Book Review

A.E. Stallings, Olives, Triquarterly Books, 2012

by Sean Gilligan

I think perhaps the best place to start with Olives, the third book from poet A.E. Stallings, is the back cover. In place of the usual blurbs from literary journals and fellow poets, there is only her poem “Olives,” which is created almost entirely from the word olives taken apart and rearranged.  This seems to suggest that Stallings is going to let her art speak for itself—and speak it does. The process of seeing the word olives broken down, rearranged, and given deeper meaning mirrors the very process of working through a Stallings poem. Stallings’s incredible adherence to form structures everything that she does, and the very substance of her poems cannot be fully explored until the form is dissected and understood. The poem on the back cover (which is eponymously titled with the first poem of the book and the title which is interestingly printed in a way that can be read Olives but could also be read O Lives) seems to suggest that within the structure of a word there is deeper meaning to be explored, just like the poems of this collection.

It should be be stated here that pursuing the content and substance of these poems is absolutely worth it. There are profound thoughts to be found here, that show a significant interest in the common human experience and a desire to inject that experience with small doses of humor. This is perhaps most easily illustrated through the poem “Telephonobia.” The poem starts comically with lines like, “It doesn’t bite, you say. That isn’t true / We keep it on a leash; it isn’t tame.” These lines were so comical to me, I even found myself laughing out loud. But for anyone who has ever been awakened by that late phone call about the loss of a loved one, there is a terrible truth in these lines, and by the end of the poem Stallings reminds us of that fear:

Rocks in its smooth, black cradle. I avoid
The thing, because it holds what I most fear:

At any hour, the future or the past
Can dial into the room and change our lives.

These themes and sort of emotional movements prevail through much of the book; although, they are not always so accessible, which is far from a bad thing.

I stated at the beginning of this review that to fully explore the substance of Stallings’s work, one must first understand the work's underlying form. I believe that the pinnacle of Stallings use of form occurs in her poem “Alice in the Looking Glass.” I don’t see any way of properly illustrating my point without providing the entire piece, so here it is:

No longer can I just climb through—the time
Is past for going back. But you are there
Still conning books in Hebrew, right to left,
Or moving little jars on the dresser top
Like red and white pieces on a chessboard. Still
You look up curiously at me when I pass
As if you’d ask me something—maybe why
I’ve kept you locked inside. I’d say because
That is where I’d have reflections stay,
In surfaces, where they cannot disquiet,
Shallow, for all that they seem deep at bottom;
Though it’s to you I look to set things right
(The blouse askew, hair silvering here and here)
Where everything reverses save for time.

When you first come across this poem, the first thing you may notice is that it is one of the only pieces in the book that doesn’t employ an end-rhyme scheme. When one looks at the end words of this piece, though, one can see that the piece is operating in an even more sophisticated manner. Notice the words there and here, left and right, top and bottom, still and disquiet, pass and stay, why and because. As the last line states, “everything reverses save for time.” Similar depth of form can be found in her poem “Four Fibs.” The poem utilizes the Fibonacci sequence (1-1-3-5-8-13) to dictate syllable count, while the actual substance of the poem deals with fibs in the sense of lies.

One can imagine that such a strict adherence to form and rhyme scheme requires command of an extensive vocabulary, and Stallings wastes no time time convincing the reader that she has it. The actual opening poem of the book, “Olives,” contains words like Indehiscent, gentrified, eponymously, chromatics, paradigmatic, archaic, and drupes. Perhaps the most interesting of these words is chromatics. Throughout the book Stallings’s vocabulary seems to suggest an extensive background in music and singing. Whenever I found myself needing to look up words, I found they were most often music related terms or a term used to describe how one controls one’s voice. Words like chromatics, that are related to music but have other meanings, are common throughout the book. The word chromatics, for example, commonly refers to things related to color, but chromatics can also refer to using musical notes that don’t match the scale a piece was written in. You can be assured that Stallings was fully aware of both meanings when she chose that particular word; I highly suggest reading this book with a dictionary in hand.

Her fantastic command of vocabulary gives Stallings the ability to create (though perhaps not as often as I would like) images that are profoundly powerful. The best example comes in the fourth stanza of that opening poem “Olives.” It reads:

The palate with pine sharpness. They recall
The harvest and its toil,

The nets spread under silver trees that foil
The blue glass of the heavens in the fall -
Daylight packed in treasuries of oil,

When this reader gets to the words “blue glass of the heavens,” the words create the type of image that causes one to stop reading for a second and appreciate the beauty of what was just done. Unfortunately, after this moment, I’m rarely able to reach those intense moments of appreciation again. Of course, there is so much to appreciate in terms of form, substance, and language that any shortcomings with regards to imagery are well covered.

Olives is an incredibly rich experience. Every poem begs to be explored deeper and deeper and deeper. Stallings’s ability to match form with substance sets her apart from other poets who may employ form but can’t blend it with substance or vice versa. Olives is an experience that must be had by any person who is searching for poems of genuine quality and craftsmanship.

Sean Gilligan is a student at Lakeland College.