‘First Love: A Quiz‘ is an unconventional poem. It presents the mythological abduction story of Persephone by the god of the Underworld, Hades. This poem has four sections each providing four options that may or may not happen in the plot. Stallings gives the possible developments in the plot by the given options. It seems that the speaker is talking about a modern love story. In this story, an innocent girl encounters a man whom she likes. Later, she realizes that the man does not love him. He approached her for his carnal desires.
This poem begins with a reference to how the conversation began. The person came up to the speaker and tried to grab her attention with his cliche tactics. It is important to mention here that in each stanza, four possible events might have happened with the girl. The last option alludes to the abduction story of Persephone.
In the second stanza, the speaker talks about how the person made her go on a date with him. He offered her a ride and asked her whether she liked to have dinner or a movie with him.
In the third stanza, the first three options describe how that the girl made a conscious decision out of her bodily desires. While the last option deals specifically with the story of Persephone.
The last stanza contains direct references to mythology. This section implicitly throws light on how Persephone ate the seeds and could not wholly return to the mother earth.
You can read the full poem here.
This piece has a quiz-like structure. It seems as if Stallings is asking the readers some questions about the speaker and her love story. She provides options that fit into the frame of the story. The poem consists of four stanzas. Each stanza contains a multiple choice question and the following lines are the options. There is only one variation in the last stanza. This stanza contains five options.
The overall poem does not have a specific rhyme scheme. It is free verse and told from the perspective of a first-person speaker. That’s why it is an example of a lyric poem. There is not any set metrical pattern in this piece. However, Stallings mostly uses iambic feet with a few variations. As the syllable count per line is not regular, it is difficult to say what is the major meter of the text.
The poem begins with a symbol. In the second line, the “souped-up Camaro” is a phallogocentric symbol. Readers can find the use of simile in the last line (the last option of the first question). Here, “a team of stallions black as crude oil” contains a comparison between the color of the horses with that of the crude oil. The phrase, “tiny golden arrow” contains an allusion to Cupid’s golden arrow that is also called the arrow of love.
The most important device that is used in this poem is enjambment. This device can be found in the last few lines of each stanza. In the second stanza, there is a reference to the narcissus. It alludes to the abduction of Persephone by Hades. The phrase, “a sweetness as cloying as/ decay” contains a simile and irony as well.
All options present in the last stanza allude to the mythological story. The reference to the “bitter seed” foreshadows how Persephone was trapped in the Underworld, and the line, “is called by some men hell and others love” contains an understatement.
He came up to me:
tiny golden arrow.
Stallings’ ‘First Love: A Quiz’ has a quiz-like structure. For this reason, each stanza of the text begins with a question that is followed by four options. Each option deals with the possible development in the modern love story. The culmination of the plot is tragic. It is important to understand each stanza from beginning to end for understanding how a girl makes a series of mistakes in a modern relationship. At last, she loses her innocence and virginity.
In the first stanza, Stallings provides four options that deal with the preliminary interaction of the girl with the intruder. The person belongs to the rich section of society. He enters the scene with his souped-up Camaro. This car contains a phallogocentric symbol. It connects the idea of masculinity with an object. The way the name of the car is introduced seems to be describing a warrior brandishing his sword.
Readers have to choose any one of the following options. Interestingly, when they read all the options, they feel all options are correct according to their contexts. So, all the options are integrated to frame the story. In the story, the person talks to the speaker’s skinny best friend to get access to her heart. It is a conventional step.
In the second step, he tries to grab her attention by provoking anger. To do so, he consciously bumps into her when she is sipping her wine. After the collision, the wine spills and stains her sleeve. It’s a hint that the souped-up guy has already made a mark on her heart. Though this kind of gesture is not accepted in a courteous meeting, in modern relationships it adds oil to the machinery of love.
The last option does not match the content of the story at all. Through this line, the poet is neither talking about the relationship. She is referring to the mythological abduction story of Persephone. In this story, Hades, the god of the Underworld, comes out from the chasm in the ground. He rides a chariot drawn by a team of Black stallions. Their color resembles that of crude oil. They breathe sulfur. It is a reference to the car by which the person entered the scene. In this way, the poet compares Hades with him.
In the last part, “he sported a tiny golden arrow” refers to the golden arrow of Cupid. He struck Apollo with this arrow and made him fall in love. In the story, the man wore this metaphorically. So, after seeing the person, the speaker falls in love with him, not for how a person he was but for his extravagance.
He offered me:
that breathed a sweetness as cloying as
The second stanza of ‘First Love: A Quiz’ describes what the person offers the speaker. According to her, he tried to convince her to spend time with him by employing three cliched proposals. It includes offering her a car ride, dinner, and a movie. Not only that, he winked at her for fuelling the naughty side of her mind. It seems that the flirtatious man has many such encounters before. That’s why what he did in the first meeting reveals how experienced he was in the game of love.
Besides, he also provided her some reasons not to go back to her home. According to him, she had to spend her time washing her dirty knives. So, it’s better to stay with him. Whatsoever returning lonely at home was neither a good choice for her. In this way, the speaker was convinced. What worked in her case is not hard to understand. She might have chosen all the given offerings.
The last option returns to the story of Persephone. Why does the poet bring that myth into her poem? There is a reason for doing so. If readers put their attention on the last option, they can understand that like Persephone the speaker was also mesmerized by the external beauty of the metaphorical “narcissus”. Here, the “narcissus” is a symbol of the lustrous offerings that the lady received.
Hades used the flower to trick Persephone and it made her disengage from her group. Thus, it was easy for the god to abduct her. Similarly, the person offered her those things to keep her mind away from reality and block her mind from the grave events that were associated with going on a date with a stranger.
The sweetness of the flower was “as cloying as decay.” What does it mean? Firstly, readers have to know what “cloy” means. It means to disgust, or sicken a person with an excess of sweetness. So, through this phrase, Stallings presents an interesting idea. In Persephone’s case, she was attracted by the sweet smell of the flower. However, the more she stared at it the more it destroyed her common sense and reasoning. Similarly, the style and charm of the person made her completely forget what to do at such a moment. In this way, her innocence cloyed.
I went with him because:
half-finished basement, and he took me by
This stanza describes the other side of a modern relationship. In this section, the poet describes how the speaker is also responsible for the event that was about to happen with her. She consciously gave the key of her heart as she was impressed by his flamboyance. So, the thirst was in both of them. It does not matter who kindles the first fire if the response is simultaneously coming from both hearts.
According to the speaker, his friends warned her. Therefore it was not a mistake, rather it was a conscious decision to go on a date with him. What was running inside her mind while she was making this choice? She thought she had nothing to lose except virginity. This line is the most important one to understand the mindset of the speaker. It reflects how her carnal desires activated her mind to respond to his bodily calls.
So, when he placed his hand on her back, she did not feel annoyed or terrified. She rather felt the “tread of honeybees.” It seems as if she was also ready for the move.
The last line again refers to the mythological story. According to the speaker, he was her uncle. By the term “uncle,” the poet is talking about Hades, the brother of Zeus. He lived in the “half-finished basement” that is a metaphor for the Underworld. While he was abducting Persephone, he took her by the hair and took her to his realm. Similarly, the person dragged the speaker’s senses with his bodily moves and took her to a kingdom, new to her. In this way, she lost her virginity on that night.
The place he took me to:
e. all of the above
The last stanza of ‘First Love: A Quiz’ deals with the place where the person took her. After reading this section, it becomes clear why the poet chose the title, “First Love”. It is a roundabout way of saying first lovemaking. There is no guarantee whether they were in love or driven by bodily urges. The place where she was taken was dark. The usage of the word, “dark” acts as a symbol in this line. It stands for sex, bodily hunger, and loss of innocence.
From the following lines, the poet shifts to the mythological story for connecting the modern love story with the myth. Persephone was made to eat some pomegranate seeds. Hades knew if she ate some seeds she could not stay in her world for a long time. She had to return anyhow as it was the custom of that time. However, when she ate these metaphorical seeds of “love” she became ripe, not intellectually but physically.
As Persephone ate the seeds, her mother, Demeter would never take her back. Demeter was the goddess of harvest and agriculture and she presides over grains and the fertility of the earth. So, when she was in distress, her mood was reflected in the earth. The “bearded ears of barley” withered and the flowers dropped from their sepals for her grief. So, the earth seemed to be barren. According to mythology, this phase resulted in winter. When her daughter returned to the earth for a short time, the sojourn is known as spring.
The last line contains a reference to hell, another name for the Underworld. According to the speaker, her relationship turned out to be like hell while others called they were in love. As the relationship started on the bodily level, there was no internal satisfaction in her heart. Her body might be satisfied but her internal environment was polluted by sexuality.
This section ends with another option, “all of the above.” It gives a hint to the readers that all the options can be incorporated to form this story. These options can be different from one another, but they are inseparable.
Alicia Elsbeth Stallings, the poet of ‘First Love: A Quiz,’ blended the classical with the Modern in her poems. Stallings’ poetry reveals how the mythological story can be used to discuss modern problems. Likewise, in this piece, she throws light on the nature of modern relationships. According to her, it starts with the external aspects of a person. A lady is often seen as fooled by her ignorance. In the speaker’s case, her lover’s lavish entry baffled her senses. She could not even turn down his too-early requests. Thus, she was also responsible for polluting her inner environment. This unconventional and modern lyric in this way, reveals the negative aspects of a relationship that began on the foundation of sexuality.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in A.E. Stallings’ poem, ‘First Love: A Quiz’.
- Sex Without Love by Sharon Olds – In this poem, the poet asks readers to consider the implications of relationships based on sex rather than emotional love. Explore more Sharon Olds poetry.
- Their Sex Life by A. R. Ammons – This short poem explores the nature of modern relationships and the theme of sexuality. Read more poems by A.R. Ammons.
- Dry-Point by Philip Larkin – This poem is also about sexuality. It uses an image of a bubble to depict the pinnacle of sexual longing. Explore the best Philip Larkin poems and more Larkin’s poems.
- Mock Orange by Louise Glück – This poem describes how the poet looks at the flowers and the intimacy between a man and woman. Read more poems by Louise Glück.