Criticism & Features

Year 2012: 30 Books

David Biespiel on A. E. Stallings’ “Olives”

By David Biespiel

In the weeks leading up to the February 28 announcement of the 2012 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today in our series, NBCC board member David Biespiel offers an appreciation of poetry finalist Olives (Triquarterly: Northwestern University Press) by A.E. Stallings.

A. E. Stallings' Olives contemplates a world of the gritty and divine, the everyday and the eternal, in lines and stanzas so pristine and inspired she may single-handlely revise interest in rhyme and meter in American poetry. And do so all the way from her adopted Greece.

To chose the fruit of the olive tree as her central metaphor — the olive tree of Western literature, the olive tree that brings fine oil to the kitchens of the world, the olive tree of the mountains, the olive tree of husbandry, the olive tree that is a major economic resource for Greece, the olive tree at the heart of the myth of the Greek gods, the olive tree that is sacred to Athena and is central to the diet of Horace, the olive tree of anointment and of St. Paul's epistle — is to find a figure so simple that it is all things to all people.

What Stallings finds in her olives is “craving” and “tears.” She calls them “archaic nouns” as if their very thingness unearths their history and the history of human society, from war to peace, from bitterness to joy. Olives as the symbol of home and history, martinis and myth.

Consider the poem “Pop Music” as representative of a poet who sees frets of time all at once, who is able to scale the the wilds between rank rock and roll and rollicking John Keats:

The music that your son will listen to
To drive you mad
Has yet to be invented. Be assured,
However, it is approaching from afar
Like the light of some Chaldean star.

On what new instruments of torture, through
What waves, lasers, wires, telepathy,
The same banalities will play
Systolic and diastolic as before,
It’s hard to say —

As for the lyrics, or the lack thereof,
About love or about the lack of love,
Despite the heart’s reputed amputation,
They will be as repetitive as sex
Without the imagination.

The singers will appall you, yes,
With their outlandish dress or lack of dress
Or excess hair or lack of hair, tattoos,
All aspects of their hygiene, because they remind you that he spends
Too many hours with hooligans called friends,

And while you knit another ugly sweater,
The pulsars of the brave new tunes will boom
From the hormonal miasma of his room,
Or maybe they'll just beam into his brain —
Unheard melodies are better.

Thus it has always been. Maybe that's why
The sappy retro soundtrack of your youth
Ambushes you sometimes in a cafe
At this almost-safe distance, and you weep, or nearly weep
For all you knew of beauty, or of truth.

Olives is a book of pleasantries and formal comforts, and sits in your hands as a companion the way Richard Wilbur's poems do. Or, as Wilbur has noted regarding the the importance of limitation in traditional forms: “The strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle.” Stallings' restraint allows her not to violate nature and to see stable things as just that…stable things. All of which makes Olives a book of eloquent glitterings.



A. E. Stallings' bio at the Poetry Foundation's website
A. E. Stallings's page at the MacArthur Foundation website
“Deus Ex Machina” from Olives
“Olives” from Olives