A.E. Stallings’ sonnet “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda” was first published in the September 23, 2013 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
“Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda,” by A.E. Stallings, is a witty, amusing, and ultimately satisfying 14-line poem, and it matters for its use of rhyme.
What I really liked about the poem was that the pyrotechnics express a psychologically true tension between the woman and the man: how she doubts their future, given the difficulties they’ve had in the past, how she cannot just live in the present, and how this makes the man understandably sad and mad. We know what’s she’s putting off without its ever being said.
Stallings uses rhyme to effect a compression and explosion of meaning, and instead of the sentimentality that we often associate with rhyme, there is in this poem an anger that this reader cannot get enough of. Stallings conveys the sense of the argument fast, but to get the nuts and bolts you have to puzzle over it, then, wham, when you’re leaning in, there’s a kind of sucker-punch. What I mean is, there’s a recognition — you see yourself as well as the combatants on the page. The method feels perfect for the purpose — she allows both the man and the woman their due. The poem amuses me, but at the same time, I am struck with how painful and puzzling the dilemma is that these two people find themselves in.
The rhymes (ABAB; CDCD; EFE; FGF) in “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda” are an essential part of the poem’s meaning: they underline both the humor and the regret of the poem, and they compress meaning by forcing associations: when futures is fit to sutures I feel a blow, a visceral cringe, a painful shock. Knife is never mentioned, but it’s implied by strop and butcher, and the poem is so sharpened that it is, in the end, despite its wit, poignant. The short lines and the aggressive, uneven rhythms feel like the beats in an argument. It goes by so fast that, just like in an argument, you’re over the cliff before you know it. Difference is, with a poem, you can go back.
What is so fresh about the poem is its wit. It expresses the couple’s dilemma in the language of grammar, in the delicate sense of verbs: their tense, their mood, their indication of action. The conditional future, the indicative, and the imperfect past all make an appearance here, and they all comment on the relationship. The poem speaks in an idiom that is fresh and sharp.
The poem is funny: the rhymes and brisk rhythms make it so — fricative with indicative is too good. I get his annoyance. But the poem is also about being wounded: butchered and sutures and die insist upon it.
I like, too, the way the poem is mysterious: we have no idea what the specifics of the “imperfect past” are, but we can fill in the blanks. The poem is also mysterious in its language: the verb forms alone give the reader pause. Stallings says that the future should have been bud-packed, which I understand, but she also says it should have been grenade-gravid, which gives me lots of pause. I think perhaps it might mean that the life of any relationship is dependent upon its terrible friction. Any relationship has within it the potential for explosion, and anything new, like the birth of a child, is budpacked, grenade-gravid. In a way, the woman in this poem is saying, the future will hold a lot of challenge, none of it easy, and I will need more than we have to get through it. She’s right about that.
Although the poem is sharp and sardonic, it is also sad and full of regret. The future should have been not just a die miscast. The die in this case means primarily dice, but it also suggests the miscarriage and death of the relationship. There is also admonition here: I feel the possibilities, the cliff, she is suggesting, and I don’t want to go there. And there is the sense of the woman’s particular losses: that there will be no children. The history of this relationship just cannot support them. But there will be no pleasures either.
The poem’s not easy. I had to read it several times. But it’s perfect.