It may seem odd that A.E. Stallings, who by many accounts is one of America’s best young poets, resides in Athens, Greece and is married to a Greek man. But Stallings’ ties to Greece are only too fitting. Her poetry is thoroughly steeped in the classical tradition, and many, if not most, of her poems address themes from Roman and particularly Greek literature.
In the reading she gave at the Cambridge Public Library on last Friday, Stallings made clear to everyone present why she has been garnering so much attention, even excitement, in critical circles. Including a broad and representative selection of her burgeoning oeuvre, Stallings performed some of her better-known poems as well as some less familiar personal favorites.
In many of the poems she read—as in much of her poetry—Stallings showed a propensity for examining some of the literature’s most pregnant themes through a variety of artistic lenses. She performed, for instance, several dramatic monologues by the Greek gods of the underworld, Hades and Persephone, which, although often reflecting Stallings’ characteristic irony, gave the poet a fertile literary topos in which to make some very thought-provoking, even profound, meditations on death and dying.
In her dramatic monologues, Stallings reinterprets and challenges long-held assumptions. Hades, for instance, emerges as a very sympathetic character in the poem devoted to him, and Persephone’s monologue essentially consists of her telling her mother, Demeter, that she actually enjoys the underworld and does not wish to return.
In another classically themed poem, “The Wife of the Man of Many Wiles,” Penelope—for nearly three thousand years regarded as the archetype of a faithful spouse—indicates to Odysseus, her husband, that she may not in fact have been as faithful as he, and Homer, thought. The poem drives its point home with a jarring conclusion, with Penelope telling Odysseus to “Kill all the damned suitors, if you think it will make you feel better.”
Stallings, who studied classics at the University of Georgia and at Oxford, is currently at work on a verse translation of the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius’ epic De Rerum Natura. Thus, Stallings’ preoccupation with classical themes is not particularly surprising. What is especially interesting about Stallings’ work is that in spite of her devotion to the Classics, she does not shy away from exploring themes that are uniquely modern—even futuristic.
In “The Machines Mourn the Passing of People,” for instance, a poem that inevitably calls to memory (and was perhaps inspired by) that staple of high school English curricula, Ray Bradbury’s short story “There will come Soft Rains,” Stallings assumes the voices of machines that have outlived their human masters to reflect on some of humanity’s quirks from the perspective of an outsider.
If there is a common thread in Stallings’ rather diverse themes, it is that Stallings deftly takes something that the reader (presumably) knows well and uses it to reflect on a deeper philosophical theme. The well-known story of Penelope, for example, is turned on its heels as Stallings reflects on relationships and fidelity; In a poem entitled “The Dogdom of the Dead,” Stallings draws some remarkable parallels between the deceased and pet dogs in order to reflect on how we are affected by the death of loved ones.
At any rate, Stallings’ reading only solidifies what many who have read her work already know—that she is one of the best young poets writing today. Her first collection of poems, Archaic Smile, is well worth a look.
Arts, Literature: Program in Cambridge for National Poetry Month
A. E. Stallings at the Cambridge Public Library
April 12, 2002