Form, Narrative, and the Invisible Machinery of a Culture: A Response to Jenny Boully’s of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon
by Kristina Marie Darling
All too often, up-and-coming poets deviate from the formal strategies that their audience has come to know, love, and admire. Recent years have seen poets rise to success writing from autobiography, who then startled readers by publishing opaque, and often vaguely political, work. As post-genre writing becomes increasingly fashionable, numerous lyric poets have turned away from the very tradition that facilitated their success. Many critics have argued (and rightly so) that the desire for novelty can be detrimental to the development of writers and other cultural producers. Although loyal readers of Jenny Boully’s books have come to associate her work with hybrid-genre prose forms, I would caution anyone against situating her new book, of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon, within a discussion of this misguided pursuit of novelty.
At first glance, of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon is markedly different from her previous collections. Poems appear in prose (as was the case with Boully’s earlier work), but also in couplets, tercets, and quatrains. But a careful reading of the text will show that Boully is working with, and expanding upon, the same delightful experiments with narrative that pervade her four previous collections of writing. Readers will find a similar fascination with the readerly expectations associated with form and genre, as well as surprising efforts to undermine them. Boully’s decision to situate experimental prose forms alongside verse in the more traditional sense is brilliant, and in some ways, even more bold than her previous work. By doing so, Boully underscores the centrality of established narrative conventions to not only experimental prose, but even the most formal poetry.
Much of the work that uses these more traditional poetic forms explores romance, longing, and alienation, frequently working against the reader’s expectation of the love lyric. Boully draws our attentionto the myriad preconceived ideas that we bring to romantic narratives, ultimately undermining them through her skillful use of fragmentation. Not only does Boully juxtapose formalism with purposeful incompleteness, but the narratives themselves are open-ended, ambiguous. Boully is able to understand, deconstruct, and revise the various master narratives that inhabit even the most imagistic poetry. It is this astute awareness of contemporary culture, and its normative expectations of different types of narratives, that makes her work so compelling.
Consider “Today, No One Has Come to Propose”:
The palm reader never asks what I should like;
nor in my lateness, can I request my din of dying.
I have not seen a diamond ring or gypsy snare
among all the cuffs and chains cast in bars and daily zodiacs.
Forgive me, Living: this dying I do in small amounts.
Here Boully takes a common trope of romantic stories—the notion that rejection by the beloved is a kind of death—and turns it on its head. This common metaphor serves as a point of entry to a thoughtful discussion of female agency in these kinds of romantic narratives. Boully notes that the fortune teller “never asks” what the speaker of the poem “should like,” suggesting that women are often expected to be more passive than men in romantic situations. They can only wait, look for signs: “a diamond ring,” “a gypsy snare,” and “daily zodiacs” are merely a few possibilities. The fate of the female speaker remains ambiguous, as Boully does not completely reject these narrative conventions, but rather, finds a way to work within them. What I admire most about Boully’s work is her ability to simultaneously inhabit and critique these kinds of artistic tropes. Her new book is filled with poems like this one, which appropriate with a remarkable and incisive self-consciousness.
In many ways, formal poems like “Today, No One Has Come to Propose” use the same strategies as the prose pieces scattered throughout the book. No matter what literary form she chooses, Boully is able to assess the reader’s expectations of that particular style of writing, then work against any preconceived ideas about what the text should or ought to be. With that said, the prose pieces in this new book often privilege process over product, undermining the reader’s expectation of encountering a finished text with a clear-cut meaning. She writes in “Fragments,”
Every love affair presents itself as a rough draft, to which, ide-
ally, both partners contribute. I wish to delete the last few win-
ters; for the sake of simplicity, I shall refer to this error as X.
X and I could not agree on one word in our poem. I wanted
Love; X insisted on love.
The open-ended narrative that Boully has created here is similar to those found in her more formal pieces. She consistently challenges the reader’s expectation that he or she will inhabit a passive role, instead prompting them to participate actively in creating meaning from the text. This desire for a more active reader seems especially evident in Boully’s formal choices. As “Fragments” is presented as a series of self-contained prose vignettes, she ultimately asks the reader to forge connections between different parts of the text. It is the audience who actualizes the narrative through his or her imaginative work. Just as one must imagine for oneself the fate of the speaker in “Today, No One Has Come to Propose,” Boully invites the audience to participate alongside the poet in the process of creating meaning from “the last few winters,” “a rough draft,” and various other evocative “fragments.”
With that in mind, Boully’s prose pieces compliment her verse in unexpected, and often provocative, ways. It is her ability to juxtapose disparate styles of writing that makes this book so engaging. By presenting us with hybrid genre prose, lyric fragments, and formal poetry that all toy with the reader’s expectations of genre, Boully gestures at the centrality of received narratives—whether romantic, political, or aesthetic—to even the most imagistic poetry. For Boully, these master narratives that circulate within culture, which determine value, propriety, and social norms, are pervasive. Indeed, Boully calls our attention to the ways in which received ideas shape our expectations of not only prose, but what poetry can be. Her provocative juxtapositions suggest that no linguistic construction is separable from the cultural machinery that produces it. Consider “Poem of Outdated Sentiments,” in which she writes:
But I wonder in which cabinets the china teacups will nest
And what sorts of photos will be displayed on the mantle
Of the fireplace, which linens will be kept in the chests.
Why do I bother with more than one
Fork, more than one bowl, more than one cup?
There will be no love here
Spring after spring…
Here Boully suggests that the beliefs that circulate within a culture—not only the conventions governing etiquette, but the hierarchies of value that we impose upon language—continue to shape our perceptions of people, places, and things long after these beliefs have gone out of fashion. For Boully, it’s this type of received knowledge that still haunts much of contemporary poetry. With that in mind, poems like this one compliment the many prose pieces found throughout the book. Much like the hybrid genre work that Boully is known for, these more traditional pieces suggest the pervasiveness of normative ideas about language, especially the abiding belief that certain types of language are well-suited to particular situations, or specific literary forms.
Approached with these ideas in mind, Boully’s latest book, of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon, appears as part of a necessary and logical progression in her ongoing exploration of form, genre, and culture. Her previous collections certainly draw our attention to the various linguistic hierarchies associated with prose. This new book reads as an extension of, and an expansion upon, Boully’s previous discussions (begun in The Body: An Essay) of the gender politics inherent in our efforts to categorize language. Presented as a book-length series of prose footnotes to an absent text, complete with blank pages, The Body: An Essay has often been described as a groundbreaking critique of academic language. More specifically, Boully perceives scholarly discourse as operating on acts of exclusion, as autobiography, aestheticized language, and other more “subjective” forms of writing supposedly reside outside the boundaries of scholarly writing. These types of language, which are perceived as extraneous to scholarly prose, are also arguably more accessible to social groups that may not have access to the training, forms of discourse, and literatures associated with traditional scholarship. Boully ultimately holds a mirror to culture, showing us through her innovative use of form that these types of language—which depict women’s experience, emotional upheavals, and domestic spaces—exist only at the margins of academic life.
of the mismatched teaceups, of the single-serving spoon exhibits many of the same concerns with the hierarchies we impose upon language, especially when considering where personal experience fits within the boundaries imposed upon different types of writing. One certainly might perceive Boully’s most recent book to be less formally innovative than earlier works like The Body: An Essay, since she uses inherited literary forms for what seems like their intended purpose, rather than utilizing found, appropriated, or repurposed forms of discourse. But I would argue that Boully’s use of couplets, tercets, and quatrains in of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon is just as innovative as her use of templates that are not germane to poetry.
Throughout both The Body: An Essay and of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon, Boully seeks to undermine the various hierarchies that we impose upon language, in effect democratizing academic writing, as well as other forms of communication. Consider the following excerpt from The Body: An Essay:
34. This was corrected in the second edition by the author. In the original, she wrote: “Prayer is merely a hopeful form of apostrophe.”
35. I was the lonely tripod. I was the empty cup of tea left behind.
By placing autobiographical language within a received academic form, Boully draws attention to a discontinuity between form and content. Typically, only certain types of language can inhabit academic forms, and personal narrative is very rarely one of them. By placing personal experience within the parameters of scholarly writing, Boully suggests that scholarly writing operates primarily on acts of exclusion. As a result, women’s lived experience especially is frequently overlooked as a form of scholarly evidence. Boully presents us with a more inclusive vision of what academic writing can be, suggesting the relevance of not only personal narrative, but aestheticized language and emotion as well. In many ways, Boully’s debt to T. S. Eliot remains most visible here. Just as Eliot famously situated a typist within the domain of serious poetry in The Waste Land, calling into question the many acts of exclusion inherent in academic writing, Boully presents a more inclusive understanding of scholarly discourse. For Boully, social justice begins with a revolution in the existing modes of thinking, writing, and communicating.
Her most recent book makes fairly similar claims about the gender politics inherent in our efforts to categorize language. By invoking (and frustrating) the readerly expectation associated with specific styles of writing, particularly the love lyric, Boully asks: How do existing structures of power and authority manifest in our expectations of literary texts? Who has the authority to undermine these readerly expectations?How do these efforts to work against the reader’s preconceived ideas constitute a form of activism? These are much the same questions Boully poses in The Body: An Essay, but her new book recasts them with a much wider scope, suggesting their relevance extends beyond prose writing in the strictest sense of the word, encompassing even the most formal poetry.
Additionally, her earlier collections—namely The Book of Beginnings and Endings and Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them—use fragmentation as a means to undermine the expectations associated with prose. In instances where one expects to find a linear narrative with only one possible interpretation, they encounter instead a redacted, elliptical text that requires them to actively speculate and assign meaning. The Book of Beginnings and Endings, for example, appears as a collection of first pages and last pages to imagined, absent, or otherwise mislaid texts. Through her innovative use of fragmentation, she questions the expectations of completeness, coherence, and linearity that we bring to literary texts.
Boully utilizes this strategy again in of the mismatched teacups, of the single serving spoon, suggesting that a reader’s preconceived expectations apply not only to prose, but to poetry as well. After all, we have been conditioned by culture to expect narrative to work in particular ways. Throughout her five published collections, Boully prompts us to be more open-minded about what is possible within a literary text. She writes in The Book of Beginnings and Endings, for example:
Upon further investigation, authorities concluded that the body never existed before the murder. “This is no longer a murder investigation,” the detective said, “but an investigation into identity theft.” There were no fingerprints found at the scene, but rather the presence could be felt of some malingering entity.
By ending the piece so abruptly, Boully encourages the reader to forge connections between the various elements of the story. The murder investigation described here serves as merely a starting point for the reader’s own imaginative work. Much like her writing in of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon, the poems in this earlier collection undermines our expectations of narrative, using this subversion as a means by which to engage the reader, to push them beyond the passive role that they so often occupy.
With that in mind, I see Boully as working within a rich tradition of fragmentary writing, populated by such luminaries as Sappho (at least as presented by a translator like Anne Carson) and T. S. Eliot, as well as contemporary writers like Carson, Karla Kelsey, and Rebecca Lindberg. While one might argue that Boully’s new book often gives the pretense of a finished product, as the individual poems appear formally pristine at first glance, her presentation of the work as a “book of failures” ultimately situates the collection within this tradition. The poems appear as abandoned texts, much the same as the mislaid pages of The Book of Beginnings and Endings. What’s more, her collections of fragments—whether footnotes or loose pages of a forgotten narrative—call into question the assumptions that we, as a culture, bring to a literary text: Why do we expect completeness from the writings we encounter? Why do we tend to value product over process? How do these normative expectations of literary texts shape our reading experiences? As Boully teases out possible answers to these questions, what distinguishes her most recent work is its unflinching ambition. Rather than limiting herself to found academic templates, or even prose in a general sense, Boully engages even the most traditional poetic forms. By working across literary genres, she is able to make claims about culture that are much wider in scope. Throughout her newest book, Boully suggests that normative ideas about how narrative should unfold permeate all literary endeavors, as no text is separable from the cultural machine that produces it. Throughout of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon, Boully makes incisive claims about form, narrative, and culture with wit, precision, and great insight. This new collection is a stunning addition to an already accomplished body of work.