silver, gold,
And set a blade among them, brazen, cold—
A simple trap that might catch any boy.
But only old men made it home from Troy.
(first appeared in The Formalist)
On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia
To leave the city
Always takes a quarrel. Without warning,
Rancors that have gathered half the morning
Like things to pack, or a migraine, 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.
Isn’t it funny
How it’s what has to happen
To make the unseen ivory gates swing open,
The rite we must perform so we can leave?
Always we must grieve
Our botched happiness: we goad
Each other till we pull to the hard shoulder of the road,
Yielding to tears inadequate as money.
But if instead
Of turning back, we drive into the day,
We forget the things we didn’t say.
The silence fills with row on row
Of vines or olives trees. The radio
Hums to itself. We make our way between
Saronic blue and hills of glaucous green
Beyond the legend of the map
Through footnote towns along the coast
Ruins of no account—a column
More woebegone than solemn—
Men watching soccer at the two cafés,
And half-built lots where dingy sheep still graze.
Climbing into the lap
Of the mountains now, we wind
Around blind, centrifugal turns.
The sun’s great warship sinks and burns.
And where the roads without a sign are crossed,
We (inevitably) get lost.
Yet to be lost here
Still feels like being somewhere,
And we find
When we arrive and park,
No one minds that we are late—
There is no one to wait—
Only a bed to make, a suitcase to unpack.
The earth has turned her back
On one yellow middling star
To consider lights more various and far.
The shaggy mountains hulk into the dark
Like slow, titanic waves. The cries
Of owls dilate the shadows. Weird harmonics rise
From the valley’s distant glow, where coal
Extracted from the lignite-mines must roll
On acres of conveyor-belts that sing
The Pythagorean music of a string.
A huge grey plume
Of smoke or steam
Towers like the ghost of a monstrous flame
Or giant tree among the trees. And it is all the same—
The power plant, the forest, and the night,
The manmade light.
We are engulfed in an immense
That does not sleep or dream.
Call it Nature if you will,
Though everything that is is natural—
The lignite-bearing earth, the factory,
A darkness taller than the sky—
This out-of-doors that wins us our release
And temporary peace—
Not because it is pristine or pretty,
But because it has no pity or self-pity.
(first appeared in Poetry)
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, drowned beneath a tide
Of vodka and vermouth,
Rocking at the bottom of a wide,
Shallow, long-stemmed glass, and gentrified;
Or rustic, on a plate cracked like a tooth —
A miscellany of the humble hues
Eponymously drab —
Brown greens and purple browns, the blacks and blues
That chart the slow chromatics of a bruise —
Washed down with swigs of barrel wine that stab
The palate with pine-sharpness. They recall
The harvest and its toil,
The nets spread under silver trees that foil
The blue glass of the heavens in the fall —
Daylight packed in treasuries of oil,
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.
(first appeared in New Criterion)
Poetry in this post: © Alicia Stallings
Published with the permission of Alicia Stallings