Anne Sheldon's The Bone Spindle collects fourteen short pieces, mostly poetry, on the subject of women and the cloth-making arts: spinning, weaving, and knitting. Each piece responds to a story—usually a fairy tale, though Sheldon also engages with Dickens, a history of textiles, and an overheard story from the University of Chicago. The result is a book whose form expresses its content: it feels woven, with various story-threads combined into whole cloth. Through her focus on the art of weaving, Sheldon comments on the intricate art of storytelling. The Bone Spindle performs the etymological connection between textile and text.
The Bone Spindle is the thirtieth volume in the "Conversation Pieces" series from Aqueduct Press, which brings together old and new feminist speculative fiction. It takes part in the long-lived "conversation" between feminism and folklore, a tradition that often re-imagines fairy tales to highlight or challenge their significance for women, as in the works of Anne Sexton and Angela Carter. In Sheldon's book, the thirteenth fairy is not offended by being left out of a christening party, but by the teenaged princess's disdain for women's work; Igraine, busy at her embroidery, sees things more clearly than Merlin thinks, and becomes an actor in her story rather than a pawn.
This process of retelling extends from the stories told about princesses and witches, to the stories that are told about women's work. The first poem, "The Knitters of Paris, 1780," redraws Dickens's picture of women knitting "worthless things" as a "substitute for eating and drinking" in A Tale of Two Cities: "They were hungry," Sheldon responds: "They knitted/what must be knitted" (p. 1). Many of the pieces seek to claim a space for knitting to be knitting, for weaving to be weaving, and not something else. Knitting is not masturbation (p. 39), but itself: homely, material, and useful. The fearsome Horned Women of Slievenamon long for "ordinary wool" (p. 24). Once these arts have been freed from negative associations, however, they take on new metaphoric power. The spider's "pale tapestries" recall the defiant truth-telling of Arachne (p. 14); in the whimsical "Bachelorae Antiquae," the creative instrument becomes a weapon, as we learn that Agatha Christie's Miss Marple "has defended herself/with a surprisingly sharp #9 needle" (p. 65).
In the single prose story in the collection, "Dream from My Mother's House," knitting is an act of mourning that enables three women to cope with the deaths of their loved ones. The narrator, her mother, and her friend Diane have all lost a son, brother, or first love in an accident. When the narrator sees the boys' ghosts in the wood, and learns that they're "too cold" to cross the creek, it's clear that the real problem is not the dead boys' need for sweaters, but the inability of the living women to let them go. Knitting for the dead is a way of processing loss, and also of building a sense of family among the women left behind:
Sometimes one of us would stop and cry, but the others always kept knitting. The night passed, the nights passed—I don't know; we knitted and told stories and made cocoa and ate cookies and knitted and cried and finally one night, it was Halloween, just at suppertime, the sweaters were done. (p. 52)
The inclusion of one short story in a book of poems raises the question of form. Why only one short story? Why did this piece need to be a story, and why did the others need to be poems? The back cover of the book describes the contents as "fourteen story-poems and stories," emphasizing "story" over "poem," despite the fact that, with the exception of "Dreams from My Mother's House" and an anecdote from the University of Chicago, all the pieces are arranged as poems on the page. The term "story-poem" may be intended to show that the poems have a narrative quality, which they do. However, it also draws attention to the straightforward prose style employed in many of the poems. Some of them, like "The Story of Arachne," "Sister of Twelve Brothers," and "Bachelorae Antiquae," would lose little if turned into paragraphs. Another is "The Thirteenth Fairy," which begins:
Finding myself uninvited
to a party at the castle
was usually no surprise
or grounds for outrage.
But to presume I had no gift
worthy of a princess? The others—
beauty, manners, perfect pitch—
were puny by comparison. (p. 7)
It's difficult to see why these lines should be broken up rather than arranged as ordinary prose sentences. The term "story-poem" may accurately describe what Sheldon is doing here, but as I read The Bone Spindle I longed for a clearer sense of the theory behind the decision to create story-poems rather than stories or poems. This is one of the reasons my favorite piece is "A Passing Good Woman," Sheldon's retelling of the story of Igraine, which makes fairly regular use of iambic pentameter:
Once she was a winter bride and thought
Tintagel hers, the rocks, the narrow paths,
the holly, and the castle. But now she knows
she's always been a stranger here in Cornwall,
and if she climbed the cliffs her children mount,
the very earth, his earth, would shrug her off." (p. 19)
"A Passing Good Woman" is a poem, and a very lovely one; its line breaks follow naturally from its rhythm; and the gracefulness of that rhythm underscores the outward regularity of the queen's inwardly turbulent life. Form and content seem inseparable, organic, and necessary. This is not the case with some of the other narrative poems. The inclusion of a single short story, by offering another genre for comparison, leads to the question: why is "The Thirteenth Fairy" a poem and not flash fiction?
If the story "Dreams from My Mother's House" stands out for its form, the poem "The Crane Maiden" stands out for its content: it is the only piece in the collection to draw on material outside the literatures and traditions of Western Europe. Subtitled "a Japanese folktale," it presents the figure of the artist as a "half-wild" creature (p. 60). It's an impressionistic and evocative piece, and makes me wish that Sheldon had looked for other spinning and weaving stories that might be less familiar to readers of English (Russia, China, and Egypt would all be interesting places to start). As with "Dreams from My Mother's House," the inclusion of one piece that differs from all the others prompts the question: why not more? On the whole, that's a positive criticism. I would have liked to see more from Anne Sheldon in this book, and I will look forward to reading more of her work.
The Bone Spindle includes images as well as words: the illustrations are based on photographs of looms, spinning wheels, yarn and hands busy with knitting or embroidery. They complement the written words and add another thread to Sheldon's tapestry of old, new and reinterpreted stories. This collection would make a beautiful gift for a knitter or weaver, but it's also a storyteller's book, so full of voices that it seems to beg to be read aloud. And of course, when a piece is spoken, the way it's arranged on the page becomes less important. The oral mode, I suspect, is the best way to experience Anne Sheldon's "story-poems."
Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specializes in twentieth century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. Her poetry has appeared in Stone Telling, and her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2012. She blogs about books and other wonders at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.