Reviewed by Gwen Hart
In her fourth poetry collection, Like (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2018), A. E Stallings uses her mastery of poetic forms to explore subjects as diverse as language use, current events, and the weight of loss.
The title poem, “Like: the Sestina,” is an unusual twist on the sestina form. Usually, a sestina has six end words that alternate in a prescribed pattern (e.g., see Tyler Van Swol’s “Bear Down: A Sestina” and Grant Lenz’s “The Show Goes On” in the third issue of Hot Dish Magazine). Stallings’ sestina, however, uses some variation of like for every end-word in the poem: like, dislike, alike, look-alike, unlike, money-like, I’m like, he’s like, etc.). The acrobatic uses of like are delightful and surprising, even while highlighting what “real speech is like,” as Stallings writes.
Stallings also takes on current events with several powerful poems about the plight of refugees. In “Empathy,” Stallings compares the life of a middle class family to that of a family of refugees setting out on a dangerous journey across water without proper equipment, their “cheap life jackets / No better than bright orange trash.” The contrast between the two families is striking, and the startling ending of the poem cuts right to the heart. The multipart poem “Refugee Fugue” fleshes out the issue even more. The poem contrasts scenes and perspectives, from children on holiday “making their sandy town” of sand castles while “Small bodies” of immigrant children “wash ashore, / Sea-chewed, a few days dead.” Each section of the poem takes on a different form—heroic couplet, rhymed quatrain, list, and so on—emphasizing the many voices represented across the sections.
In a tour-de-force multi-part poem in the middle of the book, “Lost and Found” (linked to here in Beloit Poetry Journal), Stallings describes a mother’s dream journey through “the valley of the moon /where everything misplaced on earth accrues,” from the houses of long-dead grandparents, “letters / we meant to write,” lost hours of sleep, faded beauty, and much more. I heard her read this poem at West Chester University’s Form and Narrative Conference, and the audience was held in thrall at the imagery—and the poignant ending, which I will not ruin here.
In conclusion, anyone who enjoys poetic form, or who is simply interested in the best of today’s poetry, will be well rewarded with a trip through A. E. Stallings’ Like.