Monday, July 23, 2018

Rukmini Girish: On Not Understanding

I began reading Jenny Boully’s Betwixt-and-Between on a bus. I stopped after the first half of the first sentence of the first essay. I wanted to return to the beginning of the preface and arrive at this point again. I stopped myself. I feared getting stuck in a loop, because it is possible to read this first half of a first sentence again, and again, and again, and never read anything else. “In the writing life, an occasional glance sometimes out of windows where clouds scuttle and the sky is autumn blue, but somehow one is not a part of it,” Boully writes, followed by a semicolon.
     Place a comma before “sometimes,” or place one before and after, and the sentence becomes familiar. Read it aloud the way it is and you will trail off into slightly breathless uncertainty. Or, perhaps, dreaming. Boully often writes about dreams; the essay which begins with this fraction is, in fact, about tenses, and dreaming, and daydreaming, and the ways in which we meld our pasts, presents, and futures. That “sometimes” blows us straight into the dream state. There is no subject, unless it is the writing life (even the “one” which peeks in timidly is banished as “not a part of it”). There is only a state where things are at once terribly clear (I remember the times when I too have looked up from my desk to the sliver of sky I can see between tall buildings and felt a sense of wonder because the world outside the window is so far away) and terrifyingly vague (I feel, by the time I reach that semicolon, as if I am about to float away).
     And then there is another half sentence to read.

I like to watch the steam curling in fantastic spirals from a freshly-brewed cup of tea. It always takes me a few seconds to enter a state where I can simply follow the movement, without attempting to hold onto one tendril before it curls into nothingness. And yet, if I was a speck of dust, small enough to be caught up in a coil of steam without seeing its end, perhaps I would finally have something with which to compare reading Boully’s sentences. There is an engulfing sincerity to them; it seems not that she believes what she is saying, but rather that there is no other way to experience the world. The second half of that remarkable first sentence describes a glance into a mirror. A few sentences later, Boully writes, “I refuse to see that the mirror too is glass, a window, a glass with a thin sheet on which I am written, a sheet that keeps the inside in. To be a part of it is to be apart from it.” A window becomes a mirror thanks to the thin sheet of reflective metal coating the back. That sheet reflects rays of light, creating the world within. To be written on that sheet, one must be apart from it. Boully’s “refusal” to see the connections only strengthens them; writing, mirrors and (a)part-ness exist, not in the often hierarchical relationship of metaphor, but simultaneously. The sheet is literal and figurative, the coconut on a German chocolate cake is “a million anemones,” the letter X is a deletion and various former lovers, and I do not question any of it.
     I am fascinated by the way Boully views the world, but it is the movement of her sentences that really draws me in, their unexpected curvatures, the ways in which they loop back on themselves without getting stuck. One of the most remarkable is yet another beginning, this time of an essay titled “The Art of Fiction”:
When I first met Butch, he was counting spiders on his ceiling, which he said wasn’t the ceiling but rather a metaphor for sky, which itself wasn’t a sky at all either but rather a metaphor for something else, and so it happened that I fell quite madly in love with Butch; however, Butch never really happened either, or maybe he did, but his name was something other than Butch, and the manner in which we’d made the other’s acquaintance didn’t happen with such significance—but the way I am telling it makes it no different from the telling which occurs quite truthfully under the guise of fiction, which means, if it’s truly true fiction, which is to say, if it is true, then it really is fiction, and everything else is a failed mimicry.
I smile each time I read this sentence. A ceiling expands to a sky, a sky expands to something else, and then the sentence doubles back to doubt a fundamental assumption of its beginning. It retraces its path through a different lens (that of the telling) and then, in a glorious hailstorm of truth and fiction, transports us to a place I still cannot see from the beginning. The sentence dissolves each time I try to grasp it, but if I surrender to the curving, I find something unexpected on each journey.

I showed a friend that fraction of a sentence about the writing life and the autumn blue sky. She told me it reminded her of the Penrose stairs, a staircase that makes four ninety-degree turns, forming a continuous loop so that a person could climb it forever. But no one will do so, for the Penrose stairs can only exist in the mind and on the page. Stairs, in waking life, must arrive somewhere. I should have remembered that Boully’s texts rarely do the same. A couple of years ago, I tried to track the movement of ghosts and writing and Boully’s family in Thailand in “Too Many Spirits Who Begged to be Let In,” but gave up after three pages. There is too much contained, for example, in these two sentences: “I can’t think of only nothing. My mind wants to think in terms of white: white curtains, white bedding, a white wedding dress, a white handkerchief, a blank sheet of white paper, a dizzy, smoky memory, a few stars shimmering, snow on the T, a white dusting covering everything.” Why does your mind move from this object to this, I wanted to ask. But tracking and glossing and all those other techniques I learned are supposed to provide answers.
     You see, a large part of my education has been in the art of controlling texts. Understanding them. Separating useful information from flourishes of style. Parsing what, exactly, stylistic flourishes are doing to aid the intentions of the text. I was used to reading through. Even if I happened upon some twist of logic or phrasing unexpected enough to warrant a second look (the movement from a handkerchief to a sheet of paper, for instance), I was always aware that I was only interrupting, briefly, a familiar movement. If I happened upon a text that moved nonlinearly, I learned to find its rules and articulate them. I failed, spectacularly, to do so with “Too Many Spirits Who Begged to be Let In.” I feel no desire to try with Betwixt-and-Between. Perhaps my first sustained experience of Boully’s writing has taught me that there is no logic to dreams. The longer I spend in this text, the more clearly I see that it does not behave like any other. It does not behave at all. Though the essay is often a meandering, a tracing of thought, this text does something more. Like a dream, it remains mutable, almost unbearably real when I am part of it, resurfacing most unexpectedly—when I look in the mirror, when I am negotiating traffic, when I look at another person—when I am not.
     This is beginning to frighten me, for it is destroying my many notions about the nature of reading. I read it. I and it are both static (in the physical world, at least). I choose when to bring an end to reading, or so I thought. The action moves in one direction, or so I thought. But it contains an i, and perhaps this is the truest thing I have said about this more-than-reading that Boully reveals. Reading describes an action. And yet I am not acting on Boully’s text; nor is it acting on me. It simply makes manifest a state of confusion without chaos, uncertainty without tentativeness, into which I am drawn almost imperceptibly. I can never see a route through Boully’s texts. Even “The Poet’s Education,” perhaps the most straightforward essay in Betwixt-and-Between, moves through the second, third and fourth grades, then circles back to second before moving on to fifth. The connotations of tutoring and killing change. But, as always, I follow this turning.
     The wonder of the Penrose stairs is that their looping cannot exist; the wonder of Boully’s text is that it does.

When I read The Stranger for the first time, I knew I was in the presence of something beyond my understanding. The Handmaid’s Tale made me wonder at what is possible in fiction. But I had never felt a book changing the way I think, changing my assumptions about something as fundamental as the act of reading, as I read it.
     So as the pages in my right hand dwindled, I grew anxious. I set the book down. I glanced at it guiltily for days. The thought of a return to mundanity turned the sky gray. Of course, Boully has words for this too: “The used one envies the new one: the new one has yet to come into the rite of her first opening, unveiling; the used one admits then to pitying herself and her lovers one thing: that the book is not being read in its original: meaning, it would be lovely to live serially, to await patiently the next chapter instead of acquiring a book completely bound, its ending already fully dressed and departing before the completion of the love act.” Boully uses the metaphor of the love act, but I imagined reading Betwixt-and-Between a second time more like climbing the Penrose stairs. Though this movement exists in the mind, it would be a novelty only at first; soon, it would become regular, up and down ad infinitum.
     I wanted to find the appropriate time to finish off the book, to leave behind that state of wonder. But then I had ten minutes before I had to leave for work, the day was so beautiful that the sky was blue, and I seized it. It felt right to depart almost before the completion.
     So I read the last essay and then climbed onto my bike and jolted over potholes with the wind in my face. Now, I understand that this was vital. If I had grieved the end of the book, I would have wept at the sight of the more-than-reading state receding into the distance, not realizing that I was the one pushing it away into memory. But the potholes reminded me of the earth and the wind reminded me of resisting gravity, and I realized, as I stopped and started, that though there is no more steam when a first cup of tea has been drunk, the steam from a second cup curves no more predictably than the first.

What does reading become when it is no longer an action?
     “Poetry is an instant,” Boully writes. “It is an instant in which transcendence is achieved, where a miracle occurs, and knowledge, experience, and memory are obliterated and transformed into awe. The instant passes quickly, so quickly, and then you are just your regular self again.”
     Reading Boully as extended poetry.
     I like this description. I have been resisting the use of the word sublime for all its religious implications. Boully does not set her writing up to be worshipped; I imagine she would be profoundly uncomfortable at the idea. And yet, the experience is undeniably transcendent. I find myself pausing to take deep breaths when I read Betwixt-and-Between, feeling my ribs expand as I look up from the page for a moment simply to reassure myself that knowledge, experience, and memory still exist in some far-distant realm. I do not know whether I stop breathing, or whether my breathing only slows to the bare minimum necessary to keep me alive.  Perhaps it is fitting that I can only describe reading Boully in Boully’s own words.
     But I have not yet returned to being my regular self.

When I read Boully’s interpretation of orgasm as “marginalia I couldn’t help but have,” I think of the only other time a text caused me to wonder at its very existence. As the old year died, I lay on my stomach in my grandparents’ house in Mysore, reading Toni Nealie’s The Miles Between Me, a collection of essays about motherhood, migration and the complexities of heritage after colonialism. I had just realized that my cousin and his wife were moving to Australia. I was thinking about the fracturing of families, mine in particular, and what it would mean when I could not categorize us as simply as those-who-left (or those-who-are-apart) and those-who-stayed (or those-who-are-together). Nealie quotes her fellow countrywoman, Katherine Mansfield, who advises, “Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.” Nealie responds, “How can we know what is hard until we are in the pain of it? And once there, how do we confront the truth?” I stopped reading, stared, rolled out of bed, rummaged through my backpack for a pencil, got back into bed, stared again, then underlined the sentence for fear that it would vanish. I read it once more.
     There is something unexpected about the journey from “hard” to “pain.” We have all been told that what is worthwhile is usually hard, and many other variations on the same theme. But the word “pain” makes the hardness physical, evoking bruises and scraped knuckles and throbbing muscles. And when one is in pain, it is harder to arrive at the clearheadedness I imagine is necessary to confront something so vast as the truth. Nealie’s extra twist of reasoning led me down a path I might never have noticed in the first place. I had to move; I had to commemorate it. I couldn’t help myself.
     So when I got home from work the night I finished the last essay in Betwixt-and-Between, I sat down with the book in one hand, pencil in the other, and opened to the preface. I underlined three words in the first paragraph: strives. serves. It.
     I laid down the pencil.
     The difference between reading Nealie and reading Boully is in the length of wonder. I underlined other sentences throughout The Miles Between Me, each one a paradox or a contradiction or an articulation of something I have never managed to say. When I return to the book, and to those sentences, I will pause, again, to admire all that they contain. But I can either underline all of Betwixt-and-Between or I can underline none of it. The commemoration is in the reading. The reading is, perhaps, poetry. The poetry is neverending.
     So all I can say, all I can leave you with, is a desire to be a part of it. Read Boully. Read Nealie too. And let’s talk about it.


Rukmini Girish usually writes about theater, performance, identity and the intersections between those topics. She received an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and was selected as a Luminarts Creative Writing Fellow for 2018. Her work has appeared in Punctuate: A Nonfiction Magazine, East End Elements, and


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