Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Ah, Maggie Nelson. I’ve been hearing about this writer for a while, and have had her Argonauts on my shelf for a year or more, but someone (I’m sorry, I can’t recall which fine mind) at WVWC said Bluets would be a better place for me to start. I can’t recall, either, whether that was a comment personal to my work or generally about Nelson’s. (Sorry!) Also, at winter residency, visiting writer Nickole Brown gave an awesome seminar titled “Learning by Design: Using Imitation in Creative Writing,” using the first proposition of Bluets as an exercise that was, for me, fruitful. So here I am with Maggie Nelson.

Bluets is an extremely unusual book. It is about Nelson’s obsession with, love for, the color blue; it is also about a love affair that has ended; it is also about Nelson’s life, in a jumping-in-and-out way. It is about pain and loss, and always about blue. It takes the form of 240 “propositions,” which are numbered, and a great revelation came for me with this one:

184. Writing is, in fact, an astonishing equalizer. I could have written half of these propositions drunk or high, for instance, and half sober; I could have written half in agonized tears, and half in a state of clinical detachment. But now that they have been shuffled around countless times–now that they have been made to appear, at long last, running forward as one river–how could either of us tell the difference?

Emphasis mine–because I felt rocked by this idea, that all these numbered propositions had been shuffled. This either confirms and validates my feeling of being adrift in Nelson’s lovely but often bewildering language, or… what? Means that they make sense in this order in some larger way that I am too dim to grasp? And I am desperate to know how she shuffled: by trial and error, randomly, with design? At any rate, it explains a certain disjointedness. Some of the proposition appear to pick up in the middle of a thought or a sentence. Their shuffled-ness explains that somewhat. An out-of-the-blue (ha) reference on page 14 to “the expert on guppy menopause, whose office is across from mine at the Institute,” leaves us wondering: guppy what? At what Institute? Etc.

Nelson shifts perspectives, sometimes using the second person to refer (apparently) to the reader, sometimes back to herself. Sometimes we get the sense that she is merely note-taking and will follow these thoughts later, as in “Does the world look bluer from blue eyes? Probably not, but I choose to think so (self-aggrandizement).” That parenthetical feels very much like a marginal note, to me.

There is lots of lovely language here, and some deep thought-provoking, and emotional material: loss of love, lots of sex, all kinds of blues in every sense… these is also a fair amount of material brought in from other texts, including Goethe’s Theory of Colours, Derek Jarman’s Chroma, and Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour. I think she’s a synesthete on some level, right? It jogged my brain when she referred to smell for (I think) the first and only time, on page 32, when an apartment was right for her because its hallway was painted baby blue, even though “my friends all told me it smelled as bad there as it did in the last one.” Frankly, I am afraid I finished no wiser than I started, although something of Nelson’s tone and atmosphere, at least, has leaked into my head despite her theory being too smart for me. I feel I’ve just talked myself in a circle and still don’t understand this book. And sometimes when that’s the case I’m grumpy or underwhelmed; but here I am impressed with this work even though I didn’t understand it. For better or worse, I leave you with that.

Rating: 7 or 8 questions, who knows?

4 Responses

  1. This is pretty much how I felt about The Argonauts. I loved it so much, but I also know I didn’t even get half of it because it was too smart for me.

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