Spinster for Hire by Julia Story
The Word Works, 2020
75 pages, $18.00
Review by Rebecca Connors
I first came across Julia Story’s work when I read her poem “Her Time in Purgatory” on Twitter: “Would you rather stay here / or return to your body? // Return to my body. // Even if the body is wrong…Even if you have to live / away from the world. // Yes. Even then. Away from the world…” I was immediately taken by the voice of the speaker. I went to Six Finch Books and bought her chapbook, Julie the Astonishing (2019). [Note: Poems from this chapbook can be found in Tinderbox, Issue 5.1 (https://tinderboxpoetry.com/previous-volume?volume=5&issue=1)] I was happy to discover her full-length collection called Spinster for Hire, recently published this spring. This book is her fourth, with the previously published Post Moxie (Sarabande, 2010), which was selected by Dan Chiasson as winner of the 2009 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, and the chapbook, The Trapdoor (Dancing Girl Press, 2014).
Spinster for Hire deals with pain, isolation, and feelings of confinement. There is a notion of mourning, but also a journey from unknowing to knowing – throughout the collection, the speaker wants to find her place in the world. And in searching for her place, the speaker in these poems has stories to tell about trees, bicycles, for-rent signs, and fireworks.
The book opens with the poem “The Pain Scale.” The first three lines read “You ask me every time I come / to give you the definition of this thing // I carry with me.” The poem set in couplets brings the reader to the speaker in a very intimate way: “You ask me every time…” The poem ends in a single line stanza, “and we stand here together like clouds” intimating that even though we are together, relationships can be tenuous and fleeting.
Story now lives in Massachusetts, but was raised in Indiana. In a series of 12 poems throughout the book called “Indiana Problem,” parentheticals in these poems’ titles give a sense of the nature of the problem: (Alone), (Time), (Fear, 1983). The speaker re-explores her childhood, searching houses, mini gyms, and games, as she writes in “The Indiana Problem (Mousetrap),” “Boredom was always a dim garden in / the background, a place where twilight / was described by adults, ears stretched / toward the opening notes of sitcoms.” Story uses the artifact of childhood, a game or a shuttlecock, to review her past. Once we have enough experience, these reflections reveal new layers to our memories.
Using these symbols of our earlier life, she can evoke that distance between what we knew then and what we know now. I grew up with Lite Brites and Barbie dolls, Small Wonder and Alf. Even if we were not of the same generation, I would still find much to admire in her work, which contains universally relatable themes of grief, isolation, and growth.
Story is exceptional at world-building. She can slip back and forth between mundane and surreal, and this lends itself to the gothic nature of her work. She makes associative leaps from what the speaker observes in real time and seamlessly pulls the reader into a dream world and then returns the reader to the concrete world. As she brings us back and forth, it feels as if we are visiting with the ghosts of our former selves, when really they are near us and wary of us as we are of them. Hear the ghosts in the latter half of the poem “Indiana Problem (Time):”
[…]Instead of fear, time increased its
chambers: in this moment I was also
damply reading in the carpeted living
room with the smells of old candles
and summer street gathering around
me like a body. Held there in the sack
of time I could rest with the road,
the dog, the trees, the dark and feel
the body waving from a distance: me.
The saddest part of leaving was the lack
of other bodies, their sharp flying-off
somewhere into the hive of night.
Following the theme of otherworldliness, the church plays a central role in her childhood memories. The Rapture, Sunday School, and demonic possession appear throughout her work and she approaches these aspects of religion as if they are part of her folklore. In “Indiana Problem (Covenant),” the speaker alludes to guilt and isolation:
Every Maundy Thursday they turned off all the lights at church while a deacon yelled “Crucify him!” from the balcony. Once it scared me so much I cried, guilty over my role in the demise of the kind dead person who wanted to be my friend…
She evokes the trinity in “The New Trinity,” when she writes, “…A new trinity of friends, because why shouldn’t I befriend the demon? Holding hands around the campfire that was once my heart and is now a home for wayward others.” The poet questions her religious upbringing, as part of her journey to find her place, and in so doing, she learned to welcome others and provide sanctuary.
She also references the bardo—the liminal state between death and rebirth in the Buddhist tradition. The inclusion of two bardos in this manuscript demonstrates how the speaker is in the process of navigating another world. For example, “Indiana Bardo” shows a moment suspended in time waiting for an action to occur:
[…] Even the air
was polite. The opinions of the park
were far away and the dark stairs
to the basement offered themselves
with no strings: come down or don’t.
Reflecting the liminal state of the bardo, symbols of transition such as doors, hallways, rivers/boats, and the basement appear throughout the book. In this passage from one phase into the other, there is much that is said and unsaid – and I think this relates to the speaker’s need to be seen. If we can’t speak the words that call us into being, how can we be visible?
In the longest poem in the book, “Boathouse,” the poet explores this notion of being seen and heard,
[…]The boat of many years
of floating between words
to get to the right word.
The house not a shelter but
floating in your dream
so you can’t get in.[…]
Sometimes it feels as if we have gone for so long without being seen or heard, it makes our existence seem tenuous. The poem ends with the speaker on an island, separated from her family,
[…]the lake, where
our boat was swallowed into
the bluish line between
water and sky. Which isn’t
really a line at all, just another
blue space where I couldn’t be.
Though her family has not returned to find her somehow she feels responsible for her absence. I so relate to the need to belong, to the feeling of being left behind.
Julia Story is an observant poet. She leads us through her childhood, investigates religion and its impact on her, and transitions to the present. Here is the last line from “And the Waters Prevailed,” the final poem in the book, “Until further / notice, I’m alive.” Her voice is so assured that I jump to follow where she goes. I dream of skeletons, empty houses, iced tea, and coasting barefoot on my bicycle when I read her work.
BIO: Rebecca Connors’ poems can be found in Glass, Rogue Agent, Lily Poetry Review, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. Her chapbook, Split Map (Minerva Rising Press) was published in 2019. She lives with her family in Boston, where she received her MFA at the Solstice Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. Follow her on Twitter @aprilist or visit her site at aprilist.com.