The title of the piece refers to an ability to fend off the influences of evil, something that is called into question in the poem. You can read the full poem here.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the old-fashioned nature of Evil’s manners. He is quaint and without any solid strength. His “nerves” are so raw that any small sound sends him into a frenzy of fear, and he is disturbed by any “poignant smells.” His stomach is so weak that he can only eat bland foods, a fact that separates him further from the modern world.
If one were to be approached by Evil, the speaker says, it would be easy enough to get rid of him. He is unable to enter homes unless invited and is scared off by vulgarity. One could simply spit in his eye, and his delicate nature would send him out the door. All of this is in an attempt to show that Evil has no place in modern society, that it is something that society has outgrown. This is clearly not the case in the last stanza.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Apotropaic‘, the reader learns that all of these faces that Evil might put on are for humankind’s benefit. The “talented” and most skilled members of society are brought to his side. They are tempted by his power and believe they can control their own fate; they cannot. Evil might appear as a charming force, simple and easy to control, but that is exactly what he wants you to see.
Analysis of Apotropaic
Pity Evil his quaintness and old-fangled
Shy of onion, garlic, pungent smells,
At the beginning of this poem, the speaker is asking the reader to reconsider “Evil,” and whether or not one should actually fear it. By the end of the poem, a conclusion, perhaps not the expected one, will be reached.
She begins by telling the reader that one must “Pity Evil” because he is quaint and old-fashioned in his “Manner.” He was created so long ago when the world was so much different than it is now, he is cast as being not up to the challenges of the modern age. He is weak in his talk and delicate in his disposition. His “nerves” are described as being “raw.” Anything at all can set him off, from “bells” to “firecrackers.”
Traditionally, one would imagine Evil to be a force of immense strength and power, but this speaker is showing the reader something different. A version of Evil that anything at all can “leave…spooked and jangled.”
Not only do sounds bother him, but smells as well. He is “shy,” or adverse to the smell of “onion, garlic” and all other “pungent smells.” All in all, he is made to seem weak.
His stomach thrown off by a pinch of salt,
When not invited in. You can be rid
The speaker continues on, degrading the strength and statue of “Evil.” His constitution is unable to handle even a pinch of salt. In fact, he longs for the blandest and most boring of foods as they are what he is most used to. It goes without saying that contemporary fare is beyond his reach as well.
Additionally, it is with an apparent ease that one may be rid of “Evil.” He does not enter a room or house without first being invited as he is confined by the ceremony. This once more speaks to his “old-fangled” or old fashioned nature. It is as if he does not realize the power that he has.
Of his prescence by vulgarity – eschew
Beauty attracts him. He’s quick to befriend
If Evil is invited into a home, it is easy to get rid of him. He is turned off and terrified by the use or “presence of vulgarity” and one might drive him away or eschew him by spitting in “His curious eye.” All one has to do is push back slightly against his advances as he is gone.
“Evil” has another weakness, beauty. He is drawn to “the color blue,” and “Beauty attracts him.” This is another avenue that one may take advantage of when trying to be rid of him.
The lucky, the talented, the heaven-sent –
Bowing, with his black hat in his hand
In the final stanza, things take a turn. The prior quatrains fill the reader with confidence that if they were to be approached by Evil they would know him by sight. One might now believe that it is within their power to drive him off and resume their lives, but that is not quite the case.
In this quatrain, the reader should start to get suspicious about who exactly is speaking this poem and what their intentions are. The speaker tells the reader that “Evil” makes fast friends with the most “talented,” and lucky among humankind. Those that seem to be “heaven-sent” are often the most easily tempted and brought into his sway. Through this depiction of him as a weakling, these “talented” people are going to trust him. “Evil” is brought close to these people, and all others. He charms, “Bowing” and holding “his black hat in his hand.” He is a conniving force who knows that any depiction of himself as being weak only works in his favor.
He is none of these things that the reader has learned in the last stanzas but is more than content to be seen that way, it is too his great advantage.
About A. E. Stallings
A. E. Stallings, full name, Alicia Elsbeth Stallings, was born in 1968 in Decatur, Georgia, in northeast Atlanta. She went to the University of Georgia and Oxford University where she studied classics. Throughout her life, she has published three collections of poetry, Archaic Smile, Hapax, and Olives. Olives was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her translation work has been favorably received, and she has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and a MacArthur “genius grant.”
Her poems have appeared in a number of publications such as Best American Poetry, The New Atlantic Monthly, and Poetry Magazine.