The new poem is an essay or a novel; at least it calls itself so. Invested in the kind of plasticity Bakhtin claimed for the novel, some of the most inventive poetry today plays in the nowheresville of multi-generic experimentalism. If poetry is in the throes of a crisis of genre, that anxiety has helped revitalize the form; renaming subverts readerly expectations but also often repackages sugar as cereal in order to fit into an established categorical need. It’s no accident that two new poetry presses have kicked off their series with prose: Verse Press with Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, a novel, and now Slope Editions with The Body, subtitled “an essay.” Indeed it’s an essay in the John D’Agata “lyric essay” vein, (she thanks him in her acknowledgements), though more reminiscent of Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse and Anne Carson’s alchemical brews of personal and scholarly explorations of desire. Yet The Body also shares what Wittgenstein calls a “striking family resemblance” to a recent chapbook by Jen Martenson (Burning Deck Press) Xp28_. Both books are a series of inter-nesting footnotes to an absent text.
The primary text is dead and gone and the subterranean text is full of dead authors: Jenny Boully’s notes collect fragments from literary and philosophic texts, as well as postcards, advice, indexes, instructions, and revisions. There’s an old surrealist game where half the players are asked to write “if” statements and the other half are asked to write conditional statements, then the moderator randomly puts them together to oddly apposite effect, thus demonstrating forever that the mind is a pattern-making machine. In her book, Boully similarly makes a case for the mind-magnet, the mind magically drawing her far-flung reading into dialogue—Pre-Socratic philosophers intermingle with the likes of Lacan, Joseph Campbell and Robert Kelly. Fragments fly together in startling, often witty chimes. The wonderfully porous and corrupt design engenders correspondences of all sorts. The relationship of parts to the whole becomes problematized in face of “the theme of loss.” The Body‘s complex system recycles and revises its components; a reference to The Bicycle Thief morphs into Heraclitus and Gilgamesh confronting lost bikes. The annotating mind claims that the reconstructed bike is more desirable than the original. Collage finally wins out in our post-whole world.
Content and form play mirror games, and when the book isn’t drippy with theory, it’s thrilling in its own ability to generate ways of reading it. Metaphors for the book’s construct infect the text: the notes fall “where land meets sea,” a horizon where “a dead great author is set adrift.” They become a parade of shape-shifting figures. They are what happens backstage and off-camera: a circus net, the underworld, the subconscious, a dream of the text, the oft-repressed din of traffic around us, a kind of minus tide that runs just under everything and adds by subtracting.
The author often templates herself into many of the quotes for comic effect. Jenny Boully is the star of the film that the invisible text is addressing; she’s the protagonist of the missing biography, imbuing her own miniature text with the haunted feeling of a dream within a dream. An innovative way to write a memoir, to be sure, but the form of the matter is clearly what matters most here. The Body‘s title names what’s missing—the textual body as well as the lover’s body. Its echo chamber of fragments tells the afterthoughts of a love affair. If the body is a surface for decipherment and pleasure, here it defies the lover/reader’s most basic assumption, its availability. Boully has captured the traditional silent right margin and heaved it (like a now-absent lover) on top of her apparatus. The invisible textual body serves as a blank to argue with, to laugh at, and to refer elsewhere. In this way, the notes are also what’s “underneath the covers” where “the message would always be different.” What the author/editor wants is “someone who would pay close attention to details—the type of person who would…point out and love all those things she deemed lovable about herself such as the manner in which she wrote ampersands, the two freckles on her left hand, the golden highlights in her hair. . . .” As she focuses our attention on the margin and marginalia, she sensitizes us to what’s often neglected.
Fair enough—but she in fact assumes that we will not be attentive. The clever troping in this book is caught in a solipsistic loop, an over-reiteration of its tryst with theory. As if in the absence of a textual host, the parasitic footnote turns on itself and can ultimately only comment on itself. While I admire its experimental exuberance, I wonder if the dizzying self-reflexive vortex of “I, Jenny Boully, should be the sign of a signifier or the signifier of a sign, moreover, the sign of a signifier searching for the signified” isn’t puerile and self-adoring to all readers. Layering translation, interpretation, and genre with pitiless efficiency, Boully produces a perfect fog of technical charm. Ultimately the desultory whoop-de-do of many of the notes comes off as joyful gimmickry. Perhaps The Body answers Charles Bernstein’s call, in the opening of With Strings, to extend the ‘death of the author to the death of the text—where the text is replaced by “stations, staging sites, or blank points of radical metamorphosis.” Perhaps the instability of the text and self is by now a postmodern cliché, fine to use as a departure point, but not a destination in and of itself.