on This Afterlife: Selected Poems by A. E. Stallings

A. E. Stallings is celebrated as a poet of wit and wisdom. Her subjects are beauty and calamity, the acute present and the ancient past. Her poems are often unshakeable, straddling jest and oracularity in ageless lines ready-made for recitation. Across the four collections represented in This Afterlife: Selected Poems, along with a lagniappe of uncollected work and a sampling of limpid translations (Sikelianos’s “Frieze” is especially lovely), many poems take their start from dailyness, from moments when everyday fact erupts into profundity. Take for instance these lines from “Tulips”:

Something about their burnt-out hearts,

Something about their pallid stems

Wearing decay like diadems,

Parading finishes like starts . . . 

With signature irony, Stallings declares this early body of work rediscovered. Several of the poems from her first book, 1999’s Archaic Smile, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux is due to reissue alongside This Afterlife, take on the persona of a character reclaiming some lost but more accurate version of their own story. The opening of “Eurydice’s Footnote,” for one, feels both satirical and sincerely reclamatory (it’s often both with Stallings, delivered with a wink for the reader): 

Love, then, always was a matter of revision

As reality, to poet or to politician

Is but the first rough draft of history or legend. 

So your artist’s eye, a sharp and perfect prism, 

Refracts discreet components of a beauty

To fix them in some still more perfect order. 

(I say this on the other side of order

Where things can be re-invented no longer.) 

For Stallings, looking back takes on the thrill of a dare. She marks this work as its own archive—offers these familiar poems a new context, wonders aloud about the order of things. “Ubi Sunt Lament for the Eccentric Museums of My Childhood,” for one, ends: “Why, we used to muse, // did this thing, not that, / survive its gone moments—how / are they filed away?” Stallings, as poet and translator, marshals a grand vision for our narrative inheritance, pondering what can be reshaped and how, if maybe we can return to realize something else. In doing so, she makes a case for tradition’s relevance to today, and a case for our own coherence. 

A chief pleasure of retrospective turns from major poets is the discovery of what we’ve missed along the way. “After Reading the Biography Savage Beauty” stands out among these, until now, uncollected poems: 

I’d like to have lovers, both straight ones and gay, 

I’d like to hold both sexes under my sway

And not give two figs about what people say

Like Edna, Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


I’d move with the grace of one trained in ballet. 

My husband would not only love but obey. 

People would flock to my readings—and pay—

If I were like Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Stallings investigates the fringes of poetic tradition, the shadows and shades (“Amazing what webbed shadows can conceal—”), arriving at familiar subjects revealed anew. I recall, teaching her work in a course on poetic techniques, how once for an assignment a student brazenly recited her “Like, the Sestina,” with its numbing repetitions, and frank prescience:

                                             And you’d like 

To end hunger and climate change alike,


But it’s unlikely Like does diddly. Like

Just twiddles its unopposing thumbs-up, like-

Wise props up scarecrow silences . . .

Quite simply, Stallings knows how to spark delight, but with striking purpose. To do so, she plays off simplicity, the language right in front of us, the forms we’ve held in our hands all our lives. From her poem “The Mistake”:

I did not think on the mistake again, 

Until the spring came, soft, and full of rain, 

And in the yard such dandelions grew

That bloomed and closed, and opened up, and blew.

Opposed to the assumptions of trend, Stallings is a poet who reaches for more reliable currency. Among poems that jump out when I return to her work now is “The Extinction of Silence,” with its playful lament: “It took wing at the slightest noises, / Though it could be approached by someone praying.” Across these poems, in the form of telephones, scissors, ultrasounds, various meditations on daily implements (mostly in a Grecian landscape) unfold to lift the quiet quotidian incident to the newsworthy, the epic. There, we encounter the domestic or marital strife or childrearing, all in conversation with stories so old we call them myth. I am struck by how they make everyday moments records of greater import, a means of understanding the narratives we’ve inherited, as a result.


In her longest poem, a sequence in ottava rima called “Lost and Found” (so well-executed it immediately becomes a paragon of the form—look out, Byron!), a dream journey is led by the goddess of memory through the craters of the moon where all we’ve ever lost can be found:

Nearby, a glint of vitreous splinters, foiled

With silver, bristled in a jagged mass. 

“This is a woman’s loveliness that’s spoiled

With age,” she said, “and tears, and days that pass—

Her raiment that is creased, thread-worn, and soiled. 

Here, seek that vanished beauty in this glass.” 

And gave me a reflection where I sought her—

Nothing at first—but then I saw my daughter—  

With the audacity of consistency, Stallings revives our belief in precision. Such reconsideration would seem the long argument of her body of work. In the sequence’s penultimate section, we find something like a key, instructions for how to attend to being in any age: 

There are lunches to make, I thought, and tried to find

Some paperwork from last week I’d mislaid

(Due back, no doubt, today, dated and signed), 

Instead, unearthed a bill we hadn’t paid, 

Located shoes, a scarf, a change of mind: 

I tried to put aside mistakes I’d made, 

To live in the sublunary, the swift, 

Deep present, through which falling bodies sift.

There is something about her poems that unhurries us, that announces the pleasure of rhyme and skillful form. How fitting for a poet committed to chronicling what was lost (or what mistaken, or what version underappreciated) to revisit her catalog with new wonder, bald curiosity for what she’s accomplished. We discover there a land of reclamation, misapprehended myth and monsters, the enchantments of childhood, and women who deserved a fairer shake under the lights. 

In interviews, Stallings is quick to note the ancient Greeks’ own rhetorical tactics teach her how to write the immediate world around us. As a lover of the Greeks, Stallings offers American poetry something truly unique, a bridge between texts and cultures and time. A lifeline of verse that extends our own shortsightedness, hers is the broadening perspective of a transplant, someone who is becoming native to elsewhere (living now some twenty years in Athens, Greece, she started off in Athens, Georgia). From this vantage, she addresses gender and human migration, the plight of European refugees and workers, but her poems also manage an embrace of brokenness, of contradiction that feels reflective of our world today. 

A poet whose gaze has been trained on the distance, Stallings explores the impossible logics of the past, hunting a way for us to do better, how to survive the quotidian aches of existence. 


Rhyme is of course Stallings’s famous bailiwick, which she has declared her “method of composition,” and called “the strange dream-logic connections . . . that lead the poem forward, perhaps into territory the poet herself had not intuited.” In her manifesto on the subject for Poetry Magazine, Stallings quipped, “Rhyme schemes.” After many such labors and well-deserved awards, she now offers us the pleasure of discovering how the plan was hatched.

Stallings rhymes the present with the past, suggesting a pattern for our future. In “Song for the Women Poets,” returning to the specific mythic notion of second chances, Stallings writes, “Don’t look back. But no one heeds / You glance down in the water.” Once, making claims on the music of verse, Stallings wrote, “Rhyme is an irrational, sensual link between two words. It is chemical. It is alchemical.” At the end of “Song,” the poet finds she is both Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s complicated. Or maybe it only is.

Another early favorite for me is a speculative piece that connects past myth to our wild imaginings for the future. In “The Machines Mourn the Passing of People,” her machines, who miss the warmth of “clumsy hands,” watch “the sun rust at the end of its days.” Another poem begins with the line, “We are not in the same place after all,” seeming now to ponder how poets’ lives accrue their narratives as art. Titled “Aftershocks,” it is the first poem from Stallings’s second collection, Hapax. The eponymous image of the aftershock is the conceit of the poem’s meditation on a lover’s quarrel: “Or have we always stood on shaky ground? / The moment keeps on happening: a sound.” Nothing is forbidden to the music of rhyme, Stallings says. Death, love, beauty, and their familiar twins might all have their best poems ahead of them.


It would seem it is a study of afterness that Stallings is really after. The word “afterlife” appears repeatedly as you crack through the first few pages. Holding it and pondering the cover, which passersby kept remarking over, I realized its title, This Afterlife, appears again in the epigraph to the book, which is pulled from the first poem, “A Postcard from Greece,” its last line, in fact: “Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.” This Afterlife arrives to a world, of course, still grieving the recent past. I imagine this as something of the argument of that first poem, now, “A Postcard from Greece”—the miraculous fact of the path we have managed to keep. The artifact of life itself, evidence that it is.

“Hatched from sleep” begins that poem, and so this volume, and indeed sleep, nightmares, and insomnia are all recurring themes thereafter, echoing that uncertainty, that hope. Aristotle’s quote about hope being a waking dream springs to mind. The speaker of “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia” supposes “We are engulfed in an immense / Ancient indifference / That does not sleep or dream.” In “Lullaby Near the Railroad Tracks,” the speaker croons, “Shut your eyes and you will hear / the Doppler shift of time.” The mother in “Another Bedtime Story” realizes “All, all of the stories are about going to bed.” It’s remarkable to realize these more somnolent themes, given the dazzling effect of Stallings’s formal execution and wit, how I tend to think of her poems as almost pavonine and showy.

The first selected from Like, her Pulitzer-finalist collection whose poems were arranged alphabetically by title, is “After a Greek Proverb,” which offers the villanelle’s koan-like refrain: “Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.” It is a poem in which the speaker ponders her long residence in Greece, seemingly surprised to still be there.

The image of the touristic postcard returns in a section pulled from “Exile: Picture Postcards,” in which the speaker ponders an intangible “element” she’ll never fully grasp about contemporary Greek art, how it seems to cherish “ancient wrongs”: 

How something changes: a woman starts to sway
Around an absent center—ancient wrongs

Cherished. The cigarette gives up its ghost.
The music drives now. Someone makes a toast
As suddenly the melody arrives

At minor,
                 Asia Minor,
                                       in whose songs

The hands of lovers always rhyme with knives.

A selected works reminds us of what is left unfinished, as a poet so used to rhyming with the ancient past now turns to her own gone moments survived. It becomes a more intimate assessment, as she looks over her shoulder, wondering how time might have altered some of these rhymes. Through her hallmark fidelity to traditional forms, she sides with the redeemable. This is a body of work that asks, What lasts? That gaze itself becomes a kind of speech act.

In this grander gathering, we witness myth returned to us, discover what it means to revisit a part of our own story, however unsettled we may find it. From the last collected poem, “The Arsenic Hour,” the so-called time when babes complain and cry:  

. . . after all, what’s time

But long division? . . .

The chore that never ends, until it ends, 

The work of days, the work that will not keep.

Stallings’s work has always invited us back to ourselves, to the mirrors we keep writing, those wine-dark seas of being. What is obvious in This Afterlife is that much has washed up on the shores of these poems. They revive that original messenger of myth, but as much as anything, remind us that it is in our nature to forget. With this selection, her poems turn epistolary, and generous. She marries that heroic parade to the everyday, our “deep present.” This Afterlife arrives as a record of living in the most perfect order the present can manage, hopeful that it might be worth it to those who come after. 


Tobias Wray’s first book, No Doubt I Will Return a Different Man (CSU Poetry Center, 2021) won the Lighthouse Poetry Series Competition. His work has found homes in Blackbird, Hunger Mountain, Impossible Archetype, and elsewhere, as well as in Queer Nature: A Poetry Anthology (Autumn House Press, 2022). He is a 2023 National Endowment of the Arts fellow and teaches at the University of Central Oklahoma.