Now, Where Was I? : On Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

Monday, January 24, 2011

This is the second in a series of four nonfiction craft essays adapted for TriQuarterly Online from a panel Subtext, Sidetext, Sound Tracks and More: Layering in Creative Nonfiction which was originally presented at the NonfictionNow conference on November 6th, 2010.

The author Maggie Nelson, born in 1973, has authored half a dozen books, among them poetry collections, memoirs, and nonfiction. Bluets may be her finest work. It is a set of 240 loosely linked fragments. Each numbered fragment is either a sentence or a short paragraph, none longer than two hundred words. The book totals some nineteen thousand words. The work hybridizes several prose styles and verges on the lyric essay. The themes of lost love and existential aloneness come to dominate, bathed in a kind of blued longing.

Nelson utilizes memoir, philosophy, quotation, analysis, scientific exposition and query, meditation, and more, each in stylistic miniature. Subjects include an ex-lover and a friend who’s been paralyzed, but the majority of the text features her analyzing her reading, often deferring to others’ comments (including Leonard Cohen, Joseph Cornell, and Joan Mitchell) on blue. She’s not the only artist so smitten by a color. Nelson combines spiritual inquiry with erotic obsession, searches for beauty, and gets hung up on memories. As she crisscrosses sorrow and wonder, doubt and desire, her tone darkens.

The book is a philosophical and personal exploration of what the color blue has done to Nelson. Despite the exhaustion, Bluets wears its hybrid/fragmented dress well, showing its seams and much enthralled by its wanderlust, an aesthetic runway that constantly leads Nelson to find new ideas, images, and expressions.

The text is fragmentary but not disconnected, certainly not a series of discrete contextless meditations or aphorisms in the style of Marcus Aurelius. Nelson lists insights, hers and others’, to convey her learning and her vexation. She discovers links between many blues and their associations. As a result, the boards and nails she uses to build the edifice are readily apparent. To show this apparency, here are four chunks, 63–66.

63. Generally speaking I do not hunt blue things down, nor do I pay for them. The blue things I treasure are gifts, or surprises in the landscape. The rocks I dug up this summer in the north country, for example, each one mysteriously painted round its belly with a bright blue band. The little square junk of navy blue dye you brought me long ago, when we barely knew each other, folded neatly into a paper wrapper.

64. It was around this time that I was planning to travel to many famously blue places: ancient indigo and woad production sites, the Chartres Cathedral, the Isle of Skye, the lapis mines of Afghanistan, the Scrovegni Chapel, Morocco, Crete. I made a map, I used colored pins, etc. But I had no money. So I applied for grant after grant, describing how exciting, how original, how necessary my exploration of blue would be. In one application, written and sent late at night to a conservative Ivy League university, I described myself and my project as heathen, hedonistic, and horny. I never got any funding. My blues stayed local.

65. The instructions printed on the blue junk’s wrapper: Wrap Blue in cloth. Stir while squeezing the Blue in the last rinsing water. Dip articles separately for a short time; keep them moving. I like these instructions. I like blues that keep moving.

66. Yesterday I picked up a speck of blue I’d been eyeing for weeks on the ground outside my house, and found it to be a poison strip for termites. Noli me tangere, it said, as some blues do. I left it on the ground.

The blues I’ve colored blue. Red is for her erotic obsession with the man (sexual partner) she’s lost. Hunting/not hunting, pursuing blue via travel, picking up and discarding—we might say furtive actions—are in green. Finally, place is brown. The cross-sectional linkages prick larger issues, deeper meanings: the wrapper, given by the boyfriend and examined two numbers on, invites memory; an array of places, sought and settled in, evokes movement; things touched like dug-up rocks, a written application, a wrapper, and a poison strip suggest intimacy. All these elements are animated by their shifting proximity in the text’s numerated space. Some elements—the color blue, the lost lover, the larger physical and intellectual world that suffers its own blue referents—are returned to throughout the book. [pagebreak]

But turn the page and a curious thing happens. The next section, 67, begins: “A male satin bowerbird would not have left it there,” it being the speck of blue of 66. Had I the space, I would show how in the next several sections Nelson looks, in scientific detail, at the male bowerbird, who, like her, is a collector and shower of blue objects. This pronominal hinge from one topic cluster to another allows her to leap and wonder whether her love of the bird’s blue bowers is a sign that she was “born into the wrong species.”

The unity of the section groups is broken because Nelson’s urges overflow—yes, tinged with blue, but also urgent openings into companionable philosophical or emotional concerns. The moves are plotless. The bowerbirds might have come before the blue wrapper. It doesn’t matter because Bluets’s shape is a spiral, and the spiral, to achieve its end, must keep moving away from where it began. Its structure is built by pulling away from the core and by keeping attached to the core. The goal (if there is one) is nomadic, a sort of nomadic mosaic. As one reads, the book, despite its progression, loses its linearity and feels circular, porous, a tad unstable.

It's as if Nelson is saying: Once I make micro-level unities, I can move on to other blues, where you’ll follow, because small unities imply a progression. Once we establish a pattern the variation arrives more freshly than it would otherwise. As the performance continues, its spiral enchains a spread of variations whose macro-level becomes dissociative. And yet not to worry: the smallest likeness will grow a unified organism—a chain of atoms is enough.


With this dissociative pattern in mind, I discover on successive readings that Bluets does and doesn’t absorb me. The book manages both: to be absorbent and distracting. I’m absorbed as Nelson pushes the “narrative” forward via her micro-linkages, and, finding them, I note their frequency. I’m distracted, however, because of the book’s spiraling out, changing its focus and moving on, chunk by chunk, much like the scenery of a cross-country road trip. Often my attention falls away, because each new direction takes me out of the flow and into myself. Maybe I don’t care where it goes because I’m more interested in where it’s not going, that is, where the book lands, if only for the moment. [pagebreak]

So many changes are naturally diverting. Because I start to notice these diversions, Bluets begins to foreground my own distractedness. This presents a paradox of perception, one we might call conscious inattention. The sine qua non of narrative is its ability to hold your interest as you read: “a real page-turner,” we say in admiration. (Woe to the book whose pages don’t get turned, whose density or experimentation or drivel doesn’t get read. Is a book still a book if no one reads it, even if it can’t be read or I don’t want to?) With Nelson, though, I grow aware that her book’s unity assembles via its brokenness. And yet it is the brokenness I pay attention to more than the unity. To be honest, I’m not really clear on when during the first or the third reading that I realized the experience of a unified brokenness (a broken unity?) might issue once I circled through the text again.

The book’s ability to embody this concentration-shifting shape suggests a performative dimension. After several laps, I decide that during my first spin I discovered how the book works; the second spin, I saw the degree to which I was distracted; the third spin, I read in order to be distracted from my absorption, to have this ebb-and-flow experience. It’s like a peculiarly constant reawakening: I am absorbed, I am distracted, I reorient: Where was I?

In my absorption?
In my distraction?
Does it matter?

As Nelson creates the form she’s in search of, her investigation is necessarily self-referential: the book is made to expose its seams, not to hide them. Section 184 spells it out: “Writing is, in fact, an astonishing equalizer. I could have written half of these propositions drunk or high, for instance, and half sober; I could have written half in agonized tears, and half in a state of clinical detachment. But now that they have been shuffled around countless 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.”[pagebreak]

Who is this “us”? Her and her lost lover? Her and her seduced reader? The writer the person created who thought of the book going one way and then discovered, as the writer, that the book (a book) creates its own pattern? If it’s she who’s split, why the separation? One explanation is that Nelson senses the despair rising from her constant troubling the blue waters, that is, the degree to which such despair absorbs her, is one subject, and her avoidance of that despair, that is, the degree to which she needs to be distracted from it—unburdened—is another. In essence, that writing is living the despair as much as writing gives one a way out of despair, again, if only for the moment.


When a book creates a form to which we are unaccustomed and which we find physiologically attractive, it pushes us to wonder about that form, to discover what the book is saying about the artist who has written it and the culture in which it is written (penned out of necessity) as well as what the culture might be saying about itself by using this author and this book. Bluets’s primal engagement is with one of postmodernism’s creeds, defined by Jean-François Lyotard as “incredulity with metanarratives.” Lyotard is skeptical of the truth-claims any grand story makes: that the ways individuals behave in the novel, the epic, the biography, the autobiography, or in any hero’s tale, from Bollywood to Hollywood, are reliable replications of human life. Such lives aren’t replications at all; they are myths, even more empty of meaning. (Such is the feeling I have for a film like Avatar, whose love story is so hokey—no different from a Jennifer Anniston movie—that I snicker at its myth, despite the sincerity of its gloriously blued people.)

Lyotard may have found fault in the truth-claims of narrative art before the 1970s. Today, such fault has blossomed into full-fledged distrust. No one but those stoned on the media’s use of these grand narratives believes that wars are about liberation or that movie stars embody the roles they play or that American elections bring us candidates or representatives who can actually fix problems. I know the “faithful” raise their arms for their “belief,” but does anyone, except for a few nuns, actually practice Christlike love in order to redeem original sin and return us to the Garden? [pagebreak]

A surprising number of writers (perhaps because as we are less read we feel more free) are seeking to discredit such metanarrative certainty. The rise of the memoir, especially the self-reflexive memoir, is one way to deal with this distrust. Another way is to hybridize nonfiction styles into a broken or mosaic narrative. Bluets’s brokenness models a narrative form under siege as well as exemplifies a change in our reading and writing patterns.

Because Bluets enacts the hit-and-miss attention of its readers, I think of it as a postliterate text. It’s the sort of book you might read on an iPhone or an iPod. It is the sort of book to read while you’re online, where the majority of us, if we admit it, operate these days. Leaving Bluets’s thread to check on your e-mail or your bank account is part of its aesthetic: that’s what the book is doing as well, its form open to distraction. If literate is absorption in a consistent narrative, then postliterate counters that consistency. Indeed, this may be where we are heading as writers with the New Media and Web 2.0. Texts, to gain attention, must become more like electronic assemblages, mosaics made (though still on the page) of aural, vocal, and visual elements, variable in their arrangement and variable by their participants. Showcasing such branching interaction may seduce the contemporary reader, since the form mirrors contemporary reality more than it mirrors traditional narrative.

Perhaps the hybrid essay or the broken/braided narrative takes its newness as a nonfictional form because it uses the very distractedness of contemporary readers as the means of attracting us.


I have had to establish Bluets’s method before I could unpack what I see as is its dominant subtext, namely, how Nelson’s book models a shift from one reading sensibility to another, making absorption and distraction the ground of our literary experience. 

Kevin Kelly, the former executive editor of Wired magazine, has written in the Smithsonian (“From Print to Pixels,” July/August 2010) that reading’s interface is rapidly changing from “book reading” to “screen reading.” Kelly refers to the book that “we watch,” replacing the one “we read”: the new book literally moves or implies movement, or its context moves. A text we watch is an active one, with which we interact far more than we did with the static text. But watching text also means we are skimming it, a middle-ground activity between absorption and distraction. Though Bluets has not risen off the page electronically, its form is aware of—is taking advantage of—the book’s new activism. Nelson’s broken narrative shares the aesthetic of the screen’s brokenness, lacking the absorption rate of the traditional book. Screen reading is built for distraction because of its busyness and because other screens (and other distractions) are just a click away. [pagebreak]

This, I think, is Bluets’s subtext: a book form designed around and engaged with our much-divided attention. At the end of the age of reading, with the deep textual connectedness that book reading once held now only an echo, Bluets is commenting about and inviting us to skim and scan, to read sectionally, this clump and that clump, transitions and content severely pared down.

Underneath Nelson’s jittery technological subtext is another subtext: postmodern writers are suspicious that reading has nurtured “the story of humankind,” a tale that says that because of the printing press, the Enlightenment, and the scientific advances of literate populations, we have been civilized. Kevin Kelly agrees with this supposition: “The heartbeat of Western culture was the turning pages of a book.”

I don’t buy this romantic notion. Nor does Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, David Shields in Reality Hunger, or Roland Barthes in Mourning Diary. Each of these hybrid works purposefully disorients its claims to truth with a broken and epistemologically driven (attempt at) story. Good narratives these days are narratively subversive: as Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to survive.” Her magical, wishful, irrational thinking following the sudden death of her husband in 2004 rearranged her perceptions, ushering in not only her grief at his loss but also a near-pathological fixation on deconstructing that grief as a writer.

In short, I think the subtext of the many fractured, broken, and hybridized narratives that current authors are producing take a contrarian view toward literacy and civilization. (Lyotard would say that postmodernists delegitimize literacy and civilization.) Authors cannot help but cast aspersions on our “humanity,” particularly after the violence of the twentieth century, much of it accomplished by those with Western heartbeats who were quite adept at turning the pages of a book. Even now, it is absurd to think that Americans are as a people more arts literate, health literate, math and science literate, and, considering the 2010 election, media literate because of Western civilization.

As literacy adapts to new technologies and as authors take a more mistrustful (and delegitimizing) view of human knowledge, books will get shorter, more fragmented, more aphoristic, and more self-conscious. Consequently, authors become equally unsure of their own knowing and their own subject matter. Like Nelson, many make their writing a hunt for self-knowledge. As multitasking readers, we are just as insecure. We dip into and we dip out of a text (aka changing screens). A book becomes effective to the degree that it allows this dipping in and out to occur. [pagebreak]

What might we be dipping out for? The (relative) security that when we dip back in we may reconnect the writing’s uncertainty to our own, which our distraction from the text has helped us rediscover, even refine. More generally, we dip out of the book or into another screen as a way to resist the metanarrative, the redemptive closure, or the harmonic resolution that storytelling demands of us.

I think this act is modeled in Nelson’s book-ending three units:

238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.

239. But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not consolation,” she wrote. “It is light.”

240. All right then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.

Nelson’s uncertainty, I think, is clear—and the point. Her book has made her prey to her own distractedness because she remains open to the cracks of the form she is working in. The “you” of 238, the man she obsesses on, is not the “you” of 239; “he” has morphed from the other to Nelson. And yet “you” is the other as much as “you” is the self. Such is the irony and unreliability of the book’s close. Though she says she “aimed” for light, the book argues against that. Nelson doesn’t fool me: longing encased in blue is the book’s emotional core. By the end of Bluets what is most personal for Nelson—missing the man she lost—has become the high point of her braided-yet-broken drama. Her performance of blue has blued her.

Perhaps the hybrid’s subtext is also to feel one’s deepest longing, and then, if it’s too much to bear, let it go by beginning the book again, beginning another book (or screen) like it, or idling longer in the subtexting state: now, where was I?