Reviewed by Natalie Lyalin
The Bodyfeel Lexicon, the first single author collection from Jessica Bozek, begins by presenting us with an introductory letter from a figure simply known as the editor. This letter serves as a compass of sorts, describing the contents of The Bodyfeel Lexicon as a set of found letters and documents, and giving these items a name—The Peary Assemblage. The finding of The Peary Assemblage, “while exploring a former wolf den in a rocky outcropping” (1) reminds me of the history surrounding the 1946 discovery of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, by Muhammed edh-Dhib, and his cousin, Jum’a Muhammad. edh-Dhib fell into an ancient cave only to emerge with one of the greatest textual recoveries of the 20th century. The finding of the scrolls—a collection of communal regulations, mystical treatise, and ancient Biblical manuscripts—was an exciting religious, archeological, and anthropological event. In recent years, however, a veritable industry has been created around the mystery of the discovery—with almost total disregard for the scrolls’ content.
What’s the point here? It is partially this: there is a great power in the mysterious discovery. This mystery generates a myth that transcends the contents of the discovered. Our minds turn to the hidden authors—in the case of Lexicon they are the shadowy figures of Wolf and Leon Szklar. Who were they? What were their lives like? Wolf and Szklar are tucked so deeply beneath the layers of an entire history-cum-myth created by Bozek. It may seem easier to overlook them and gallop away on the excitement of what we imagine is a true re-discovery of their past than to stay in the present narrative of Lexicon. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Bodyfeel Lexicon finds its start with an act of recovery. But the book quickly leaves the scrupulous details of that recovery behind. The mystery of The Peary Assemblage draws us in, and Lexicon’s strange and obscure narrative and fearless language-play keep the reader hooked.
There is a pleasantly grand set up to Lexicon: an opening letter that creates as many questions as it sets out to answer, the mysterious editor, and the authors of The Peary Assemblage, the opaque lovers: Leon Szklar and Wolf. The act of correspondence serves as the outline of The Bodyfeel Lexicon. The Szklar-Wolf correspondence is fragmented, liminal, shifting in and out of the realm of human possibility. Lexicon’s sections provide moments of great linguistic leaps and fantastical imagery.
Leon Szklar writes:
ffffffffffFar enough now to be vitric remembrance, another figure to ignore
ffffffffffup on a ledge. Would you have me pressed, carnival, or etched?
ffffffffffHobnail or crown? (17)
ffffffffffWe can’t tap a hole in the side of a head, stick a milkshake straw in,
ffffffffff& simply film. (18)
And later, Szklar:
ffffffffff…as rough rounds corkscrew the sky
ffffffffffthe grounds of my love—sweat-peel, tragus-ring smatter, cuticalia—
ffffffffffair-lit by the replica moons of a three-hole punch (43)
And later, Wolf:
ffffffffffPlease, miss, bring me a blanket for conjuring claws & the pups’ fast
ffffffffffclinging licks, as if they could shape me into a wolf with their
After reading Lexicon’s two sections written in a letter format (the other sections contain documents and “exhibits” that resemble poems) I got the sense that Wolf and Szklar are somehow morphing—from human to nonhuman, perhaps even from male to female. Though Wolf is presented as female and Szklar as male, this is not a concrete fact. After all, if one can shift from human to non, the shift from male to female seems like a tiny transition. The correspondence between Wolf and Szklar is a long way from being a traditional set of linear letters and documents that create a coherent history of a relationship. The assemblage is deconstructing the traditional notion of communication. If one were, for example, to remove the salutation and valediction from all of the letters we would be left with few markers to identify the text as a means of communication. And yet, Bozek makes it so that we trust that there is a form of communication taking place. Wolf and Szklar speak to one another in imagery, in the absence of a typified experience, in the lack of banal emotion. It is not the typical exchange one would expect from a set of letters or documents—questions are posed but not answered, comments are made but not reciprocated. It is as if Wolf and Szklar are more interested in the act of writing rather than actually communicating with one another, as if the act of creating is more important than understanding and responding. Or, theirs is a communication of code that the reader is not privy to. But their project is interesting, shocking, and unusual, and the reader is compelled to keep reading because the intention behind the non-linear nature of the entire assemblage is almost irrelevant in comparison to the beauty and weirdness of the writing within it.
I return to the notion of deconstructing communication rather than establishing a traditional set of facts and ideas. Because of Wolf’s (and possibly Szklars) shifting abilities it seems a miracle that they have a way to communicate anything at all. At which point in time and space can half-human-half-non / male-female figures find a way to say something to one another? And what are they saying? Bozek does not seem interested in providing an explanation for these questions. Her focus appears to be on the language’s slippery and exciting acrobatics. In a poem titled “EXHIB. 6A” we see the language seemingly straddling the line of obscurity and familiarity.
fffffffffflow with others
ffffffffffwe lend heater-limbs shed a party to slouch into a solidity
ffffffffffffffffffffof down/save the first pick for alpha
fffffffffftunnel-moan then I knew how (76)
There is a somewhat hypnotic s sound here, and a variety of e and o sounds that in combination make the mouth move around pleasantly. There is a rolling sonic quality that is also very pleasing to the ear. This poem, like the others, sounds really good and is fun to say out-loud. There is perhaps desire to obscure meaning and to propel the sound of the language. These lines are akin to the howl of an animal, meaningful to some, but impossible to understand for others—difficult to fully understand, but chilling and exciting to hear.
Lexicon works hard to establish itself not only as a collection of correspondence, but also as an exhibit of Szklar and Wolf’s collaboration. In other words, Lexicon is both the correspondence and an exhibit of the correspondence. Bozek achieves this difficult feat by compiling numerous items within Lexicon. The book is comprised of seven sections, an opening letter and poem, and appendices. Two of the seven sections are the Wolf and Szklar letters, two sections, titled “The Matchbook Fragments” appear to be Wolf and Szklar’s collaborative poems, the section titled “The Transport” is authored by Szklar, and the section titled “An Airborn Torpor” is authored by Wolf. Between the sections Bozek provides illustrations of bones, cells, teeth, etc. taken from actual zoological tomes. The appendices include photos of the actual matchbooks on which the sections titled “The Matchbook Fragments” are written, a glossary of terms that establish their unique definitions within Lexicon, and an appendix titled “Some Proposals for the Bodyfeel Repository.” All of these materials are used to ground the myth of Szklar and Wolf in our reality. With the inclusion of these items Lexicon acts as a museum catalog, as proof that Wolf and Szklar existed and collaborated to create The Peary Assemblage. Lexicon pushes the boundaries of “book” and locates us in a myth told beyond the pages. It takes us into a museum, where just like a skeleton is a partial reference to hidden prehistoric time, so too are the illustrations, appendices, and photos a reference to the exhibit of Wolf and Szklar’s collaborative myth. (It is interesting to note that the three of the four men credited with the illustrations that appear in Lexicon, Richard Owen, William Henry Flower, and Sidney F. Harmer, were at one time director of the Natural History Museum in London.)
Of course it is not necessary to know who authored what to appreciate the writing, but Bozek seems intent on underlining the collaborative and individual efforts in Lexicon. There is a need on her part to highlight the act of collaboration and to differentiate it from individual writing. As a reader I was glad for the careful explanations and identification provided by the introductory letter. But I have to wonder what my reading experience would have been like had I not known the background to the assemblage. I spent a lot of time flipping back to the introductory letter to find out an author of a section or to ponder the importance of the discovery of The Peary Assemblage. Similarly, I am not sure of the role of the appendices in Lexicon. Their mere presence implies that they are necessary to the understanding of the book, but there is so much information in these sections that I wish they were more present in the main part of the book rather than at the end. However, I do appreciate their being included and find them to be impressive and interesting. They nicely round out the grand scope of Bozek’s project in placing The Peary Assemblage into the reader’s reality. I come away from Lexicon being deeply impressed with Bozek’s careful efforts in gathering, providing, and shaping information for her reader.
The idea of the creation of a myth hovers in Lexicon but it is not concrete or tangible. There is no obvious parable in this book, no warning or instruction to believe one thing or to avoid another. Instead, Bozek creates a narrative where the perceived distinction between human and nonhuman is blurry. Where the language play is most exciting yet only slightly illuminating of the protagonists’ concealed inner-landscapes. This is exciting and much more interesting than the alternative—I am not looking to read a simple fairytale imbedded with moral lessons. I prefer the complex weirdness of Wolf and Szklar’s correspondence. In Lexicon, language is used to create a bridge, as a plan for preservation, and as always, a way to communicate. In the end, Szklar and Wolf’s work amounts to an insistence on a textual survival—they were alive, they had thoughts, and they communicated. These documents and letters are evidence to this. Jessica Bozek’s writing pushes the reader around, turns its back, says weird things, and shocks with startlingly beautiful images. There is mystery in the pages, but it is the language, the illusive breath of Wolf and Szklar that propel us forward.
Natalie Lyalin is the author of Pink & Hot Pink Habitat. She is the co-editor of GlitterPony Magazine. She is spending a part of this year in Jerusalem, Israel, but will soon return to Philadelphia, PA.