There have been a lot of great books of poetry published this year, and there have been a lot of great lines in those books. Take these from Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, which speak, in a manic and intelligent voice, about America and poetic form: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” Or these, from Catherine Barnett’s Human Hours, which still make me laugh every time I read them: “Samuel Beckett, who to me is very fly, / may not fit everybody’s definition of fly.”
But my favorite come from “Little Owl,” a sixteen-line gem of a poem in A. E. Stallings’s fourth and latest collection, Like. The poem opens, “It’s not what we see, but what sees us / Makes us who we are.” There’s so much to love here: the nicely balanced, slowly unfolding first line that tumbles into the much shorter, much quicker second; the simple, monosyllabic diction; the chiasmus (we-us-us-we); the confidence of its voice.
Yet there’s also the way that Stallings flips the typical poetic perspective on seeing. Most poets would assert that it’s precisely what we see that makes us who we are; that it’s our capacity to see, and the things we train our sight on, that define us. Think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sandpiper,” for example—another excellent poem about a bird, another excellent poem about seeing. In it, Bishop looks at a sandpiper, and what she sees is that he’s looking, too. As the bird runs along the shoreline searching for food, he “stares at the dragging grains”; he is “focused,” “obsessed,” “looking for something, something, something.” The poem suggests that the sandpiper is who he is because of how and what he looks at, and it suggests that Bishop is who she is because of how and what she looks at. Seeing is selfhood, and so is poetry.
To be clear, Stallings herself sees things with impressive exactitude. As we move through “Little Owl,” Stallings gives us outstanding little bits of noticing, like the owl “balanced implausibly on an olive branch.” (How lovely that “implausibly” is!) Like in general is filled with precisely seen, exquisitely rendered details. In one poem, a swarm of bees “helicopters into a different dimness / Taking their saddlebags of sweetness with them.” In another, the speaker sees “ink-black seaweed tossed among the rocks / Like obsolete typewriter ribbons.”
In a collection that so carefully notes what we see, why claim then that it’s “what sees us / Makes us who we are”? The final lines of “Little Owl” suggest an answer. As we move towards the end, the watcher becomes the watched, and the imaginative scale of the poem expands dramatically: “Then [the owl] swiveled the orbit of her gaze upon us / Like the Cyclops eye-beam of a lighthouse.” We think we’re in charge, that the owl is under our gaze and thus under our control, only to find that we are not and that he is not. The poem, and the world, are larger—more mythic, more terrifying—than we had thought.
In this poem and throughout Like, Stallings works brilliantly and inventively within inherited forms: sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, terza rima. Many if not all of the poems rhyme; most are in regular meter. The poet and critic Michael Robbins has described form as “those features that make a given verbal act shareable”; they link the poem up with tradition, with a broader and communal history of which it becomes a part. It’s not what we see, but what sees us makes us who we are: for the formalist poet, the poem becomes what it is by taking its place and its freedom under the watchful gaze of form.
What we are, in this poem and throughout the collection, is at the mercy, under the power or love, of forces beyond us: poetic forms, intimate families, strange cultures, stranger gods. To be seen is to realize that your perspective is folded within a larger one; to write formal poetry is to realize that your creation is folded within a larger history of creation. Both lessons are useful.