In Both But Neither

Boli (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Bolis are abstract figures that are from the Bamana culture. The basic form, a bit like a simplified cow, is made from mud, eggs, chewed kola nuts, sacrificial blood, urine, honey, beer, vegetable fiber, and cow dung.

The role of the boli is to regulate energy, whatever is moving from the universe into this world. In Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book of essays, Wonderful Investigations, he sees the significance of the boli beyond its singular cultural context:

It is an object that keeps in balance a force, a spiritual energy, which unbalanced, could damage the world. Its likeness to a cow belongs to this world, this earth; its unlikeness to the cow belongs to the other world, the universe. It shares in both, and the oddity of its form is a result of the accuracy with which it performs its work. The boli is a form that attends to its own formlessness. It shows the body at the point of pivot between two kinds of existence. It shows the cost of belonging to two worlds simultaneously while being able to fully exist in neither. It is the object as threshold, a door which is open only by being closed. It is a symbol. It’s life is a symbolic life and brings us who believe in its power to our own symbolic nature.

Beachy-Quick is a poet, and he draws a provocative comparison between the boli and a poem (which, for me, is a reasonable stand in for many different types of works of art):

The poem on the page is no principality. It does not make a distinct place in the world, not does it make a distinct place of the world. It is not a site to travel to, not a place of destination. Rather, the poem denies location because it acts—as the boli figure acts—as a nexus between worlds, taking part in both worlds but belonging to neither, a threshold in which one must learn to uncomfortably dwell.

Given this view of things, it is not the reading a poem for understanding that is difficult, says Beachy-Quick. The harder task is to learn to read so that you can enter the environment that the poem opens up. “To think of poetry as an environment, as a space of initiation, is to learn to read so as to lose a sense of meaning, to become bereft of what it is we thought we knew, to lose direction, to become bewildered.”

We enter into a work of art to threaten the security of the knowledge we possess beforehand. We enter to be asked “a question we will not ask ourselves otherwise, a question that begins at the point of our certainty.”

These are such apt descriptions of what happens when we engage with a finished work of art as well as what we hope can happen in the making itself. Stepping beyond our certainty is what’s necessary for admission into that mysterious non-place between worlds.

5 Replies to “In Both But Neither”

  1. That’s such a good book. Thanks for reminding me of it. I will definitely use that quote with my students. They are still struggling with the poem as both a space and a potential action. It’s not just a noun, it’s not just a verb. It’s all that. And more.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I am so glad to hear my reliable poet pal agrees that this is a good book! And that’s wonderful too–not just a noun, not just a verb. Thanks Ann.

  2. There is so much wonderful poetry that does not dwell in mystic space, that is more akin to music or to narrative, and that appeals at levels other than the transformative pick-axe breaking into one’s skull, and so perhaps these quotes are less apt for some worthwhile poetry and art than for others?

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      A, you know my pluralist stance: Pretty much e) all of the above on just about any topic. Yes, there are many artistic expressions that do not inhabit that zone that Beachy-Quick writes about. But it is my personal proclivity to long for that, in visual and in written form. Sebald achieves that for me in literature as do many poets. But great humor and adventure tales do not. Room for it all at my house.

  3. rozleibowitz says:

    I just ordered the book, and am eager to read it. I do believe that our art that is most “in alignment” with our place in the universe does have that feel of magical possibility, and I like the concept of those works as thresholds. The question then becomes — for me — how do I quiet my mind, find those works that I created, and just let them be to do their work in the world…

    so good to return to your blog again…

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