Like 2020

Like, A.E. Stallings, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

This year was not like many others. And A.E. Stallings’ book of poems, Like, though published two years ago, feels deeply relevant.

The titular poem is a sestina whose endword is “like”. Usually a sestina would have six endwords—and Stallings certainly throws in “dislike” and “unlike” and “alike”—but “like” falls into so many different buckets of speech that you cannot hear the repetition as overwhelming. It’s wonderful to see Stallings’ poetry, often on subjects so removed from contemporary life, bent beautifully into such slang and modernity. The poem includes commentary on what words like “like” do to language, while perhaps exhibiting what “like” does as language, but it read to me, in 2020, as a comment on giving in to peer pressure. In some ways, this year, the only way to reach a friend was the “like” mechanism of social media—but if I truly liked them, I wouldn’t want to endanger them by passing on the coronavirus, and so I would restrict my interactions with them to safe ones, like “like”.

Stallings, of course, is a masterful poet, and so, as in “Like, the Sestina,” every poem in the book is full of musical language accumulated and arrayed to help the reader peer deeper into life, be that physical or emotional or historical. The epigraph for “The Rosehead Nail” tells us the poem’s setting is a blacksmithing demonstration. In the first line, a boy asks if the smith can forge a nail. “He was a god / Before anachronism” and so he makes not simply a nail, but crowns it with a rose. The surprise of the boy’s request, the surprise of the smith’s response, the way in which Stallings draws Hephaestus into the smith’s description, the possibility that the nail is more than a nail with which the poem ends, the simplicity and apparent ease stayed with me.

Other domestic poems revel more obviously in their musicality. In “Cast Irony”, Stallings writes

Who scrubbed this iron skillet
In water, with surfactant soap,
Meant to cleanse, not kill it,

But since its black and lustrous skin
Despoiled of its enrobing oils,
Dulled, lets water in,

Now it is vulnerable and porous
As a hero stripped of his arms
Before a scornful chorus.

The digression into discussion of the Bronze Age warrior seems in line with much of Stallings translations of epic Greek poems, and yet the imagery is put to use as the poem progresses to comment on what is traditionally women’s work (cooking, washing) and a mother-daughter relationship. (And how wonderful is the poet who can throw “surfactant soap” into a poem without blinking?)

“The Stain,” too, is a domestic poem with short lines that emphasize its music (rhyming, in this case). The short lines cause the reader to race down the page and the accusatory tone of the language anthropomorphizes an object usually overlooked, adding to the poem’s interest. “It will not out,” the poem says, recalling every famous stain in literature. Stallings closes the poem with such prophetic fervor that I despair for the option to throw out the clothing, as I would throw out 2020:

What they suspect
The stain will know,
The stain records
What you forget.

If you wear it,
It will show;
If you wash it,
It will set.