[one love affair]*
Love is clearly a mistake. I do not mean that to elect to love is an error in judgment, but rather that love itself requires participation in an unintelligible condition, one that gains access to its own properties by declaring that those properties cannot be known, even as they are allegedly dependent on being shared. Like that kid in Mystery Men who can turn invisible but only when no one is looking at him, love operates outside the focal range of our apprehension, and indeed we only know it exists by virtue of the attention we pay to its passing, as opposed to its presence.
So a love affair (only partially the real title of Jenny Boully’s latest: the asterisk refers to A million wallowing anemones, a thousand eyes peeping through, a thousand spies shivering, unmovable endless flowerings, countless empty bottles, twelve flowers, eleven trees, eight fruits, four vegetables, two enemas, two kidnappings, one accident, one suicide, one soothsayer, one drowning, one night club called Juicy) isn’t something you can participate it so much as observe and comment upon; in fact, the observation and commentary constitute the affair itself. The exchange of narratives and reciprocal consciousness is something Boully identifies almost immediately as elemental to the project of love:
She remembers the story he told her, about taking a walk with his former lover during one of the first days of spring, a spring which soured then ripened then soured then ripened before beginning again, a spring which kept swelling out of winter in a way that Chaucer’s spring would never do. During this walk which her present lover took with his former lover, her present lover reached up into a tree and broke off a flowering branch, of which he did not know the name, but which the former lover accepted as the grandest of all romantic gestures. She asked her present lover to describe the flowering branch that he had plucked for his former lover.
This initial passage alone establishes the importance of recollection as invention of the thing recollected, an idea essential to Boully’s argument. Likewise, her emphasis here on gesture, an act that gains significance only in relation to previously-established meanings, tells us something about her attitude regarding the affair, of the story to which she is superficially committed. What it tells us is that even the second-person speaker is aware (perhaps at the moment detailed itself, but certainly in its recollection) of the entire enterprise as characterized by a set of baffles. There are two ways to regard these baffles: the proxy-narrator can view them as obstructions, meta-afflictions brought on by the uncontrolled referential impulse that telescopes the relationship between the narrator and the feeling or the action, or she can regard them as constitutive of the feeling itself. If the latter, then the baffles don’t exist between anything; the baffles are the thing.It is this conviction that Boully uses [one love affair]*to explore. For those readers familiar with her first book, The Body, this should come as no surprise. Boully famously constructed that book from a set of footnotes to a non-existent text, so her inclination to attend to reference without regard to referent is already established. Obviously, and beyond its formal affinities, this is a highly literary attitude to take, but its concern isn’t wholly academic. It’s true that Boully still uses books as her generative source; her observation that her spring deviates from Chaucer’s originates in Boully’s familiarity with Roberto Belano’s By Night in Chile, from which she plucks his observation that clouds in Chilean skies scatter as, he imagines, Baudelaire’s clouds would never do. And so begat, forever and ever, amen.
But just because she sticks to literary (in?)(re?)spiration doesn’t mean that the dynamic she describes is limited to literature. For all her reliance of the ordination of texts, the patterns Boully describes persist in every form of endeavor or expression. The book is replete with all the usual and familiar associations with a love affair more traditionally understood: travel, domestic torpor, sexual betrayal, caretaking, reconciliation, love tokens, madness (in this case, clinical madness: as a partner speaks of the relationship, “It was called You Fucking Suck or Perhaps It Was, After All, Because You Are Schizophrenic.” ) but Boully pays no greater attention to her clinical descriptions of the affair than she does to her more “heart-wrenching” or “naked” admissions. All are equal, in that each is merely a datum in the recursive cascade. The action obtains whether the details are theoretical or material. grand or pedestrian. In “He Wrote in Code,” the second of the three linked essay-poems in [one love affair]*, the speaker identifies a moment during which
The waiter, confused by our choices—2 Sprites, 2 Cokes, 2 coffees, 2 waters, and 2 beers—was even more perplexed by how he might place all the beverages, along with the pizza, on the table-for-two.
and this tic, pages later, reappears asTwo sangrias, two coffees, two Sprites, two waters, something to set us to rights again.
How is this couple’s reliance upon such rituals, which become deliberate as soon as they are utilized as authentic, fundamentally different from Boully’s reliance on literature to mimic and predict the particulars of her experience? Her experience, his experience, theirs: possession here is beside the point, since the forces in operation are organic, inevitable, impersonal. But even though your feelings and experiences fundamentally have nothing to do with you, that doesn’t make your experience of them any less intimate. As Boully notes, “… there is something quite frightening when the body, against its knowing, begins to slither, begins its slide against a greater anemone in the sky” — to which I would only add the mind of knowing offers no greater resistance or effective intelligence than does the body itself.
Aside from the value of her incidental observations and asides, which are as sharp and well-made here as they are in The Body, the greatest virtue of [one love affair]* is Boully’s willingness to admit the personal and the narrative in such a way that doesn’t reinforce those very errors that make heartbreak in actual (if there is such a thing) love affairs inevitable. Some might avoid these topics altogether, as if there were an alternative set of subjects which might be exempt from the forces Boully describes here. Whether subject to literarily-determined templates or those drawn from more free-form ideologies, we perpetually mistake our capacity for description and comprehension for the kind of tool that might make intervention possible. But commentary is not mastery, and we are subordinate to the medium that moves us. Physics, witless, always wins.