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Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is the author of several books, including Something Bright, Then Holes, and Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions. She has taught writing and literature at The New School, Wesleyan University, and Pratt Institute of Art, though currently teaches at CalArts.

Blurbs

"Bluets is wonderful stuff. It’s the exploration of love, philosophy, religion, sex, history – of Life, as viewed through the hue of blue. Books like this, writing like this doesn’t come along very often.”

– Blogcritics

"The hybrid essay or the broken/braided narrative takes its newness as a nonfictional form because it uses the very distractedness of contemporary readers as the means of attracting us.”

– Tri Quarterly

"After reading the book, I pushed it on everyone I knew who might be familiar with eros the bittersweet, with injury, with morbid-hearted love, with ekphrastic inclination, with lust, with loneliness, with bitter laughter, with red wine, with weeping.”

– Gina Balibrera

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Bluets

In Any Case, I Am No Longer Counting the Days

09/23/13

From the moment I began reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, I knew I had found a very important book. Or perhaps that a very important book had found me:

1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.

The mention of excrement brought me up short and I read that sentence several times before I could move on. We are so grounded in the body from these opening lines. There will be little, this passage makes clear, that will be held back.

Bluets is composed of 240 numbered passages. Some are longer than a page; some as few as four words:

46. Disavowal, says the silence.

Maggie Nelson is as concerned with the body and its limitations as she is with loss and with the limitations of love in its many forms. Bluets is a meditation on love. This love of the color blue, introduced in the first line, becomes the vehicle by which she can examine many times of love. Erotic:

18. A warm afternoon in early spring, New York City. We went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck. Afterward, from the window of our room, I watched a blue tarp on a roof across the way flap in the wind. You slept, so it was my secret. It was a smear of the quotidian, a bright blue flake amidst all the dank providence. It was the only time I came. It was essentially our lives. It was shaking.

Devotional love. Following a passage that discusses women, who were later canonized as saints, who blinded themselves or plucked out their own eyes to maintain their chastity, she explains:

57. In religious accounts, these women are announcing, via their amputations, their fidelity to God. But other accounts wonder whether they were in fact punishing themselves, as they knew that they had looked upon men with lust, and felt the need to employ extreme measures to avert any further temptation.

She also examines the love between friends. A friend is in a terrible accident that leaves her confined to a wheelchair in constant pain. Nelson considers love through the lens of this pain:

104. I do not feel my friend’s pain, but when I unintentionally cause her pain I wince as I hurt somewhere, and I do. Often in exhaustion I lay my head down on her lap in her wheelchair and tell her how much I love her, that I’m so sorry she is in so much pain, pain I can witness and imagine but that I do not know. She says, if anyone knows this pain besides me, it is you (and J, her lover). This is generous, for to be close to her pain has always felt like a privilege to me, even though pain could be defined as that which we typically aim to avoid. Perhaps this is because she remains so generous within hers, and because she has never held any hierarchy of grief, either before her accident or after, which seems to me nothing less than a form of enlightenment.

There is love here too of ideas, of abstractions. Nelson calls on philosophers and intellectuals to shed light on her state of grief and pain and obsession. She invokes Wittgenstein and Goethe. Emerson, Thoreau. Jacques Derrida. She calls on the writers and artists: William Gass and Gertrude Stein. Marguerite Duras. Stephen Mallarme. Cezanne and Cornell and Warhol. She turns to science. Isaac Newton.

She inquires of her colleague, whom she refers to as the “expert on guppy menopause,” whether biologists consider the question of the existence of color. His response proves as insufficient and as limited as all others. “In the face of some questions, he says, biologists can only vacate the field.”

Throughout, the pulsing heart of this book is the obsessive quality with which she approaches the color blue – her collections of blue objects, the travels she takes to sites of blue, the time spent in contemplation of it – and with which she attempts to grieve the loss of her lover.

I suspect that Maggie Nelson might flinch to hear me say “the loss of her lover.” I think she might consider that too sentimental an expression. Here is her piercing assessment of what others might consider to be romantic love:

20. Fucking leaves everything as it is. Fucking may in no way interfere with the actual use of language. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.

And yet, in one passage, she defines a “blue rush” as when lapis miners use dynamite to bleed a vein, and then in the next she says:

81. What I know: when I met you, a blue rush began.

It is hard to see this as anything but an admission of a profound falling into love, whatever limitations it – the love, the falling – might have.

Bluets is an urgent book. It is alive in its pain and its struggle. It pulses with vitality. It provides a kind of antidote to the toxic conditioning of the cult of happiness. To the dominant exhortation to “fake it till you make it.” To “get over it,” to “move on,” to “self-help” our way into recovery from the condition of human struggle. As if we could set ourselves free from what it means to be human: to feel profound pain and sadness, to experience unspeakable loss, to feel isolation and loneliness. To despair. And to be compelled to continue in the face of that despair.

Here’s what Maggie Nelson has to say about moving on:

100. It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise. But really this is like hoisting a harness onto an invisible horse. “There is simple no way that a year from now you’re going to feel the way you feel today,” a different therapist said to me last year at this time. But though I have learned to act as if I feel differently, the truth is that my feelings haven’t really changed.

As a reader, I am always looking for redemption. Redemption in Bluets is quiet and beautiful, but stunning in its power:

237. In any case, I am no longer counting the days

and then:

239. But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not a consolation,” she wrote. “It is light.”

What we are left with is only this: Perhaps the beauty we find in our struggles, in our grief is not so much consolation as it is light.

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is a bright and shining light.

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