A fear of and fascination with loneliness dominates Julia Story’s Spinster for Hire, a collection whose poems move back and forth between the speaker’s Midwestern upbringing and her adulthood, following moments of isolation and misconnections with others as she ages. Solitude in Spinster for Hire is specifically Midwestern in its Indiana childhood homes and rural farmlands and churches, yet its hauntings wrestle with larger existential questions that mystify the speaker at any point in her life. Story does not include romantic love as a goal for the speaker, never classifying her as a “spinster” in a stereotypical sense. In a series of devastatingly blunt narrative poems, Spinster for Hire reckons with being seen and unseen, with the known and the unknown, and instead of resolving these issues, Story demonstrates that the speaker’s interior world offers more respite than any person could give her.
Though the speaker’s childhood self in Spinster for Hire is afraid of being alone, she still seeks out loneliness for a sense of familiarity and freedom. In one of the book’s opening poems, “Indiana Problem (Alone),” the speaker states, “To wake meant / get on the bike, / try every day / to look for a place / to be alone.” Many of Story’s poems describe these repeated, solitary, and seemingly pointless actions. There are twelve “Indiana Problem” variations throughout the book, many of which are separated into three brief sections gulfed by silent pauses and emptiness. In “Indiana Problem (Three Steaks),” after describing babysitters, Barbies, and TV dinners, the speaker admits, “I […] walked into / the firefly-packed / dark green dark and / no one looked / for me.” The divided structures of these poems read as miniature suburban portraits, echoes of familiar childhood images and the speaker’s lack of recognition among them. In “Indiana Problem (Mousetrap),” noting the “dark Hosier sadness” closing in on her home one evening, the speaker says, “I didn’t plan this / second kingdom: / not exactly in the mind / or the heart but in the dullness between / them, a waiting so long it made another / body in case this one got too lonely.” As these images of the speaker arriving, departing, and waiting in darkness or stillness culminate, they serve as blunt reminders that her isolation is a quintessential part of her childhood, just like watching Small Wonder and Little House on the Prairie, or playing Mousetrap and Lite Brite.
As an adult, the speaker tests for proof of her own existence in the physical world as she is often not recognized by others. In “Barely There,” Story writes, “I had touched the weeping birch in the cemetery so many times that there was a small mark, / a grease mark or worn place where my hand had rested, trying to feel the spinning that connected it / to some invisible underground pathway.” Story combats the dullness and ordinariness of the Midwest with haunted houses and ghosts, the familiar, flat landscapes made strange. In the title poem, the speaker instructs, “If you look up you can see / me in my window, one spot / of life in our hibernation, / our long orchard of silence.” Story often renders the divide between the speaker and others physically so that she is an observer to a world in which she does not belong. The speaker is terrified by the spiritual realm, and one night stays up thinking about demonic possession, skeletons, and the dark. In “Moth,” the speaker compares herself to the insect, stating, “I hid in the walls, / white and dusty. There is / no one to hear me say it / and there is no voice / to say it with: I was loved.” Time and again, the speaker worries her existence does not matter because no one is there to recognize it. Fears that should subside after childhood, like being afraid of the dark, continue to plague the speaker, and age offers no clarity or answers to her existential questions; she is simply alone.
Rather than forming any lasting attachments to anyone, Story’s speaker accepts isolation as a part of herself, inseparable from any memory and toward which she always moves. Her ex-husband is only briefly mentioned, but without any hate or longing. After discovering that he will marry the woman he cheated on her with, the speaker confesses, “Bubbles / rose in me over / and over. Grief, / I thought, finally. / But it was joy.” None of the speaker’s ruminations on loneliness revolve around lost or unrequited romantic love, defying assumptions about the way a “spinster” is typically cast. In the following poem, “Romantics,” the speaker dreams of living in the spaces she once feared: “Now my head / is filled with as many empty houses as I dream / as I creak around their closets, dangerous balconies, / the dark tragic corners of their basements.” The speaker now knows she wants to occupy a world in which her worth is not dependent on others. In Spinster for Hire’s last poem, “And the Waters Prevailed,” the speaker declares, “Underneath [the rain’s] constant muttering / is the anthem of the ground: Until further / notice, I’m alive.” Story moves the speaker completely away from the narrative of the life we expect to follow, one that includes marriage, children, etc. All that matters is that the speaker knows she is here and that she controls the life she wants to live.
Spinster for Hire is rich in nostalgic details from an Indiana upbringing: the after-dinner lull with Ripley’s Believe it or Not on the TV, playing an Addams Family pinball game, or a dog chasing a kid down a country road. Yet loneliness and emptiness cast a gloom over all the speaker’s memories, no matter how quaint they seem. While one might assume that the speaker would change, fall in love, or find clarity as she ages, she instead learns that her interior life and individual experience are as valuable as a life shared with others. Story’s work arrives at a time when many of us do not know how to navigate this year’s profound isolation, yet Spinster for Hire stares headlong into uncertainty with clear-eyed determination and grace.
Emmalee Hagarman earned her MFA in poetry at The Ohio State University, where she served as poetry editor of The Journal. Recently her work was selected by Kenyatta Rogers to receive the Academy of American Poets Award/The Arthur Rense Prize, and also selected by Ruth Awad to receive the Helen Earnhart Harley Fellowship in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Waxwing, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Laurel Review, among others.