‘[one love affair]*’ by Jenny Boully
What There Is 1
If you’re wondering about the brackets and asterisk in the book’s title, I can at least tell you this: if you’re a guy reading on the subway, [one love affair]* makes you feel a little tougher than One Love Affair would. The front cover, which includes a picture of a burnt out crack pipe, works to the same end.
Of course both titles might suggest a story of jilted love and love affairs, of someone weaving through relationships and appreciating the best of each partner before an unraveling—in a sense, the every-person story we’ve heard time and again. In [one love affair]*, a genre-bending back-pocket book that the publisher calls an “extended prose poem,” Boully’s discovered a way to make this story work again. Instead of bogging us down with whining and details, Boully offers inventive, associative nuggets that fuse a reader with the complex and confusing range of emotions everyone gets stuck with in the village of love and plunder. [one love affair]* is gritty and intellectual, it’s addictive and soothing, and it’s fitting for just about anyone’s bookshelf. If her mesh of simple language and brainiac posturing don’t hit you, her sentiments probably will.
There are a million stories of love gone wrong, and they all have the same bottom line. Boully accounts for this by giving little weight to the specifics of her narrator’s story—“I keep leaving out what happened, what really happened towards the end”—so however traditional the emotions are, we’re reminded here that someone new deals with them every day. By the end, you’re grateful for the details she does offer, and you’re reading the book for second, third, and fourth time. The asterisk in the title points to a small paragraph (included on the title page) that offers some of these details. It becomes the reader’s job to place them while reading the text:
A million wallowing anemones, a thousand eyes peeping through, a thousand spies shivering, unnameable endless flowerings, countless empty bottles, twelve flowers, eleven trees, eight fruits, four vegetables, four peppers, two enemas, two kidnappings, one accident, one suicide, one soothsayer, one drowning, one nightclub called Juicy.
[one love affair]* also has very much to do with the act of reading and the ability language has to apprehend, if for an instant, an airy sense of otherness. Boully’s first book, The Body: An Essay (scoop it up if you see it, it’s a tough find these days), was constructed entirely of footnotes, to no related text. In [one love affair]*, the footnote is again her weapon of choice. Her first footnote explains her intentions: “[one love affair]* is meant to illustrate how, when reading, our minds often supply another narrative. This book is thus the narrative that snuck in when reading various books, which are documented in subsequent footnotes.” The result is a psychic map that helps the reader live such a story on an emotional level—something like virtual reality, fragment by fragment. Boully knows that anyone reading her book is likely creating their own “narrative,” so again, she’s made her narrator’s story the every-person story. Plot is second to sensation, and the reader fills in the blanks with both Boully’s hints and their own associative wanderings of the mind (though methinks there’s plot enough here to satisfy the fiction crowd).
She wends a story of broken relationships, deploying everything from mimosa trees and spring to nightclubs and crack-smoke. The creep of nostalgia is there from the beginning; in the book’s opening, we appear to have caught the narrator mid-thought:
She remembers the story he told her, about taking a walk with his
former lover during one of the very 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.
In a footnote to this sentence, the reader learns Boully has mimicked the syntax of a sentence by Robert Belaño: “…watching clouds crumble, break apart and scatter in the Chilean sky, as Baudelaire’s clouds would never do.” So, her thoughts are a subtext to Belaño’s, and your thoughts as you read are a subtext to Boully’s. Sort of. As the book progresses, the narrator is defined as much by her dreams as she is by her waking life. Whatever brainstorming she did about footnotes when constructing the final version of The Body pays off big time in [one love affair]* ; a richness and density is added to her soft language. The wandering, cathartic romanticism is sometimes Virginia Woolf and sometimes Anne Carson’s Glass Essay, but in the end it’s all Boully.
Another distinguishing trick is repetition. Sentences, like the narrator’s lovers, come and go, they change forms, they leave you sometimes surprised and sometimes disappointed to see they’ve returned or that you returned to them. In the book’s third section, titled “There is Scarcely More than There Is,” the narrator becomes involved with a female lover. Over the course of the book, Boully frequently splices random (symbolic?) imagery with her narrative:
In the bowl filled with water, the green beans floated on the surface,
as if they had never been loved by the bottom of anything. I did not
think she would last long. She said she needed cats because cats would
love her back, and they would love her unconditionally. I did not think
she would last long; she was already twenty-two and wrinkling and taken
to hard labor in rural Blue Ridge weather.
In the subsequent paragraph, the narrator uses a well-honed sense for repetition and recycles the notion that that this new lover wouldn’t last: “She said she had given me everything, excepting fidelity; she asked why couldn’t I love without there being acts of love? She would not last long, I knew.”
The narrator in [one love affair]* constantly struggles between inadequate lovers (one guy takes her to a party “where everyone was covered with bruises, so decrepit were they on crack”) and a lack of ability or desire to stick with any one person. She concludes that when relationships unravel, it’s really beyond reason, and what’s left is how amazing the relationship was at the start. Here, the “main character” is referred to from the third- rather than first-person perspective: “In a last correspondence, she posed a question which he never answered. In last correspondences, never so much about what it was that really did happen in the end, in the very end. There is instead so much talk about beginnings.”
The third section’s title, “There Is Scarcely More Than There Is,” is borrowed from Gertrude Stein, and does well to explain Boully’s obsession with footnotes. Some might say that to put words on paper is to mark “something.” To footnote any of those words, then, is to imply “other”—the “more than there is.” If Boully’s first book is regarded as an army of footnotes to the ineffable, it should be noted that it was originally published in Seneca Review as a lyric essay. They were transformed later, and perhaps she was still fleshing out the idea. In [one love affair]* the narrative, often borrowed and transformed into a map of the psyche, dictates its own footnotes. Her work is better for the shift, and better in general; that’s to say, Boully has delivered after a promising debut and carved out her niche in American poetry.
Her new book, like her first, embodies the split between what’s here and what’s there, borrowing its sentences from everywhere and situating the work in a modernist nothing that bleeds an attempt to balance it all, both intellectually and emotionally. Beginnings and endings in the midst of an impossible otherness are vital (the prolific Boully’s third book, Book of Beginnings and Endings, is due out next year from Sarabande). Despite its density, [one love affair]* speaks to human nature on its most basic level. The implication of “other”—which supersedes any partner as an object to be feared and obsessed over—results in an obsessive need for urgency, an attempt to access the “more” from yourself and from others while knowing you’ll wind up right back where you started.
1More Than There Is