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Love, Abandonment and Art as Transcendent Symbol: An Informal Review of Jenny Boully’s “The Book of Beginnings and Endings”

January 27, 2009 by Roger Conner Jr · 2 comments

Roger Conner Jr.


Photo: megyarsh

When it so happened that in the process of searching the websites of small literary presses and journals I found the description of a book by the lyric essayist Jenny Boully, she would have likely said, as she is often prone to do in her writings, this was not an accident.

In the universe of Jenny Boully, there are not accidents but events portending signs and symbols of something more, signs of a beginning or an end, symbols and relationships which must be recorded for deeper examination and for use as the raw material of life and art.  The signs and symbols and how we interpret such symbols seems to be the place where accidents can occur or as she says “Symbols will always present accidents of themselves.”

So it is with Jenny Boully’s “The Book of Beginnings and Endings” (pub. Sarabande Books, Louisville KY, 2007) a book of lyric essays intended to be read as poems and as symbols, not as facts or accurate recounting of events.  This is a book of fictional beginnings and endings of stories, events and descriptions with the middle left out, because what is left out is often more important to symbolic meaning than what is included.

By omitting all but the beginning and ending, Jenny is using a technique she used in her first published and groundbreaking book “The Body”, but by way of slightly different method:  In “The Body” she included only footnotes but not the body of the text the footnotes referred to.  The footnotes thus became symbols in themselves, pointing to something more important, more meaningful. 

So it is in “The Book of Beginnings and Endings” in which an event such as a bleeding heart dove crashing into the window pane of a cathedral is symbolic of “falling out of favor with the skies, this is no accident: what it is is the manner in which symbols will make themselves known to us.”, and subsequently becomes symbolic for the mortality of all events: “To begin and then end-it makes me fall out of favor with myself” says the author.  The danger of false reading however remains always present:

“If there were false surmises, it was I who embedded them into the locks, the space of ajar.”

It is this space of ajar that is being examined for symbols and signs, this existential space that is “an infinite singularity, a space for heaving”, this space in which “In the beginning there were many signs”, and our attempts to communicate are confused and finally “nothing more than lost messages, miscommunications-her heart, a daring carrier pigeon forever circling overhead.”

If the sentences quoted above seem to the reader at times as the poetic reflections of a young woman who has suffered loss, abandonment, heartbreak and disappointment that is because they are, and there are more stories of abandonment in the book, however not so many as in one of her other books “{one love affair}*”.  What elevates Jenny Boully’s books far above becoming the musings and memories of a heartsick girl is the use of powerful and deeply examined language, allegorical connection to greater existential concerns and novel and unconventional metaphorical devices.  Most important however is that the writer bares her soul, making her books beautiful because they have soul.

Technique is important in “The Book of Beginnings and Endings” but only in so far as it is used to convey to the reader the deep questions that haunt us all:  Questions of meaning, of symbol, of what matters as opposed to what are merely misreading of trivial events, but most important are the questions of love, desire and abandonment which lead to core existential examinations:  What is real in love and desire, and therefore in life and existence?

The “Book of Beginnings and Endings” is so often a book of beginnings and endings of love, thus mirroring the path of our existence, a convoluted path in which love comes, changes and goes in twisted circles which often enough seem random and convoluted into a mix of seemingly chance meetings and introductions and ending with painful abandonments, betrayals and badly worded incomplete and misunderstood farewells.  Because Jenny Boully does not partition the search for authentic love from the search for authentic life and authentic art, the love quest weaves like a colored strand of fine fiber in and out of all three, tying them together to create a poetic tapestry of great beauty that the reader will want to return to and reflect upon on a repeated basis.  The implied questions touch upon the great human problem of what, in the end, is real, and what we “call” into existence, for as Jenny writes ““You could try to recreate it, just as you try to recreate love anywhere”.   For Jenny Boully, love can be as much a willful act as a chance event and the signs and symbols will be as profoundly important either way.

The love quest mentioned above does not refer exclusively to romantic love and desire but is examined as many facets of the one diamond that is existence, from familial love, to the love of childhood, the love of language, of symbols and art and finally love of life and existence in the largest metaphysical sense.  There is nature here as well as art, and mortality is ever present in all things to a writer who expresses through her choice of symbols a desire to “recreate love anywhere”.

Reading and writing are even declared as an exercise in seeking love:

“What the reader desires, perhaps even more than the author, is to possess only one character to love.”

“What the author most wishes to give but sometimes is unable to furnish:  one love to be loved beyond others.”

“What keeps us awake:  Our devotion.  Our devotee is oftentimes a character and at other times an author, because sometimes it isn’t so much a character that we love but the author that we are utterly devoted to.  How then to address the letter?  What a pitiful fact that stamps are no longer licked.  A redemption that envelopes have remained somewhat simple.  Disappointing that ink barrels for your fountain pen are difficult to find, especially in your most favorite colors.  The expression of love, always premeditated, must contain ceremony, must attune to a certain degree of elegance and reverence.”

Jenny Boully is touching upon the heart of mystical poetic expression, the point at which existence, love and art fuse into a mystical transcendence, the poetic soul of the ancient fusing of the chant, the invocation of spirits and gods in language become magic and spells can be cast and new realities can be sung into existence:

 ”The most difficult thing in living is not to trust in what is seen, but rather to intuit and trust in what is unseen”.

This is a repetition of the biblical definition of faith, with the important addition of the world “intuit”. 

Jenny’s definition of metaphor and symbol  in which “a vase of lilies which is never just a vase of lilies”  takes on a transcendent quality, and even more so when she is meditating on “winged things”, a trope she uses often:

“For those of you who have reservations about hope, who need more than what you may deem to be speculation, perhaps it will help if you think of possessing wings in terms of metaphor.  In other words, the representation of wings in art represents the actual wings, which in turn represent something else.  The difficulty rests in trying to convey the true meaning of metaphor.  Rather than being a comparison, metaphor serves as a representation of an actuality twice (or perhaps thrice or more?) removed.”

There is a reason, says Jenny Boully, for the use of wings, halos and horns throughout the history of art.  It is because they represent something real even if several times removed.  Essentially the artist is calling into being a metaphor of an actuality.  It is our duty to “intuit” this reality by means of symbols.  We are essentially our own “seer”, our own prophet.  To use an allegory used by Ms. Boully, for the child the ice cream man does not exist but is called into existence by the sound of the bell, which can be seen as an intuitive and correct reading of the correct metaphor.

In “The book of Beginnings and Endings” there is an extraction from a beautiful poetic essay by Jenny Boully called “The Art Of Fiction:  An Essay”. 
I will quote only a small extraction as it was included in “The Book of Beginnings and Endings”,

“When the flock of doves flies forth from the magician’s breast pocket, they do not enter our world to perch on random branches of earthbound trees-we only see them briefly and for the sake of the trick.  When I meet whomever it is I meet, this person never existed before and exists then, at the meeting, simply for the sake of the trick.  What the magicians know will hurt you, because when whomever it is I meet flies forth from my breast, as they will and as they must, these beings do not enter this world, but go only where the magicians know they belong.  Into the black hat of disappearances so many loves go and reemerge as playing cards and the animal manifestations of the symbols of fecundity and hope.”

In a world where we experience “the lover who no longer utters your name, the former love who no longer writes, the current love who never says forever” and “it is lonelywhen you leave, you will leave incredibly softly”, Jenny Boully reaches for the transcendence that language can bring, and calls into existence our quest for love, faith and hope, and as it should be, the greatest of these is love.  Her goals are lofty:

“The hand that cuts you free from the cloth is not necessarily the hand that sews you back in.  I too have a scissors aimed at the sky.  I too will slice open the belly of a great heaving.”

 Jenny Boully captures much in only fifty four pages of text, and leaves the reader with a quest for the symbols and signs that matter, a quest that stays with the soul.  This is not an accident, but the work of a gifted poetic writer and a prophetic literary voice of her generation. 

 Postscript:

All of Jenny Boully’s books are available through Amazon, but for “The Book of Beginnings and Endings”, I would recommend that you go to the publisher, Sarabande Books   (http://www.sarabandebooks.org    Sarabande Books is a small nonprofit literary publisher of poetry and short fiction located in Louisville KY.  They have a fascinating and varied catalog of titles and authors, so go to the site and check it out.  As we know, small presses need all the support they can get in these difficult times.  For Jenny’s other books, check out the respective publishers, all of whom have websites and can be found with a Google search).

Jenny Boully’s four published books are:

“The Body” reprinted by Essay Press, 2007 (originally published by Slope Editions, 2002)

{one love affair)* published by Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2006 (punctuation of title is the authors)

“The Book of Beginnings and Endings” published by Sarabande Books, 2007

“Movable Types” published by Noemi Press, 2007

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