Olives

Overview

Finalist for 2012 NBCC Award in the Poetry category
Recipient of 2011 MacArthur Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship

A. E. Stallings has established herself as one of the best American poets of her generation. In addition to a lively dialogue with both the contemporary and ancient culture of her adopted homeland, Greece, this new collection features poems that, in her inimitable voice, address the joys and anxieties of marriage and motherhood. ...

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Overview

Finalist for 2012 NBCC Award in the Poetry category
Recipient of 2011 MacArthur Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship

A. E. Stallings has established herself as one of the best American poets of her generation. In addition to a lively dialogue with both the contemporary and ancient culture of her adopted homeland, Greece, this new collection features poems that, in her inimitable voice, address the joys and anxieties of marriage and motherhood. This collection builds on previous accomplishments with some longer poems and sequences of greater philosophical scope, such as “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia.” Stallings possesses the rare ability to craft precise poems that pulsate with deeply felt emotion. Like the olives of the title, the book embraces the bitter but savory fruits of the ancient tree, and the tears and sweetness we harvest in our temporary lives. These poems show Stallings in complete command of her talent, able to suggest the world in a word.

2012 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist for Poetry

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Elizabeth Lund
…beautifully crafted, resonant and inviting…Stallings's skillful use of imagery, rhyme and metaphor adds to the richness of the collection…
Publishers Weekly
Stallings’s sweet tooth for meter, rhyme, and traditional form has earned her something of an outlier reputation in contemporary poetry. She skimps on none of these inclinations in her latest, a roving exploration of domestic and classical lives in which anagrammatic poems, sonnets, and sharp villanelles appear alongside forms as varied as fibs, etudes, and bedtime stories. Though one can hardly argue with the precision of her ear when she is nestled at home in antiquity—with a ghost ship that “plies an inland sea. Dull/ With rust, scarred by a jagged reef. In Cyrillic, on her hull/ Is lettered Grief”—Stallings fumbles with certain of the mythologies, namely the fall of man, onto which she opens her rhyming dictionary. “Did/ Eve,” she writes, “believe/ or grapple/ over the apple? Eavesdropping Adam heard her say/ to the snake-oil salesman she was not born yesterday.” When she unleashes her technical gifts upon poems in which she builds a new narrative instead of building upon an old one, Stallings achieves a restrained, stark poise that is threatening even by New Formalism standards: “After the argument, all things were strange./ They stood divided by their eloquence.../ Now there were real things to rearrange.” (May)
From the Publisher

“One of the strongest talents to emerge in recent years.”—Poetry

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810152267
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2012
  • Pages: 80
  • Sales rank: 584,794
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

A. E. Stallings has published two books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award, and Hapax (Northwestern University Press, 2006), which won the Poet’s Prize and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Benjamin H. Danks Award. She has also published a verse translation of Lucretius, The Nature of Things (2007). Stallings is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2011 MacArthur Fellow. She lives in Athens, Greece.

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Read an Excerpt

Olives

Poems
By A. E. Stallings

NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2012 A. E. Stallings
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-5226-7


Chapter One

The Argument

    Olives

    Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet,
    For fruits that you can eat
    Only if pickled in a vat of tears—
    A rich and dark and indehiscent meat
    Clinging tightly to the pit—on spears

    Of toothpicks maybe, drowned beneath a tide
    Of vodka and vermouth,
    Rocking at the bottom of a wide,
    Shallow, long-stemmed glass, and gentrified,
    Or rustic, on a plate cracked like a tooth,

    A miscellany of the humble hues
    Eponymously drab—
    Brown greens and purple browns, the blacks and blues
    That chart the slow chromatics of a bruise—
    Washed down with swigs of barrel wine that stab

    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,

    Paradigmatic summers that decline
    Like singular archaic nouns, the troops
    Of hours in retreat. These fruits are mine—
    Small bitter drupes
    Full of the golden past and cured in brine.


    Jigsaw Puzzle

    First, the four corners,
    Then the flat edges.
    Assemble the lost borders,
    Walk the dizzy ledges,

    Hoard one color—try
    To make it all connected—
    The water and the deep sky
    And the sky reflected.

    Absences align
    And lock shapes into place,
    And random forms combine
    To make a tree, a face.

    Slowly you restore
    The fractured world and start
    To re-create an afternoon before
    It fell apart:

    Here is summer, here is blue,
    Here two lovers kissing,
    And here the nothingness shows through
    Where one piece is missing.


    Recitative

    Every night, we couldn't sleep—
    Our upstairs neighbors had to keep
    Dropping something down the hall—
    A barbell or a bowling ball,

    And from the window by the bed—
    Scaling sharply in my head—
    The alley cats expended breath
    In arias of love and death.

    Dawn again, across the street,
    Jackhammers began to beat
    Like hangovers, and you would frown—
    That well-built house, why tear it down?

    Noon, the radiator grill
    Groaned, gave off a lesser chill
    So that we could take off our coats.
    The pipes coughed to clear their throats.

    Our nerves were frayed like ravelled sleeves,
    We cherished each our minor griefs
    To keep them warm until the night
    When it was time again to fight;

    But we were young, did not need much
    To make us laugh instead, and touch,
    And could not hear ourselves above
    The arias of death and love.


    Sublunary

    Midsentence, we remembered the eclipse,
    Arguing home through our scant patch of park,
    Still warm with barrel wine, when none too soon
    We checked the hour by glancing at the moon,
    Unphased at first by that old ruined marble
    Looming like a monument over the hill,
    So brimmed with light it seemed about to spill,

    Then, there! We watched the thin edge disappear—
    The obvious stole over us like awe
    That it was our own silhouette we saw,
    Slow perhaps to us moon-gazing here
    (Reaching for each other's fingertips)
    But sweeping like a wing across that stark
    Alien surface at the speed of dark.

    The crickets stirred from winter sleep to warble
    Something out of time, confused and brief,
    The roosting birds sang out in disbelief,
    The neighborhood's stray dogs began to bark.
    And then the moon was gone, and in its place,
    A dim red planet hung just out of reach,
    As real as a bitter orange or ripened peach

    In the penumbra of a tree. At last
    We rose and strolled at a reflective pace
    Past the taverna crammed with light and smoke
    And people drinking, laughing at a joke,
    Unaware that anything had passed
    Outside in the night where we delayed
    Sheltering in the shadow we had made.


    Four Fibs

    1

    Did
    Eve
    believe
    or grapple
    over the apple?
    Eavesdropping Adam heard her say
    to the snake-oil salesman she was not born yesterday.

    2

    Miss,
    this
    is not
    Bliss. Wisdom
    is not the abyss,
    but visceral innocence. Kiss
    the windfall of the world
, she heard him whisper, or hiss.

    3

    Not
    me,
    not me!
    cried all three.
    "You shall creep the earth.
    And you shall labor giving birth.
    And as for you, you shall toil and sweat for all you're worth."

    4

    Cross
    your
    heart and
    hope to die,
    stick a needle in
    your eye. That is the awful oath
    of childhood, chapter and verse, genesis of the lie.


    The Compost Heap

    It waxed with autumn, when the leaves—
    Dogwood, oak, and sycamore—
    Avalanched the yard and slipped
    Like unpaid bills beneath the door.

    In winter it gave off a warmth
    And held its ground against the snow,
    The barrow of the buried year,
    The swelling that spring stirred below.

    In summer, we'd identify
    The volunteers and green recruits,
    A sapling apple or a pear
    That stemmed from bruised or bitten fruits.

    And everything we threw away
    And we forgot, would by and by
    Return to earth, or drop its seed
    Take root and start to ramify.

    We left the garden in the fall—
    You turned the heap up with the rake
    And startled latent in its heart
    The dark glissando of a snake.


    The Dress of One Occasion

    The dress of one occasion in its box
    Belongs to yesterday and to tomorrow—
    But not to this day slowly turning yellow,
    For better or worse, among the cotton flocks.

    Disembodied now and ghostly pale,
    Mummified in tissue easily torn
    As though the flimsy pattern of a dress,
    It's packed away—for what, you cannot guess—

    Stored perhaps for someone not yet born
    (You cannot see the face behind the veil)
    The day of its occasion growing stale
    And brittle as a triangle of cake—

    Most innocent and decadent of frocks
    Because solemn and frivolous—the fluff
    That blows away from dandelion clocks,
    The lace of time, that shifty, subtle stuff

    That only time itself knows how to make
    Out of the body's loom, the velvet marrow.
    One Saturday in May, you thought the blue
    Above your heads was yours to keep and new,

    When really it was something old, to borrow.


    Deus Ex Machina

    Because we were good at entanglements, but not
    Resolution, and made a mess of plot,
    Because there was no other way to fulfill
    The ancient prophecy, because the will
    Of the gods demanded punishment, because
    Neither recognized who the other was,
    Because there was no difference between
    A tragic ending and a comic scene,
    Because the play was running out of time,
    Because the mechanism of the sublime
    To stay in working order needed using,
    Because it was a script not of our choosing,
    Because we were actors, because we knew for a fact
    We were only actors, because we could not act


    Telephonophobia

    We joke about it. Really, you're annoyed
    To make some call I should make on my own—

    It doesn't bite, you say. That isn't true.
    We keep it on a leash; it isn't tame.

    It stalks us in our sleep. And when at last
    Some shy, unbidden happiness arrives

    That triggers its alarm, it's not for you.
    I bring it to my head, it speaks my name:

    Old anger pours like poison in my ear—
    Or information, cool as dates on stone,

    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.


    The Argument

    After the argument, all things were strange.
    They stood divided by their eloquence
    Which had surprised them after so much silence.
    Now there were real things to rearrange.
    Words betokened deeds, but they were both
    Lightened briefly, and they were inclined
    To be kind as sometimes strangers can be kind.
    It was as if, out of the undergrowth,
    They stepped into a clearing and the sun,
    Machetes still in hand. Something was done,
    But how, they did not fully realize.
    Something was beginning. Something would stem
    And branch from this one moment. Something made
    Them each look up into the other's eyes
    Because they both were suddenly afraid
    And there was no one now to comfort them.


    Burned

    You cannot unburn what is burned.
    Although you scrape the ruined toast,
    You can't go back. It's time you learned

    The butter cannot be unchurned,
    You can't unmail the morning post,
    You cannot unburn what is burned—

    The lovers in your youth you spurned,
    The bridges charred you needed most.
    You can't go back. It's time you learned

    Smoke's reputation is well earned,
    Not just an acrid, empty boast—
    You cannot unburn what is burned.

    You longed for home, but while you yearned,
    The black ships smoldered on the coast;
    You can't go back. It's time you learned

    That even if you had returned,
    You'd only be a kind of ghost.
    You can't go back. It's time you learned

    That what is burned is burned is burned.


    On Visiting a Borrowed Country House
    in Arcadia

    for John

    To leave the city
    Always takes a quarrel. Without warning,
    Rancors that have gathered half the morning
    Like things to pack, or a migraine, or a cloud,
    Are suddenly allowed
    To strike. They strike the same place twice.
    We start by straining to be nice,
    Then say something shitty.

    Isn't it funny
    How it's what has to happen
    To make the unseen ivory gates swing open,
    The rite we must perform so we can leave?
    Always we must grieve
    Our botched happiness: we goad
    Each other till we pull to the hard shoulder of the road,
    Yielding to tears inadequate as money.

    But if instead
    Of turning back, we drive into the day,
    We forget the things we didn't say.
    The silence fills with row on row
    Of vines or olive trees. The radio
    Hums to itself. We make our way between
    Saronic blue and hills of glaucous green
    And thread

    Beyond the legend of the map
    Through footnote towns along the coast
    That boast
    Ruins of no account—a column
    More woebegone than solemn—
    Men watching soccer at the two cafés,
    And half-built lots where dingy sheep still graze.
    Climbing into the lap

    Of the mountains now, we wind
    Around blind, centrifugal turns.
    The sun's great warship sinks and burns.
    And where the roads without a sign are crossed,
    We (inevitably) get lost.
    Yet to be lost here
    Still feels like being somewhere,
    And we find

    When we arrive and park,
    No one minds that we are late—
    There is no one to wait—
    Only a bed to make, a suitcase to unpack.
    The earth has turned her back
    On one yellow middling star
    To consider lights more various and far.
    The shaggy mountains hulk into the dark

    Or loom
    Like slow, titanic waves. The cries
    Of owls dilate the shadows. Weird harmonics rise
    From the valley's distant glow, where coal
    Extracted from the lignite mines must roll
    On acres of conveyor belts that sing
    The Pythagorean music of a string.
    A huge grey plume

    Of smoke or steam
    Towers like the ghost of a monstrous flame
    Or giant tree among the trees. And it is all the same—
    The power plant, the forest, and the night,
    The manmade light.
    We are engulfed in an immense
    Ancient indifference
    That does not sleep or dream.

    Call it Nature if you will,
    Though everything that is is natural—
    The lignite-bearing earth, the factory,
    A darkness taller than the sky—
    This out-of-doors that wins us our release
    And temporary peace—
    Not because it is pristine or pretty,
    But because it has no pity or self-pity.

Chapter Two

Extinction of Silence

    Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Ascribed
    to Martin Luther

    Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
    The booze and the neon and Saturday night,
    The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?
    Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?
    Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons,
    And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite?
    Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
    The booze and the neon and Saturday night?


    Two Violins

    One was fire-red,
    Hand-carved and new—
    The local maker pried the wood
    From a torn-down church's pew,

    The Devil's instrument
    Wrenched from the house of God.
    It answered merrily and clear
    Though my fingering was flawed;

    Bright and sharp as a young wine,
    They said, but it would mellow,
    And that I would grow into it.
    The other one was yellow

    And nicked down at the chin,
    A varnish of Baltic amber,
    A one-piece back of tiger maple
    And a low, dark timbre.

    A century old, they said,
    Its sound will never change.
    Rich and deep on G and D,
    Thin on the upper range—

    And how it came from the Old World
    Was anybody's guess—
    Light as an exile's suitcase,
    A belly of emptiness:

    That was the one I chose—
    Not the one of flame—
    And teachers turned in their practiced hands
    To see whence the sad notes came.


    Country Song

    Death was something that hadn't happened yet.
    I was driving in my daddy's pickup truck
    At some late hour, the hour of broken luck.
    It seeped up through the dashboard's oubliette,
    Clear voice through murk—the radio was set
    Halfway between two stations and got stuck.
    But the words sobbed through, and I was suddenly struck
    Like a gut string in the key of flat regret.

    The voice came from beyond the muddy river—
    You know the one, the one that's cold as ice.
    Even then, it traveled like a shiver
    Through my tributary veins—but twice
    As melancholy to me now, because
    I'm older than Hank Williams ever was.


    Sabbatical

    He has been underground
    These seven years, but he will not rise
    The way the cicadas will,
    Punctual and shrill,
    Casting off the gold film from their eyes,
    Raptured out of their translucent shells
    To stun
    The leaded windows of their wings with sun,
    Their voices riding on the heat like swells,
    A rattling of broken bells,
    Their sudden silence giant as a sound.


    The Ghost Ship

    She plies an inland sea. Dull
    With rust, scarred by a jagged reef.
    In Cyrillic, on her hull
    Is lettered Grief.

    The dim stars do not signify;
    No sonar with its eerie ping
    Sounds the depths—she travels by
    Dead reckoning.

    At her heart is a stopped clock.
    In her wake, the hours drag.
    There is no port where she can dock,
    She flies no flag,

    Has no allegiance to a state,
    No registry, no harbor berth,
    Nowhere to discharge her freight
    Upon the earth.


    Handbook of the Foley Artist

    For the sound of distant thunder,
    A father frowning,
    For the smack of sarcasm,
    Pop of bubblegum;

    For a sudden summer downpour,
    Sizzle of bacon,
    For the sound of somewhere else,
    Freight train at 2 A.M.;

    For the sound of snoring,
    Bees in the lilac bush.
    For the sound of insomnia,
    Eyelashes against a pillowcase;

    For the sea's din,
    Blood's hush in the cochlea of the ear,
    For the screak of a seagull,
    The playground's rusted swing;

    For the sound of birth,
    The radio between pangs,
    For death,
    Static of flies;

    For dry bones,
    Fig trees clattering in the wind,
    For the vowel of the wind,
    A dog left out in the yard;

    Crumple paper
    For the fricative of fire;
    For the gasp of an opened letter,
    Strike a match;

    Take the telephone off the hook
    For the sound of no answer.
    For the sound of a broken heart,
    Crack a joke.


    Extinction of Silence

    That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
    We know it vanished at the sound of voices

    Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
    Though it could be approached by someone praying.

    We have no recordings of it, though of course
    In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed

    Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
    And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.

    But its song is lost. If it was related to
    A species of Quiet, or of another feather,

    No researcher can know. Not even whether
    A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,

    Where legend has it some once common bird
    Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.


    Blackbird Étude

    for Craig Arnold

    The blackbird sings at
    the frontier of his music.
    The branch where he sat

    marks the brink of doubt,
    is the outpost of his realm,
    edge from which to rout

    encroachers with trills
    and melismatic runs surpassing
    earthbound skills.

    It sounds like ardor,
    it sounds like joy. We are glad
    here at the border

    where he signs the air
    with his invisible staves,
    TRESPASSERS BEWARE—

    song as survival—
    a kind of pure music which
    we cannot rival.


    Lines for Turner Cassity

    Librarian with military bearing,
    You've left us poems critics call unsparing,

    A wit not merely clever but hard-bitten.
    Sometimes I hear you utter overwritten,

    And even at this distance, there's no choice
    But hear the word in that distinctive voice,

    Not circumflexing drawl, diphthonged legato,
    But southern, brisk, particular staccato—

    Inimitable voice—for never cruel—
    Impatient only of the pompous fool

    And vagueness that gesticulates at truth.
    Clear and styptic as a dry vermouth,

    You taught the courtesy of kindness meant
    By shaming false and floral sentiment.

    Death's crude arithmetic only exacts
    The estimate of flesh and bone for tax;

    You it has taken—and yet misconstrued—
    For it has left us your exactitude.


    Funereal Stelae: Kerameikos, Athens

    In the Museum of Sorrow stand
    The marble dead on either hand:
    Each seated formally on a chair
    In profile, with a mild, blank stare.
    Others come to bid good-bye,
    To shake hands, turn aside and cry
    Into the folds of cloak or sleeve;
    A huntsman leaves a hound to grieve,
    Its tail tucked under, ears drooped low.
    Sisters, brothers, parents go.
    And everywhere, that silent noise,
    The votaries of children's toys:
    Clay dolls, tops with painted rings,
    And four-wheeled horses pulled on strings.
    Beyond the air-conditioned rooms,
    The grassy suburbs of the tombs,
    With tortoises humped here and there
    Beside the foot-worn thoroughfare—
    They hunker on these patchy lawns
    Like scattered helmets made of bronze,
    The verdigris of ancient war.
    A stream meanders as before
    Through reeds and stone, steady as grief
    And graving Time, its low relief.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Olives by A. E. Stallings Copyright © 2012 by A. E. Stallings. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

I. The Argument 
Olives 
Jigsaw Puzzle 
Recitative 
Sublunary 
Four Fibs 
The Compost Heap 
The Dress of One Occasion 
Deus Ex Machina 
Telephonophobia 
Fear of Happiness 
The Argument 
Burned 
On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia 
II. Extinction of Silence 
Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Ascribed to Martin Luther 
Two Violins 
Country Song 
Sabbatical 
The Ghost Ship 
Handbook of the Foley Artist 
Extinction of Silence 
Blackbird Etude 
Lines for Turner Cassity 
Funereal Stelae: Kerameikos, Athens 
The Cenotaph 
Pop Music 
III. Three Poems for Psyche 
The Eldest Sister to Psyche 
The Boatman to Psyche on the River Styx 
Persephone to Psyche 
IV. Fairy-tale Logic 
Fairy-tale Logic 
The Catch 
Two Nursery Rhymes 
Containment 
Accident Waiting to Happen 
Dinosaur Fever 
Tulips 
Alice in the Looking Glass 
Umbrage 
Hide and Seek 
Sea Girls 
Listening to "Peter and the Wolf" with Jason, Aged Three 
The Mother's Loathing of Balloons 
Another Bedtime Story 
OLIVES [as afterword or on back cover-would not be in contents] 
Acknowledgements
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