The Book of Beginnings
Sarabande Books: 58 pp., $14.95 paper
“IF you develop an instrument that is highly sensitive,” poet Jenny Boully writes, and she is not talking about fiber-optics here, “you can locate almost anything. I am not portrayed as the last survivor of a rare orchid species, nor am I a legendary cowslip possessing miraculous medicinal properties; rather, I am a leaf-cutter ant that, although oblivious to its object at the end of the trail, follows nevertheless with faith that it is being led to something somewhere.”
Boully, born in Thailand and raised in Texas, displays in these miniaturist essays a passionate sensitivity of the kind that makes us fear for our adolescent children. Its absence in our own lives may well make our children fear for us as well.
“It occurred to me that there ought to exist some sort of machinery that could record accurately the thoughts and epiphanies, the visions and idealizations of the user,” Boully writes, in a piece bravely titled “The Realization of the Infinite.” “What image of beauty we hold exists so brilliantly, so beautifully in our minds, and the sad task is then to somehow transcribe this image so that it becomes viewable by others. If I think of a visual image, the machine would then be able to reproduce perfectly this image in the form of a painting. If I were full of a sudden poetic frenzy, then the machine would be able to write out the lines in pristine prose or poetry.”
It’s uncommonly good to read the work of a writer who believes so unabashedly in the miracle of writing -- that some dimension, unlike any other, exists between the writer and the reader; that literature is an “open system,” a “living system.”
Like Anais Nin, Boully believes exclusively in love; it’s her religion. “She loved him; she loved him as if he were full of false hope and blue canaries. In the beginning, the universe exploded with the ferocity of a waking child, enough to burst forth infinite galaxies. She loved him as if a coal-miner. She loved him as if a pulsing quasar.”
In love, we create the ceremonies that carry us from the particular to the whole. All those particulars -- the “daily rearrangements of bed sheets,” the 14 cats, the “clogged plumbing,” the “rotting fruit,” the bus stops, the shared meals -- make her a superstitious writer: If the fire doesn’t start, the love affair will fail. It’s a bit like tea with the dormouse -- doors open on interpretations after every phrase. It’s artifice -- a little needy now and then, but fine and wanton nonetheless.
Labors of the Heart
Picador: 240 pp., $14 paper
MARRIAGE, custody, adultery, love. Marriage, custody, adultery, love. People tell you stories; sometimes these stories help; sometimes it’s hard to believe the teller speaks the same language you do.
Novelist Claire Davis (“Season of the Snake,” “Winter Range”) is a dead-on sort of writer. In her debut short story collection, she confronts these words with an arsenal of specifics: gestures, reactions, needs, vices.
In these 10 stories, set in the small-town and rural American Northwest (Davis lives and works in Idaho), the author is fashioning human beings from an airy nothingness. They stand up on these pages, and they bump into you on the street: Joe and his self-righteous feelings about his mother’s love affair; Bradley’s inability to say and do the things that will save his marriage or at least win him child custody; and the protagonist of the title story, Clarence John Softitch, also known as Pinky, a morbidly obese man in his 40s who falls in love for the first time -- and deeply. (“For he is virginal, a moderate embarrassment at his age, having come to terms, he believes, with the reality that no one loves a fat man.”)
These characters and others make a reader want to muck in and help, put her shoulder to the wheel, figure out how to navigate this life. Happiness, it would seem, is not the goal in these stories, it’s getting out from under, a little clarity, a little less loneliness.