On A. E. Stallings’s “Epic Simile”

from A. E. StallingsLike

Like a kestrel or a contrail. The hero’s death,
The prize, elusive quarry of his life,
Stands stock-still in her coven tracks in snow
And turns, one ear tuned to the creek’s far bank,
One dished towards him. Her unstartled gaze
Beads on him like a sniper’s sights, until
At the clean report of a cracking poplar branch,
She leaps away like luck, over rapid water,
And snowfall scrims the scene like a mist of tears,
Like a migraine, like sweat or blood streaming into your eyes.

Cover image of Like

Stallings makes winter’s well-trod canvas (ending, death, transition) paint a setting for her poem. She also makes winter personify grief and physical pain. The poem’s last line triggers its final and unexpected transformation when the reader (or the speaker) bears the blood of wounds and thus directly participates in the hero’s metaphorical death and hunt for glory. We are the foolish hero?

Yes! A grand, extravagant epic simile for starting out the New Year. How not to admire the transformations that the poem’s epic simile sustains to its very end? (The simile at the beginning of the excerpt invites readers to compare a hero’s death to a kestrel or a contrail, just one of many amazing moments in this poem.) But Stallings does nothing by half-measures. The glory and vanity of pursuing a hero’s death transforms into a deer, and the hunted deer wondrously into the hunter, and then again into chance. The poem figuratively alters nature so that it is no longer merely a victim of human violence but has a danger of its own (the gun suggested by the crack of a clean report). Stallings refuses to separate hunter from hunted or to distinguish violence. And pity our hero.His great glorious “hero’s death,” that chance to matter, to be remembered, and thus escape time and death, leaps away.

Suddenly, the poem feels different. Maybe it’s not just about the hero’s death, but the death of heroes. Perhaps maintaining these mythologized personas enacts a kind of violence. Hunting for heroes, believing in them, can wound or hamper our sight.

A. E. StallingsLike. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018