Bluets

 

bluets

1. ‘Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a colour,’ Maggie Nelson writes in the first of 240 numbered paragraphs. ‘Suppose I were to speak this as if it were a confession’. Already there is a nugget here, a knot, a twist of thought containing strands that are both related and dissimilar. We confess to love, but rarely to loving a colour as if it were a romantic passion. But this is the springboard for her poetic exploration into a strange but profound attachment to the colour blue, a colour that evokes divine beauty, depression and ribald explicitness in equal measure.

 

2. Blue now appears in all sorts of ways, as a magical element of the natural world, as the infinite variation in a huge and disparate assortment of objets trouvés that Maggie Nelson’s magpie eye has found and coveted, and as a word full of rich associations in songs, poems, works of philosophy. Nelson probes the deep emotional bond that ties her to the colour, and spreads her out into the world as a curious but sometimes mystified spectator. ‘When I talk about colour and hope, or colour and despair,’ she writes, ‘I am not talking about the red of a spotlight, a periwinkle line on the white felt oval of a pregnancy test, or a black sail strung from a ship’s mast. I am trying to talk about what blue means, or what it means to me, apart from meaning.’

 

3. What it means apart from meaning seems to be blue’s capacity as foil for, diversion from, and mask over a failed love affair that Nelson is grieving. We never learn much about this lost love, except for the lostness, and the harshly evoked misery that she feels. She quotes Thoreau, in the wake of his falling out from Emerson: ‘When our companion fails us we transfer our love instantaneously to a worthy object.’ Whether this is exactly what she has done or not is, like everything else in this text, offered as a suggestion that flowers momentarily with possibility and meaning before drifting off into the white space of uncertainty.

 

4. This is what the numbered paragraphs contain: blossoms of thought, startlingly bright and vivid as the cornflowers (bluets) whose name they evoke. Each little paragraph a kind of standalone prose poem in a field thick with them. Although the proper origin of the numbered paragraph is the philosophical proposition as offered by thinkers like Wittgenstein. In this case, each proposition builds towards a profound truth by way of these individual building blocks. The white space in philosophy is like a pause in music, a moment for the mind to digest what has preceded and to ready itself for further ingestion. But the white space in prose poetry is the place for the mind to give itself over to speculation, dreaming, the lazy mingling of ideas and emotions. Is this the effect of Maggie Nelson’s white spaces? Or do they work to undermine the coherence of any message she might be offering the reader?

 

5. Nelson is not the only person speaking in this text by a long shot. Her voice is plaited through a rich and diverse network of cultural geniuses (nothing but pure art gets cited here). I started a list, but gave up because the non-Greek chorus of commentators became just too unwieldy. Mallarmé, Goethe, Wittgenstein, Newton, Gertrude Stein, William Gass, Emerson, Schopenhauer, Marguerite Duras (who I am always pleasantly surprised to see mentioned), Billie Holiday, Derek Jarman, Novais, Van Gogh, even William Carlos William’s grandmother gets a name check (ah, so of course, not all geniuses then, not even this can become a stable rule or certainty). They all have something to say about the colour blue, for the most part, or suffering, sorrow and the mysteries of vision.

 

6. What are we to make of this web of creativity, spun around Maggie Nelson and her pain and passion? Perhaps she is akin to the male satin bowerbird she describes, who spends weeks hunting down blue objects with which to weave an enticing nest for his female. ‘He builds competitively, stealing treasures from other birds, sometimes trashing their bowers entirely.’ Goethe, Mallarmé et al are surely robust enough to withstand the nicking of little bits of blue from their collected works, in the good cause of creating a blue nest woven around the seductive Nelson, who lures her reader in.

 

7. I should mention also the paraplegic friend Maggie Nelson talks about often, whose life was ruined by an accident and whose courage is immense but not always equal to her pain. Nelson cares for her tenderly, seeing in her suffering perhaps an echo of her own, or maybe seeing in her situation the chilling affirmation that some accidents of life have everlasting consequences.

 

8. But by this point in the book we may well be asking ourselves where we are actually going with all this. In the absence of a full narrative arc, standing like a rainbow over the text and pointing towards a pot of gold, will this meandering river of blueness ever deliver us to a destination? Or are we to question what ‘getting somewhere’ in a narrative means? Whether we can ever find a solution to the questions of Bluets, if indeed any questions have ever been properly posed?

 

9. Bluets spirals around its concerns, touching upon them in turn and moving restlessly on. It has no interest in closure, nor in explanation. Although it takes a form that was once linked with the original understanding of philosophy, which strove to identify what exactly we could know with complete certainty, its heart beats with the more modern understanding, in which philosophy seeks to track down a truthful experience of life as it is lived. It is a shift from cognitive mastery of the world, to close observation in service of a life whose mysteries will to some extent remain intact.

 

10. And so, in this rich, frustrating, beautiful, poignant union of philosophy and poetry, the objective proposition yields to the subjective insight. Life cannot be cured, love cannot be explained, pain cannot be deconstructed. Together they form the skein of an emotional life that is as tightly tangled as it is powerfully binding. Maggie Nelson and her friends evoke the potency of both passion and suffering, and the glorious distractions of art, thought and beauty that act as insufficient but dazzling palliatives.

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38 thoughts on “Bluets

  1. Thank you – a wonderful review!

    There is this one thing about the place of/for philosophy in a literary work, which I came to think about as I read your text: As I see it, Nelson manages to place philosophy within the discourse, grounding it in the text-univers, not above it (- like some kind of golden rule, or unattainable idea). Maybe one can say that in “Bluets” philosophy becomes everyday thinking, and so, because of this, everyday thinking becomes profound, and philosophy suddenly seems to be of greatest importance.

    • Oh I like your last sentence very much indeed and agree with it wholeheartedly. It’s like the best literary criticism for me is written artlessly, in the same language as any other elegant piece of writing (Al Alvarez does this really well with poetry). Thinking about art this way weaves it into daily experience, where it belongs.

  2. What a lovely post. The textures of the original seem to have slipped through the pores of your reading to ripple beneath the skin of your prose. I shall have to try to track a copy down and read it with the gentleness it appears to require.
    Your conclusion that the book takes us on a journey to a refreshed vision of what we already somehow knew reminded me of T S Eliot:

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.
    Little Gidding [Four Quartets].

    It’s funny what comes into your mind [sorry, my mind], for as I was thinking through what you have written I saw the paragraphs and how you described them as endless light bright blue clouds floating in a kind of harmony and pattern across the huge background of white sky, wisps straining to connect each to each.

    How interesting you should find a link with Wittgenstein. I think you make a good case for it. In my college days I read a sort of biography of him, possibly because it was the first time I’d ever seen a philosophy book with a bright and interesting cover. I ended up reading the Tractatus which employs the numbered paragraph method you refer to on my way home, the paragraphs reading way slower than the sleepers passing beneath the train wheels as we rode along. From what I recall it ended up saying treat this book like a ladder, a sort of leg up, then kick it away and see the world anew [that’s probably a gross misrepresentation – sorry philosophers]. Anyway it did enlighten me – I realized I had made the right decision to study English!

    Sorry to have gone on so long and to have gone so far off the point!

    • I have never made it through the Tractatus, so you did much better than me! And I love the idea of the paragraphs reading slower than the sleepers passing beneath the train – what a gorgeous thought. The notion of treating the book like a ladder is most intriguing. I think in Bluets, those paragraphs are more like a spiral, or maybe a mobius strip, but that’s part of the pleasure of what she does – seeing her mould the original form into something more flexible and unusual. You remind me that I must read Eliot (is that awful, not to have read him?) And thank you for your lovely comment – I really did feel the spirit of prose poetry had given me a helping hand in writing it!

  3. Thank you. I appreciate your comments about Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. In fact, I liked them better than I did the book itself. You gave me bits of somewhat rational understanding to hold onto, if not a “full narrative arc” or philosophical proposition. The book itself swept me around and put me out of my comfort zone too much for me to say I enjoyed it. At times I could let myself be carried along with her words, but her “glorious distractions of art, thought and beauty “ were not “dazzling” enough to hold my attention.

    Reluctantly I agree with the post-modern assumptions that nothing can be known with certainty. “Life cannot be cured, love cannot be explained, pain cannot be deconstructed.” Life, love and pain are in part mysterious, but we have to deal with them. I found it important that such ideas did not stop Nelson from wisely and practically helping her injured friend. Perhaps she would agree even as she chooses to stress the impermance and meaninglessness. Overall the book reminded me, rightly or wrongly, of Waiting for Godo. Wherever meaning comes from and however impermanent it is, I cherish it and seek it in my reading.

    Nelson did help me recognize the spread of her assumptions and techniques into recent novels that I have been reading. Her “white space” reminded me of how novelists are using gaps to pull us into their stories. Taiye Selasi does this brilliantly in her new novel, Ghana Must Go. Some of the tension in her book came from how much I didn’t yet know exactly what was happening or why it mattered. [Sorry for the mixed references there.]

    Overall, I found Bluets an interesting read, but Nelson went too far into unknowing for me to accept her conclusions—or maybe her non-conclusions. I prefer flowers and ideas that stay around a little longer before ”drifting off into the white space of uncertainty.”

    • MD, yes, I do think that pain and suffering ARE dealt with in this book, but in a way that isn’t fully articulated. It’s not that part of the process that she records. I quite understand the frustration some readers feel with this book (Pete below agrees with you!), because it is woven out of elusive scraps of thought and meaning, and it doesn’t have any solid base in experience or politics to orient the reader. That just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea! I found thinking of it as prose poetry made it work well for me. Somehow my expectations change as soon as poetry hoves into view! Taiye Selasi is a brand new name to me – I will check her out, thank you.

  4. Pingback: The Weigh of Blue: Review of Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets” | Poetry in Motion

  5. Lovely post and you evoke the beauty and the poignancy of Bluets here. I found this a frustrating read and I’m not sure how much was due to my being stressed and how much was due to the nature of the work. As a poetic exploration it was thought-provoking and it did make me appreciate the colour blue more (and Blue is my favourite colour so I have to thank her for that).

    But I also have to say how off-putting I found the explicit parts. Is that prudishness on my part? I was also frustrated at what you rightly call the absence of a narrative arc. I suppose I did want the narrative to ‘go somewhere’. And as a psychologist I want to say that we can explain love and we can deconstruct pain. We are always short of the mark and it’s often disappointing and incomplete. But I wanted to say that as much as Maggie Nelson reveals herself in this work, she also absents herself. As much as she focuses on the colour blue and her failed love-affair, I didn’t feel that I really got to know her at all. She skips all the niceties that I would want to know about (background, family, personal history, her job, the broader context of this work).

    She is, after all, ‘selling’ us her point of view here and I wanted more. Perhaps it’s my failure as a reader though. A blue flower is just that and I shouldn’t expect a psychological analysis.

    • Pete, I quite know what you mean about the explicit bits. They were very brutal compared to the rest, and the contrast (fully intended, I think) was jarring. It was another way of bringing out the relationship to ‘blue’, but they were the weakest part for me, too.

      I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the way we use words in the hope of healing. We can explain most things (and believe me, I have spent a good 25 years putting my back into trying to explain just about everything!) and yet I’m not always sure if the explanations really, truly help; if they effect cure. They can be helpful. They can be orienting. But my own experience – and it’s been a regretful one as my basic belief used to be that words can do anything – is that healing happens elsewhere. Often taking my attention away from a part of me that was suffering was the key to feeling better (and I don’t mean some sort of idle distraction – I’ve usually had my attention drawn elsewhere in a way I couldn’t prevent or avoid and this mysteriously liberated me in other ways). I absolutely believe in the value of therapy, and I am convinced talking is essential to mental health; but the process of healing is, I think, mysterious and opaque. As for Bluets, I suppose poetry and psychotherapy don’t really go together. Or at least the poetry of psychotherapy is different to the lyric.

      But ultimately, it’s quite okay to want whatever you want as a reader! That is your prerogative, not a sign of weakness or insufficiency in any way.

  6. hehe, clever with the numbered-paragraphs the reviewer is.

    Without reading this book, but going by your very thorough description, I’m guessing that trying to find structure is not the objective. I imagine the intent is to not have an objective beyond reaction. “…are we to question what ‘getting somewhere’ in a narrative means?” No. And here’s why.

    You mentioned HER intent was to find meaning beyond meaning. When you try to organize cognitive activity that’s attached to one’s limbic system, you will fail everytime. Our feelings are not linear. They follow our thoughts (or vise versa?) for a moment, but even after the memories pass, (for depending on how you view time, nothing is ever really present) or the task at hand is finished, what is left is just feeling-without structure-it just is. Our sense memory always wins because it is stronger and has more disk space.

    Add to that the mind’s ability to multitask. Sometimes a feeling becomes the structure in which all processes are contained.

    But remember, our intent is not hers. Our intent is irrelevant to her action. As it should be. For if she were to write for the reader, the experiment fails immediately.

    I wonder if the reader should put away the charts and graphs, rulers and calculators, and just flow into the feeling. if we are to experience what she does, we cannot be distraction by…what’s the word…our own presumptions? Have you ever wanted to make someone “feel” what you do, so they’d really “get it?” How does one do that given the physical limitations of the human mind/body connection? Perhaps she’s trying to find out.

    I’m sorry I do not have the vocabulary to explain this as well as I’d like, but it seems as if she’s letting us use her sensory input in hopes that our own brains will bypass the structure and go straight for the gut check. She’s like a host, and we get the nutrients.

    As far as the borrowing from other writers, I’m on the fence. Personally, I find that lazy, but I also wonder if its akin to her walking through an art gallery with us usurping her CNS. Poems are not usually “seen” like paintings are, even though both evoke the same emotional response.

    Or, maybe she just needed to fill space to hit the 240 mark.

    Either way, I’ll be adding this to my list, and suggesting it to some of my touchy-feely poet friends.

    Thank you again for another great review.

    • modernidiot – well, not an idiot at all! I see exactly what you’re getting at, and I think you’re quite right. Thoughts and feelings are completely different – different systems, different modes of being; and feeling is what ‘just is’. I do think that the best way to approach this book is not to think about it too hard, but to daydream over it, in a loose and relaxed sort of way. I just love your description of her being the host, and the readers getting the nutrients – brilliant!

      As for the quotations, though, I experienced it differently. To read all that she clearly has, and to find these apposite little phrases and ideas must have been a long labour of love. The quotes are always short, and she embroiders her own responses and ideas around them, so they bed down nicely in the rest of the text. If it’s borrowing, it’s very creatively done. I expect I didn’t describe that as well as I could!

      If you read it, I’d love to know what you think. Please do tell me, won’t you?

      • I will! And thanks for responding. Now I’m really interested. You know, honestly, the Times could learn a lot from your reviews. You write the kinds of things people really need to know to choose how they spend their precious dollars. Top work!

    • Nicola, I think you would like this one, because it is so gorgeously literary in the very best sense of that term. I’d love to know what you made of it!

  7. Blossoms of thought–I really like that! I didn’t realize that bluets had something to do with Cornflowers (shows how much I know)–that’s what my blueberry container usually says–bluets. This sounds so interesting–so it’s not fiction, but it’s not essays either? But I guess it’s not necessary to always categorize books, is it? These almost sound like mini-meditations, and not so surprising to hear she is a poet. I definitely want to check this one out.

    • It’s sort of like 240 really teeny weeny essays! Or maybe one long essay made up of all those fragments of thought, like numbered paragraphs perhaps. I’ve read things with this sort of structure before and not always liked them, but I thought this carried it off the best I’d ever seen. And just between you and me, I had to be reminded that bluets are cornflowers – I knew they were small blue flowers but couldn’t recall which! :)

    • Absolutely! Or like him but more coherent. In Markson’s books, there is ostensibly very little to link the quotations, and in comparison this is positively brimming with narrative! :)

  8. Lovely post. I think I would like this as well. When I saw it mentioned on Sigrun’s blog I thought it sounded intriguing.
    Colors are on my mind a great deal.

    • Caroline, I would definitely think you’d like this. I’d love to know what you make of it, too. Have you read Victoria Finlay’s book on colour? I really want to get to that one some time.

  9. What a lovely post! Only recently have I found out writers do write about colors, blue especially. Paintings come naturally, and I’ve heard of music and colours, synesthesia. And for films, Kieslowski’s Trilogy, Three Colours: Blue, White, and Red comes to mind right away. But using the literary form to express colour is something new for me. Thanks for sharing Bluets with us.

    • Arti, I really love it when something unusual and innovative comes off so well – like the Kieslowski films, really! I’m also keen to read Victoria Finlay’s book on colour, which is more orthodox non-fiction but I’ve heard very good things about it.

  10. I love how you write about the book, taking a cue from Nelson. It seems to be a slow, meditative sort of book. Did you find you preferred reading each paragraph separately and at separate sittings or one after the other in shorter or longer periods of time? Given there is no narrative arc, it seems reading it in pieces and allowing for an accumulating effect that grows through to the end is effective. Will be adding it to my TBR list for sure.

    • I read it quite slowly, taking in about ten pages at a time. After that I wanted to let it settle in my mind. It was quite hard as it’s deceptively easy to read and I was ready to chow the whole lot down in one go! But definitely, it’s closer to poetry in that respect, and worth dreaming over. I’d so love to know what you make of it – I know you have an eye for the unusual too!

  11. Like research and all good writing Bluets made me look again at a subject I had taken for granted: blue. Such good writing, creative non-fiction, makes the commonplace, strange. And your review made me think again about this book when I had read it, adding more dimensions. Best kind of review. Thank you.
    I found this book beguiling, hypnotic (I’ll just read one more paragraph, I kept thinking), almost mystical, without being sentimental or gratuitous.
    Why can I not write like that? It seems that her grief is very strong, and she does not appear to want a response from the reader. Take it or leave it – a bit like WG Sebald’s writing (whom she mentions tantalisingly in para 151; I am much taken with thinking about his writing at the moment – doing a readalong on my blog for late May). This is what I’ve been thinking and writing about, she seems to say, It’s all the same to me whether you read it or not.
    It was helpful to have the tradition from philosophy of numbering paragraphs pointed out. It creates a link with things I know I don’t know. The form is strange in Bluets, not offered as philosophy explicitly. Like poetry but not. Like an essay but not.
    I found myself provoked into contemplating a word and colour I love: Lapis Lazuli, which means the stone of Lazhward where it was mined. The place became associated with the stone, then the colour, and gave its name to azure and the various words for intense blue in French, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Portuguese and Spanish. (Thanks Wikipedia!) Mined mostly in Afghanistan and Chile, which seems like a geological mystery. All very fine, but mostly I love the feel of the words lapis lazuli in my mouth as I think about the colour of the stone and its fools gold content.
    I would never have read Bluets without your blog. Thank you for the discovery.

    • Caroline, I am so delighted that you enjoyed it, and I loved reading your response here. It is just like poetry, but not, and an essay, but not. That’s one of the most intriguing things about it for me, the way it borrows from other major forms while creating something unique. I’m also a fan of the word ‘lapis lazuli’. My brother saw the Tutankhamen exhibition in London years ago and brought back a catalogue from it that I pored over and read time after time. I fell in love with lapis lazuli then, which is as lovely and mysterious as its name and full of exotic promise. Yes, her writing does seem to be a lot like Sebald’s in terms of general atmosphere and the willingness to wander. I confess I haven’t read him, though, so I must check out your readalong. I am dreadful at blog housekeeping but must put you on my reader and then I’ll keep up better. Thank you so much for your lovely comment.

  12. I finally managed to post briefly on my blog about Bluets yesterday – only a week late! I’m enormously grateful to Sigrun and to you for inspiring me to read this. I wish I had more mental energy these days to respond verbally to this lovely book and to your review and your readers’ varied and sensitive comments. In the absence of words of my own, though, perhaps the unique form in which Maggie Nelson has verbalised her thoughts and feelings in Bluets meant all the more.

  13. I continue to think about this book–which says something about its merit. I think my frustration with it comes from my desire for a bit more structure in life and in the books I read. Nothing absolute or rigid or even conventional. I need some structure and meaning even if I have to create it myself

  14. Pingback: Tales from the Reading Room

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