Tag Archives: a.e. stallings

The spectra of the dead

Since I mentioned the other day about the toxicity of lead white and its importance in painting, a fitting poem by A.E. Stallings, from her book Archaic Smile.

Study in White

A friend, an artist, phoned me up and said,
What shall I do for flesh? And what for bone?
All has some white, and the best white is lead.

But lead gets in the flesh and in the bone,
And if you are a woman, in the child
You bear years hence, and I know, have read

That you may use titanium or zinc,
Not poisonous, but you may be reviled
Because you lack the seriousness bred

For art in men—or how else could you think
Of compromise in this. And I own
I’ve tried them both, but the best white is lead

For making up the colors bold and mild,
Conceiving still lifes, matching tone with tone
To reproduce the spectra of the dead.

And I have stood for hours at the sink
Scrubbing white from hands until they bled.
And still my hands are stained, and still I think—
O flesh and blood—but the best white is lead.

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Another Bedtime Story

In college I took a creative writing class. One of the assignments was to choose a literary journal to follow from the school library. I chose the Beloit Poetry Journal. A lot of it wasn’t my style (or as I’ve been accused, over my head, like a great deal of modern art) but I did discover my favorite modern poet in there.

A.E. Stallings just amazed me. Her poetry can be formal and playful at the same time, and is steeped in the past without being weighed down by it. As a history buff I adore the classical influences.

It tends to be several years between her books, and since I don’t subscribe to journals, it’s always a thrill when a new one comes out. Here’s a poem published in the Beloit Poetry Journal in 2009, the last selection in her new book, Olives.


Another Bedtime Story


One day you realize it. It doesn’t need to be said—

Just as you turn the page—the end—and close the cover—

All, all of the stories are about going to bed:


Goldilocks snug upstairs, the toothy wolf instead

 Of grandmother tucked in the quilts, crooning, closer, closer—

One day you realize it. It hardly needs to be said:


The snow-pale princess sleeps—the pillow under her head

 Of rose petals or crystal—and dreams of a lost lover—

All, all of the stories are about going to bed;




 the one about witches and ovens and gingerbread

 In the dark heart of Europe—can children save each other?—

You start to doubt it a little. It doesn’t need to be said,


But I’ll say it, because it’s embedded in everything I’ve read,

 The tales that start with once and end with ever-after,

 All, all of the stories are about going to bed,


About coming to terms with the night, alleviating the dread

 Of laying the body down, of lying under a cover.

 That’s why our children resist it so. That’s why it mustn’t be said:

 All, all of the stories are about going to bed.


She discusses a little bit about the inspiration for it here. And there’s a newer interview with her in the University of Georgia’s student paper.

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Pumpkins and Persephone’s Time

I’m a little bit of a mythology junkie, and a lot of a shiny junkie. Or maybe it should be the other way around…

Either way, I figured it’d be appropriate to cut my teeth here on my favorite season and share a taste of its art and mythology as well as its influence on my own projects.

I think most people know the basic story of Persephone; for some reason it’s always been one of those myths that just seems to strike a chord. I think I first heard it in elementary school at a play. Maybe it’s the whole explanation of natural cycles bit, or the sort of sadness/beauty/longing mix that seems just right for autumn.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti isn’t my favorite of the pre-raphaelites (I’m torn between Waterhouse and Millais) but there’s still something fascinating about his painting of Persephone. Interesting contrasts, and really nice ivy in the background!

Rossetti's Prosperine (Persephone)

Rossetti's Prosperine (Persephone)

A more modern approach appears in a piece by A.E. Stallings, one of my favorite poets. (Discovering her was possibly the only good thing to come out of a writing class I took in college.) She has a wonderful was of mixing the modern and the ancient into an elegant whole.

This caught me right away:

Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother

First—hell is not so far underground—
My hair gets tangled in the roots of trees
& I can just make out the crunch of footsteps,
The pop of acorns falling, or the chime
Of a shovel squaring a fresh grave or turning
Up the tulip bulbs for separation.
Day & night, creatures with no legs
Or too many, journey to hell and back.
Alas, the burrowing animals have dim eyesight.
They are useless for news of the upper world.
They say the light is “loud” (their figures of speech
All come from sound; their hearing is acute).

The dead are just as dull as you would imagine.
They evolve like the burrowing animals—losing their sight.
They may roam abroad sometimes—but just at night—
They can only tell me if there was a moon.
Again and again, moth-like, they are duped
By any beckoning flame—lamps and candles.
They come back startled & singed, sucking their fingers,
Happy the dirt is cool and dense and blind.
They are silly & grateful and don’t remember anything.
I have tried to tell them stories, but they cannot attend.
They pester you like children for the wrong details—
How long were his fingernails? Did she wear shoes?
How much did they eat for breakfast? What is snow?
And then they pay no attention to the answers.

My husband, bored with their babbling, neither listens nor speaks.
But here there is no fodder for small talk.
The weather is always the same. Nothing happens.
(Though at times I feel the trees, rocking in place
Like grief, clenching the dirt with tortuous toes.)
There is nothing to eat here but raw beets & turnips.
There is nothing to drink but mud-filtered rain.
Of course, no one goes hungry or toils, however many—
(The dead breed like the bulbs of daffodils—
Without sex or seed—all underground—
Yet no race has such increase. Worse than insects!)

I miss you and think about you often.
Please send flowers. I am forgetting them.
If I yank them down by the roots, they lose their petals
And smell of compost. Though I try to describe
Their color and fragrance, no one here believes me.
They think they are the same thing as mushrooms.
Yet no dog is so loyal as the dead,
Who have no wives or children and no lives,
No motives, secret or bare, to disobey.
Plus, my husband is a kind, kind master;
He asks nothing of us, nothing, nothing at all—
Thus fall changes to winter, winter to fall,
While we learn idleness, a difficult lesson.

He does not understand why I write letters.
He says that you will never get them. True—
Mulched-leaf paper sticks together, then rots;
No ink but blood, and it turns brown like the leaves.
He found my stash of letters, for I had hid it,
Thinking he’d be angry. But he never angers.
He took my hands in his hands, my shredded fingers
Which I have sliced for ink, thin paper cuts.
My effort is futile, he says, and doesn’t forbid it.

It was published in her book, Archaic Smile. I think it’s out of print now, but is well worth the hunt. I love my slightly beaten up copy dearly.

I get along well with the colors of fall, and so a lot of my jewelry (and to a lesser extent sewing-I’ve a great greens and red and russets quilt that I *will* finish someday…) ends up with a bit of a seasonal bias. There are just so many semi-precious gemstones with just the right textures and tones for autumn. Of course, rutilated quartz and garnet are amongst my favorites all year round.

gold fill 14 K rutilated quartz garnet wire wrap

And I don’t think anyone really dislikes tiger’s eye. The shimmer alone is winning even if you don’t count the richness in tone.

gold fill 14 K red tigereye

Still very much a trial and error type of project, but I’ve been trying to modify the tree of life pendant idea into a fall foliage style. This one has a mixture of garnet, citrine, and goldstone on copper.

copper tree with mixed stones

Just because I was feeling brave, an old poem with my own take on Persephone. Don’t worry, these won’t show up often, if ever again.

I think of Persephone now,
as the night carries a cool caress.

I think of her
poised perfectly, hovering—
if one can do that in a stately manner—
on the edge of the world.
The Sun’s warmth on her back,
a last bruised rose of summer
biting her fingers desperately;
even as she crushes the first
of the amber leaves
under her marble heel.
Behind her–
Her mother’s voice calling,
honey-thick yet corvid,
fading in the distance.
Still ahead—
In the melting dark
beyond the cold winds,
waits her near-silent husband.
He speaks only as the rocks,
slow and cold and judicious.
A rumbling echo.

Does she smile a moment—
feel the clinging heat
and the vise-like cold—
and bounce on her toes,
glad of the moment’s gift?


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