A.E. (Alicia) Stallings studied Classics at the University of Georgia and at Oxford University, and has lived in Athens, Greece since 1999. She has received numerous awards for her translations, including the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, the John Frederick Nims prize from Poetry Magazine, and a U.S. National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship for work on the Medieval Cretan romance, The Erotokritos. Her verse translation of Lucretius’ The Nature of Things, in rhyming fourteeners, was published by Penguin Classics. She is currently at work on a new Penguin Classics verse translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days. Her published volumes of original poetry include Archaic Smile, winner of the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax, winner of the Poets’ Prize; and most recently Olives, a U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Among her additional honors are Guggenheim and United States Artists fellowships, and appointment to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2011, she was named a MacArthur Fellow for her poetry and translations. She is married to the journalist John Psaropoulos, with whom she has two smallish argonauts, Jason and Atalanta.
THE ROSEHEAD NAILL
Blacksmithing demonstration, mountain arts and crafts fair, Monteagle, TN
“But can you forge a nail?” the blond boy asks,
And the blacksmith shoves a length of iron rod
Deep in the coal fire cherished by the bellows
Until it glows volcanic. He was a god
Before anachronism, before the tasks
That had been craft were jobbed out to machine.
By dint of hammer-song he makes his keen,
Raw point, and crowns utility with rose:
Quincunx of facets petaling its head.
The breeze-made-visible sidewinds. The boy’s
Blonde mother shifts and coughs. Once Work was wed
To Loveliness — sweat-faced, swarthy from soot, he
Reminds us with the old saw he employs
(And doesn’t miss a beat): “Smoke follows beauty.”
too fine to speak of
A LAMENT FOR THE DEAD PETS OF OUR CHILDHOOD
Even now I dream of rabbits murdered
By loose dogs in the dark, the saved-up voice
Spilt on that last terror, or the springtime
Of lost baby rabbits, grey and blind
As moles, that slipped from birth and from the nest
Into a grey, blind rain, became the mud.
And still I gather up their shapes in dreams,
Those poor, leftover Easter eggs, all grey.
That’s how we found out death: the strangled bird
Undone by a toy hung in his cage,
The foundlings that would never last the night,
Be it pigeon, crippled snake, the kitten
Whose very fleas forsook it in the morning
While we nursed a hangover of hope.
After the death of pets, dolls lay too still
And wooden in the cradle, sister, after
We learned death: not hell, no ghosts or angels,
But a cold thing in the image of a warm thing,
Limp as sleep without the twitch of dreams.
THE DOLL HOUSE
There in the attic of forgotten shapes
(Old coats in plastic, hat boxes, fur capes
Amongst the smells of mothballs and cigars),
I saw the doll house of our early years,
With which my mother and my aunt had played,
And later where my sister and I made
The towering grown-up hours to smile and pass:
The little beds, the tin-foil looking glass,
Bookcases stamped in ink upon the walls,
Mismatched chairs where sat the jointed dolls,
The clock whose face, no larger than a dime,
Had, for all these years, kept the same time.
I remembered how we set the resin food
Atop a table of stained balsa wood,
The shiny turkey hollow to the tap,
The cherry pie baked in a bottle cap.
Now it is time to go to sleep, we spoke,
Parroting the talk of older folk,
And laid the dolls out fully-clothed in bed
After their teeth were brushed, and prayers were said,
And flipped the switch on the low-wattage sun.
But in the night we’d have something break in,
Kidnap the baby or purloin the pie—
A tiger, maybe, or a passer by—
Just to make something happen, to move the story.
The dolls awoke, alarmed, took inventory.
If we made something happen every day,
Or night, it was the game we knew to play,
Not realizing then how lives accrue,
With interest, the smallest things we do.
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.
And lock shapes into place,
And random shapes 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.
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 would turn in their practiced hands
To see whence the sad notes came.
The land is full of what was lost. What’s hidden
Rises to the surface after rain
In new-ploughed fields, and fields stubbled again:
The clay shards, foot and lip, that heaped the midden,
And here and there a blade or flakes of blade,
A patient art, knapped from a core of flint,
Most broken, few as coins new from the mint,
Perfect, shot through time as through a glade.
You cannot help but think how they were lost:
The quarry, fletched shaft in its flank, the blood
Whose trail soon vanished in the antlered wood,
Not just the meat, but what the weapon cost—
O hapless hunter, though your aim was true—
The wounded hart, spooked, fleeting in its fear—
And the sharpness honed with longing, year by year
Buried deeper, found someday, but not by you.
I never glimpse her but she goes
Who had been basking in the sun,
Her links of chain mail one by one
Aglint with pewter, bronze and rose.
I never see her lying coiled
Atop the garden step, or under
A dark leaf, unless I blunder
And by some motion she is foiled.
Too late I notice as she passes
Zither of chromatic scale—
I only ever see her tail
Quicksilver into tall grasses.
I know her only by her flowing,
By her glamour disappearing
Into shadow as I’m nearing—
I only recognize her going.
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.
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.
Something has come between us—
It will not sleep.
Every night it rises like a fish
Out of the deep.
It cries with a human voice,
It aches to be fed.
Every night we heave it weeping
Into our bed,
With its heavy head lolled back,
Its limbs hanging down,
Like a mer-creature fetched up
From the weeds of the drowned.
Damp in the tidal dark, it whimpers,
Tossing the cover,
Separating husband from wife,
Lover from lover.
It settles in the interstice,
It spreads out its arms,
While its cool underwater face
Sharpens and warms:
This is the third thing that makes
Father and mother,
The fierce love of our fashioning
That will have no brother.
THE MOTHER’S LOATHING OF BALLOONS
I hate you,
How the children plead
At ﬁrst sight—
I want, I need,
I hate how nearly
At ﬁrst say no,
And then comply.
They will grow bored
Over the moon,
Should you come home,
They’d cease to care—
Who tugs you through
The front door
On a leash, won’t want you
And will forget you
On the ceiling—
A giddy feeling—
Later to ﬁnd you,
Against the wall.
And ﬁt to burst,
You break for her
Who wants you worst.
Your forebear was
The sack of the winds,
The boon that gives
And then rescinds,
But the force
That blows everyone
Your one chore done,
You ﬂoat like happiness
To the sun,
You’ve left behind:
Their tinfoil tears,
Their plastic cries,
And moot goodbyes,
You shrug them off—
You do not heed—
O loose bloom
With no root
SINE QUA NON
Your absence, father, is nothing. It is nought—
The factor by which nothing will multiply,
The gap of a dropped stitch, the needle’s eye
Weeping its black thread. It is the spot
Blindly spreading behind the looking glass.
It is the startled silences that come
When the refrigerator stops its hum,
And crickets pause to let the winter pass.
Your absence, father, is nothing—for it is
Omega’s long last O, memory’s elision,
The fraction of impossible division,
The element I move through, emptiness,
The void stars hang in, the interstice of lace,
The zero that still holds the sum in place.
Sine Qua Non
譯注：Sine Qua Non，拉丁語，意為「必要條件」；