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


A poem by David St. John

Somehow this ekphrastic poem seems like a wintery one. Perhaps the huddled figures give that impression. And though I don’t know the painting it refers to, it stands alone as a poem. I love the ending especially.

The Park

A figure in a kimono or a robe so lush it too seems foliate

Stands apart from two other figures similarly dressed

But (the two) huddled closely together & moving off the sheer
Right edge of the canvas

& the solitary figure remains oddly hesitant & indistinct

& pensive although
Perhaps she is simply realizing that she does not wish to go

Where all of the others wish to go

David St. John

from The Last Troubadour: New and Selected Poems (Ecco/HarperCollins 2017 © David St. John)

Barbara Guest

I haven’t read much of Barbara Guest, two many books stacked up waiting, but this snippet makes me want to see more. I love this little poem, so vivid and mysterious.

The View from Kandinsky’s Window

The park shows little concern with Kandinsky’s history
these particular buildings are brief about his early life
reflections of him seen from the window
are busy with preparations for exile
the relevance of the geranium color.

Barbara Guest

Lucia Perillo

It’s always a shock to discover a poet you like has died–and because I always ask permission before posting poems here, I discovered that Lucia Perillo died six years ago. Luckily, we still have her poems. I think I saw this one in Poetry Daily:

To the Field of Scotch Broom That Will Be Buried by the New Wing of the Mall

Half costume jewel, half parasite, you stood
swaying to the music of cash registers in the distance
while a helicopter chewed the linings
of the clouds above the clear-cuts.
And I forgave the pollen count
while cabbage moths teased up my hair
before your flowers fell apart when they
turned into seeds. How resigned you were
to your oblivion, unlistening to the cumuli
as they swept past. And soon those gusts
will mill you, when the backhoe comes
to dredge your roots, but that is not
what most impends, as the chopper descends
to the hospital roof so that somebody’s heart
can be massaged back into its old habits.

Mine went a little haywire
at the crest of the road, on whose other side
you lay in blossom.
As if your purpose were to defibrillate me
with a thousand electrodes,
one volt each.

Lucia Perillo

The Prose Poem

It’s been awhile since I posted one of these, but I find this one so moving, it had to go up today. What is a prose poem? Hard to define, but this is one. Or maybe it’s a poem and I saw a version without line breaks. I’ve seen it both ways and chose this one.

They Call This

A young mother on a motor scooter stopped at a traffic light, her little son perched on the ledge between her legs; she in a gleaming helmet, he in a replica of it, smaller, but the same color and just as shiny. His visor is swung shut, hers is open. As I pull up beside them on my bike, the mother is leaning over to embrace the child, whispering something in his ear, and I’m shaken, truly shaken, by the wish, the need, to have those slim strong arms contain me in their sanctuary of affection. Though they call this regression, though that implies a going back to some other state and this has never left me, this fundamental pang of being too soon torn from a bliss that promises more bliss, no matter that the scooter’s fenders are dented, nor that as it idles it pops, clears its throat, growls.
C.K. Williams