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.