The Necessity of Ripening and Ingesting: On Jenny Boully’s [one love affair]*

Jenny Boully's one love affair -- paperback edition

Halfway through her new book, [one love affair]*, Jenny Boully informs us that the reading of a novel takes place outside of the novel, extending a motif she started in her first book, The Body (Slope Editions, 2002, now out of print) in which the writing of the book took place outside of that book (which consists entirely of footnotes to an otherwise blank body of text). In fact, the title of her newest book, which is not a novel but best classified as three interrelated prose poems or literary meditations, is borrowed from Thomas Bernhard's The Voice Imitator and reflects the narrative struck by Boully upon reading and processing various books from the likes of Roberto Belaño, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras and Severo Sarduy. As in The Body, the subtextual footnotes and insider nods to other writers and poets are copious and rich, though this time we move from introspection to extroversion, with a narrative thread of sorts to attach ourselves to. 


If she came off as bookish and timid (though perhaps budding with potential) in her first book, in her sophomore effort her confidence mounts (for better or worse), she becomes less concealed and her voice ripens. In fact, an appreciation of [one love affair]* depends on how ripe the reader prefers their literature. Boully strives for that state when a fruit is delicately overripe and juicy, on the verge of going sour—that dreamy yet risky state between bridled prose and unbridled poetry, which perhaps also best describes the textual form she engages us in. Boully is the lover who is jealous of ex-lovers, with a suspicious animosity and wistful yearning for the days and affairs gone by. 

The days of leisure, of wondering, of reading and writing, of dreaming would soon be over, replaced by a waitress apron, a jar of barely enough.

Boully graduates from the academic and privileged life of reading and self-discovery, to one where she actually has to work for a living—at least metaphorically. Whether she has earned that voice in [one love affair]* remains to be seen. And the other question it brings up in my mind: Did Boully miss out on something in going from the budding under-ripeness of The Body to the souring over-ripeness of [one love affair]*? Is she akin to a teenager too eager to grow up only to find out that she missed out on the good years?

…but later in the summer, when it was approaching September, in that last recess of August when things are always too close and too hot, she would realize that the mushroom jar was too empty, too sparse, and she would know that she would have to learn to somehow begin again; but now, it is still June, and ah, the lushness that only the ingestion of petals will allow one to see.

It is this eagerness to ingest, to experience wholly or directly, that fuels [one love affair]* in reoccurring canons that Boully captures in the title to “ ... where sad, incomprehensible scenarios were played over and over.” These scenarios reoccur much like an addict that gets hooked and quits or lovers that split and reunite, over and over again, until either the love or lover dies. These reoccurring fragments could be a walk her lover took with his ex-lover in the spring, “... a spring which soured then ripened then soured then ripened before ripening again.” But it is not an unyielding repetition so much as a splintering caterwaul whose juicy by-products are what Boully strives for and relates with engaging accuracy. There is a progression, an aging, a souring, a ripening, and new details re-emerge—we find out the boat was orange, or that tree snails don’t just move, but move “how tree snails move in a mollusk's dream.”

Her prose is tactile and organic, abstracting emotions to familiar living things, mostly plants or simple sea creatures that we can readily attach ourselves to. She even supplies a taxonomical chart that organizes items such as plums, flesh, letters and bulbs of flowers according to attributes such as “things that bruise” or “things that ripen to die,” though she doesn’t go as far as being, or talking about, pregnancy—it is the dreams of these things or smells that are most enlightening.

… the smell of her water breaking in her dream of pregnancy; a smell of a bay, a salt-stained crumbling; celery stalks, the frail heads of radishes bulging from scenery.

Believable as it is, her derived narrative is also poetic and ambiguous enough for you to supply your own narrative, one that most anyone who has been through a relationship gone bad can relate to. Anyone that has been through the decay process of a love affair and dealt with the aftermath of divvying up emotions can take custody of these common human experiences that Boully relates through these extended prose poems. For example, an anemone, which figures prominently throughout her book, means something entirely different to Boully than it does to me, not only as a male, but one whose father had an unhealthy fear of anemones, explicitly condoning their poisonous virtue and obvious (to him) resemblance to the female anatomy. It took a marine biology class in college, where we were all encouraged to stick our tongues in anemones to experience for ourselves the mild electric shock (to eagerly ingest in spite of known dangers), to understand anemones in a more objective light (and yes, like Boully, in this review I am falling victim to the inherent desire to supply my own subjective narrative thread!)

And perhaps it is only me (born outside of literary circles) that feels the alienation brought on by excessive name-dropping, encumbering academic footnotes or an expository poetic tone—an alienation that causes me to supply my own narrative thread just like Boully does in creating her book. She consciously and playfully admits to being overly analytic or academic in “… the entire catastrophe of being a poet… ,” where inevitably the outcome is:

…a metaphor for another kind of demystifying; another kind of premature parting, the beginning of solitude and other such things.

And is Boully's jealousy of ex-lovers reflective of her jealous admiration for the poets whose shoulders she stands on? This in a time when the romantic era she seems to pine for is long gone. And it's not just poets she extrapolates from, but also the likes of Joseph Campbell, who stated that the mythic quest of the lover is the highest of all the journeys, the fiercest reason for living.

Boully's love affairs are not only on the ripe side, but idealized: “There is a hand that touches, and when it touches, all goes awry.” And again later,

She would remember an orange boat tied to a dock, a dock she wanted, and know that it wasn't him but the water she was in love with.

She's so consumed in her own love affair that we in turn see the world through her lover’s eyes. It doesn’t pretend to be a virginal love, but one that is tainted, scarred and drained by the previous lovers of that lover and whose emotional loss or detachment is worn like a penance or stigma into the next relationship. Boully continues her exploration of the body as something that physically holds something else, as a container to be filled (or needing to ingest): “… he would turn to her and say that they should eat, that they needed to eat.” And then later on, in “He Wrote in Code” she explicitly describes eating as being a metaphor for gaining some sort of hidden knowledge.

In Boully’s world, we become corpuscular beings, sterile nouns that only through interactions with other objectified beings form reflexive verbs, reactions and relationships. While she does not necessarily excel in creation (more than once she alludes to a fear of pregnancy), her forte is in the descriptive, in analysis, in shedding light on dependencies and the interrelationships of beings fumbling their way through discovery.

And although her yearning for experience takes her to dangerous places, to some it might have the feel of intentional or pre-meditated slumming, not built out of necessity (though perhaps intentionally so). In the end it’s the story we all know, the goody two-shoes that falls for and is deflowered by the bad boy junky, the one who “would not last long, not the way he went so long between laundering.” And then:

... when the demise of their love was beginning to go awry, he took her to a party where everyone was covered with bruises, so decrepit were they on crack that they wrestled and boxed each other all night in an attempt, she thought, to work out their ambivalent sexual tendencies.

It is a familiar story with an inevitable and perhaps necessary ending, but this style of  prose poetry is not so much about the story as what we learn along the way. And it’s in this, at relating, at ripening and at reflecting on the underbelly of relationships, that Boully succeeds.

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[one love affair]* is the first publication from the newly formed Tarpaulin Sky Press, available both as a perfect-bound edition and in a limited hand-bound edition. Follow the above links to explore more or to get it directly from Tarpaulin Sky Press, or get it from Powell's

(c) 2006 Derek White