‘Sine Qua Non‘ is fairly short, but within its fifteen lines, there is a great deal to unpack. The poet uses a wide variety of imagery to paint a sensory picture of the emotion of absence. It is far from truly “nothing”. It is integral to the way that the world feels and how it operates, as revealed in the second stanza.
Explore Sine Qua Non
‘Sine Qua Non’ by A.E. Stallings is a powerful poem about the importance of “nothing” and “absence” in one speaker’s life.
The poem focuses on the impact that a father’s absence has on a speaker’s life. When the poem begins, it initially seems as though the speaker is unmoved by this absence. They refer to it as “naught” and “nothing.” But the absence is something that becomes more powerful as the poem progresses. It is the “nothing” that one notices when the crickets stop chirping, and the fridge stops humming.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Sine Qua Non’ by A.E. Stallings is a two-stanza poem that is divided into one set of eight lines and another set of seven. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should trigger the reader’s senses. For example, “the needle’s eye / Weeping its black thread. It is the spot / Blindly spreading behind the looking glass.”
- Metaphor: can be seen when the poet compares two things without using “like” or “as.” For example, the speaker compares the absence of her father to “The gap of a dropped stitch.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of the second stanza.
Your absence, father, is nothing. It is nought—
Weeping its black thread. It is the spot
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by using a refrain. This same phrase is used at the beginning of the second stanza. She notes that her father’s “absence” is “nothing.” It’s unclear in these lines whether or not her father has died or is just no longer present in the speaker’s life. Either way, it has the same effect on the speaker.
They note that their father’s absence is like “the gap of a dropped stitch.” It is so hard to see that it’s almost impossible to notice that it’s missing. At the same time, one might argue that this statement also suggests that while it is a small absence, it is also one that compromises the integrity of the thing being sewn up. That one stitch is an important part of the item/pattern.
There is a great example of personification in the next lines. The speaker describes the “needle’s eye / Weeping its black thread.” This is in reaction to the dropped thread. These are small items, the thread, and the needle’s eye. But, they are still weeping. They are still associated with negative emotions.
Blindly spreading behind the looking glass.
And crickets pause to let the winter pass.
In the next lines, the speaker compares their father’s absence to other hard to notice things. This includes the “spot” behind the “looking glass.” It’s small and hard to notice at first, but when one sees it, it’s hard to ignore. The same kind of metaphor is created in the next lines when the speaker compares her father’s absence to the surprising silence when the “refrigerator stops its hum.”
Just like the spot, the hum of the fridge is not something one usually notices until it stops. It’s the same as the pause in the cricket’s chirping.
Your absence, father, is nothing—for it is
Omega’s long last O, memory’s elision,
The interstice of lace,
The zero still holds the sum in place.
In the second stanza, the speaker uses the same phrase they started the first stanza with. They make several more, this time more ephemeral statements about their father. Including the father’s emptiness is the “fraction of impossible division / The element I move through, emptiness.” While the poem started out suggesting to the reader that the speaker was unmoved by their father’s absence it becomes clear that their absence is as integral to life as “nothing” is.
It is like the “void stars hang in.” The absence is integral to their life in the same way as the “zero that still holds the sum in place.”
The themes at work in this poem are absence and nothing. The speaker focuses on what these two things mean in the grand scheme of things. It seems like one wouldn’t miss “nothing,” but that’s far from the truth.
The phrase “sine qua non” is Latin. It literally translates to “without which, not.” It is used to refer to something that is absolutely integral to life. In this case, the speaker’s father.
It is possible that the speaker is the poet herself but, without clear evidence to support this, it’s better to assume that the speaker is a persona the poet created in order to convey the text.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other A.E. Stallings poems. For example:
- ‘Epic Smile’ – uses a simile of an epic hero longing for a hero’s death to depict how as one seeks out happiness it may become more allusive and harder to enjoy than it was to begin with.
- ‘Actaeon’ – is based on the captivating mythological story of Actaeon and is told from the perspective of a speaker who taunts the main character for how he lost his life.
- ‘Olives’ – explores the features of the fruit and its resemblance to her poems. It describes how the olives taste like in different cases and why the speaker likes these “small bitter drupes.”