by Julia Story
Sarabande Books 2010
Reviewed by Kathleen Rooney
“you are barely a sound”
The only really bad part of Julia Story’s Kathryn A. Morton Prize-winning debut, Post Moxie, is the judge’s introduction by Dan Chiasson. “You wouldn’t call them ‘prose poems,’ implying the unbelievably drained tones and attitudes of that anemic genre,” he writes, introducing what is, in fact, a collection of prose poems, or perhaps a long poem composed of small prose blocks. “Prose poems don’t thread the needle the way Story’s poems do.”
Even leaving aside a desire to argue that a lot of prose poems do “thread the needle” and are quite good, why Chiasson would want—even jokingly—to dismiss the very genre in which Story’s book is written is baffling. Reading him do so feels misdirecting and does the book itself a disservice, throwing the reader out of the appropriately open frame of mind in which the collection is best encountered. Story’s work is generous and formally innovative, whereas its intro is ungenerous and narrow, or at least distracting and tonally off. Thus, the best approach to Post Moxie might be to skip the introduction entirely and just jump into the text.
Jumping right in is a technique at which Story excels; her opening sentences establish scenarios and atmospheres with a subtle blend of specificity and mystery. “We look at a statue and feel uncomfortable,” says the speaker in the book’s first poem. “Time is a series of pellets,” starts another, and “For six years the girls careen in his dream like little flashlights” starts another still. Her second and third sentences, when the blocks go that long, are equally skillful, balancing precision with generality, as when she writes in the ensuing sentences of the aforementioned poems: “I am backward light, which isn’t as cool as it sounds,” and “The gerbil that sniffs them reacts by scratching his neck ferociously,” and “My intelligence is measured by the number of sweat bees in the yard.”
If these individual poems present a compelling balancing act, then so too does the book as a whole, establishing a coherent narrative element in its content alongside a cohesive formal one in its structure. Like any poetic form, the prose poem possesses its own rules and restrictions, as well as opportunities for its writer to make personal flourishes. Story takes full advantage of these chances. In an interview, she explains how she shaped the book into its finished form: “For a while, the stanzas were in short lines. About a month into writing them, I got tired of messing with the line breaks; they seemed arbitrary and unimportant to what I was trying to do. Once I set up the prose blocks, I could do the work I needed to do, which was to pour the language into little containers.”
Cover to cover, Post Moxie does give the impression that writing it might really have been this easy, as though Story just poured the words like water into vases; but this apparent ease would belie the precision and care with which the prose chunks must have been composed. Remnants of the “shorter lines” to which Story refers still lurk within the blocks. They create tension within the sections and across the book because, although the final form consists of solid bricks of writing, within them lies a competing sense of fragmentedness. Some of the blocks themselves are unfinished and fragmentary:
As delicate as an ass’s bray are the little
lights which descend from the distant
city inside you can’t pedal fast enough
to get there and when you finally do
catbirds have called it a day ears grow
dim you are barely a sound so you head
out again for the ring of trees
This poem appears to be a huge run-on, a single breathless sentence. But there’s no punctuation and it ends abruptly with no period, so it’s not even a sentence. In her interview, Story adds, “There was a certain impatience and desperation I felt when writing and I think the form reflects this.” It does. What happens in the ring of trees? From what menace is the speaker fleeing? Story isn’t saying. Thus, the pull the reader feels is often a narrative one, although the narrative is never complete or conventional.
Even when they seem to possess a plot, the poems are patchy, full of omission. One poem reads in its entirety:
Fucking mirrors. Reaching into a . . .
feeling. Pleiades a group of shadows on
the floor, flickering light to see me by.
Sadly the erotics of doubt.
Almost every prose poem in the collection has the quality of an intriguing overheard conversation that you would totally understand had you caught just one more sentence. In the end, the conversation is that much more memorable because you didn’t.
Story’s speaker can be funny and critical, as when she writes “My neighbor drives his big stupid car over and asks do I want breakfast,” but also self-deprecating, as when she implicates herself in the same poem: “No, I say, I’m writing, then go back in to watch Sixteen Candles.” Her speaker is also frequently elegiac and wistful, mournfully observing the passing of childhood, the natural world, and love. Story manages to do so in a fashion that describes the perception of ordinary moments in a way that restores strangeness both to the moments and to the act of perception itself. The poems’ elusiveness evokes their speaker’s efforts to place these moments in a coherent narrative—efforts that never quite succeed, if only because they tend to expand and open onto other potential narratives, becoming properties to which all have access and none can claim ownership. “Everyone understood that the world was a kind of story,” Story writes in a poem toward the end of the book. Maybe not everyone, but Story definitely does.