Review by Cassandra da Costa
Perhaps, in our fast-moving century, you could say that Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, published in 2009, is an old book. You could also call it small — it comes to fewer than 100 pages. You could say it is a book about the color blue. However, this would be to say nothing about the book, for Nelson manages to make much out of her material — to transform it to feeling, or rather, to feel it.
“1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke.”
Bluets — which is often called an essay or memoir, but which Nelson herself has refered to as poetry — begins gesturally, even frankly, with a series of propositions (in the annex of the book, Nelson refers the numbered paragraphs, or stanzas, as propositions). At first, it seems as if Nelson is engaging the reader, asking us to understand this aesthetic romance or affliction:
“4. I admit that I may have been lonely. I know that loneliness can produce bolts of hot pain, a pain which, if it stays hot enough for long enough, can begin to simulate, or to provoke—take your pick—an apprehension of the divine. (This ought to arouse our suspicions.)”
This loneliness appears to be reserved for us, as if Nelson is approaching us, trusting us with her unfinished thoughts. However, as the propositions continue, we learn that their personal nature is not simply a literary device: “I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any ‘blueness.’ Above all, I want to stop missing you.” It is because Nelson’s words are in direct terms — which is to say, there is a particular individual of whom the reader is supposed to be aware as the receiver of each gesture — that the study of blue, the questioning or consideration of it, is incisive and of consequence, even if you yourself feel nothing for the color.
This intimacy is also owed to the fact that Nelson writes openly and concisely. Even as we step further into her own process — one which takes us from Wittgenstein to Goethe to Joni Mitchell — each expression remains transparent. The rhythm of each stanza is measured, and reading becomes meditative, a trance. What is challenging in the book is how openly Nelson is willing to struggle with her process; in this case it is not just the one of writing, but of living, of continuing after heartbreak. Instead of willing thought and feeling into a narrative complete with revelation if not resolution, Nelson allows complication to intrude where many would substitute hopeful platitudes.
“41. The DJ played ‘River,’ and said that its greatness lies in the fact that no woman had ever said it so clearly and unapologetically before: I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad. Progress! I thought. Then came the song’s next line: Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.”
In this way, Bluets is the antithesis to a self-help book (“Like many self-help books, The Deepest Blue is full of horrifyingly simplistic language and some admittedly good advice. Somehow the women in the book all learn how to say: That’s my depression, talking, It’s not ‘me.’”) Instead of dismissing it as confusion or insanity, Nelson uses pain as reference, a form of communication:
“110. In Tender Buttons, Stein seems particularly worried about color and pain that seem to come from nowhere, for no reason. ‘Why is there a single piece of any color … Why is there so much useless suffering.’ About blue itself, Stein offers but this koan: ‘Every bit of blue is precocious.”
In fact, it is this word, tender, that stuck out to me when I finished reading While Stein’s similarly slim, genre-bending volume is completely on the other end of the linguistic spectrum from Nelson’s (the former is often said to be unreadable; I would call it an exhausting but worthy and readable), there is a patience in the grammatical simplicity yet emotional complexity of each phrase or profession that evokes a certain tenderness; it is not an accident that “Every bit of blue is precocious” almost reads as “Every bit of blue is precious.”
This is not to say that Nelson treats anything preciously. Intellect and honesty prevent that as the precocious and precious are in constant dialogue. Bluets is not a simple dichotomy between the intellectual and emotional, but rather, an insists on the inextricable links between sensation and understanding. To feel blue — not melancholy or depression, but to actually feel the color — ceases to be an illogical, incomprehensible notion, left to the worlds of synesthesia and psychological affliction. Rather, it becomes a process that is made familiar by Nelson’s writing, by its gestures, its careful approaching. Yes, the trope of writing as a form of coming to terms is relevant here, but what is striking about this poem, essay, lament, or however you choose to identify it, is the terms remain uncertain, the order of them obscured by the brilliance of color.
“239. But now you are talking as if lover were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. ‘Love is not consolation,’ she wrote. ‘It is light.’”