Re: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books).
Nelson’s meditation takes place through 240 poetic prose pieces (some feel like prose poems, most feel like a mixed essay/journal/response), what she calls “propositions”. The range of blue swells out from a general obsession with the color to the figurative feeling of the same name, to historical and philosophical implications for color and our experience of it. As with her poetic non-fiction project about an aunt who had been killed before she was born, Jane: A Murder, Nelson reaches out to other texts and contexts to increase her understanding, to work through the thing at the center of her focus, inserting herself in the conversation (as any good academic does).
In the first instance, she tells us how to read the project: “Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession… It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.)”
The project is indeed quite personal — as always there is no distinguishing between Nelson and the “I” in her work. It is born from her and despite the literary turn of the text the self remains contained, and, in fact, the text depends on it. I feel her working through emotions deliberately, as if bouncing them off of all of this other material will help define or describe the indescribable, what feels inaccessible. There is plenty about the pursuit that is acknowledged as futile — that the color (or this meditation) does not necessarily increase wisdom or offer change, it accumulates clarity, a sense of things… and Nelson’s gone to every corner for that sense.
Here are some moments that resonated for me:
You might want to reach out and disturb the pile of pigment, for example, first staining your fingers with it, then staining the world…. But you still wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly.
17. But what goes on in you when you talk about color as if it were a cure, when you have not yet stated your disease.
54. Long before either wave or particle, some (Pythagoras, Euclid, Hipparchus) thought that our eyes emitted some kind of substance that illuminated, or “felt,” what we saw.
Loneliness is solitude with a problem.
75. Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.
It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise.
It is tempting to derive some kind of maturity narrative here: eventually we sober up and grow out of our rash love of intensity…. But my love for blue had never felt to me like a maturing, or a refinement, or a settling. For the fact is that one can maintain a chromophilic recklessness well into adulthood. Joan Mitchell, for one, customarily chose her pigments for their intensity rather than their durability–a choice that, as many painters know, can in time bring one’s painting into a sorry state of decay. (Is writing spared this phenomenon?)
I feel confident enough of the specificity and strength of my relation to it to share. Besides, it must be admitted that if blue is anything on this earth, it is abundant.
For blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise any wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it.
Writing is, in fact, an astonishing equalizer. I could have written half of these propositions drunk or high, for instance, and half sober… But now that they have been shuffled around countles times–now that they have been made to appear, at long last, running forward as one river–how could either of us tell the difference?
Often [writing all day] feels more like balancing two sides of an equation–occasionally satisfying, but essentially a hard and passing rain. It, too, kills the time.
229. I am writing all this down in blue ink, so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water.