Introducing “The Spinster’s Almanac”: Advice From Poetry -The Toast

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Please email all questions you would like poetry to answer via, with “Spinster’s Almanac” in the subject line. 

Do you have advice on falling in and out (and in again) of love with my husband of three years?

I come to you, dear reader, less with straightforward advice, and more with a series of meditations for you to consider. The Spinster’s Almanac takes its name from a song by Canadian folk musician Christine Fellows, which in turn is inspired by a found newspaper obituary and the life of poet Marianne Moore. I’m just one person, in an old house full of books and whiskey on the Manitoba prairie, and I’m utterly unqualified to tell you how to fix your life (Nicole and Mallory are much better at that.) Instead I bring you poems like tarot cards. Not to divine or instruct, but to offer you a reflection of your situation, some perspective to bring the world into focus. An almanac doesn’t foresee the future, it tells you what to expect based on what has happened in years that came before. And so it is here.

Now to your question. When you think of your love, what do you think of? His bright eyes, his dextrous hands? Do you picture him in your kitchen, making coffee, using the sharp knife a chef friend gave him to mince garlic that clings, sticky and pungent, to his fingers? His terrible morning breath and the way he always steals the covers in sleep?

These are the kinds of images Rebecca Lindenberg recalls in her poem “Marblehead” from the collection Love, an Index. There is ambivalence but such tenderness in the way her narrator describes returning with her love from a chilly walk, the beloved removing a black motorcycle jacket, pockets full of shells, to “hang it / on the back of a chair.” A tough image, armour within armour, but placed carefully. She notes “you left / the stove on low—some things / you do make me so nervous.” Not upset, reader, not enraged, but nervous, an emotion that precedes events as diverse as flying, job interviews, and sleeping with someone new. Nervous is a tension rather than a harbinger, both in “Marblehead” and in a relationship. It’s different from dread, that corrosive forgone conclusion that burns low in the gut. It pulls the reader, in search of resolution, through the poem, and it pulls people in love toward the next fight or fuck.

The you of Lindenberg’s poem offers the narrator a

shiny fingertip

held out for me to lick, you say

“What does it need?” Maybe nothing,

maybe honey to unbitter the lime.

So much in four lines! An offering, a question, indecision, a hint of sweetness, in Lindenberg’s elegant but solid, everyday language. The action is both workaday and sensual, inviting intimate contact and negotiating the preparation of a meal. Reader, I imagine you and your husband prepare meals together. All of my most intimate relationships have involved cooking—another for me, me for another. It’s sensual, sure, but it’s also banal, morning yoghurt in your pyjamas day in, day out. Cooking together means negotiating your nut allergy and his aversion to fish and making sure that everyone eats enough vegetables without blowing the grocery budget. When the narrator’s beloved asks what the sauce needs, it is an opening after the tension between them for the narrator to offer an opinion, propose the option, not to sweeten, but to “unbitter,” a deft linguistic derivation that suggests a more neutral, less rose-tinted resolution. Consider the narrator’s indecision—is it that she truly can’t decide, or that she is willing to compromise, that sauce is not a hill to die on when there are better things to come?

The rising action in “Marblehead” takes place off page. The beloved apologizes, but for what we do not know, and even that is set off chronologically from the poem’s main events, bracketed by “Later that night” and “but now.” Look at the line breaks and the punctuation, which Lindenberg arranges so carefully: 

Later that night you’ll bury your face

in my belly and sob. “I’m sorry,”

though I don’t think you are

always talking to me, my love.

The line break between the third and fourth lines just guts me, as the narrator’s apparent lack of faith in the apology resolves into a more tender (the only time the narrator refers to her subject as anyone other than “you”), but also more existentially tragic address (if not to her, to a higher power, a fetus within said belly, or simply inward?). There are apologies that redress a simple wrongdoing (I lost your scarf on the bus), and then there are apologies that reveal a keenly felt character flaw (this is the third of your belongings I’ve lost this month; I am careless with your things and distracted from looking after them, and perhaps careless with you as well). Can you own up to the flaws that come between you and your love? Are his flaws something you can meet with kindness, at least after the flush of anger?

Lindenberg leaves us hopeful that that is indeed possible. She returns us to the sensory, a commonplace meal made special by lobster, olives, the flourish of a pinky as her beloved gulps wine. Where I live on the prairie, lobster is a rare and spendy treat, but Marblehead is a coastal town on a small Massachusetts peninsula, where residential shellfish permits are $10 a pop. Lobsters, like the sea wall, are part of Lindenberg’s landscape here; they root her lovers in the specifics of their geography as well as their meal. Love is specific. It is everyday, with its shared meals, its walks, its apologies. But it is also hopeful, and I like it best when it seeks improvement and renewal. Lindenberg leaves us, not with sweetness, but with olives. They “are the green / all green things aspire to be.” What a lush, sensual description. There are no promises here, no happily ever after, but Lindenberg gives us the colour of botanical rebirth, and she gives us optimism. The material world is important to Lindenberg’s poem because it’s how her lovers anchor themselves, their shared care and calamity. Is your world burdened by superfluous flotsam or is it a long orbit, full of solid matter, that spins you and your love apart and then back together again?

There’s one final thing I should mention: Rebecca Lindenberg wrote Love, an Index for her partner Craig Arnold. When she was halfway through writing the book, Arnold disappeared hiking a volcano in Japan. I include this detail, not to be ghoulish or pessimistic, but because it’s central to the book’s structure and tone as a whole, and because I think there’s something to be said for love poetry that understands love both in the moment and retrospectively. I would never argue that poetry should be a purely didactic exercise, but it is illustrative to look to it for perspective. “Marblehead” concludes Love, an Index in a sort of quiet meditative conclusion on what remains when a lover is gone. It begins with an epigraph from James Schuyler: “not to be in love with you / I can’t remember what it was like / it must’ve been lousy.” Here at Spinster HQ we would never want to encourage that pre-love or love-less existence is lousy, but think on the sentiment, reader. Does your mind wander back to earlier life, with contentment, with envy? Does the greenness you aspire to look like new buds or new beds? Is the falling back in the good kind of inevitability, the kind that both steadies and excites? Either way, I’m rooting for you.

Marika Prokosh is a writer from Winnipeg, Canada. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, Existere, Rip/Torn and at The Toast. She reads, writes, and eats in an old blue house, and tweets about books and cooking mishaps.

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