“Pickled in a Vat of Tears”: Stallings’s and Seshadri’s Different Revelations of Emotion
In our current age of nuance coupled with increasingly rampant social media use, the scape of poetry is swiftly changing with deviation from traditional forms and the emergence of new mediums. One recent think-piece has addressed the consumption of “Insta-poetry,” or poetry quickly commodified and consumed for the purpose of being re-posted on social media outlets like Instagram, and the resulting complicated relationship between poetry, social media, and capitalism (Roberts). The author comments on how famed modernist T.S. Eliot wrote of poetry: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things” (Roberts). While the world of instant online poetry is another topic entirely, this idea expressed by Eliot offers support for formalist styles, especially in an age where an entire society seeks to defy them. A. E. Stallings, a modern poet, seems to be in dialogue with Eliot as she meticulously constructs poems and allows them to age like fine wine in her 2012 poetry collection Olives, expressing modern sentiments that surprise despite her use of conventional poetic forms. This essay critically examines three poems from A. E. Stallings’s Olives: “Olives,” “Jigsaw Puzzle,” and “Deus Ex Machina,” also in conversation with Vijay Seshadri’s “Three Urdu Poems,” to exemplify how Stallings cleverly uses conventional forms to shed light on contemporary thoughts and feelings.
First, it is necessary to analyze the beginning of Stallings’s poetry collection with “Olives” itself, as it seeks to set the tone for the following poems. The first line, “Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet” (O5:1), creates a somewhat foreboding and even prickly mood that is echoed in many of her other poems, implicating perhaps life is not full of sweetness and how we often even crave something unconventional. “Olives” writes of the fruit of mixed opinions from people—quite duplicitously, one either loves olives or hates them—but meta-poetically uses them to juxtapose to poetry itself. Olives can be consumed from a “shallow, long-stemmed glass” (O5:9), as in a martini, or “gentrified, / or rustic, on a plate cracked like a tooth” (O5:9-10). Olives defy class conventions and can be consumed in an expensive drink or on a country dish, and Stallings parallels this to poetry itself, which ideally is accessible (much like olives) to people of all class backgrounds, to be written or read. The poem ends with “These fruits are mine—small bitter drupes / Full of the golden past and cured in brine” (O5:23-25). She comments on the long-standing tradition and versatility of olives in different dishes, while also addressing the reader of the poem and inviting them to take part in her formalist style that evokes the bitterness and goodness of the past “cured” with her inventive use of common form. The final rhyme of “mine” and “brine” in turn gives a glimpse of what is to come and also gives her agency and possession of her chosen style. Her poems similarly feel “pickled in a vat of tears” (O5:3), striking for their saltiness and recollection of various difficult times—yet they are not quite tear-inducing themselves through her astute use of wit and tone. “Olives,” while just a beginning of the glittering thoughts on the coming pages, could meta-poetically speak for the entire collection in the way it uses stanzaic symmetry and rhyme scheme to give pleasure and sustenance like the meat of an olive.
Similarly, Stallings’s poem “Jigsaw Puzzle” uses a simple rhyme scheme to trace the process of doing a jigsaw puzzle to discuss completion and chaos. She precisely approaches the puzzle the same way she constructs the poem, implicitly aware of her words and using them to ultimately reveal images and realizations. She begins by recounting the specific process of building a puzzle itself, recounting how people often build puzzles by first assembling the corners and edges to give order to an otherwise mind-boggling task: “First, the four corners, / Then the flat edges” (O6:1-2). In the next lines, she establishes the rhyme scheme and uses her words specifically to give a sense of the confusion that results from recreating a scene that we experience: “Assemble the lost borders, / Walk the dizzy ledges” (O6:3-4). The reader, in turn, feels “lost” and “dizzy,” disrupting the precision she established in the first two lines. She formally uses both true rhyme and slant rhyme for the rest of the poem, switching off between lines A and B, as seen first with “corner,” “borders,” “edges,” and “ledges.” The lines begin to form a story, and she addresses a “you,” who could be both Stallings herself or a former lover in a failed relationship. Much like when recalling how a relationship went wrong, memories must be carefully pieced together to see the entire picture—naturally, like a puzzle—to “recreate an afternoon before / It fell apart” (O6:15-16). The imagery evokes two former lovers trying to perhaps give their relationship another try by reliving better times. This carries to the final quatrain, at first showing these good memories in their completeness: “Here is summer, here is blue / Here two lovers kissing” (O6:17-18). Both assertions feel happy and complete, which Stallings proceeds to disrupt with the inevitable “nothingness” that shows through, “where one piece is missing” (O6:20). The missing piece ends the poem in both the formerly mentioned chaos and completeness at once. The disarray and scrambling felt by a missing puzzle piece and thus, something crucial missing in a relationship gives way to an acceptance that the two together can never be complete. The simple form of “Jigsaw Puzzle” unlikely reveals a complexity that contrasts its own style and shows the finality in missing pieces, whether in a puzzle or in life, through its use of short but packed syntax.
Stallings makes use of the sonnet to demonstrate her commitment to further various classical forms. With the title “Deus Ex Machina,” she draws on a linguistic tradition rooted in Greek theater, meaning “god of the machinery,” or the actors designed to play gods in the play, strung using cords or “machines” to be suspended above the stage. My brief, general reading of Greek mythology has given me one consistent takeaway in that the gods are a projection and exaggeration of the things we love and hate bout our own nature, which Stallings echoes in the beginning of the poem. “Because we were good at entanglements, but not / Resolution, and made a mess of plot,” (O13:1-2) seems to challenge the reader to find a flow and rhythm to it, even though it follows a conventional rhyme scheme, and points to the complexity of human nature that tends to complicate rather than simplify. “Because” repeats in the poem nine separate times, reaching for reason and explanation in something that will never be resolved (much like the missing piece in “Jigsaw Puzzle”). She also makes parallels to both relationships and our nature with, “Neither recognized who the other was,” incorporating disillusionment and distance as reasons for the aforementioned “punishment” that the gods demanded in the line prior (O13:5-6). The final couplet of the sonnet—“Because we were actors, because we knew for a fact / We were only actors, because we could not act” (O13:13-14)—interestingly ends with no punctuation (unlike most of her other poems), and stays suspended, much like how “Deus Ex Machina” itself implies mechanical suspension in air. This sonnet gives the feeling that perhaps we were thrown arbitrarily into a life “not of our choosing” that we are also quite ill-equipped for (O13:12). Through sonnet form, Stallings asks the age-old question of what it means to be human in a new way through juxtaposing this to the experience of human actors playing gods in classical theater.
Though less committed to the notion of form and style, Seshadri echoes Stallings in his use of storytelling and fragmentation in “Three Urdu Poems,” particularly in his drawing of classic conventions through his narrative through 19th century Urdu poets. Much like the way that Stallings shrewdly writes about Greek mythology in her poems, Seshadri also re-writes through the perspectives of Mirza Ghalib and Momin Khan Momin. He uses wit and self-mockery to close all of the narratives: “You are mystical, Ghalib, and, also, you speak beautifully. / Are you a saint, or just drunk as usual?” (S16:19-20). The comic relief ends the poem warmly, which contrasts to Stallings’s more foreboding tone, but it also does not feel resolved. The second part of the series, written through the voice of Momin Khan Momin, acts similarly with again its self-referential active voice: “Momin, you’re really a piece of work. / Is she God that you should kiss the hem of her garment?” (S17:13-14). The reader senses that Momin is projecting something onto his lover to perhaps fill the “missing piece” in their relationship, which he confuses with longing as he puts his lover on a pedestal. The final line is self-aware in its note that perhaps she is not the God he considers her in his mind, as he does remark in the prior line: “It’s as if you’re with me when I’m alone. / It’s as if I’m alone when you’re with me” (S17:11-12). This use of chiasmus ingeniously looks at something that could only be stated once in a new light by switching the sentence. While Stallings does not use chiasmus specifically, she evokes a similar mood in showing two sides of the same thing—like the ability of olives to be both low and high class. The final line of the third section of “Three Urdu Poems” reflects the ends of the first two: “O citizens, if Ghalib keeps weeping like this, / his tears will sweep your cities away” (S18:12-13). The way each poem ends similarly shows annular structure, circling back to an ongoing conversation with the self and subsequent self-mockery. Because of this, Seshadri’s use of melodrama complements the meta-poetical elements in Stallings’s poems as well as her tenacious self-awareness. However, Stallings perhaps disguises it more, in that we have to dig for the meaning in “Jigsaw Puzzle,” versus “the Three Urdu Poems” more outright address to the speakers themselves. Seshadri and Stallings both challenge the convention of the poem—Seshadri, in the style itself, and Stallings, in her use of conventional forms to show something new—by creating self-awareness through short lines and cunning syntax.
Regardless of their difference in form, all of Stallings and Seshadri’s poems discussed address deep emotion from the unrequited love in “Three Urdu Poems” to the feeling of displacement and being ill-equipped for the perils of life like in “Deus Ex Machina.” Returning to the Eliot quote, Stallings follow his pattern, by clearly compartmentalizing and analyzing her emotions and precisely delivering them in a painstaking form that makes the reader feel mournfully nostalgic. However, her words do not stab at the heart of passion like the sense Seshadri delivers of being “not dead but perpetually dying” (O16:8). Seshadri alternatively argues with Eliot in that “Three Urdu Poems” is, in fact, the turning loose of intense emotion. However, just because “Three Urdu Poems” incites an almost immediate emotional reaction does not mean that Stallings is emotionless—her slow burn builds through clear rhyme schemes and specific styles (sonnet, stanzaic symmetry, etc.) which culminates in her creative way of relating life and heartbreak to normal daily objects (olives) and actions (realizing a puzzle piece is missing). To process her poetry is to understand we are not always given immediate answers, and it forces us to examine our own pasts from a removed place, even if our memories have (like hers) been “pickled in a vat of tears” (O5:3).
Roberts, Soraya. “No Filter: How the nicest place online created the worst, most popular poetry.” The Baffler 24 January 2018. Web.
Seshadri, Vijay. 3 Sections. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2013. Print.
Stallings, Alicia Elsbeth. Olives: poems. Northwestern University Press, 2012. Print.
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