Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay is an exercise in the stripped-down economics of the page and the poem: filled with mostly-blank pages, the only text present appears in the form of footnotes. Annotating a nonexistent text, The Body’s form immediately disarms the reader: with no “body” to speak of, the narrative happens solely in the non-sequential asides at the bottom of the page. Boully leads us, blindfolded, through the underbelly of the poem; sensing our unease, she responds, “2. Let it exist this way, concealed; let me always be embarrassed, knowing that you know that I know but pretend not to know.”
Okay, but what can we know? Certainly that this is pushing genre boundaries to their breaking point: like Thalia Field’s Point and Line, Boully’s Body incorporates the song and the stage, the privacy of internal monologue and the clamor of polyvocalism; like Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies, Boully empties the book and the narrative of all convention, yet manages still to paint pretty pictures and make them dance; like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the dominant narrative happens, however disjointedly, in the annotation; and yet, in the wake of all of these tricks, Boully manages to perform one final sleight of hand—the “actual” text has disappeared, and the reader is left, somehow, to identify her narrative card in the footnotes. It’s worth speculating, however briefly, what the invisible text might look like—a text footnoted with stage directions and personal anecdotes, snatches of journal entries and brusque editorial remarks—for what such text could feasibly exist? But the daydream is mostly folly; Boully is not concerned with what the text might be doing, but what it is doing.
Boully’s footnotes shift in and out of first and third person, nearly always focusing on a woman—easily read and often directly referenced as Boully herself. (“14. Ms. Boully must have been confused, as it was actually_______, not _______, who uttered ‘_______’.” or, “33. All the same, how sad and strange that I, Jenny Boully, should be the sign and signifier of a sign, more-over, the sign of a signifier searching for the signified.”) Spliced with quotes from Joyce, Derrida, and Dante, Boully guides us through the hell of the loss of a lover (“35. I was the lonely tripod. I was the cup of tea left behind”) down the right road lost to memory’s gaps and conscious erasure.
In Boully’s under-text world, everything’s gone awry: “100.n. In the morning, the doves cooed their fuck-yous. And she departed, taking the wrong baggage, the wrong flight of stairs. Over the fire escape, the dress fluttered in the misdirected wind. Because he never said the word, the bits and pieces of her: lipstick and rose petals, sugar-spoons and pink envelopes, ended up in the wrong pockets. And damn-it-all-to-hell if someone didn’t, overnight, uproot and replant the road signs in all the most-traveled but wrong intersections.” Another character in the notes, Tristam, tries to orient himself in these accounts, “…curious as to which papers the footnotes corresponded” and discovers that “…the ‘footnotes’ were actually daily journals of the author’s dream” (143). Boully adds, “143.z. Dreams themselves are footnotes. But not footnote to life. Some other transactions they are so busy annotating all night long.” But these notes are not just a recording of fantasies, for dream, like its twin, memory, is a meaning-maker, and although she’s not left with much, Boully usurps control: “106. After all, in the editing room, the editor often wields greater control than the director.” For it is Boully herself who has been left on the periphery: perhaps writing there, then, “will provide something explanatory for later, while gaps of time when one failed to write would mean that one had no record of the affair—love with no proof of purchase, and therefore, no hopes of redemptions or exchanges” (94); perhaps she is embodying the residue like Alice Notley’s lonely protagonist of In the Pines, living in “grief stripped to shape alone.” Regardless, this distillation is given on her terms, to her end.
Though clearly preoccupied with its protagonist’s own loss and subsequent erasure, The Body is also playing a seductive withholding game in its relationship with the reader: a fissure exists between what Boully knows/is and what she’s revealed to us in the text. Boully is herself the departed lover, stringing us along with just enough of the right words to keep us baited. This coyness often feels delightfully earned: “98. ‘You will never find the life for which you are searching.’ 99. Except, perhaps, for poets and prostitutes”; other instances are simply cloying: “87. To properly protect one’s hard drive, one should take great care not to open attachments (k) from unknown users. k. Consider love here.” These moments, well-executed or less-than, salvage the poem from the graveyard of elegy and propel the reader through the fragmented text.
Which isn’t to say that The Body isn’t elegiac; however, though it mourns a death, it offers hope: “115. Everything I do, I do because I know I am dying…Poetry is an instant, an instant in which transcendence is achieved, where a miracle occurs and all of one’s knowledge, experiences, memories, etc. are obliterated into awe. Is anything I say real? And by real, I mean sincere—or is everything an attempt to procure love? I know now why the line breaks: it is because something dies, and elsewhere, is born again…” Perhaps here lie the answers—the only meaning to be made isn’t meaning at all, but awe; the experiences must be suffered to be transcended after in poetry. The Body delivers: in its resurrection of the dead, it transcends mere annotation to take its place on the page and in the mounting number of provocative new voices.