Where we thought the story ends

Jennifer Firestone's 'STORY'



Jennifer Firestone

Ugly Duckling Presse 2019, 144 pages, $14.40 ISBN 978-1946433336

What does it really mean when we say, “well, how the story all began was …” or “the real story is …” or “what really happened was …” or “what I remember was …”? What happens in those thought-moments? Jennifer Firestone’s book-length poem and metapoem, STORY, excavates answers to these questions and, in doing so, becomes a story of its own story itself. You’ve surely said the aforementioned phrases when trying to explain a “complicated” story or perhaps when processing grief or breaking down a movie plot that you don’t fully understand. This internal dialogue of trying to understand the inner workings of a story is indeed echoed in STORY: “The story frozen as a climatic sequence duly peaked.”[1] What part of any story is “truth,” memory, perception, or, in the face of crisis, sorrow or trauma? These are the questions of STORY, which serves as commentary on the nature of “story” and is so intertwined in a story of telling its own story that it makes you question how and why we choose to tell “stories.” How do we self-edit — as Firestone writes, “The story reverted with nuanced protestations” (27) — particularly when we agonize over how to tell a story, to tell the story just so? 

In the past two years, the pandemic and partisan politics horrifically flipped the story script of everything upside down, not unlike STORY, which at its core explores how we make sense of reality in the process of storytelling, especially when tragedy becomes a story through memory, what we think happened — “To say they clung fervently to their story isn’t quite the truth” (19) — what we “know” happened, and what really happened — “or so the story insinuated” (17), as Firestone writes.

The story within STORY moves with photographic imagery that feels like a screenplay cracked wide open. Within aspects of its mysterious movement, you find yourself returning to previous pages, playing the story over, and it is this movement that brings an investigation into how a story moves through processes of its action, the remembering and later scripting, when you retell it: as Firestone puts it, “the story shed its encumbered plot” (31). I felt I was inside the movement of thought-forms, of how the brain pieces together memories and images we see in the last moments before something traumatic happens, for the eventual retelling of that story. I felt the greater mind trying to make sense of how we remembered it and how it ended; it’s endings that are fraught in a story, as Firestone writes, “A denouement any writer would have coveted” (34). To “covet” a denouement suggests our desires for endings that make sense, our desires for tidy endings. But as with the cliché: it doesn’t always work out that way. It would seem unnatural to covet an ending — don’t they just happen naturally? STORY shows us that they do not and are always fraught. Hence, it would make sense that a writer would desire a particular ending that is “just so.” But as always, we are reminded it doesn’t always “work out that way.” STORY tussles with this impulse throughout the work.

STORY’s underlying poetics at times reminds me of Leslie Scalapino’s work, which often engages the thought processes behind the act of writing that grasp at meaning as it is occurring; as Scalapino has written: “if the writing is on (‘seeing’) something that’s real, it keeps disappearing as the occurrence, as the occurrence does.”[2] Firestone goes particularly into the memory and mind processes as they are happening: one line in particular, “The story appropriately attentive at this moment” (36), opens an especially arresting sequence, each line starting with “The story”:

The story appropriated the beach and paged the rapid sequence.
The story begged the question of whether myth. (36) 

As I made my way through STORY’s story, or as the story made its way through me, I started to think, let me get to the bottom of the story. Then I realized Firestone was actively taking the reader through that process of getting to the bottom of the story as it was occurring. The action, the memory, the making-sense-of, the textual-imagery and quotes from STORY’s plot-scenes floating in and out of the pages’ consciousness mixed with blank space, all plunge the reader into that process.

In a memorable sequence, the word “presumably” repeats at the beginning of a number of lines, as if the poem were piecing together the intent of a particular story: “Presumably you thought many times I’ll write this” (52). This sequence and the book at large — in particular, lines like “They say you see their inner being pushed to the outer context” (71) — felt like moments in movies where a character is falling in a dream sequence through an underground tunnel filled with lighted memories, past, present, or future, swirling around. I thought, I won’t try to get to the bottom of STORY’s story; I’ll see where STORY’s story takes me. In this sense, the heart of STORY feels like an internal wrestling with memory as subject in the formation of a story. What I find fascinating is that Firestone seems to suggest that what we think we remember (our memories) may not always be so reliable, and within those memory-spaces of what we think we thought, often begins a story — what does it mean for a story to start in this inherent unreliability? STORY directly critiques the murkiness of subjectivity as well. While STORY may appear subjectless, there is an undercurrent of the processing of a traumatic event that suggests there may be a specific memory attached to it that is unknown to the reader. Whatever the specific event might be may not necessarily be the driving force for the book, per se, but a piece of the bigger poetic commentary on memory and story that Firestone is offering the reader. While STORY at times reminds me of the poetry of Susan Howe and Leslie Scalapino, Firestone dives deeper into mental processes. While Howe’s trademark poetic discombobulation of “story” and memory shows how we remember history and how it’s often scrambled (and mis-historicized), and Leslie Scalapino’s poetics on story and memory delve more into perception and what we think is the real world, Firestone tears apart the memory-story process as a deeply personal mind-based one, making you question how and why you remember what you do in order to tell a story. Is what we told a true story if our memory was flawed? This is what haunts me as a reader and haunts all of my own stories after reading STORY. I had the realization after reading STORY: what if all of our stories are only partly true? And what is true?

What I find interesting about Firestone’s work is that it tugs and pulls at the desire of our memory, especially fragmented memories, to make sense of or construct a story or multiple stories — of our lives, of “situations,” of childhood, of trauma. While the book at first may seem plotless (or with an experimental plot), and while it may feel subjectless, to me as a reader, one of the subjects is the act of wrestling with our memory to tell a story as it happens in real time. In this case, in Firestone’s work, this process occurs with a nameless and a bit hazily detailed element of horror or trauma. I find this aspect of the book particularly compelling because as a filmmaker, and particularly as an experimental documentarian, there is always the question of the façade, the artificial, and what is real. Like Firestone’s work seems to question, how do I, someone who is shooting images of reality, construct a story out of that, if once it is on film, it is not true reality anymore? It is the epistemological crux of this work that makes it so compelling. What Firestone is working with here in STORY overall — and it is fascinating to watch and read — is pulling apart at their core such phrases as “I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened” or “I’m trying to remember” or “There’s nothing more to the story.” But what’s in those phrases? What does this matter? It matters because in the end, someone wants us to tell the truth of the story, and that has big consequences. The little moments of parsing and understanding “what happened” end up being big moments, and Firestone’s entire book is at the heart of this process. Anyone who has ever looked back in time wondering, “Why did I even say that? How could I have thought that?” and so forth knows the cruel ways that our memory works with storytelling, that later on, only with hindsight do we more clearly understand an element of a story that may have eluded us for years. 

In STORY, it is those questions of “what I remember was …” that take you along for a ride, leaving you wondering in a good way, “how again did I get here?” which shows the power of the tug and pull of a story being told as you read it. How do you indeed “get” there: “The structure of knowing how a story is built” (74) is insinuated beyond its stated line and is suggested on all of its pages.

After reading STORY, you will not look at what counts as a “story” the same way again: by the end, you will wonder what constructs a story in the first place. What holds it together? As Firestone’s speaker concisely asks-states: “It was like this: she wondered is this my narrative”(32)? STORY alternates between lines of action and images, alternating with quoted lines that suggest movie scenes or a screenplay interrupted. The difference between these lines is subtle and gradually reveals its intent, like a story in the making — the thinking out loud, the decision to put what part of the story where:

            Camera’s insistent sequencing of stories.
                        “Tip to right, bright blue.” (26)

            Reverting to a filmic space the characters adjusted.
                        “unraveled, grainy waves.” (30)

            The story appropriated the beach and paged the rapid sequence.
                        “My life, is this?” (36)

STORY uses film as a motif — what happens between each frame and when you blink, what happens in the edits, what happens in the editors’ hands? Filmmakers splice together pieces of celluloid film to make a film and make a story hold. STORY plays with notions of rewind, replay, and slow motion.

What do these formal actions do to a story? What is a story of our own making? A story told? A story made up? STORY will make you reassess when you’ve told a “story” or remembered a story. Not the stories sitting on bookshelves with a beginning, middle, and end but the ones that become you, your story. Are stories always part memory that we can’t perfectly pace in retelling? Firestone writes, “Time was not tracked, finitely sequestered” (27). Can stories be perfectly executed replayed memories? Or can we tell a story purely as fact? Isn’t that what we mean by an objective story? But as Firestone notes, “When you archive experience it can maintain a time for a certain length” (66). Can we always tell the truth and nothing but the truth? Surely selective memory sometimes corrupts it. STORY’s philosophical reckoning on the idea of a story feels like waves crashing on words, like mini crests on the book’s pages interspersed with blank spaces that emulate the sea (a recurring image in the book), singular lines the waves’ foamy tips.

Have you ever started to listen to someone’s “story” and found yourself thinking or saying, “just get to the story,” and the speaker reluctantly obliges or stubbornly continues with a “wait, I’m getting there”? This act of wanting to disrupt the story’s structure is alluded to in Firestone’s line, “The structure of knowing how a story is built” (75). What’s occurring when we ask for a story’s details to be skipped but are confident we will still “get” the story? Conversely, why does a storyteller insist on laying out the details? How do details affect our desire to get to the “real” story sooner? What exactly are we skipping over? The story in STORY is happening and being told simultaneously. As you read, Firestone has reconstructed the process of memory. You can’t “hurry up and wait” the story.

A traumatic story with unnamed specifics is at the heart of this work — readers can only infer a sense of the story’s details in the text’s breaks and in imagistic moments that feel like film clips. Throughout, STORY’s speaker questions what film can do to a story and what is true/false in a story construction: “A frame can hold only so much figuration” (93). Firestone’s use of the filmic to peel away a story’s layers is reminiscent of old eight-millimeter home movies’ jumps between scenes that occur when, say, an adult sets down the camera to grab a child in trouble and then picks up the camera like nothing happened. The family hears the story, but the child always says the adult made it up. Firestone gets at this tension of what to believe in the aftermath of a story, of a destined narrative when told, or rather performed: “Even if you weren’t thinking you performed it” (94).

How much of our internal film-memories and stories are performances later in retelling? Do these performances crack open the story? Are we deviating from the story in performing it? One of the most riveting sequences of the book, in the middle, occurs when sentences are splayed over pages in zigzag directions (reminding me of Susan Howe) as if to suggest the story is broken open, untenable to stay perfectly together in the way we might wish. You read these pages and indeed wonder:

Where are you dear story.
Make your entrance known. (109)

Every time we tell a story, even if we convince ourselves it has a beginning, middle, and end, it’s never the whole story; as Firestone states, “language is structured to be excerpted” (137). We like to tell ourselves that we told the story, we gave the full story — end of story. But it was still an excerpt of what-was, what we extrapolated from our mind and memories. Our stories are indeed “structured to be excerpted” despite the fact that “memory believes it is active and operates with control” (137). When we have lost that control, the story breaks, and the colloquial phrase loved by detectives — “there’s a hole in their story” — comes to life. With near half-empty spaces on some of its pages, STORY’s structure calls to mind visual cues of “holes in the story.” Firestone’s sparse text floats across the top and bottom surfaces of the page, and the blank spaces suggest the gaps in our stories.

With STORY, I was forced to consider: what more could there be to the idea of a story? As children, we sit for story time; as adults, we ask elders to “tell us a story.” Turns out, there’s a lot more to it, and it is especially shown by Firestone’s interplay of film and narrative — the difference between film and story and the truthfulness of both storytelling methods recurs: “They shook the film from their skins and tried to break through” (74); “The film persisted as she watched herself perform” (75). How much of my “story” of 2020 is memory, pain, actual happenings, or the way others remembered it, as a film, with me in it?

STORY shows us that by the time we have constructed the film of memory in our minds for a story we will tell, the editor in us will blow it apart, undo the spliced-together scenes and call that memory into question: “A film is unlike a story, the story desires to be seen” (78). With STORY, you will question how stories get told and are believed. What are we if not stories — many upon many stories stitched together? What’s in those stitches? How do they hold? Despite all of these questions, Firestone affirms the power of the story, at its core, to deliver: 

So many stories that any given day can be told
“Bodies sit down and language delivers” (138) 

1. Jennifer Firestone, Story (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019), 25.

2. Leslie Scalapino, Objects in the Terrifying Tense Longing from Taking Place (New York: Roof Books, 1993), 1.