Review: Jenny Boully’s NOT MERELY BECAUSE OF THE UNKNOWN STALKING TOWARD THEM
not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them by Jenny Boully | Tarpaulin Sky Press 2011 | $14.00
“Sewing,” “pockets” and “stories” being things that don’t quite exist in the Neverland, Jenny Boully’s not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them sews pockets in and around the mythos of J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. Cutting snippets of Barrie’s source text, including Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and events in Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys, Boully centralizes Wendy’s experience and sews up bits of her story, stitching the make-believe into the made-quite-real. In her pockets, open ends and open endings fit and hover.
“places in the earth are breaking”
Every page of not merely because is footnoted with a section called “The Home Under Ground,” while the rest of the text wraps itself around. Boully is famous for having written
an entire book in footnotes, The Body: An Essay (Slope Editions, 2002 and Essay Press, 2007); these footnotes referenced empty pages—a nonexistent text. In notes 1 and 2 of The Body she writes, “…everything that is said is said underneath… / It is not the story I know or the story you tell me that matters; it is what I already know, what I don’t want to hear you say. Let it exist this way, concealed…”
That she chooses to reference the concealed, underground home where Peter Pan, Wendy and the lost boys lived in her footnotes to not merely because made me think of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Small Arguments (Pedlar Press, 2003). Thammavongsa studies a variety of fruit and insects and reveals, in the words of Bertrand Russell, “the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things in daily life.” Boully’s line “A mushroom head here, a celery stalk there, three new baby bird graves, a fiddlehead here; places in the earth are breaking” echoes Thammavongsa’s poem “The Ground”: “You will not leave / or keep from / this ground, a breaking.”
Boully’s footnotes also recall Padcha Tuntha-obas’ “a poem composed to call one’s self” in her book Trespasses (O Books, 2006), in which a gutter of text continues on its own track throughout the poem: “but even then silence speaks, quietly.” Boully, Thammavongsa and Tuntha-obas’ use of foot- and ground- noting causes breaks in the page and breaks in our encounter with the text. Like street ditches hauling off rain, language flows from page to page and spills out. Text run-off settles here at the bottom, “nicely crammed,” like a kind of sedimentation. *
“nicely crammed” / “a mere scrawling”
I could only approach not merely because in the hour before dusk; I wanted to get under wool blankets by a fire and eat pumpkin muffins fresh out of the oven in order to read this book. In Barrie’s text, the Neverland is a map that exists in all children’s minds, in all children’s dreams:
Of all the delectable islands the Neverland is the snugggest and most compact; not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed. When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real. That is why there are night-lights. (J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1988, p. 13)
Boully’s book became “very nearly real” for me during these winter nights. The back cover blurb says, “…Boully reads between the lines of a text…and emerges with the darker underside, with those sinister or subversive places merely echoed or hinted at.” Having also read Barrie’s text, I find that the original story is already quite dark and awkwardly twisted. The Neverland is a world of recurring trauma and chronic amnesia, wrapped up in a child’s ignorance, which continues to circle itself. Sexuality is no stranger to Barrie’s story either, but Boully does unravel the hems a bit further, taking a peek at Tiger Lily’s pubes, Hook’s pubic-y beard, Wendy’s panties, poo, peepee and pooper holes.
The realness of make-believe washing, make-believe medicine, make-believe food and make-believe sex—stink, sickness, malnutrition and still-birth—peep through Boully’s stitches. Peter and Hook’s sexual interest in Tiger Lily, Tinker Bell and Wendy, and intimations of abuse, are written up from underneath.
“Wendy began to be scrawled all over with him. … Whether the he is the little Betwixt-and-Between or whether the Betwixt-and-Between is he: there is a male hand, and it is scrawling on a little girl. All over, that is. At what point is the girl no longer herself but a mere scrawling” (56).
Peter’s pubes all strung up with crustaceans and barnacles: what must be hiding deep within the lagoon, gathering itself in some fishy fallopian tube? … Such a little hole too; do you think the Peter bird will break through, break through? … The Tinker dental dam; the Tinker tampon. Old little tin cup you drank from: look! They’ve taken to using it as. And your little still-birth, all like a tadpole, all a-gasping in your little kettle of water.
The Home Under Ground
… For example, [Peter] 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 inside. The molar pregnancy: lasting, lasting; placenta all set to bursting, all full of nothing, nothing. (60-62)
Could Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily or Wendy have gotten pregnant in the Neverland? In a place where nothing is planted, where it is forbidden to speak about mothers, where it is forbidden to grow up, where there are no babies, where so many things die—is anything conceived? Born? Grown? “Why, I think I should like to be a farmer, says he, right when we were sending you out to sea.”
“the end has been hovering”
“Don’t write down what actually happened; instead, write down what you wanted to believe.” In not merely because Boully animates the tension between the make-believe and the made quite real, but even more so, she opens up the dream in-between the story and the hand of the storyteller. Wendy transforms from “a mere scrawling” to the one in control of the end—instead of re-telling Barrie’s/Peter’s/Hook’s story, she sews new ones and writes them true. Boully’s hypnotic use of rhyme, addictive phrase repetition and clever end-of-sentence clips create unexpected echoes and stops, and loose ends to sew up.
What I wanted to give you was this here little tiny piece. Of me. If it heals; if it heals properly, it won’t leave. Such a scar. Where it’s red, it’s only red for just a little. While. Return soon. To normal it will. … Some night, in dream, when I will have climbed the look-out, it won’t be you who I see, but rather another more distant star, another darker molting of sky. And so you will lie. And I will not be there too—not in a hovel, not in a bottle, not in a happy-ending novel, not in a kitchen serving eggs for two, and certainly not in a parallel grave from you. (18)
Playing dead = growing up, growing up = forgetting, forgetting = the end. What intrigues me about not merely because is the exploration of Peter’s role as a grave digger, as a kind of ghost or angel that buries (i.e. plants) children in the earth so that they pop out new. This is hinted at in Barrie’s text: “There were odd stories about him, as that when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they should not be frightened.” The Neverland is a make-believe dream and a real afterlife, and Peter Pan is made of earth and lives underground, both exceptionally old and exceptionally young.
What also strikes me about not merely because is Boully’s/Wendy’s insistence on planting things, on growing things, on bearing—not just in childbirth, but in what it means to “mother” and to sustain, outside the traditional gendered role
, to sustain the effort it takes to remember. The final chapter of Barrie’s Peter and Wendy includes an additional scene written after his original play premiered, which suggests that just as Peter came for Mrs. Darling, Wendy’s mother, he will also come for Wendy’s daughter Jane, and her daughter Margaret, on and on and so forth. Boully writes, threading in Barrie’s words: “Two is the beginning of the end. As in, you and me, Peter; we make two and the story, and the story takes on an and then.” Remembering, beyond vague recognition, to break the cycle, is behind Boully’s writing.
And so, Wendy hides things that will later be found. Her endings are pockets, and nesting inside are buried secrets. “Oh, Peter, you’re turning every pocket, every pocket: inside out, inside out! But I have the acorn button. The acorn button is something that, up until now, I’ve kept. Silent about.” Boully fits footnotes into these pockets, like the note Wendy slips into the pocket of her granddaughter’s nightgown, to remind us.
“What is a pocket but a hole? A home.”
* Coincidentally, Boully, Thammavongsa, Tuntha-obas and myself are all Thai writers. Something about our obsession with what is concealed, with what lies just below the surface, with what is between the lines, feels culturally resonant for me—what is never unearthed and never spoken maintains its own economy. For an exceptional essay by Boully on pad Thai, being mixed and the small places we argue and withhold in language, visit “A Short Essay on Being” at TriQuarterly.