Komunyakka wins the first round

Yusef Komunyakaa, the 1st Seed in the Midwest/South Bracket this year has defeated A.E. Stallings (16th Seed) in first round play.  Here’s Marla Muse with the analysis:

Marla Muse:  As a woman, I was rooting for a Stallings upset, but it wasn’t to be, Tom.  The chief problem with Stallings’ “The Tantrum” (her sole poem in the Dove anthology) was the “they” in the poem is not defined, and “they” are so crucial, because the poem ends “And they were wrong;” but we don’t know who they are!  “They” speak for the mother, who is weeping upstairs, but who are “they?”  And they “bribe” the child with “cake” and “playthings,” but how do you bribe someone with “curses?”  Finally, we are not sure why, in the last line, when it is “you know she never did,” it has to be “And they were wrong.”  The poet seems to be saying that not only does the child suffer because the mother “never did” grow her hair back, but also she suffers because “they were wrong.”  The fact, as well as the salve, broke the child’s heart.  “And they were wrong” seems a little forced.  The poem ends, not with a turn, or an insight, but merely the painful conclusion to a tragic event in which too much is finally withheld.

The neo-formalists, of whom Stallings is one, tend to err in this: almost ashamed of their formalism, they counter with nuance in content to such an extent that the two (form and content) are strangely at odds.  Music (rhyme and meter) provides emphasis and emphasis requires clarity to work.  But if the sophisticate fears clarity, their formalism will not succeed; every echo will ring hollow.

Struck with grief you were, though only four,
The day your mother cut her mermaid hair
And stood, a stranger, smiling at the door.

They frowned, tsk-tsked your willful, cruel despair,
When you slunk beneath the long piano strings
And sobbed until your lungs hiccupped for air,

Unbribable with curses, cake, playthings.
You mourned a mother now herself no more,
But brave and fashionable. The golden rings

That fringed her naked neck, whom were they for?
Not you, but for the world, now in your place,
A full eclipse. You wept down on the floor;

She wept up in her room. They told you this:
That she could grow it back, and just as long,
They told you, lying always about loss,

For you know she never did. And they were wrong.

Well done, Marla; I’m sure your fans appreciate your insights.   Komunyakaa’s “Thanks” seems to have higher stakes than the Stallings—a man surviving war; but what is crucial is Komunyakaa’s scenes and images are more scattered, but they cohere better in the poem. Perhaps the only lapse is “as we played some deadly game for blind gods.”  some deadly game for blind gods pulled me right out of the poem.  The final “moved only when I moved” sums up the poem nicely.

Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.

Komunyakaa 81, Stallings 75


  1. David said,

    March 26, 2012 at 12:43 am


    I cannot get excited about these piddling contests between minor moderns. Give us a cage match between Shelley and Eliot, a bare-knuckle brawl between Byron and Pound, or a high-noon duel between Poe and Stevens. This March Madness is Much Ado About Nothing. Or perhaps I’m missing a larger purpose here?


  2. Des said,

    March 26, 2012 at 1:02 am

    At this moment, in this emotional zone, mood and relationship with reality, I concur with you/s the Judge on the result, and though I agree Komunyakka’s is the better poem of the two, not having read the printed input of the two voices and one mind arrogating itself the role of judge (and spokesperson for Poetry), not necessarrily for the same or even similar reasons as you judge/s.

    The first comment I wanted to make on reading who was going head to head, and continue to after having read the finer poem of the two, is that Stallings’s poems are written by one of, if not the, most easily apprachable and interesting American poet of her generation writing today. Her poetry’s been likened (on wikipedia) to Edna St. Vincent Millay and Richard Wilbur’s. I first came across the work of this multiple winner writing online at Eratosphere/AbleMuse – what its users call the ‘sphere’. For a majority of ablemuse members this site is our sole center of public practice and engagement, and often for many of the elders in our virtual poetry community, the one place where our poetry is read and discussed critically with any respect.

    The cohort there do have other well respected poets. New Zealand opera singer Janet Kenny, who retired to, and posts from, Australia after a life singing in Europe. Tim somebody who regularly publishes in quality journals, and lots of others. Quincy Lehr, a New York history professor teaching community college in the Bronx, whose true self broke out so gloriously on the e-page of CPR, in his hilarious take on the truth of being a published poet in New York. But, Stallings, in my opinion, is the undisputed one-off this community has thus far produced.

    She started online without pretension, getting stuck in with the literary riff-raff and evolving from there to where she is now. Greece. In the place of a poetry she lives, speaks, works and breathes on behalf of: the Homeric code, soul and the sole system this woman is interested in as a poet-critic. I can’t praise her too highly. She is one of the (many) most poetically significant American poets, possibly the best (these things are impossible to prove), but the above poem is not one of her finest. At her most creative she can be (quietly) breathtaking. An authentic and sincere gift for poetry, Stallings makes no claims for it; instead she just publishes great poetry and occassional prose.

    Of all the many names you read in relation to contemporary poetry publishing in English, most, after reading their poems, are ignored. There are some you keep up with because they are ahead of you intellectually or creatively, even though their poetry doesn’t excite the mythical majority of us, and you play along and speak of it with a certain polite respect, say oh yes, excellent. On seeing their name on the new poems sidebar of The Page website, you go to the link and check it out. Some are great, like one of Muldoon’s recent ones (balancing the clunker that came before or after it) and some poems merely paying a fee. Sir Andrew in his laureate years wrote dross for lots of money. Commander Carol Ann is doing the same now, because if I see Duffy’s a new one out on the ‘recently published’ sidebar of The Page website, I always go to the link and read it, but of late they confirm a guess that they fall far short of being near her better ones. Stallings’s however, I click to her latest poem confident I am going to be impressed.

    There are plenty to read online. I just read this one, The Tulips, for the first time a few moments ago. after googling ‘ae stallings poem’.

    And now, after all this, I just discovered she recently got a MacArthur ‘genius’ award twnety two others got: a ‘one off’ half a million gift to be spent how they want and is given merely for the sake of their Art. So, now I know that, I understand the instinct was correct, though the high praise was too much. It makes me appear behind the arc of what’s going on in contemporary poetry. The image I had of her prior to learning she’d just won the lottery, is of a very well settled poet with a great life in greece, married, both parents of a son Jason, working and well off in comparison to the average Greek who’ve suffered most in the ongoing economic woes of Europe.

    I understand too how an image of Stallings the Poet A.E., is easily rendered, by the enthusiastic imagination, into a character more the reader’s own creation than a correct assessment of where in the rank Stallings stands as a contestant in this March Madness Free For All Live Poetry Slam, with five days more left. So far there’s a lot through to the next round. Bernsteins there, with Komunyakka, and your judge’s weaker choices of those I don’t remember and whose poetry is critically unexciting.

    Watching the Vulture at the Road Kill

    You know Death by his leisure—take
    The time we saw the vulture make
    His slow, hot-air-balloon descent
    To a possum smashed beside the pavement.

    We stopped the car to watch. Too close.
    He bounced his moon-walk bounce and rose
    With a shrug up to the kudzu sleeve
    Of a pine, to wait for us to leave.

    What else can afford to linger?
    The eagle has his trigger-finger,
    Quails and doves their shell-shocked nerves—
    There is no peace but scavengers.

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