“The Spinster’s Almanac”: Poetic Advice for Raveling and Moving On -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.

Dear Spinster,

I recently ended a relationship I didn’t want to be in anymore. I feel like I should either be jubilant or devastated, but really I’m just floundering. I was so sure that this was what I needed, but now I feel guilty, even though I was unhappy and confused. Now I’m still unhappy and confused, just in a different way. I don’t think I can go back to her, but I don’t know how to go forward and build something better for myself either. My friends don’t know what to do with me, and I know they think I was foolish. Why can’t I seem to know what I want?

Ahoy—so you’ve decided to take to the sea. Or as this month’s poet witch might have it, the snow. Fear not, gentle Reader. Your choice was not cruel or unfair, but it was understandably difficult, and now you need a little help to get oriented. For your compass, I have brought you the wintry meditations of Anne Shaw, via her 2011 poem “Raveling.”

Consider the title. Unraveling is more common, is it not? To unknot, undo, or come undone. Raveling means the same thing, but without the un- the verb seems more deliberate, less reactionary. It’s work in the process of being done, not undone. You are raveling from this recent relationship, raveling how it makes you feel. And it is not “ravel” or “raveled.” The gerund (the –ing form of the verb) indicates that the process is ongoing. Of course you’re unhappy and confused; you ended something that was once important to you that you didn’t know how to fix. The heart does not do up or undo with an easy tug.

Shaw opens the poem in the context of knitting: “This winter I learn to knit: a green and purple scarf, / which could be my last undoing” begins with the self-sufficiency of making warm clothes for cold weather, then turns punny and dark on “undoing.” She doesn’t belabour the humour, and moves on, describing “this casting on / and binding off, a way to connect / / each moment to the next.” This attempt at moving past destruction to anchor the self in time repeats throughout the poem. Shaw’s narrator seeks meaning through interaction with the world, prescribing herself “a swaddling / operation for a mind that can’t be stilled.” Let’s get literal for a moment: a tactile occupation is a good idea: knitting, sure, or baking bread, or playing the drums, or going for long walks in the woods. Or writing poems. I live in a place that is covered with snow for five to six months a year, and this is how the people I know keep from raveling in the cold and isolation. Creation affirms your existence, especially in the wake of a lover.

Going out into the world is also affirming, seeing what’s in it and allowing yourself to be seen. Shaw’s narrator explains “Because we are no longer / real to one another, this winter I walk on snow crust / gone vitreous with cold.” That “because” that at first seems to connect to the “swaddling / operation” before, the line break that hangs a brief spectre of non-existence before resolving into a lack of reality, an interpersonal ravelling. When the sentence resolves, however, Shaw indicates that the lack of reality shared with the poem’s “you” is what has pushed her out into the world, walking a snowy path. This poem brought me the word vitreous; it means glass-like, in all senses: hard, brittle, reflective, amorphous. I know you feel strange right now, and you feel unmoored. Take a walk. Go out and look at the world’s strangeness. Watch ice crystalize on your windows, look at some art, read a Jeanette Winterson novel, read the news. You may feel as fragile as Shaw’s sheeting that “shreds / and shreds in wind.” Of course you do. You’re raveling.

Unfortunately, this tender version of yourself will not always be affirmed by the wider world, or even your own community. Shaw observes that “At times, this park / / looks beautiful, but I’m a stranger in it.” She finds her solace in slips of language, but there’s a dry humour in her tone: “Only phrases keep me: made / of sterner stuff, they say. They say aloof or politic or / / soon when the weather breaks.” Note that it’s not the people who keep her (safe? secure? back?), it’s the scraps of what they say: idioms, descriptors, wordplay. Throughout “Raveling” Shaw uses italics to indicate speech, creating a framework of clichés onto which her narrator can attach more complicated internal and physical movements. The sad truth is that most people won’t know what to do with you when you’re sad in difficult, complicated ways. People tend to want all relationships to work, out of a sense of fulfilling security, but also because they’re often taught to want people to go happily two by two forever.

Take what comfort and structure you can from your bewildered friends, but don’t expect everyone to understand your wild heart.

So what next? You take that wild heart out into the world in an attempt to escape cliché and manage alienation, but the world does not grant certainty either. Shaw manipulates the landscape of winter and grief to underscore their agonizingly slow changes. This is a poem of persistence: knitting warm things, a thornbush that is “faintly / red now” against the otherwise dull winter, and even “The snow is a constant / / burning, and my body—slow, molecular—also a kind of fire / almost, they say, unstoppable.” Shaw stitches together images of the persistent yet mutable body and its landscape to create a reciprocal metaphor, while in the italicized clichés, the narrator rejects more facile ways of responding to her grief. You’re confused, receiving insufficient comfort, the snow is obliterating everything, but you trudge onward, heart on fire in its tangle of wool.

You feel stuck, dear reader, but in your confusion is the momentum you seek. You aren’t confused about what to do; you didn’t ask me about going back to your girlfriend, you asked about your troubled heart. You want comfort, reassurance. Shaw knows this place. She writes:

I hear myself say harbor me

although there is no harbor I can see
no one else to speak to,
and the trail breaks off

to every possible willow.

I will reassure you: this is what you wanted, despite its difficulty, and so it is right for you, but you have to trust your body, stubborn in its unexpectedly variable landscape, your heart and brain that made an unpopular choice instead of warping inside an ill-fitting relationship.

You grieve your unexpectedly unstable arrival, like “ice crust circles / with a gleam and glare / that holds me, then gives way beneath my boot.” The landscape throughout this poem is antagonistic, cold, unstable, but full of colour and persistence. That landscape wasn’t built to hold you. Remember your scarf, your words, the fire in your body—you’re going to figure out how to hold yourself. Nothing is permanent or stable, and sometimes the world doesn’t even feel tangible. Shaw observes “The sky / / in its abstract sphere, unfurls.” Even the sky is raveling, far away and untouchable, except for odd scraps of snow.

This might all feel awfully bleak, with its sentiment that “God exists / as the Nothing who refuses to reply.” And that’s not surprising, given that you’re managing so many complicated feelings. In this line, Shaw emphasizes how forsaken her narrator feels, but immediately sets her coaching herself “Today I have to practice / how to breathe.” It’s back to basics, rather than rattling around in the emotional labyrinth of what might have been. I want to comfort you, but I also want to be honest, and Shaw is unflinching in her assessment of retrospection: “Memory’s insistent, / / too dangerous to touch. Each small amnesia / till I ghost myself.” The lines are stark, yes, and portentous, but I want you to consider them in the broader context of the poem, with its physically persistent body. Shaw’s tight image patterns of knitting, walking, winter, and words illustrate her narrator’s despair but they also illustrate sustenance and getting on. One thing about winter, with its grey notes and treacherous paths, is that it eventually ends, its snowy sky raveling into spring rain.

To figure out what next, you can’t pursue what’s past, and you can’t expect to always be understood. Let Shaw’s words be a call to action: to find activity to sustain you—walks, words, woodworking—so that you can exist outwardly without completely rejecting your well-meaning community, nor neglecting the choices you need to make or the slow fire that persists in you. Winter won’t last forever, and eventually you will find a sweet spot of sustenance between the small amnesias and your own ghost.

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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