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A.E. Stallings, Poet, Translator …

MacArthur recipient, writes a hell of a poem. Look at her elaborate rhyme scheme here. Quite something.


Mid-sentence, we remembered the eclipse,
Arguing home through our scant patch of park
Still warm with barrel wine, when none too soon
We checked the hour by glancing at the moon,
Unphased at first by that old ruined marble
Looming like a monument over the hill,
So brimmed with light it seemed about to spill,

Then, there! We watched the thin edge disappear—
The obvious stole over us like awe,
That it was our own silhouette we saw,
Slow perhaps to us moon-gazing here
(Reaching for each other’s fingertips)
But sweeping like a wing across that stark
Alien surface at the speed of dark.

The crickets stirred from winter sleep to warble
Something out of time, confused and brief,
The roosting birds sang out in disbelief,
The neighborhood’s stray dogs began to bark.
And then the moon was gone, and in its place,
A dim red planet hung just out of reach,
As real as a bitter orange or ripened peach

In the penumbra of a tree. At last
We rose and strolled at a reflective pace
Past the taverna crammed with light and smoke
And people drinking, laughing at a joke,
Unaware that anything had passed
Outside in the night where we delayed
Sheltering in the shadow we had made.


Source: Poetry (June 2008).
Reprinted here.


So… it’s a narrative, describing a couple walking home from a dinner out (they had wine; maybe they’re a little tipsy), under the moon … The poem’s title, the word sublunary, refers to anything that occurs on earth, beneath the moon … anything earth-bound, really, as opposed to heavenly. In John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, the speaker rather disdainfully refers to “dull sublunary lovers” whose love isn’t true love because it lacks the transcendent quality of the speaker’s. So to be sublunary is not only to be resident on the earth; it can also imply that you are a little dull, grubby, material, stuck in the thinginess of things … incapable of reaching the heights of passion and clarity.

And indeed this couple, arguing, hot with wine, unprettily earthbound in a scant patch of park, feels sublunary enough.

They suddenly remember there’s a lunar eclipse tonight, and they look up at the moon, which is so far as “unphased” as they.

The poet means unfazed – undisturbed, calm – but she packs the phases of the moon into the word unfazed and comes up with this remarkable neologism. The moon hasn’t eclipsed; and the couple hasn’t changed from its sublunary dullness.

In the eventual darkening of the moon the couple sees their own darkness, their daily confused sublunary struggle (we are here as on a darkling plain, as another moony poem has it). Their disturbance at this sudden perception is mirrored in the disturbance the eclipse generates in the world around them: dogs bark, confused and disbelieving birds and crickets complain. The world is out of sorts; in the absence of the moon there’s not even the understanding of oneself as sublunary, not even the stability derived from a sense of one’s place in the universe.

And then the moon was gone, and in its place,
A dim red planet hung just out of reach,
As real as a bitter orange or ripened peach

In the penumbra of a tree.

The cold hard clarity of the moon – shedding at least some light on our lives, and offering at least an icon of transcendence toward which to aspire – now gives way to the bitter reality of our hopeless and confused embroilment on the earth, our

old chaos of the sun,
Or … old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free…

Ah love! Let us be true to one another! says Arnold, and so says Stallings; the oblivious world of the taverna misses this eclipse of all light, but, having ourselves seen it, we of course cling to one another:

we delayed
Sheltering in the shadow we had made.

It’s like the end of another poem set in Greece – James Merrill’s Santorini: Stopping the Leak. At the end of his walk, the speaker finds himself ready for a “tavern in the shade,” a place to shelter from the too-harsh sunlight and moonlight of an untranscendent world.

The only thing that can “eclipse” the pain of our all-too-humanness is love ((Reaching for each other’s fingertips)); the only true sheltering shade from this harshness is the shade we create for ourselves, together.

And that tour de force of a rhyme scheme, with its sly unexpected recurrences – eclipse only eventually finding fingertips, marble, long-since forgotten by the reader, returning as warble? It conveys both our continued (modest) mastery of a world we might be tempted to give up on as an object of understanding; and in its snaky sneaky gorgeousness it helps accustom us, in any case, to the penumbra.

Margaret Soltan, September 20, 2011 1:02PM
Posted in: poem

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6 Responses to “A.E. Stallings, Poet, Translator …”

  1. dmf Says:

    lovely, thanks for sharing this and for walking us thru it.

  2. cloudminder Says:

    sometimes folks/your colleagues admonish you for posting stuff like this for free, ‘off the clock’…

    &^%$ ’em
    wonderful- all of it.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Thank you, cloudminder.

  4. Quid plura? | “And they burned up the diner where I always used to find her…” Says:

    […] University Diaries leads you through “Sublunary,” a poem by A.E. Stallings. […]

  5. Quid plura? | “If you want to tell me something new, I might stick around…” Says:

    […] University Diaries led us through “Sublunary,” a poem by A.E. Stallings. […]

  6. David Scott Says:

    The Ecstasy is another Donne masterpiece.

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