“The Spinster’s Almanac”: Poetic Advice for Loneliness -The Toast

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

I am a woman in my mid-30s who has never had any romantic life to speak of, though not for lack of trying.  It seems that I am intrinsically unattractive to the opposite sex, though my (same-sex) friends assure me I am “cute.”

Yes, yes, revel in Glorious Solitude®, Take To The Sea™, find myself a Witch Cave© etc.

But I am miserably lonely (not for friends, for romantic companionship) all the time, and I don’t know how to resign myself to the Spinster lifestyle. I have no hope, yet I can’t seem to manage acceptance either.

What do the poets have to say, do you think?

Here we come to the meat and potatoes of what I do, dear Reader. I am a specialist in solitude, both the kind that willfully takes to the sea, and the kind that keens in the night. You feel a sense of loneliness, which is cruel enough, but it butts against something worse: the sense of failure when all your attempts at attracting romantic love come to nothing. You have friends who love you, who reassure you, and yet you write to me, because none of this is quite the thing, none of this brings somewhere to put your romantic energies, a hand to find in the dark as a party breaks up and you begin your trek home alone. 

book-solieLet me offer you my patron saint of restless failure: Canadian Karen Solie, whose poems are full of characters who drift, suffer, and haunt. “Listening to The Revelator (from her 2009 collection, Pigeon) offers a balm to these lost souls, but it also doesn’t fuck around. “Here is consequence,” begins Solie, “folding its wings / on the fence. Here are your chances.” You know that, Reader. I’m sure you’ve spend more sleepless nights than you’d prefer to discuss lying awake, considering the past: times you didn’t go for it, times you did and it went wrong. If only you’d been sluttier, smarter, more ineffably alluring. Your chickens are coming home to roost, and you can count their beady eyes on the chainlink.

But you don’t deserve that shit, and in your 30s, you’re starting to see through it. Because:

After years

of moving whatever you do

from one place to another in the manner

that constitutes your work, you have to admit

you know what you think.

This is what the poets know: that years of self-recrimination can teach you a thing or two. When you go over your past you can obsess, or with some reflection (and a good mental health professional) you can learn to see those moments when it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference if you’d waited to call, seemed less eager, and how little they had to do with you.

But the poem reminds you:

About tonight

not so much fallen as struggling to its feet, gorgeous

in spite of what it’s done to you. All

is forgiven.

Look at the way Solie breaks her lines, how the “gorgeous” and “all” hang on after the previous clause ends, pulling you quickly through, while also influencing the tone of each line. The you of the poem has been let down, and yet there is beauty in having even showed up. What has happened to you is made expansive by the all, and yet the phrase ends in forgiveness. You can be gentle with yourself.

Now Solie moves from shortish, direct sentence to a litany of symptoms, cataloguing the stuff of failure, of what requires forgiveness. The list is long, a sentence with no active verb that runs for 11 lines and includes “The loneliness composed on the road, after hours / off-shift, out of it, or left behind,” “protracted / incidents represented by lacunae in your resume,” and “making / the best of being stuck where you were.” Her language is general enough to suggest any number of personal catastrophes, but it’s always welcomed me to a club of lonely failures, the years that “single” covered a multitude of losses of nerve and brushes aside by people I desired. You are making the best—you have friends and a sense of humour, you read websites that cater to devastatingly intelligent women—but you also have this past that is full of attempt and absence, rather than lovers and war stories.

Solie describes this stuckness as “rooms now creaking in a forest of outlived rooms / recalled as eras are recalled, their outmoded fixtures / and period costumes” and I think the metaphor is an apt one. You are outgrowing the loneliness that settles around you, and you clearly want to remodel it. Tak[ing] to the Sea™ may not be for you, but you can only live in your own haunted house for so long before it’s time to take stock of what’s been neglected while you were busy getting by. The length of the 11-line litany allows it to build momentum. If you read it aloud you may find yourself forgetting to pause for breath. Breathe here.

Some questions, Reader: “Who are you? / What of you persists?” These questions present an abrupt rhetorical shift. No longer pulled through this long list, you have to pause, to turn within. When you think of your loneliness, it can be tempting to think of it as an accumulation, but what else have you accumulated in 30-odd years? Has your singleness led you to become an excellent cook, an encyclopedia on Bollywood film, a dedicated volunteer? The neglect I mentioned earlier is also an opportunity for wild things to flourish, undomesticated, in you. And this persistence has a double meaning of course. Not only do parts of yourself persist despite your loneliness, but you persist. You say you have no hope, but you refuse to resign yourself—you know, dear Reader, that you are so loveable. That you persist because you crave love that will not settle for someone easy or contemptible. Let Solie’s pause and your asking of your question to me be also an asking inward—if the love of your life came next year, in thirty years, or not at all, who would you continue to be through the waiting, what would persist in you anyway?

Solie’s question, by the way, is not entirely rhetorical. What persists is

Your life built on intervals

the way a chord is, on changes that alter you

by thirds, by fifths, in silences the progression climbs

to where each song ends, and the next begins.

This is also a long, commaful, active-verbless sentence reminiscent of the “The loneliness…” passage above, but instead of a despondent list, this is an answer to a question, one whose clauses climb like the music metaphor it employs. Every year that passes, you get a little further, accumulating a little more of yourself. Some people might get bitter, but not you; you despair but you are hopeful too. You are moving toward something, perhaps a lover, perhaps a Witch Cave, perhaps a life that will involve a little of both. I wish the poets could alleviate the loneliness you feel in the meantime, but alas they cannot. What they can do is remind you that, lovers notwithstanding, you are never standing still. Time is an accretion and its space for experience and self-knowledge is a gift. If you wait, pay attention, and you will feel the shift.

Do you known what a revelator is, Reader? It is, unsurprisingly, one who reveals, usually with a Christian sensibility, revealing the will of God. But Solie is, I think, referring to the 2001 Gillian Welch album Time (The Revelator). The album is full of characters who change with hindsight. Welch sings of a shunned country girl who wonders if Heaven will grant her a gold gown, but decides she will keep her “red clay robe with the red clay wings and a red clay halo for my head,” of Elvis as “just a country boy who combed his hair, put on the suit his mother made, and went on the air.” Time does unexpected things to us, and Reader, you still have so much of it. Small changes can come from you—online dating, traveling, taking up a group activity, or Taking to the Sea. Your accumulated years of loneliness aren’t dooming you to anything—they are one particular movement in your life. Take time care for your wounded heart, but also tend the mighty things growing in you. They can make way for something unexpectedly marvellous.

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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