Comprised of footnotes to a non-existent text, The Body: An Essay is a meditation on absence, loss, and disappearance that offers a guarded “narrative” of what may or may not be a love letter, a dream, a spiritual autobiography, a memoir, or a scholarly digression, a treatise on the relation of life to book. [. . .] First published in 2002 and excerpted in such anthologies as The Next American Essay and The Best American Poetry 2002, The Body: An Essay continues to challenge conventional notions of plot and narrative, genre and form, theory and practice, unremittingly questioning the presumptive boundaries between reflection, imagination, and experience.
I'm now reading Jenny Boully's The Book of Beginnings and Endings (some of which was published online in Conjunctions) and I am struck, again, by the power of her ideas. Or should we call them "constraints"? Boully is again challenging "conventional notions of plot and narrative, genre and form," but this time by cutting away all the middle stuff. She gives us only beginnings. And endings. In each, lush descriptions of meditation, character study, and scene.
But it is the layout of the book itself that intrigues me, for Boully's beginnings end at the bottom of pages. The endings begin at the top of pages and often end a paragraph or so later. It is the turning of the page that compels me. Half a dozen beginnings and endings into the book, I still felt a slight shock that the beginnings didn't continue. Apparently I am so trained as a reader that even while fully aware, I am surprised by my expectations of what must happen when the page turns. Sometimes the shock is complicated by a grammatical shift in the "continuity" of the "sentence" from one page to the next, or a point-of-view change "reminds" me that the beginning has ended and the ending has begun.
In the end
Finally, I found myself reading simply to enjoy the moments Boully captures. Here's one of my favorites:
She would continue to look for four-leafed clovers when the Ice Cream Man drove his wares away; she would continue to catch and release butterflies in her room in the belief that they would mate and lay eggs, which would hatch and produce caterpillars, which would swoon and spin themselves into green cocoons, which would split and spit out more butterflies, that they would all forever stay alive.
If you're interested, Sarabande offers a Guide to The Book of Beginnings and Endings (complete with an author interview). Boully proposes — in answer to the question, "In an interview with Kenmel Zaldivar in Mipoesias, you remark that poetry is "not a form or genre, but an experience, a moment." Could you talk about this?" — that poetry should be called "verse" and that poetry, which is a "moment," should be recognized in all writing:
I think that poetry is something that happens to you; it comes, unexpectedly, in small, intense doses. Some of us feel compelled to attempt to translate this something with language, which often fails us, I think. Some of us want to translate this moment in the form of what we think of as poetry, and some of us want to translate this moment in prose. There is a lot of writing these days passing under the guise of poetry, but the writing contains no poetry; on the other hand, there's also much writing passing under the guise of nonfiction, fiction, or even scientific writing that contains much poetry. I think we should stop thinking about poetry as a genre and more as a moment. The genre should, more appropriately, be termed "verse" perhaps. I think the world, the experience of being alive and feeling our beings contrasted against an infinite time and space continuum sometimes passes through us with such intensity, and we feel such a hold, such a shock, such a deep awe; I think that's poetry. It seems to me that the Haiku masters wanted to translate this feeling into a short form, a form that would be as intense and fleeting as the moment of poetry.
It seems strange to me that Boully would make any distinction that would label, I think, lineated prose as "verse," but I love the idea of captured moments. The power of moments. Moments as fragments of experience. . . .