Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Rapid Review: Bluets by Maggie Nelson

I am improving on decreasing the length of time between learning about a title and reading it. Last month, I read Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, on recommendation from a friend who teaches a class focused on LGBTQ+ writers. (I'm still thinking about it and will read it again.) And on the front page, listing Nelson's other titles, was Bluets. And then, during the Book Your Stocking series, Michael Martone included Bluets on his reading recommendation list and as part of a course he's teaching in short prose. So, upon receiving a bookstore gift-card, I purchased it, found it at my door soon after, and began. Now, I've finished.

Nelson's writing, more so in Bluets (2009) than in The Argonauts (2015), reminds me of Carole Maso's writing. Though Nelson focuses less on the beauty of the line and the rising tension of using repetition to build movement and symphony. While Maso is more inclined to meditate on longing itself, to divulge in it and create it through language, Nelson is more inclined to question what longing is, to frame it and reframe it, using both her voice and the accumulation of voices such as Plato, Stein, Wittgenstein--though both Maso and Nelson are interested in the density of language and the use of silence for emphasis and weight.

I am thinking early Carole Maso. Ava. Aureole.

Perhaps it is less their writing than their interests.

Perhaps I think they would have a good conversation if they met, perhaps they have, but if they met without names and books and all of that, and sat, to talk, I think they would talk for a long time. 

Perhaps it's that they both like pockets of words, surrounded by silences. But C.D. Wright does, too, or did in Big Words (it's all I've read by her), and that does not remind me of Nelson. Off the cuff anyway.

Reading Nelson is akin to reading philosophy that is both interested in the ideas and the language used to consider the ideas, and the relationship between both. It is less like reading a poetry that relies on the trick of language unfolding to question an idea or create a new one.

The ideas that fascinate Nelson in Bluets revolve around the idea of color, desire, the body, longing, and heartbreak. She has fallen in love with the color blue, or the idea of falling in love with blue, or she has been collecting blue for a while now, promising a book on blue long before she writes one, and then she goes through a breakup and so begins the writing of the book. This is the premise, the impetus for all that comes after.

One of my favorite passages, Nelson defending Stein in her concern about color

She raises more questions than she answers, which I prefer.

She is well read and not shy about it, which is how it should be, but will strike any reader who has (inadvertently?) become used to female voices who do not reveal their wisdoms with force (or without the maskings of metaphor), who feel free to converse with Plato on the page.

She has sex and speaks of it, which is perhaps more interesting than it should be--the fact of a woman having sex and being aware of the fact and discussing it. I think about this alot. I come from a small town where no one has sex, though the town somehow continues to repopulate. I come from a shaming of sexuality. I can say fucking, but to read Maggie Nelson write fucking and mean herself, yes, and that this is part of what she misses in her heartache. Well, it makes me blush, then pause and consider why.

How refreshing, I read in a male reader's review of The Argonauts, to read a woman speaking so honestly about her desires, regardless of her socialism.

It's more freshing, I think than refreshing. Her socialism is good, too. More, please.

In sum, Bluets is worth buying and (re)reading. It reads fast but dwells and wonders why you're reading fast when dwelling is what we ought to be doing.

Here: what I enjoy most about Maggie Nelson's work is that she is clearly and deeply fascinated by what she's writing, about the ideas, about how ideas open into other ideas, how those ideas make her reconsider, rethink, stop. She is interested in her participation with ideas and is aware she has interesting ideas, too. And I don't always find a writer so open about the act of thinking as worth fascination, a writer who believes in the importance of creating the act for the reader as well.

She begins this way,
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.
After reading two books by Maggie Nelson, I can say that whatever her brain falls in love with, and wants to write about, the result is a thought experience that I want to take part in.

Purchase Bluets here.
Check whether your librarian has put it on your shelves here.