"144 The mastermind of this roller coaster, in an interview, confessed that the goal of his work is to replicate a ride in which participants are scared out of their minds, yet feel the comforting presence of someone there, riding along and watching over them."
from The Body
by Jenny Boully
Slope Editions, 2002

The Body by Jenny Boully is a work of poetry, composed entirely of footnotes that subtend blank pages and comment upon an invisible, if not imaginary, text that allegedly occupies this poetic vacuum. Like the Oulipian work Suburbia by Paul Fournel, who publishes a novel composed of nothing but its own apparatus and footnotes, The Body draws aesthetic attention to the peripheral topography of the page, analyzing the poetics of a neglected, miniature genre that often escapes scrutiny because its functionalism renders it too marginal or too subaltern to warrant either artistic emphasis or literary analysis. The poet here reveals, however, that the minor space and viral scale of the footnote represents a necessary, albeit parasitic, dimension of writing, one that plays out the logic of the supplement, displacing rather than augmenting the body that supports it.
The Body consists of enumerated marginalia, all of which allude to an autobiographical text by Jenny Boully, who recounts her affair with a man named E., but this account has apparently undergone subsequent commentary by the author and by her editor, and the reader must in turn attempt to lend coherence to the cryptogram of these enigmatic allusions. While the body of the poem often stands in for the body of the poet, acting as a surrogate for the experience of such a biography, the body of the text in this case has gone missing, leaving behind only the exuviae of the work itself—the set of afterthoughts found in annotations and digressions, allegedly presented after the fact by experts, who have prepared this text for scholastic discussion. The author has already imagined herself as an absentee from the poetic milieu, dead perhaps, having already become a topic of academic research, her poetic corpus now dissected and explained for use in a classroom.
The Body suggests that every reference for language, even the body of the poet, constitutes an evasive absence—a thing never known for what it is, despite our desires, because it must vanish at the very moment when we summon it by name, lost forever in a limitless interplay of signs: “[H]ow sad and strange that I, Jenny Boully, should be the […] the sign of a signifier searching for the signified.” The body of the text in turn becomes a blank that the reader must fill in, performing on a grand scale the kind of exercise required by the very footnotes that appear to delete significant information, as if censoring themselves for reasons of archaic decorum: for example, “Ms Boully must have been confused, as it was actually __________, not ____________, who uttered ‘_________________________’ and thus became a symbolic figure in her youth.”
The Body makes reference in its footnotes to a footnoted biography— an oneiric journal—which The Body in turn becomes: “[a]fter the author’s death, it was Tristram who went through her various papers and came across the many folders labeled ‘footnotes,’” and “[i]t wasn’t until years later when he was curious as to which papers the footnotes corresponded that Tristram discovered that the ‘footnotes’ were actually daily journals of the author’s dreams.” Boully even cites the poet Robert Kelly, who claims: “Dreams themselves are footnotes. But not footnotes to life.” Boully implies that her own text may not in fact refer beyond itself to any absent book that constitutes the actual life of her work; instead, her own text may simply annotate a fantastic biography from another reality, referring only to itself as a kind of dream within a dream.

Originally Published: October 8th, 2007

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. October 8, 2007

    It's a good book. A fun book, too. The individual parts are often as inventive as the overall form.

  2. October 9, 2007

    I too am a huge fan of Jenny Boully and am looking forward to her newest project, a collection of essays--though who knows how this artist will subvert, reinterpret and reimagine that concept--coming out next month with Sarabande. It's called THE BOOK OF BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS. Boully is a superb writer.

  3. October 9, 2007
     Francisco Aragon

    Adding to the chorus:
    I had the privilege of having Jenny as a classmate at Notre Dame a few years back, during which she published The Body and remember relishing the collection in manuscript. I can also attest to how interesting her forthcoming book will be as I heard her read generous selections from it at conference on avant-garde poetics at Notre Dame shortly after she finished there.
    And a tad more:
    I think Jenny would agree with me if I ventured to say probably one her most influential mentors at Notre Dame is also one of American Poetry's most under-appreciated figures. While the mainstream poetry world seems to be wrapped up with recent publication of Time and Materials (which I do look forward to reading), also recent and no less important, in my view, is the publication of Kedging: New Poems (Salt Modern Poets) by John Matthias, who taught Jenny Boully at Notre Dame and, in many respects, has been a huge influence on her work. Matthias was at Stanford during the same years as the more well-knwn former US poet laureates. But I've long come to the conclusion that he's the most interesting of his group for greater range and scope. He's that rare poet who can work well out of more than one strand of American verse: the one coming out of the more fashionable lyric/narrative mode, but also out of the more innovative mode. And he's also an accomplished translator.
    I think, and hope his work will become more appreciated once Robert Archambeau's book on the "Stanford five" (Matthais, Hass, Peck, Pinsky, McMichael) gets published by Notre Dame Press soon.

  4. October 9, 2007

    Robert Archambeau, are you reading this blog this week? Can you tell us if your book has a pub date? I'm looking forward to it soon.
    Francisco, are you reading Robert's blog?
    On the rest of those five poets (did all of them study with Davie?), you might check out Robert von Hallberg's earlier book. Though now we're rather far away from Boully...

  5. October 9, 2007

    Although I'd had hopes for the book (called Laureates and Heretics) to come out this fall, it looks like it will be on Notre Dame's spring list. No fault of theirs: I've been too busy on a new book to do all of the loose-end tie-ups on a timely basis.
    I'm a fan of all the poets in the book: Winters, Hass, Pinsky, McMichael, Peck, and Matthias. The range of talent is quite diverse, though, and I imagine very few people who read the book will be fans of all of the poets. Most Peck readers aren't that interested in Pinsky; most Pinsky readers haven't heard of Peck. And I have a feeling some acolyte of Winters will have at me in a review for praising the young, modernist Winters as well as the older, anti-modernist Winters. But all press is good press, right?
    That said, I do think John Matthias is the jewel in the crown of Stanford poetry. That more people in the US don't know about him is probably a product of his having spent so many years in England, and his avoidance of the poetry reading circuit: you don't get famous in South Bend. (I always thought that should be the city's motto).

  6. October 9, 2007
     Don Share

    Folks might like to check out our handy-dandy archive feature on Winters here. As for Donald Davie, one of my favorite things of his is the introduction he wrote to the Penguin Classics volume, Psalms in English... and I also love John Peck's sometimes overlooked Poems and Translations of Hi-Lo; there's an interview with Peck about Winters and other things here.

  7. October 10, 2007

    I'm not sure Boully invented the form. In 2001, Burning Deck published a chapbook by Jennifer Martenson (you can see it here) that pioneered the footnotes-without-a-body idea. It's a bit harder edged than Boully, though dealing with a tangential topic: not "the body" but "the gay gene."
    Martenson is quite unique -- and quite awol. She has disappeared from view, like many a talented poet who can wisely separate the work from the career.