Book Review: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
Although Maggie Nelson is more popular for her “genre-bending” book, “The Argonauts,” I recently had a chance to read her earlier poetry book “Bluets.” In an attempt to revive my hobby of writing literary commentary as I previously have for “The Cave” by Jose Saramago and Walter Benjamin’s article, “A Berlin Chronicle,” I chose a book that came from an independent publisher, offered a unique combination of prose and poetry and relied on the concept of theme and variation.
Published by Wave Books in 2006, this book of prose poems invites responses as varied as the material it contains. This is revealed by her fans’ and critics’ comments on Goodreads: “Dippy.” “Evocative.” “Borderline humorless.” “Filled with life.” Nevertheless, the resounding opinion from her readers is positive, as it has received 4.3 stars. For me, the almost-cluttered material of the book promises too much. It promises to divulge a love affair with the color blue, but instead results in a semi-confessional narrative about a less-than-glamorous personal sexual relationship. I emphasize sex, because the book is preoccupied with sex. Yet, somehow the sex and feeling of the book never seem to intersect. Allusions to a mysterious quality of blue as their supposed point of crossing never fully suffice. In fact, the stronger feeling the book projects is one of the author’s inadequacy to fulfill her desire for intimacy with either her lover or her color. They are always mediated through too much clutter or “detritus” as she refers to it, to allow the feelings in the book to linger.
At times while I was reading, rich feeling comes through in the sensational descriptions of color as a phenomenon of shimmering light. These descriptions are mediated by memorable references to other author’s inquiries into color. At times, the feeling of light and color almost oozes out of the pages. Darkness is also included to frame the concept of color by way of Stanza 73., when Nelson describes Newton’s discovery of the spectrum in a “dark chamber” with an aperture through which to refract sunlight. This technical description is betrayed for a seemingly arbitrarily planted tangent—that the assistant may have been a rhetorical fiction. The meta-plane of textuality is never far from reach. In stanza 130., Nelson writes “We cannot read the darkness. We cannot read it. It is a form of madness, albeit a common one, that we try.” This smacks of mystical religiosity in a way that is buttressed by the not-so-subtle name-dropping of “God” twenty-five times in ninety-five pages. Yet, I found that such attempts at feeling, meaning, depth and “naming the unnameable” never let me immerse myself enough to escape the sense that this work is a “project,” and as such, its mysticism felt prescribed.
For instance, throughout her writing process, she receives shipments of blue objects by friends who she calls her “blue correspondents” and she also applies for grants to travel abroad to seek out blue, though she never receives one. This marks an instance when she must merely default to what she deems common as much as she’d prefer to escape it. Nelson introduces the French word bluets only to later discover its English counterpart: a common cornflower. Just like other English flower names such as amaryllis or calla lily, the name cornflower offers less of a cue for the senses than the name bluets does. This sense that common things are inadequate may not have been an intended theme, but it can be observed repeatedly throughout the book.
It promises to show the process of falling in love with a color. The first of the numbered paragraphs says: “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 because more serious.” I never got the sense of any gradual change in the text other than the sea change that comes from demystifying a topic. We are lead from descriptions of bluets to cornflowers, from the discovery of the spectrum to collections of blue detritus. By the end of the book, it is clear that the romance has faded. Otherwise, the mere presence of numbered paragraphs grants the pages an artificial progression.
Nelson suggests she is keen on “having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock” in one self-satisfied diatribe (62) against Puritanism. She teases us with the suggestion that she’ll give us access to her feelings about sex. But later, she offers little more than a cold, graphic fuck for a description of her lover. There are no names, no faces, no histories, no details about him given. The only information granted is that she is willingly sleeping with someone who has an open relationship with at least one other person, which she seems to resent. In fact, Nelson displaces the underlying longing for this character by erasing him as character and drowning him in pull quotes of well-known male icons like Newton, Andy Warhol, Goethe, and Wittgenstein. In that sense, the project seems to be grounded in a feeling of longing or misery that is intrinsically linked to this lover, but unwilling to articulate him as character. Instead, she meanders through thoughts on the color blue.
It feels like a passive aggressive near-confession meant to derive some revenge. Perhaps this revenge is taken upon the object of desire in the text—the male fucker with too many female prospects who is personified as a bowerbird in one part of the text (68). Perhaps her form of revenge is publication. In this sense, it has an interesting mixture of intimation and intimidation.
The sex is too loud, the science of color is too contrastingly stiff, and the collection of ‘blue’ anecdotes is, in fact, strikingly bare. Let’s consider some of the well-known blue referents not mentioned: the nazar (evil eye) pervasive in Turkey, the Greek flag and the color of the Greek Orthodox Church, Picasso’s blue period (perhaps briefly mentioned when she describes “The Blue Guitar”), the American Blues tradition (whose main proponent in the text is Billy Holiday), the films of the Three Colors Trilogy directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, one of which is Blue, Blue Monday, and even (with so many references to other thinkers from this time period and region of the world) Der Blaue Reiter. Yet, her status as a professor and her female loneliness are glaring as if to send a fatal warning to anyone who dare enter into the evocative promises of the text. She proclaims an urgent need to be revered for this work of academic gesturing (or else!). It smacks of privilege in the sense that the poetics are demanding as if her project “deserves” some empathy from us, the readers.
Another character is in the hospital, being cared for by the narrator. Yes, in addition to collecting blue pull quotes and ephemera, she tends to an aging friend. This is perhaps the most sympathetic relationship drawn of the narrator as opposed to the narrator as professor (whose idiot students can’t understand Gertrude Stein), the narrator as lover (whose object of love is not worthy of characterization), or the narrator as reader (whose readings really only encompass the supposed greats of the Western Canon with minor cameo appearances of ‘other’ figures). Apart from these markers of an elevated status, she is a caregiver, who marvels at the color of her sick friend’s feet. She almost heeds the warning offered by this woman: your relationship is “morbid.” However, admitting to such a denunciation would derail not only her relationship, but also her project-based text.
Surprisingly, I felt that the text was drowning in tropes of ‘maleness’ and a problem of gender seems to be at the core. The text leaves us wondering—is she the damsel in distress, is this a captivity narrative, or is this a female warrior asserting her prowess? However, when she describes a longing to be “subsumed into a tribe of blue people” or the “Tuareg, which means ‘abandoned by God,’” the problem of gender dissembles to one worthy of postcolonial criticism. She has the gall to justify this “exoticism” by claiming that she’s not the only one to share in this fantasy. This “Western” inescapable desire triggers the sort of spice-box nostalgia for the British Empire and other heart-of-darkness themes that eliminate any further possibility to read her evocative text without a grain of salt. An underlying problem of whiteness also appears to linger in the folds of the text.
While comparing itself to a confession at the start of the book, the most convincing revelation is the unnerving forthrightness of this woman to assert her Western privilege and academic status with such unabashed caprice. After this striking incapacity to sort through the implications of her own text—which is one that is composed on the binary pillars of savagery and civilization, striking chords of mysticism for the former, and encyclopedic referencing for the latter, her appropriation of the term blue from African American music is all the more glaring. When she incorporates the most well-known female jazz singer, Billy Holliday, as if to announce the elephant in the room—the appropriation of an American theme hailing from African Americans, which she refuses to otherwise address, I was left starving for the real blues, not her clever French bluets.
Meanwhile, this sideswiping of a tradition is structured through a range of distracting measures meant to delude us into believing she is confessing something personal. And by that, I only mean personal-according-to-the-custom-of-an-American-literary-and-aesthetic-tradition. Much of the thematic material feels like academic (or poetic? or literary?) posturing. At no point while reading the text did I get the sense that I’ve actually read anything intentionally revealing about the narrator. Her collection of material stirs up varied impressions that stem from avoidance of the central dilemma—the self-proclaimed “Western” coldness of the text.
In another color-themed artistic endeavor, several years ago, artist Anish Kapoor got exclusive rights to the Vantablack pigment the “blackest black.” Equally pretentious as it is superlative, Anish Kapoor made his “work” exclusive as a means to give it some kind of longevity. Likewise, Maggie Nelson’s text practices the art of restraint more than it practices revelation, offering up a kind of exclusive set of inquiries that are probably only scratching the surface of a larger whole. No purchase or patience could grant us that access. Even the mentions of drunkenness, dope, and booze feel like textual placeholders to signify “depth of experience.” In the end, the overwrought text generally diffuses any connection between signifier and signified so thoroughly that all we’re left with is a medley of self-conscious efforts at artistry in which the effort remains more pronounced than the artistry. Her complete dissatisfaction for the familiar is marked with an excessive desire to find “exoticism” throughout her daily life with a forcefulness. In addition to an underlying sense of inadequacy, the text projects a sense that she wishes to take power, conquer and divide the winnings of her daily life—as a form of sweet revenge.
What do we call this book? Textual collage, chapbook, novel-in-verse? Clearly her efforts at elevated meaning are driven by researching a theme and its variations. We are pulled into a medley of linguistic and philosophical tropes. We can easily break the text down into its parts. Firstly, it contains signature blue objects: tarps, lapis lazuli, tuareg, garbage bags, blue light. Then, to make even further use of numbers than her own numbering system, I used the search function in my Kindle. There are 25 mentions of God, 16 mentions of Goethe, and 100 instances of blue in the text—achieving absolute numerical and textual stasis. Her own awareness of the potential inability of her leaflet to take flight is brought up in Stanza 226: “I thought I had collected enough blue to build a mountain, albeit one of detritus. But it seems to me now as if I have stumbled upon a pile of thin blue gels scattered on the stage long after the show has come and gone; the set, striked.” Drawing upon a well-known literary trope, she likens the text to a theatrical performance. Perhaps this is one last effort to avoid complicity in an otherwise problematic text.