Bluets by Maggie Nelson

“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).”

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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10 Responses to Bluets by Maggie Nelson

  1. SimplyMe says:

    I have requested Bluets and The Argonauts through our library system and am looking forward to reading both.
    As an aside, on the beaches here one can still find bright blue trade beads from the time when the indigenous peoples and British-based companies exchanged goods. The beads are treasured — I have a few — and I think Maggie Nelson (if she were here) would similarly share in this treasuring.
    Thank you so much for once again introducing me to someone new who will no doubt enrich my life.

    • bookbii says:

      I’m pretty sure Nelson mentions blue beads somewhere in Bluets. I hope you enjoy it. I’d recommend reading Bluets first and then The Argonauts; I really hope you like them. The Argonauts has some choice moments, quite a bit of raw language (not quoted here, obviously), but it is still a mind-blowing read. I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

      • SimplyMe says:

        I read Bluets on the heels of having read Kathleen Jamie’s Findings. Given this juxtaposition and the fact that I am predominantly a visual thinker, my first comment is that if Findings is a riverbank sort of book, then Bluets is a swathe of 240 blue cornflowers. I began to read Bluets and I realized very rapidly that metaphorically speaking I would need to get down on my knees to adequately grasp the reality of each individual flower (viz., entry). The world of the reader and Maggie Nelson’s world at the time of writing had narrowed to this and this only. At one moment, I literally gasped (entries 218 to 221). Blue on blue had become the blue cornflower with a yellow centre: “…I have seen the bright pith of her soul.”
        A book that brought me to my knees, Bi. As always, my thanks.

      • bookbii says:

        The focus is extraordinary, isn’t it? And it is a beautiful book. I wasn’t blown away in the way I was blown away with Argonauts, but I think that’s just an unfortunate side effect of having read Argonauts first. I’m overjoyed that both this and Findings have been meaningful reads for you, Jan.

  2. The Argonauts blew me away, too – in such a way that I could not write about it yet. I have Bluets on my shelves, I might give it a go sometime this Summer. Great review! 🙂

    • bookbii says:

      It is hard to write about, isn’t it? I still remember sitting in the car reading it, we were on the way to the Lake District, and I remember being consumed by this overwhelming feeling that was indescribable and I knew it was something important but I still can’t really put it into words. I really hope you enjoy Bluets, Juliana. It didn’t quite reach me as The Argonauts did, but it is still incredibly beautiful.

  3. Picked up and nearly bought The Argonauts in an Oxfam shop yesterday; now I think I’ll have to go back and buy it! I heard MN talking about it on a lit podcast a while back, and that piqued my interest in the first place (think it was Bookworm). Her approach, from this review of yours, and the bits I dipped into in the bookshop, reminds me of both Renata Adler and David Shields.

    • bookbii says:

      The Argonauts is definitely worth it, I hope you enjoy it if you do read it. I think the comparison to Adler makes sense, though Maggie Nelson is definitely more philosophical in her approach, yet rawer in others. I haven’t read David Shields but will look him up now, thanks 🙂

  4. roughghosts says:

    I have steered wide on Nelson so far even though I will likely have to read Argonauts eventually, especially in relation to my own writing. Touching on subjects closer to my own experience I come to it with biases. This book, however, does sound like it might be a better place to start.

    • bookbii says:

      Yes, I can understand why The Argonauts might be a more divisive book, though it comes from a place of love and I think that comes across very strongly. But of course, that’s just my perspective and I know if my life experience was different I might feel quite differently about it. Bluets makes for an interesting read; I’d love to hear your thoughts if you do read it.

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