I first read Maggie Nelson in the April of last year, during the early feverish stages of an autumn cold. Her slim 2009 volume Bluets is a bare and consonant appraisal of blue – as a colour, as music, as meaning sexual content and the fuzzy indigo of depression. Comprised of 240 fragments, Bluets suited my state – too blurry for any high lyricism but still feverish for epiphanies in small deliberate chunks. The cumulative effect of it cut through my man-flu like a pointed chisel.
The eclectic range of meanings that a single word can accrue reminds us that language is as much a creature of convenience as precision. The term bluestone, for example, is used to describe the various types of often fragmentary rock found at the site of Stonehenge which would not otherwise be found there geologically. Blue here refers less to their colour than to their deliberateness, their oddness.
The title of Nelson’s latest book, The Argonauts, is taken from French philosopher Roland Barthes likening of the phrase ‘I love you’ to the refitting of the ancient ship Argos of Greek legend. However often the ship was repaired and made anew, it retained its name. Lovers who reuse this incantation are Argonauts. For Barthes – and for Nelson – however often ‘I love you’ is uttered, ‘the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.’
Barthes’ proclamation of the death of the author when faced with the endless refitting of text has been stripped by repetition of much beyond shallow use. It is the diaristic form of Barthes’ later work, best exemplified by Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments), which has proved a more regenerative model. Using unfussy language but unafraid and playful with big ideas, Barthes categorised desire in a style one of his translators called ‘intimate but not personal’. The small paragraphs of A Lover’s Discourse read as confessions from a new friend, uttered between sips of black coffee.
A fragment, from the Latin frangere, meaning ‘to break’, is almost always taken as an imperfect part of a whole, a scatterling loose from something more coherent – as if experience had a narrative from the very first.
The belief that form transforms understanding, however subtly, is evident from the very beginning of Nelson’s writing. Two of her earliest books – Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts – address the murder of Nelson’s aunt, first as blank verse and then as memoir. Nelson is never less than scrupulous with the available facts, but she knows that the very act of making sense is one that asks for exclusion, for the clean lines of story.
A critic, poet and memoirist, Maggie Nelson is a writer of such dazzling quality that you wonder why she isn’t better known. Then you remember that the cornerstone of literary fame remains – for better or worse – the novel. And what novels promise is coherence, a lost state of wonder. But the novel’s most beautiful lie isn’t that it is made up. It is that it hides its own making. Forms like poetry, criticism and life writing, which more easily resist the clean picked lines of conflict and release, work closer to the befuddled, moment-to-moment state of life.
The Canadian academic and poet Anne Carson likes to energise uncertainties or absences by placing open or closed brackets as responses to the questions she doesn’t care to answer or the gaps in her translations of the poetry of Sappho. Carson calls this leaving the space empty so there is space for god – space for the ineffable. Nelson likens this to ‘…stumbling into a tarot reading or AA meeting and hearing the one that that will keep you going, in heart or art, for years.’ Later, tired and less in awe, Nelson writes ‘But some revelations do not stand.’
Nelson’s The Argonauts skips through her experience like a stone upon water. Touching on thinkers as broadly apart as DW Winnicott, William James, Julia Kristeva and Beatriz Preciado, Nelson always takes care to orientate their thoughts around her considerations of motherhood, transgender, love, poetry, art and useful uncertainty. Whatever the brevity of the sometimes sentence-long paragraphs, a reader never doubts the depth of what lies beneath.