Poetry Sunday: “Empathy,” by A. E. Stallings

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I first heard today’s poem read by its author at the West Chester Poetry Conference in 2016 or 2017, and I knew immediately that one day I’d be featuring it in this column. It has everything I look for in a great work of literature: universality made particular, the power to move and perhaps even change its readers, timelessness, wonderful diction testing the limits of language, execution so masterful that its technical proficiency disappears, and the kind of layered depth that makes it accessible to a very wide range of readers. Organized into seven quatrains using envelope rhyme (abba) and scanning with mostly three beats per line, the poem uses an old form to do what Pound tells us all great poetry should do—make it new.

Borrowing from a technique popular in fiction, “Empathy” braids two narratives. The first is of the speaker at home at night, watching her children sleep in their beds. The second is of another family, Syrian refugees, clinging to a raft to make a night crossing to Greece, a story that dramatically raises the stakes of the poem. The refugees must dodge searchlights and endure being cold, wet, terrified, and worse—the risk of losing their children to drowning. It is in the interplay of these two narratives—accomplished by means of the author’s expressions of gratitude not to be in that other family’s situation—that the poem speaks most powerfully. The contrast between the boy and girl in their snug, dry beds and children in cheap life vests clinging to a raft is almost unbearable.

Although the poem dissects and even disses conventional notions of empathy, saying that it proceeds from self-interest and “isn’t nice,” empathy as we understand it abounds in these lines. That the speaker, safe in her home, is able to identify with the mother on the raft is obvious. Stallings does this by having the speaker imagine herself very precisely in that other mother’s situation: waking her kids in the wee hours to dress for a perilous journey, deciding what to pack and to leave, and even imagining her own bed as a “raft.”

Or rather, by expressing gratitude that her bed is not a raft. This device—talking about things by professing not to talk about them or describing things in terms of what they are not—is an old and effective rhetorical device some call via negativa and part of what one of my teachers Reginald Gibbons called the “apophatic” in a craft lecture at Warren Wilson. It is highly effective, not just because it heightens the drama and opens up fresh ways to describe things, but also because it allows for the delivery of more information in the same amount of space. When Shakespeare says his “mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” we must envision eyes that are like the sun before we can imagine those that are not. We get the image of eyes-like-the-sun and its negation, and that allows for a much more complex and interesting image.

Apart from what this poem says and the way it uses an old form (abba quatrains) to treat an immediate and compelling subject, I love it for its sounds. The meter is not completely regular, but most lines have three strong beats in a rising pattern, achieving what the author calls a “bumpy” iambic trimeter. A significant variation occurs at the beginning of the last stanza, in line 25: “Empathy isn’t generous,” a dactyl followed by a trochee followed by a dactyl, diagrammed as / ~ ~   / ~ / ~ ~. In contrast to the rest of the poem, the meter in this line is falling, and it marks the change from musing about the differences between the two families to musing more abstractly and metaphysically about what that musing means. Although the other lines are mostly iambic, some arguably scan with four beats. Those fluctuations in meter perform an important function of making the lines feel slightly off-kilter just like—you guessed it—the speaker’s “listing” bed, and more to the point, like a raft in turbulent waters. We are meant to feel unstable, one way this poem is engineered to teach us a lesson about empathy—this time in our bodies. Whether we are aware of it or not, that metrical wobble gives us a tiny sense of the experience of that refugee family and so perhaps opens a door to our being able to feel empathy for them.

Meter is one source of the poem’s remarkable music, and another is its mostly-regular end-rhyme scheme, abba. In the first stanza, “tonight” and “light” are full rhymes, and “raft” and “adrift” are slant or near rhymes. In stanzas 2-6, rhymes are full, with some polysyllabic rhyming such as in “water” and “daughter.” The last stanza uses more complex rhyme, pairing the three-syllabled “generous” with three words, “to be us.” Another source of music is the use of alliteration, specifically consonance repeating the beginning consonant sounds of words within a line: “we didn’t wake” (line 6), “scan the sky” (16), “foot off the floor” (20), “bottom bunk” (21), “ceiling is not seeping sky” (23), “not being nice” (26), and “pay any price” (27). As in all of Stallings’s poems, diction is vivid and inventive without being arcane—a mix of vernacular with unusual turns of phrase like “thin hours,” “moiled with wind,” and “seeping sky.”

Stallings uses other storytelling techniques to build tension in the poem. First, we are given the image of a raft, adrift, its hapless occupants trying to dodge the authorities. Then we are taken back to what it must be like to embark upon such a journey, the camera widening into those excruciating moments of children having to choose which beloved toys to leave behind. Things get more ominous with the mention of smuggling rackets and the description of those life jackets. Life jackets plus children is already a scary image, but combined with life jackets that are “cheap” and that—in some cases—end up as “bright orange trash,” it is terrifying. Jackets end up as flotsam when—what? When they are washed overboard, or boats capsize. When people drown. This way of communicating the information that children are drowning is vastly more powerful than just saying it outright because we have to work a little to understand the full impact of those images, and that makes us more vested in them. More importantly, the technique eliminates the risk of melodrama, or of habituation from telling too much, two things that fatally hinder the development of empathy.

Notice how Stallings develops plot in the poem’s refugee story. The opening scene is of the raft trying to evade discovery, then it cuts to an imagined flashback that humanizes its occupants as children and another describing the cruel preparations for the journey. Overlaid on that are the speaker’s actual memories of seeing other life jackets, those belonging to people who did not survive the crossing. The timing of the delivery of these details is exquisite—look how in lines 12-13 Stallings delays that devastating “And less buoyant,” not just until the next line but until the next stanza. Afterwards, the poem puts us right in the raft with that refugee family, so that like them we see nothing but dark sky above mirroring dark water below—darkness, and the wind rising. And, just at that moment, the boat begins “taking on water” (19). As if that were all too much to keep looking (or perhaps as another way to keep tension high), the speaker turns back to her own situation, grateful that her own children are home and safe in their beds. But the information she gives next has to be viewed by us in the context of what has come before, and so her son’s broken arm and daughter’s inability to swim take on very dark overtones.

We don’t know, ultimately, what happens with the refugee family in this poem. That doesn’t matter because we know from the news that theirs is an archetypal tale, one repeated thousands of times over the past few years. Some families survive, and some do not. Some lose a child, sibling, parent, or other family member along the way. Some lose everyone and everything, even themselves. The media images of this daily tragedy are sometimes too painful to look at, or else we look so often that we become dulled to them. That psychological process, habituation, may be the greatest challenge to empathy today, but the poem artfully avoids it by being so subtle and by not resolving this particular family’s fate. This is one of the best political poems I’ve ever read, and I hope you will find yourself as moved by it as I am.

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  • Kati Short April 22, 2018 at 6:40 pm

    Thanks for posting this poem and for the analysis following. I was so moved by the poem that I posted the whole article on my facebook page. Of course, Ms. Foust’s comments are very insightful. For readers who have not read “Home” by Warsan Shire, I strongly recommend it also. With these two poems one could certainly make a strong statement.