“6. This half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean is this love’s primal scene. That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless. I returned there yesterday and stood again upon the mountain.”
When I read Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts last year it completely blew me away; it is a short but unusual book, raw and vibrant, unguarded (or seemingly so), beautiful and honest and smart. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before, unforgettable, and it cemented Maggie Nelson, even if only for that one book, as one of my favourite writers. Since I’ve been reading fewer books, I’ve had my eye on Bluets, in fact I’ve been struggling not to just go out and buy it, but thankfully the wonder that is Lancashire library service saved both my purse and my good intentions again. Thank you, Lancashire libraries.
“171. When one begins to gather “fragments of blue dense,” one might think one is paying tribute to the blue wholes from which they came. But a blue bouquet is no homage to the bush. Over the years I have amassed countless blue stones, blue shards of glass, blue marbles, trampled blue photographs peeled of sidewalks, pieces of blue rubble from broken buildings, and though I can’t remember where most of them came from, I love them nonetheless.”
Bluets is another unusual book, a book comprising 240 prose poems centred around the colour blue, Nelson’s love for the colour blue and the obsessions involved in thinking and writing about it. It is also about sadness, loss, about pain, about ‘blue’ as in an emotion, feeling blue, being blue. Nelson weaves the end of a relationship into her musings about blue, as well as a friend who was involved in an accident which left her quadri-paralytic, an accident which left her ‘like a pebble in water’. Like The Argonauts, Bluets is a complex piece of writing which warrants some time and attention to unpick. And yet even with time and attention it is unpickable, it is beautiful and sad, it is like reading poetry mixed with philosophy. It defies analysis.
“79. For just because one loves blue does not mean that one wants to spend one’s life in a world made of it. “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-coloured lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus,” wrote Emerson. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what its hue, can be deadly.”
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Nelson’s inspiration, her source materials beyond the colour blue, were Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Goethe, amongst others. The style I think is drawn directly from Wittgenstein, in particular his Remarks on Colour which was written at a time of sadness, during which Wittgenstein was dying, which was similarly written in short bursts of text, dense and difficult to comprehend. I haven’t read Wittgenstein; after reading Bluets once and then twice I went to Waterstones and took a brief read of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his one firmly philosophical book, and I began to understand both why Nelson admired him and the difficulty involved in emulating his style. But Bluets is not mere emulation, it is not pure homage, it is a thing in itself: tense, passionate, engaging.
“13. At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the colour blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.”
In writing Bluets Nelson covers a great deal of ground. She writes not just of colour but of passion, obsession, love. She writes of loss and pain, of sadness and vulnerability. As a piece of writing it is extraordinary, and yet I found myself a little disappointed because whilst it is a stirring piece it did not stir me as effectively as The Argonauts did, and I wished that somehow I had encountered Bluets first because I think The Argonauts may have spoiled it for me, being such a powerful piece of writing. Yet Bluets remains a worthy companion-piece. In the end I read it three times, and I think I could easily read it three times more and not have appreciated it in its entirety. Even if it lacks the power of The Argonauts it is a book well worth reading and coming back to.
“183. Goethe also worries over the destructive effects of writing. In particular, he worries over how to “keep the essential quality [of the thing] still living before us, and not to kill it with the word,” I must admit, I no longer worry about such things. For better or worse, I do not think writing changes things very much, if at all. For the most part, I think it leaves everything as it is. What does your poetry do? – I guess it gives a kind of blue rinse to the language (John Ashbery).”