Jenny Boully, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, Tarpaulin Sky, 2011
You know you're afraid of becoming old when you can't figure out what genre you're reading. Or, you know you're afraid of becoming old when you care to figure it out. Or, if you want to play at Peter Pan and pretend you aren't becoming old at all, you can let the pages wash over you like white and never hook into the project at all. I am afraid that I am old enough that it took me awhile to get into Jenny Boully's, Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them. I wanted character development if this was fiction. I wanted consistent voice if this was nonfiction. I wanted line-breaks, damnit, if this was poetry. How do you measure something without the parameters of convention? I didn't care if she was uprooting genre conventions, I just wanted to know which genre she was putting her shovel to. But the moment I turned the book over and saw the categorization fiction/poetry, I, finally, after pretending to youth and pretending to study cross genre, understood what crossing genres meant. Not using one genre to disturb the other, but to use the conventions of all the genres, all the time.
I had read Boully's other books. I wrote a review of The Book of Beginnings and Endings. I teach her essay, "The Body," every other year. In each of those projects, the strategy of what she's saying takes precedence over the individual words. That's not to say that she doesn't render each word with absolute care and precision but that the purpose behind the text is its erasure. The wholeness of a text is scrutinized. Individual words—good. Meta-textual discussion—great. Conventional, narrative, hypotaxic paragraphs?—not so much.
Here, because she's embracing a well-known text of fiction (by which I mean Disney movie even though I very much should read the original JM. Barrie Peter Pan books), I situated my brain toward fiction reading and moved from there. I couldn't remember (because I hadn't yet re-watched the Disney movie) who any of these people were. What's up with Peter? Isn't he played by Julie Andrews in the Broadway version of the book? Who is Wendy? Weren't there some other kids involved?
On the one hand, yes, this matters. In the same way The Book of Beginnings and Endings could be pieced back together, knowing who the characters are in this piece makes it possible for those characters to be erased.
But on the other hand, unlike in Book of Beginnings and Endings and "The Body," the idea of text in Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them is not being erased. Instead, conventions are being uprooted, turned upside down. Boully establishes complex characters inconsistent in their observations, unfaithful in their desires, untraceable in their animation, unknowable in their thoughts. All of this "unning" undoes the traditional gesture in fiction where the primary character's desire is clearly understood. Boully goes underground to root out the darker desires.
The book is divided by a horizontal line that moves around but usually appears in the middle of the page. One might read what's underneath the like as one does David Foster Wallace's footnotes, all at once. Or, one might read them as they do in Boully's essay, "The Body," and read nothing but the footnotes. But when I started to read them as individual poems, my reading of the book became clear and the premises apparent.
A poem, even in the most collected collection, is still an individual piece. One poem interrupts the previous poem by its sheer presence on the right side or next page. Here, the poems in the underground interrupt that above-ground narrative. But interrupt is the wrong word because the above-ground was never narrative in the first place. The above-ground could not exist without the underground and so when moments like this occur in the above-ground, "Don't you think, says Wendy, don't you think there is something strange and cruel about Peter making you. Wear them? Especially in this here August heat?" (26), the period after "Peter making you" reads like a line break—a moment of emphasis that means something. Peter is an enforcer. Peter makes those lost boys wear those animal outfits to keep them in their place. The underground, acting like a poem, makes us pay attention to the poem behavior in the make-believe-it's-consistent narrative above-ground.
Peter's love of power, his deviousness, his lasciviousness, appear in the original text but it's not until Boully digs them out from the underground, from the subtext of Barrie's work that those characteristics seem so cruel. What does it mean, to say to a woman, never grow up? Is there any curse worse for a woman to grow old? Old is alone.
When you imagine Wendy, you must imagine her at her most lonely. She's twelve, then fourteen, then sixteen, then married. She'll leave the window open; she'll wear the same nightgown; she'll keep whispering stories, stories out the crack of the window, through keyholes, through fissures in the ground. Whenever she hears a twig snap or the fluttering wings of moths, she'll think that Peter's back, but he's never back, at least not for her (6).
Although this has narrative force, the narrator speaking to the reader and the scene is set in traditional fiction form, it's at the individual word choice that Peter's love of "youth" begins to creep out. He's a twig. She's a fissure. From here on, we see what the attraction of youth is. Young girls, at twelve, are the most desirable—before they are deflowered (hooked) but right at the moment they could be. There is a moment where youth is the pinnacle—the moment when you're about to lose it. In the original text, Wendy's father threatens to throw her out of the nursery—make her sleep in her own room. In Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them, Hook is dangerous, predatory, molesting. But Peter is dangerous too. His desire to "have" Wendy's youth is as creepy as Hook's desire to have Wendy's hymen. Here, the moment of youth is as fragile as a flower that Hook (and Peter?) pluck: "The miasma, the miasma of night is between your legs, Wendy. I do say! Do you think Hook can have a look? No little children love me!" (16).
Grow up, Hook seems to be saying, and love me. The miasma of night, be it menstruation or semen, is the end of youth. Wendy begins to fade like a plucked flower from then on. Peter, who loved her youth, married her "youth," finds himself trapped in the basement with her, in the creepy underground—trapped in the ordinariness of housewives and house chores. What makes us older than sweeping the floor of a house made out of dirt?
This much is ever so real; this much isn't make-believe: Peter Pan can do a great deal in ten minutes. He can do a great deal to you. For example, he can put a little something inside of you, and you will carry that for the rest of your life; thimble all empty underneath in the side. The molar pregnancy: lasting lasting; placenta all set to bursting, all full of nothing, nothing. (61).
If Boully wrote this as an academic treatise: "Virginity in Peter Pan: The Irigarian Horror of the Underground," or some such title, Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them would lose its lyrical force. It is not visceral when academic. Through formal choices, Boully makes this meaning happen, fleshy. When Wendy's grown, no longer virginal, now a real mother, she's kept down, under the ground. The real story, the one underground ("this is ever so much real") is the one you can't fight. The one that pops up like breasts on an eleven year old girl, like mushrooms in the forest, like erections pointed in the direction of young girls are the things that can't be helped, that can't be kept down. Like the poems in "The Home Under Ground" interrupting the "narrative" above, nature finds a way. Make-believe, as natural as fiction, is the artifice that succumbs to the ever-protruding forward motion of time. Penises pop up like poems.
He has to go peepee, and that isn't, I daresay, in the story. He'll not climb out of the house underground, but rather he'll just pee in that ole corner there and some of the pee will come and splash up on his feet and then he'll just return to bed and go to sleep as if, as if he didn't just pee on his floor, as if he didn't have any pee on his feet. Or take the baby—Michael lately has taken to sticking his finger up his pooper hole and then up his nose: that certainly isn't going to make it in. I daresay: there is a certain hand intervening (26).
But this passage does make it in. This is the natural story, the real story, the poem-story, the one where people who have sex have babies and the babies they have pee on their feet and aren't we all just a little bit child-like still, still that we go to bed with pee on our feet? This isn't just a book about pubescent sex or sticking things "in" the other. It's a book about politics of motherhood, of aging, of growing things (babies, gourds, thimbles) inside you and expecting them not to erupt. It's about the desire to fly (Peter-bird, Wendy-bird—are birds always young?) away from one kind of make-believe to another, which is to say it is about the form of things—the shape things take—girls, women, peters, tinkers, hooks and books—and how through their amorphous (cross-genrey) ways, they can stick more deeply.
At the end of Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them, with enough age that even the restless poems have put the story together, with pants rolled so short they look like underwear, old jealousies evaporate, love gets used to being tired, old seems so much more natural, even if it's so lacking in narrative, equally lacking in make-believe. In the end, everyone gets "boxed" in, in their life, in their age, in their coffin.
And, Peter, will you put things in little boxes, quite little boxes? Every fairy ever loved all shelved now in cigar boxes, the petite ones in sardine tins. Old pirates throwing these things for you out. Have you then a little seashell or perhaps some buttercups to decorate? To decorate her hair? And have you a memento? For you know we girls just love mementoes, would love very much to have a time with the very best one. That is some sort of story, don't you know. A box inside a box inside a box: that is how the best burials go (64).
This passage comes in under the horizontal lines, pushing the above-narrative into the top margin where "Never bird: she so done with all that popping out of babies" (66). Here, the Wendy mixes with the Tink, the youth with the old, the affected British voice with the contemporary, colloquial one, the fiction with the poem. If the slash mark between fiction/poetry decaying is what happens when you become old, if forgetting about Peter and Hook's desire and focusing on recuperating Tinkerbell is what happens, if learning to like the roots that clutch at the walls of your underground house is what happens, then perhaps there is nothing to fear in becoming old at all. [NW]