reviewed by Veronica Wong
Editor Note: In this review, the excerpts of Julia's poems are meant to be justified. Unfortunately, it is impossible to present block justification without compromising the integrity of line breaks in modern web browsers.
When words have double meanings, each one chases the other like a shadow. No matter the usage, the word can never be completely rid of the secondary definition or even which one is the secondary definition. For me, one of the loveliest characters in Chinese is the character 疼, which can be used to mean “hurts” or “aches,” usually physically, such as “I have a headache.” It can also be used as “to love dearly,” with an almost unconditional tenderness and poignancy: “One sees how dearly her father loves her through the sacrifices he makes.” The two meanings merge into each other and surface through until it becomes impossible to tell which is the ghost of which, somehow reading as immeasurably truthful to living and loving, simultaneously evoking the physical and emotional, both sad and hopeful.
With its recurrent themes of disconnection and non-understanding, fakeness and pretending, time passing and whether things change, the poems in Julia Story’s first collection, Post Moxie, reflect the emotional layering found in the Chinese character 疼 (pronounced teng) through a certain inclusive solipsism, a contradicting dualism that fits well with Story’s work. If the created world of Post Moxie is mostly in the mind of Story’s narrator, the emotion evoked by her language of small heartbreaks and strangely beautiful, intuitive associations and proclamations expands into our own.
Story’s first poem in Post Moxie sets up the entire collection. She opens the poem with: “We look at a statue and feel/ uncomfortable” and ends with:
Later, after I watch him eat his fake meat, he decides that he already knows everything there is to know about me based on a conversation we had about third grade. Because I am afraid of change, I wear the quilted pants emblazoned with pale peach skulls and crossbones. From a distance they look like geometry. From up close, well, you can see what they look like up close.” (5)
In this opening, we see the tension between the unnamed characters, between what is said and unsaid, between what is assumed and what is the truth. In the first line, we are presented with stillness and expectation; with the image of the narrator’s quilted pants, we are given a taste of Story’s humor and also access the feeling of loss, both of which are pervasive in the entire work. The last line presents a microcosm of the entire collection, a duality present in perceived singularity. Each poem in Post Moxie is like examining a story up close in the way that picking up a rock can sometimes uncover the entire world.
Gathered into three titled sections, the poems in Post Moxie have no titles and seem arranged as a series. The poems are roughly the same length and are structured in prose blocks that sit in the center of each page. In Dan Chiasson’s introduction, we learn Story refers to each “poem” as a “stanza,” further indication that the poems are intended to be related to each other. Even while knowing each poem builds into the experience of the whole collection, a chronological narrative—or even a comprehensive understanding of the events of the relationship—remains elusive. The presentation of continuity in a series of poems is challenged by the feeling of time suspended, creating an emotional interiority through a lack of external chronology. Story gives us few markings to locate the poems within a when, and so we have no way of knowing exactly whether time has passed, whether emotions and states of being have changed.
And yet the influence of time, the feeling of past, of future, exists throughout the collection. “Time is a series of pellets,” Story claims early in the collection. When Story does give us chronological details—through describing “last year’s swimsuits,” for example—we take note. It is important we know that the relationships between the characters in the poems have their own histories, their own timelines. The poems skirt time by hopping tenses, going from present to past, future to present.
I had a dream one night that I was in this like, war: the way things attach to other things is like fighting: not breaking apart but trying: the endings are like stairways: the beginnings the beginnings the beginnings are like pins: the boys who won’t love me take the hallway out of town: nothing out of focus but the doorknob.” (43)
At times bleak and always sharp, Post Moxie exists in a certain state of non-definition: of time, of characters. Lines like “It isn’t the loneliness as much as/ the right angles everywhere that bother/ me,” and “It is hard to get the orchid to live/ because it is easier to die” are examples of the duality Story plays with throughout the collection: setting up one thing, then knocking it down with another, almost in defiance of expectation. When Story ends one poem with the declaration, “Every fucking thing about me is/ designed to melt your heart,” we immediately feel the glare, the challenge it presents to readers. But these lines work because everything within the collection is, actually, breaking our hearts. It is impossible to deny the emotional stakes raised by Story; it is impossible not to feel alongside with Story’s narrator. In a surprising way, Story uses the liminal space the poems occupy to enhance and deepen the emotions present. Under the bravado of quick-turning lines, there are bruises, and this ache is what we identify with, what we crave to understand.
For this reason, some of the most affecting moments in the collection are the poems where Story veers from her self-conscious and smart, but self-effacing narrator’s voice, and breaks the narrative with a singular expression of aching. These are rare moments, and like a clear arc of a held note in music, these moments give us a wonderfully uninhibited, if only temporary, access to the narrator:
Oh my boyfriend my boyfriend my boy- friend. Ripper of a thousand wings. Holder of a thousand hands.” (22)
“It’s my own fault I’m/ anywhere,” Story writes, summing up Life and Relationships in a bumper-sticker worthy slogan with a brilliant line break. It is another instance—among many in Post Moxie—where something looks casual on the surface, but is deliberate in its composition. Yet what seems to be a simple straightforward witticism, when further contemplated, is actually rather complicated and cleverly brutal. Post Moxie is arresting thanks to Story’s choice of language, rendering heartache and longing in a manner that is simultaneously raw and guarded. The emotional density, nicely underscored by the visual density of the prose blocks, remains quite palpably with you after each reading.