Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022
213 pp., $28
A. E. Stallings—perhaps America’s best living poet—doesn’t live in America. She moved to Greece in 1999, the year her first book, Archaic Smile, was published. And she’s used that combination of American and European, ancient and modern, to fine effect in poems that bring together the classical and contemporary worlds with cleverness and insight. She’s written about Hank Williams, freight trains, and Facebook—and about Apollo, Penelope, and Medea. She’s written on the joys and frustrations of married life and motherhood—and translated Hesiod and Lucretius. And she’s done this in some of the most perfectly designed lyrics of the 21st century—poems that sparkle with ingenuity and glow with understanding. Now, in This Afterlife, she has assembled her best work into an anthology that no one who still believes in poetry’s power to move, persuade, and surprise should miss.
One of Stallings’s trademarks is her blend of ancient mythology and modern experiences. This often results in verse that is moving and, well, a little spooky. In “Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother,” for example, she imagines what the goddess kidnapped by Hades and forced to reign as Queen of the Dead would tell her family about residing underground. She complains that her hair gets tangled in tree roots and that moles never bring news from the surface. Such petty annoyances gradually give way to the deep tragedy of a beautiful girl lost too soon from the mortal world. Stallings hardly needs to explain that this metaphor of bereavement captures the loneliness real people often feel:
Please send flowers. I am forgetting them.
If I yank them down by the roots, they lose their petals
And smell of compost. (7)
. . .
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1. A. E. Stallings, “Why No One Wants to Be a New Formalist,” Harriet, November 29, 2007, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet-books/2007/11/why-no-one-wants-to-be-a-new-formalist.
2. William Logan, “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” New Criterion, June 2019, https://newcriterion.com/issues/2019/6/down-by-the-old-mill-stream.