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Rhyme Without Reason

Hapax (Northwestern University Press)
by A.E. Stallings 

Reviewed by Joan Houlihan

Reading A.E. Stallings is like watching a thoroughbred horse win the race in spite of a weighted saddle. Magnificent horse, exciting race—but the handicap is a constant distraction, often becoming, itself, the focus. Among her formalist peers, Stallings is a clear winner. Her intellect, substantive subject matter (often drawn from deep familiarity with and love of the classics), the rich and interesting diction of her poems and their varied phrasings, frequently cohere in this collection around genuine passion and something to say. These poems have legs.

It is curious then, that Stallings seems wedded to end-rhyming, mainly in true rhyme, no matter what the poem might otherwise do. Hapax provokes a question: what is the purpose of rhyme? Is it to emphasize meaning? Is it to bring pleasure to the ear? Is it to engage the reader at a physiological level, complementing the intellectual and emotional levels? Certainly, rhyme can do all of these things. But it doesn't need to be placed at the end of a line to do it, nor does it need to be true rhyme. Internal and slant rhyme bring as much to the hearing dimension of a poem as true end rhyme. To consistently seek out true rhymes and to consistently place them at the ends of lines has another purpose: the fulfillment of a prescribed pattern. This is not a purpose driven by the poem, but one driven by its maker. The distinction is important. For example, how is the following poem served by its rhyming pattern?


I have some if it still,
We gathered on the hill,
In an empty glass, the bunch of wild thyme,

Faded now, and dried,
But in which yet abide
Some purple, a smell of summer in its prime,

When we stopped the car
Bought honey in a jar
At a roadside stand. It makes me think about

The theft of bloom, the sting,
A swiftness on the wing,
Things that sweetness cannot be without.

Moving past token admiration for its adherence to form, it seems that the poem's reason for existence is not something internally driven, but instead driven by a need for a rhyming pattern. It's as if the rhyming words came first, then the poem was constructed, sometimes twisted, around them, for example:
I have some if it still
We gathered on the hill

(The sense is meant to be: “I still have some of the thyme we gathered”, but it is awkwardly phrased here, due to the presence of “still” ending the first line. The only necessity for “still” to be placed here, rather than in the usual place (I still have..) is so that it can be the first end rhyme in a rhymed couplet. In the next line, the end rhyme of “hill” seems particularly unnecessary since it is the gathering of thyme, not the generic place where it was gathered, that is important. It raises the question of why the poet wanted to skew the syntax of the first line simply to create a rhyme with a word that is not even necessary to the poem's driving idea (the gathering of thyme, its preservation as symbol of a lost time together). Forcing the line to end with a rhyme also forces an emphasis that's unwarranted here. Rhyme emphasizes. Here, it emphasizes the place where the thyme was gathered, but why?)
I have some if it still
We gathered on the hill
In an empty glass, the bunch of wild thyme,

The addition of the third line is especially inept—the phrase “in an empty glass” is seemingly connected to “we gathered on the hill” (“We gathered on the hill in an empty glass”). This line has additional problems of sense: why is the glass “empty” if there is a “bunch of wild thyme” in it? It seems that there is an extra word needed, and “empty,” though an empty one, is used to pad the line, evidently for meter's sake.
Faded now, and dried,
But in which yet abide

in which yet abide (!) It's as if Stallings goes deeper and deeper into a poetic collective unconscious as the poem progresses.
The theft of bloom, the sting,
A swiftness on the wing,
Things that sweetness cannot be without.

Words like “abide,” phrases like “theft of bloom” and “a swiftness on the wing,” along with the torqued syntax and true end-rhyming signal that the poet has not only found and entered the closet of nineteenth-century poetry, but has emerged wearing the fashion of that day.

That Stallings can do much better than a good imitation of the dead is evident in many other poems in the book, even those that are also end-rhymed, for example: “An Ancient Dog Grave, Unearthed During Construction of the Athens Metro,” “Actaeon,” “Nettles,” “Purgatory,” “Fragment,” “Amateur Iconography: Resurrection,” “Apotropaic,” and” Ultrasound” to name a few. In addition, Stallings' various and powerful openings are themselves small masterpieces:
Jesus is back—he's harvesting the dead

             —From Amateur Iconography: Resurrection

Laundry drops into the trees

              —From Purgatory

The glass does not break because it is glass

              —From Fragment

You humble in. It's just as you remember.

              —From Failure

In fact, it is instructive to contrast “Thyme,” arguably the weakest in the collection, with another poem about a plant, “Asphodel” which uses triple end rhyme but is a strong and memorable poem. Instead of the ending “the theft of bloom, the sting,/A swiftness on the wing,/Things that sweetness cannot be without” we have:
I noticed a strange fragrance. It was sweet, Like honey—but with a hint of rotting meat. An army of them bristled at my feet.

Here the rhymes are redeemed by a direct and powerful diction, one that could be spoken today, and also by their amplification of the meaning of the poem. They are not empty rhymes. There are many poems in Hapax that exude energy, verve, wit and invention, and there is an obvious integrity, a wholeness throughout. Stallings' delight in order, sophistication of sensibility and deft use of the familiar, the way she balances between surprise and fulfilled expectation, gives the reader a reason to read on. It also signals the presence of a poet who has the potential to become great in her maturity. For now though, and despite all the poems in Hapax that rise above their construction around end rhyme, there remains a sense of a self-imposed handicap, a sense that the poet has not yet shed the need to construct her own straightjackets simply to demonstrate, Houdini-like, how she can escape them—if she can.

Joan Houlihan is editor-in-chief of Perihelion and the author of two books: Hand-Held Executions and The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press. She is founder and director of the Concord Poetry Center in Concord, Massachusetts.


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