The first line of “Aftershocks,” the first poem in Hapax, reads: “We are not in the same place after all.” And indeed, the rest of this highly polished second collection of verse by A. E. Stallings bears out that realization by offering new, and occasionally daring, plateaus from which to see traditional poetic forms used to engage the complex and protean nature of contemporary life. For instance, her remarkable sonnet “On the Nearest Pass of Mars in Sixty Thousand Years” begins with a classically appropriate apostrophe, directly addressing the red planet as the eponymous Roman god of war. “War or Strife—yes, you were always painted / Incarnadine, hematic, flushed with passion.” But by the poem’s end she is not praising some Roman ideal with a familiar, all too familiar teary-eyed bark of cultural inheritance (or disinheritance). Rather, a mood of skepticism has overtaken her. She can neither care much for Rome’s “created / Gods and goddesses of loathing, doting,” nor the “telescopes that taper into nothing” that offer these gods as galactic objects and astronomical events—grand because so says science, but “nothing we can treasure,” nothing that affects our lives.
This shade of skepticism is a mark of Stallings’s voice and lurks always beneath her allusive poise. It also helps to know that, for Stallings, the classical allusions are not showy pretense but spring from her own experience—she lives in Athens, Greece, and studied classics at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. Such prolonged immersion in the facts and fictions, the legacies and ruins, of the ancient world allows a graceful note of irreverence to enter her verse, a note of a piece with her immersion within, and familiarity with, the ancient world.
Though welcome and well done, by and large, this levity is an intermittent register of Hapax. Though superb in her humor, Stallings is ultimately no humorist. In fact, one of the striking features of this volume is its bleakness. These are largely poems of breakup and loss, not desire and redemption. The “strange fragrance” in this collection is not roses but asphodel, described in the eponymous poem as “sweet / Like honey—but with hints of rotting meat.” In another poem, “To Speke of Wo That Is in Mariage,” the speaker is a latter-day Wife of Bath whose tenderness in household chores is shadowed by thoughts of death, that force that ends even good marriages (“When I grow cold, the ring slips from my finger”). There are hints of redemption from this bleakness throughout, but even the collection’s most charming poem, “Clean Monday,” centers on loss.
As an epigraph for this second collection, Stallings has chosen Circe’s words to Odysseus and his men after their famous descent into the underworld:“Fool-hardy ones! You went alive down to the hall of Hades, / Mortals twice over, when other men die only once.” Though it sounds like an admonition, we should recall that, in fact, these lines begin an invitation to feast. We readily recall that Circe turns these men into pigs, but forget that before they leave, she invites them to a banquet and tells them at last how to get home safely. Perhaps, then, the ultimate theme of Hapax is squaring our moments of loss with a wider perspective. What seems like chastisement or setback can become an invitation into a larger experience of ourselves, our surroundings, and others. Engaging these moments of loss and of rupture can make clear how, following such moments, we are not in the same place after all.