Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The idea that poetry is supposed to rhyme went away a long time ago, but apparently Alicia Stallings never got the memo. Maybe she was away in Greece, where she lives, or tending to her baby son, who figures prominently in her work, but her poems stubbornly show the formal grace and self-possession of a young Keats. They are effortless, beautiful, and somehow utterly modern:
Then, there! We watched the thin edge disappear—
The obvious stole over us like awe
That it was our own silhouette we saw,
Slow perhaps to us moon-gazing here
(Reaching for each other’s fingertips)
But sweeping like a wing across that stark
Alien surface at the speed of dark.
“Sublunary” doesn’t feel out of place so much as it makes everything else feel too in place. For a special occasion—an eclipse—of course Stallings invokes a special form. (“Sublunary” is written in one of the many extraordinary forms of her inventing. For more, see “Four Fibs” online.) The rhymes heighten the natural beauty of the eclipse: couplets create speed and awe, while the more distant “here/disappear” rhyme mirrors the eclipse’s slow-motion seen from earth. “Fingertips”, miraculously, is rhymed with “eclipse” from 11 lines back, mimicking the “reaching” of the astonished lovers. And with them, we’re lucky to see something unexpected and magical. However, Stallings can do mundane too:
First, the four corners,
Then the flat edges.
Assemble the lost borders,
Walk the dizzy ledges…
—from “Jigsaw Puzzle”
Stallings has a real knack for transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Whether it’s her son (“Something has come between us./ It will not sleep./ Each night it rises like a fish/ Out of the deep.”) or a balloon (“They will grow bored/ Clutching your/ Umbilical chord”), she re-conceptualizes what others might dismiss as passé. To this end she rewrites myths—Persephone is a favorite—to fit our fast-paced, technologic lives. In “Fairy-Tale Logic”, she is a mother who must “marry a monster;” in “The Boatman to Psyche, on the River Styx,” a baby is “An x-ray developing in your chemical bath,/ Your dark room.” Ancient themes—motherhood, marriage, and death—are as relevant now as then, because, go figure, people are still getting married, giving birth, and dying. So why shouldn’t ancient stories matter, too?
Visa-versa, Stallings enriches the present by remembering the past. When her son slurs seagulls into girls, she sees a “metamorphosis that Ovid missed.” An argument with her husband is dramatized as a Greek play (“Deus Ex Machina”). Even a hit single can become her Grecian urn, existing in a conversation with Keats about truth and beauty:
Thus it has always been. Maybe that’s why
The sappy retro soundtrack of your youth
Ambushes you sometimes in a café
At this almost-safe distance, and you weep, or nearly weep
For all you knew of beauty, or of truth.
—from “Pop Music”
It’s “or nearly weep” that’s the killer here. At 44, Stallings has lived almost twice as long as Keats did. The things that once enchanted her are now “sappy.” What’s left is perspective. She doesn’t weep because, at 44, you don’t weep in a café.
This perspective—looking back on the past from the 21st century—makes Stallings’ poetry both old and young, wise as well as playful. I think that’s how we’d all like to grow up to be.