A.E. Stallings

Today I read a review of Alicia Stallings new book of poems, This Afterlife, by David Orr, in which he mentions: The main thing Stallings has going for her is that she’s good at writing poems. She is!. I reviewed her book LIKE  for ZYZZYVA a few years ago. She often uses form, meter, rhyme, as in this unusual sonnet. I don’t know if this is in the new book, I’ve ordered it, but it hasn’t arrived yet.

Sea Girls

“Not gulls, girls.” You frown, and you insist—
Between two languages, you work at words
(R’s and L’s, it’s hard to get them right.)
We watch the heavens’ flotsam:  garbage-white
Above the island dump (just out of sight),
Dirty, common, greedy—only birds.
OK, I acquiesce, too tired to banter.

Somehow they’re not the same, though. See, they rise
As though we glimpsed them through a torn disguise—
Spellbound maidens, wild in flight, forsaken—
Some metamorphosis that Ovid missed,
With their pale breasts, their almost human cries.
So maybe it is I who am mistaken;
But you have changed them. You are the enchanter.

A.E. Stallings




The exemplary sentence

I subscribe to Ben Dolnick’s occasional posts about fiction, which I love. His recent missive on “the likable narrator” made me think of Tom Ripley, one of the most underrated characters in 20th century fiction. Patricia Highsmith created a complex, haunted character, with a shakey moral compass. Not likable. Nonetheless, you can’t help rooting for him as he murders and cheats and steals his way across Europe, longing to be someone better.  Here is a passage at the center of  The Talented Mr. Ripley, that I think is stunning:

Now Tom stopped. He had an impulse to go back, not necessarily to go back to the Italian, but to leave Dickie. Then his tension snapped suddenly. His shoulders relaxed, aching, and his breath began to come fast, through his mouth. He wanted to say at least ‘All right Dickie,’ to make it up to make Dickie forget it. He felt tongue-tied. He stared at Dickie’s blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him. You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, to see love through the eyes, the one place you could  look at another human being and see what really went  on inside, and in Dickie’s eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be that illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear. He felt in the grip of a fit, as if he would fall to the ground. It was too much: the foreignness around him, the different language, his failure, and the fact that Dickie hated him. He felt suddenly surrounded by strangeness, by hostility. He felt Dickie yank his hands down from his eyes…
Dickie yanked him by the arm Tom tripped over a door step. They were in the little bar opposite the post office. Tom heard Dickie ordering a brandy, specifying Italian brandy because he wasn’t good enough for French, Tom supposed. Tom drank it off, slightly sweetish, medicinal-tasting, drank three of them, like a magic medicine to bring him back to what his mind know was  usually called reality: the smell of the Nazionale in Dickie’s hand, the curlycued grain in the wood of the bar under his fingers, the fact that his stomach had a hard pressure in it as if someone were holding a fist against his navel, the vivid anticipation of the long steep walk from here up to the house, the faint ache that would come in his thighs from it.
‘I’m okay,’ Ton said in a quiet, deep voice.’ I don’t know what was the matter Must have been the heat that got me for a minute.’ He laughed a little. That was reality, laughing it off, making it silly, something that was more important than anything that had happened to him in the five weeks since he had met Dickie, maybe that had ever happened to him.”
It’s unfortunate that the four subsequent Ripley novels are disappointing. But this one is a masterpiece. It ranks with the best books of the 20th century. And I also loved Ben Dolnick’s most recent book, The Ghost Notebooks.

Lisel Mueller

I don’t think I’ve posted anything of hers before, but I like the nuance and understatement of this poem.  She died in 2020, at 96.

Curriculum Vitae

1) I was born in a Free City, near the North Sea.

2) In the year of my birth, money was shredded into
confetti. A loaf of bread cost a million marks. Of
course I do not remember this.

3) Parents and grandparents hovered around me. The
world I lived in had a soft voice and no claws.

4) A cornucopia filled with treats took me into a building
with bells. A wide-bosomed teacher took me in.

5) At home the bookshelves connected heaven and earth.

6) On Sundays the city child waded through pinecones
and primrose marshes, a short train ride away.

7) My country was struck by history more deadly than
earthquakes or hurricanes.

8) My father was busy eluding the monsters. My mother
told me the walls had ears. I learned the burden of secrets.

9) I moved into the too bright days, the too dark nights
of adolescence.

10) Two parents, two daughters, we followed the sun
and the moon across the ocean. My grandparents stayed
behind in darkness.

11) In the new language everyone spoke too fast. Eventually
I caught up with them.

12) When I met you, the new language became the language
of love.

13) The death of the mother hurt the daughter into poetry.
The daughter became a mother of daughters.

14) Ordinary life: the plenty and thick of it. Knots tying
threads to everywhere. The past pushed away, the future left
unimagined for the sake of the glorious, difficult, passionate

15) Years and years of this.

16) The children no longer children. An old man’s pain, an
old man’s loneliness.

17) And then my father too disappeared.

18) I tried to go home again. I stood at the door to my
childhood, but it was closed to the public.

19) One day, on a crowded elevator, everyone’s face was younger
than mine.

20) So far, so good. The brilliant days and nights are
breathless in their hurry. We follow, you and I.

Lisel Mueller