Category Archives: review

The Brine of your Process

After reading MacArthur Fellow, A.E. Stallings’ 2012 collection Olives, I’ve taken the opportunity to write a little review of my reading experience:

     A.E. Stallings’ 2012 poetry collection, Olives, explores topics such as motherhood, domestic trials, love, aging, motherhood, marriage, and memories that return to reorient the poet’s and readers perceptions of relationships and life experiences. Stallings writes primarily in form, often using sonnets and other European forms such as the villanelle to interpret life’s trials, small and large. She also blends higher cultural knowledge and concepts such as Classical Greek mythology to explore these topics and concerns through metaphor. In fact, the third section of Olives, which is divided into four sections, is titled “Three Poems for Psyche,” which alludes to a Greek myth.

     The namesake poem “Olives” is of especial importance when reading this collection. Stallings wrote “Olives” mostly in iambic pentameter, but not for any form. It is a nonce poem. She compares her artistic pursuit to the various attributes of olives. Every inch of this poem confirms the idea that one’s art comes to fruition after a process of their subject, like curing olives, and that art draws from the brine and bite of experiences. On line 3, the speaker claims that olives, or this fruit one craves, can be eaten “Only if pickled in a vat of tears—”(5). The tears of experience cure the fruits of art into useful, edible morsels to digest. Then lines 13 and 14 read “Brown greens and purple browns, the blacks and blues / That chart the slow chromatics of a bruise—” which calls forth an image of bruised skin that changes colors over the process of its expression. The outward expressions of a bruise appear and change colors as the bruise forms and wanes. Our artistic expression presents itself in slow stages of recognition and change and eventual resolutions or decisions. The final line of the poem declares that these fruits are “Full of golden past and cured in brine.” This suggests that art comes from reflected experience, years in the making even, that must be altered or cured in some way to result in a whole art, a proper and sincere expression.

     Another excellent poem from this collection is “Country Song” which is a Shakespearean sonnet. Stallings used musical jargon to play out her association in the eighth line of the octet. Lines 7 and 8 read “But the words sobbed through, and I was suddenly struck / Like a gut string in the key of flat regret.” It’s one thing to allude to a song in poetry but Stallings used wordplay and simile in the same line to fasten this association of regret and fear to the narrative line of the poem. “Country Song” reads like a spoken ghost story that’s been told, over and over again, on the front porch of a country store. The narrative fact that this poem takes place in the cab of a pickup truck with a faulty radio also roots the poem into a lonesome country song mood. Even her choice of simile as a figurative device in the poem ties “Country Song” to a rural tradition where orally transmitted tales and songs relied on the exaggerative effects of simile to carry the characters and adverse conditions into legend. Particularly interesting is the last line of the poem, “I’m older than Hank Williams ever was.” It’s not the allusion to country singer Hank Williams that resonates but the “ever was” of his memory and the retrospective sadness for his short life. The regret from the first stanza comes into relevance here, as the speaker laments an existence that may or may not have achieved something, the life of the speaker still trudging onward (26).

     Most of the poems in this collection are insightful and penetrating. They reach metaphor and transmit it with genius control, but a few of them do not reach as far. One such poem in particular is “Alice in the Looking Glass.” From a glance, this poem of 14 lines looks very controlled and precise. symmetry suggests careful planning and placement of words and emphasis. For example, the last word of both the first line and last line is “time.” Line 2 ends with “there” and line 13 ends with “here,” line 3 with “left” where line 12 ends with “right”, line 4 with “top” where line 11 ends with “bottom” and so forth. Every line ends with a word that reflects across the poem to an antonym. Not only does the narrative line depict a woman loking into a mirror, but the poem itself looks into a mirror at line 7.  The reflection occurs in the tension of lines 7 and 8 which read “As if you’d ask me something—maybe why / I’ve kept you locked inside. I’d say because.” That questioning moment though, that addresses the “you” of this mirror ends abruptly with the answer “That is where I’d have reflections stay,” which elaborates into itself but as a reader I can imagine a further elaboration of this captive condition, this “locked inside.” I can anticipate a deeper exploration of the self that locked its reflection away, inside. Of course, to save the mirrored structure of the poem, it must not go deeper. It ends sooner than later. Perhaps this is more appropriate than it seems, where a speaker comes equipped with a painfully reflected answer to her own question (58).

     A great example of a poem that explores the challenging realities of motherhood is a brief poem titled “Hide and Seek.” This is a blank verse poem of only six lines that describes the speaker’s son who pretends to be a shadow by shutting his eyes, standing still, and imagining it so. The final two lines read “I laughed and kissed him, though it chilled me a little, / How still he stood, giving darkness his shape.” We see a mother who suddenly finds darkness in her child’s imagination. We know that there is an innocence about this boy’s imaginative role-playing, but we can understand the new-found fear that finds its way, momentarily, to the mother’s cognition. With experience comes wisdom that frames one’s outlook and influences one’s foresight. So in “Hide and Seek” the mother experiences a moment of chilling foresight that her son’s innocence is waning, just as hers did without her noticing it. Its almost as if the poem, like “Country Song,” identifies a requirement for wisdom, that it calls for people to acknowledge memories and experience through retrospect in order to feel mature emotions. What the poem points out as well is that these matured sensibilities come often as sudden epiphanies or surprises, in this case sudden enough to “[chill]” the speaker. Her foresight surprised her and haunted her.


Stallings, A.E. Olives. Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern U P, 2012. Print.