by Jenny Boully
Tarpaulin Sky Press 2011
Reviewed by Kate Angus
“The moon tonight so full, so full of cradles outgrown.”
The best folk tales and children’s stories are the dark ones, the ones that hint at the world and human relations as they really are and so continue to haunt our adult dreams, shocking us awake to reel at the true terrors of abandonment, our inevitable decay, heartbreak, betrayal, and loss. The act of parsing out and presenting these adult truths from beneath the veils of children’s fantasy is the project at the heart of Jenny Boully’s masterful new book, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them. The book is a brilliant alternate version of J. M. Barrie’s classic children’s book Peter and Wendy. Boully adjusts the focus so that Peter Pan is, as his name has come to signify, the type of boy who won’t grow up or settle down, who will seduce and then soon replace you, who’ll forget you in the blink of an eye even as you pine for him and wither with age, who will flitter on to the next replacement Mother to bring home for a while as a briefly-loved plaything as he amuses himself on his island of Lost Boys.
The book is constructed to hold two narratives: the original story of Peter Pan and Wendy that Boully assumes the reader knows, and her own variations. Structurally, she tells us these stories through two prose texts, one sitting on top of the other. The top half of each page holds the longer larger narrative while beneath, separated by a line and entitled The Home Under Ground, she gives us smaller fragmentary moments, shards of stunning images and commentary that serve as both literal and figurative subtext to the story above. When, for example, the top narrative tells us:
He will come to you in the darkest part of the night when you are sleeping…Despite his ability to lose so much, despite his boyish looks, his boyish charms, he can only dress himself with skeletons, with skeleton leaves; he smells of and is made of the loam of decaying roots and branches, the rotting sap and juices of Neverland trees. And what are these? What are these? asks Mrs. Darling, who knows that these leaves, these leaves littering the nursery floor, these leaves, aren’t the leaves of earthbound trees.
The Home Underground section whispers an even darker story, asking:
Would the death boat be made of the feathers of the Never bird? Enclose her within the rib bones of swallows….That gleaming in his eyes isn’t a personal excitement; if ever, if ever I forget you, then.
Tarpaulin Sky Press is listing not merely as Fiction / Poetry and that seems about right. Much like Boully’s previous books (The Body unfolds only as footnotes, [one love affair]* is a chimera of fiction, essay, prose poetry and memoir, and The Book of Beginnings and Endings, is comprised entirely of narrative openings and closings), it exists in the hybrid ground where it is both, either or neither, as the story within is both a children’s story and an analysis of a too common trope in adult relationships, and where Peter is both Peter and the “Betwixt-and-Between” that Boully dubs him.
In both texts, the narrative voice speaks in urgent fragment tones directly to Wendy, explaining the significance of small details and clips of dialogue and telling her story to her both as it happens and as it will happen in the future:
The window hasn’t been left open, and there is another boy sleeping in your bed. The absence of the beloved, the replacement that is easily replaced by Peter’s mother is also easily replaced by Peter himself, who will forget you, who will forget to love you or even to know you
Boully’s voice is hypnotic as she weaves half-remembered source-text stories with newer interpretations and builds a forward rush that detonates as she deploys a sudden fragmentation: for instance, the unexpected “let’s play pretend that I save you right before. We drown.”
Peter’s abandonment of Wendy seems inevitable throughout. This is due in part to his own fickle natue: “I’m a little bird, he says. But he doesn’t say that to just you alone.” It is also due to Wendy’s intensifying abandonment of immaturity, and to the simple fact of the inevitable decay that awaits all of us, particularly Wendy, the lone girl still attached to the human world during her sojourn in Never Land: “We won’t notice that we’ve grown until we’ve grown: that’s Wendy’s predicament.” All of these play out sexually as well; Peter has numerous other dalliances, and an air of darkness and complication permeates Wendy’s exchanges with the menacing, powerful Hook. “Don’t write down what actually happened; instead, write down what you wanted to believe,” the narrative voice advises Wendy, and later, half-mockingly reassures her that “If this…storyteller isn’t quite right, why then, another…will shortly come. It’s been known to happen.”
Boully maintains a fluid text but shies away from straightforward narration, providing a modern re-envisioning of a cultural touchstone that is also a commentary on itself. She weaves a gorgeous fever-dream where our half-remembered childhood stories now stand revealed as adult archetypes. Time itself becomes unstuck, as even Peter and the Lost Boys begin to contemplate “how we can continue on here without having to reinvent too much. Or, better yet, let’s…ascertain just what has transpired so that we can make it all new again.” This moment seems like an embedded ars poetica, as the book itself also continually makes itself new and reinvents its source texts. The text warns Wendy continually that Peter will tire of her, will forget her, will leave her, yet an “I” suddenly speaks near the end, saying “You see, Peter, I too, alone, without you, can have adventures….I can leave you.” The idea of who has left who is suddenly open to new interpretation–was it Peter’s waywardness or Wendy’s ability to mature (something Peter lacks) that is the greater and decisive abandonment? After all, it is Wendy who has controlled the narrative–both by being the cause (the “you” the book speaks to so urgently) and by being identified as a storyteller throughout. At the end, it is Wendy who controls language and meaning, saying to Peter, “My dear, my dear pet wolf: I will tell you the difference between A and Z,” as well as the narrative of passing time, as she is the echo of “the housewife who has grown, has grown, the home is nothing but a hole. The moon tonight so full, so full of cradles outgrown.”