Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Maggie Nelson, _Bluets_

I WAS SUFFICIENTLY tuned in to have bought this before The Argonauts was published, but not sufficiently tuned in to have actually read it (throat-clearing noise) until a couple of months ago. Well, at least I'm catching up, maybe.

I bought Bluets at the Literati bookstore in Ann Arbor, where it was on a table with a variety of volumes of poetry. Wave Books does not consider it poetry--"Essay / Literature" the back cover plainly declares--but whoever decided to display it as poetry had a point, for there is something aerodynamic about the text. It has lift, it swoops, it veers. It is not unlike The Argonauts, but The Argonauts is another essay that sometimes starts to feel like poem, because of the boldness of its leaps, the intensity of its language. Lyric essay, then?

As a lyric essay about the color blue, Bluets has a relatively famous precursor, William Gass's On Being Blue, so I wondered whether Nelson was going to give it a nod.  When she does, it's more of a brushoff (see sections 61 and 62), which seemed a little ungracious...so far as the passage she goes after, though, she does have a point, and after all, it's Nelson's readiness to dispense with deference, discretion, and politeness, her fearlessness, that keeps us turning pages. Not only is she going to say something like, "I am interested in having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock in the most unforgiving of poses and light," but she is also candid enough to say, "I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book about blue without actually doing it," or to write about applying for (and not getting) a grant to write the book we are reading.

The fearlessness is what makes Nelson seem kin to Kathy Acker and Eileen Myles. But there's something else, too. Craftiness? Knowing when less is more? A dazzling ability to change registers? She interests me more than Acker or Myles, seems more various, less predictable. But I am still trying to figure out exactly why that is.

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