When Boyle is insightful, this style allows the brilliance of the insight to shine through unfiltered and unaided by the mechanisms of literature and poetry, sometimes with powerful effect.
selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee by Megan Boyle raises questions, about its own poems and about poetry in general. How important is contemporary therapy culture to the style and content? Is this a singular work or a collection of works? What is the difference between realistic and banal? Is realism a useful goal for poetry? Is this a poetic voice or is this how Megan Boyle thinks? Is this a kind of theoretical oral anthropology? Where can a poet go from this style? Is this a style? Is this poetry? Even if the questions lead to frustrating answers, reading the book is still productive.
I tried to label Boyle’s style—anti-style, meta-irony—to create a handle on what I was reading. At times, it feels like the ersatz blog style implied by the title, but even the most mundane what-I-did-and-where-I-went blogs try to include a sense of emotion or a connection to wider humanity in their writing. Post-emotive? When Boyle is insightful, this style allows the brilliance of the insight to shine through unfiltered and unaided by the mechanisms of literature and poetry, sometimes with powerful effect; “i am powerless to my eight-year-old self who tripped while running toward a balance beam” and “my body is taking advantage of my ability to endure anything.” Hyper-Hemingwayism? Sometimes this style makes Boyle the wittiest person at the party; “will smith is a visual manifestation of the suspension of disbelief it takes to imagine realistically interacting with aliens” and “i have no idea what ‘bohemian rhapsody’ means but ‘bohemian rhapsody’ is extremely sure of what it means.” But other times, she just says stuff; “from the perspective of my tongue my mouth feels infinitely huge” and “i laughed genuinely several times and think he did too.”
Most of the poems are fairly short and written in stanzas of a few lines each, but Boyle’s strongest poems, and the poems where her style—whatever I end up calling it—is most compelling, are the exceptions; long poems composed of long stanzas. These flaneurs through an event, idea, or mind make the style feel more like a voice and less like a technique. Furthermore, the longer build up makes her best observations more powerful, by giving them background, source material, context, depth. From “every thought i had while walking to school,” she writes, “am i actually interesting or do i just want to construct a view of myself as ‘interesting’ so i can feel like i shouldn’t die?” In a shorter poem, that line might feel like forced existentialsim, but because we’ve been reading someone try to be interesting, we feel the tangible importance of the question. The same principle applies to the conclusion of “everyone i’ve ever had sex with.” In isolation, it might seem too clever by half, but because it is in the context of a complete evaluation of sexual experience, it has an immediate universality; “what i felt after completing the list…irrationally hopeful, glad i’m not in the past, puzzled at why i’ve diverted to other people about my personal safety, relieved i don’t have AIDS or children.”
In some ways, Boyle’s work is best understood as a New Journalism Poetry; a newspaper reportage of an individual’s life and thoughts. Personal journalism is based in the idea that all experiences are ultimately, “personal” and the objectivity of traditional journalism adds an artificial barrier between the events reported and how people actually experience them. Post-Gonzo? In this capacity, Boyle is an insightful journalist. In “4.09.10” she writes, “mostly i just try to be well liked in social situations and not die,” which is one way to summarize life. If you’ve ever endured an interminable family holiday, you know Boyle is dead on when she writes, “the dynamic basically consists of externalizing resentment about our collective compulsion to worry by making each other feel a little bad sometimes,” in “my family on thanksgiving and most holidays.” And on the experience of literature, Boyle reports; “…i relate to 97% of what lydia davis says, but i’m not sure if it’s because we’ve actually had similar thoughts, or because her style of writing makes me think we’ve had similar thoughts.”
The name of another writer stayed with me from the diction of the table of contents to the very last line. A little googling showed there is more than just a convergence of style between Boyle and this other writer; there is an actual personal and creative relationship between the two. I’m not going to write the other name in this review for two reasons; if you’ve read the other writer’s work, you’ll see the convergence immediately; and, if you haven’t, I want you to be able to experience selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee on its own terms. The questions this relationship raises get at the heart of my frustration with Boyle’s work; a frustration from being unable to say Boyle is a great poet and unable to say one should not read Boyle’s poetry. Her work constantly raises questions, but unlike other works that have this effect, and regardless of her insight and observations, there is a chance the answer to every one of Boyle’s questions is a fundamental, existential, exhausted, “no.”
Ultimately, the insight is the insight, whether presented in sentences or lines and no matter how lush or sparse those sentences or lines are, and no matter what genre is affixed to the containing cover. However, a style that assumes inherent value in language itself includes something else beyond whatever direct insight is being offered, something I believe is important and valuable. There is bravery in writing without that something and some readers will appreciate that bravery as much as I appreciate language, but Boyle’s style is not more true or real for existing without it. Every writer’s style, including Boyle’s, is an affectation; to write is to be artificial.