On Maggie Nelson’s Bluets: Azul Simpático

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 18. A warm afternoon in early spring, New York City. We went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck. Afterward, from the window of our room, I watched a blue tarp on a roof across the way flap in the wind. You slept, so it was my secret. It was a smear of the quotidian, a bright blue flake amidst all the dank providence. It was the only time I came. It was essentially our lives. It was shaking. 

After reading the book, I pushed it on everyone I knew who might be familiar with eros the bittersweet, with injury, with morbid-hearted love, with ekphrastic inclination, with lust, with loneliness, with bitter laughter, with red wine, with weeping. (An archaic definition for the term “blue-eyed,” relayed by Maggie Nelson: 91…“a blueness or dark circle around the eye, from weeping or other cause.” ) “Heartbreak is a spondee (42.),” I heard myself telling strangers. Twice in one week, I wore pants in a color that shimmered between sapphire and cobalt, and on one of those occasions, I spilled a little wine and later on discovered the butterfly-shaped bone of my hip tinged blue. Bluets came out in 2009; clearly, I’m late to the party.

Speaking of party-time, here’s another one of Maggie Nelson’s 240 prose-like Bluets entries, which I first encountered when a wise poet friend selected its bitter wisdom to hold up to the hungry eyes of Facebook:

136. ‘Drinking when you are depressed is like throwing kerosene on a fire,’ I read in another self-help book at the bookstore. What depression ever felt like a fire? I think, shoving the book back on the shelf. 

As in entries 18. and 136., the form of Nelson’s Bluets is not quite essay, not strictly poetry, either. Nelson works lyrically between the two poles of nonfiction prose and the rhythm of verse. But, wait. Perhaps I should stop myself now, and explain my point of entry.  I don’t believe that I am poet Maggie Nelson’s ideal reader–I’m not a poet, nor do I possess any facility with the language of poetic technique to adequately describe what Nelson is doing in her book on the level of craft. But I do know that this book has moved me profoundly, and that Bluets arrived at the right time for me, though merely to write these words seems to reveal too much of my heart already. (That’s alright. Hearts: unveil yourselves. If not in response to books like this one, then when?) I’m waiting for two poet friends to finish the book and explain to me how I might better term my appreciation for Nelson’s work. Wait for the poets to speak, I told myself, but I couldn’t resist writing about Bluets first, from the perspective of a tenderhearted fiction writer. (And what did Maggie Nelson tell me? Perhaps I might indulge my desire to just point, to present just those words: “10. The most I want to do is show you the end of my index finger.” And: “89. As if we could scrape the color off the iris and still see.”) And so I attempt to write about something for which I have no precise language, no true way of pinning down precisely, compelled, as I am, by this blue book.

My copy of the book is presently on loan with a friend. So that I could write about Bluets during a trip out of the country, one of my aforementioned wise poet friends lent me her own copy of the book, although she had only just begun it. Her generosity to part with this book, its cover a smooth blue galaxy, for nearly two weeks– well, I owe her dinner, at the very least. Better: a brilliant piece of blue.

***

My impulse is to point at the page, or to simply quote. Look here:

54. Long before any wave or particle, some (Pythagoras, Euclid, Hipparchus) thought that our eyes emitted some kind or substance that illuminated, or ‘felt,’ what we saw. (Aristotle pointed out that this hypothesis runs into trouble at night, as objects become invisible despite the eyes’ purported power.) Others, like Epicurus, proposed the inverse–that objects themselves project a kind of ray that reaches out toward the eye, as if they were looking at us (and surely, some of them are). Plato split the difference, and postulated that a ‘visual fire’ burns between our eyes and that which they behold. That seems fair enough.

And at the expense of my credibility–but perhaps I dispensed with that already, when I mentioned that I’m not qualified to write about poetry, however essayistic its form–I’ll reveal that Maggie Nelson’s paraphrasing of Plato, is precisely the feeling I have when reading her book. (Oh, feelings.) I reach towards the words; their rays reach me like flame. Nelson writes:

80. What I have heard: when the mines of Sar-e-Sang run dry (locals say the repressive rule of the Taliban, who in 2000, blew up the two giant statues of Buddha at the mines’ entrace–Buddhas whose blue auras were the oldest known application of lapis on earth–caused a particular dry spell; God only knows what the American bombing has done since), the miners use dynamite to bleed a vein, in hopes of starting a “blue rush.”

81. What I know: when I met you, a blue rush began. I want you to know, I no longer hold you responsible.

It’s considered unproductive in academic settings to respond to work with the words “I like it,” or “I don’t like it.” This is what I tell my students: be rigorous; be critical; be specific. But in this pair of entries, I believe Nelson ignites a “blue rush” with certain readers, with me. Here, her words  return the reader’s gaze, pulsing with Plato’s visual fire. This blue rush, this fiery reciprocity, is something of what we who write are after, isn’t it?

And what I suppose any reader might also observe in Maggie Nelson’s work is its ingenious collage. The author gathers, like an ardent bower bird, a collection of voices–Milton, Goethe, Da Vinci, William Gass, Mallarmé, Leonard Cohen, W.G. Sebald, Gertrude Stein amongst them–and arranges these voices alongside her own meditations. Sebald offers us, “101…a blinding, bad time,” L. Cohen has forgotten the logistics of “Famous Blue Raincoat’s” love triangle, and Goethe contributes the case of “the lady, who, after a fall in which an eye was bruised, saw all objects, but especially white objects, glittering in colors, even to an intolerable degree” (25). And in her own voice, Nelson tells several stories at once: of a doomed affair, of the cultural history of ultramarine, of the mortification of saintly bodies, of the artist in academia, of devastating physical injury, of loneliness and its corollaries. And how this chorus of voices seems to reach and pull from the page.

Here, the poet writes of a scrutinizing gaze, artistic and sexual, and of receiving that gaze from within the female artistic body:

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 color 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 an ash of sleeve 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.

Reading entries like 13., I have the feeling of deep kinship, simpático with the speaker’s consciousness. Bodies complicate matters; the poet acknowledges this earthy dilemma. In the mornings I collect my unruly female body to present myself as a professional vessel of instruction to a coterie of eager students, also in bodies. For much of the rest of my time, my body works in service of my mind, and I occasionally make the mistake of forgetting it for long spells, sitting in front of a screen, hammering text, making up lives as my limbs fall asleep and begin to ache. Only when I stand to answer the phone do I notice the ache; only when leaving the classroom do I see chalk all over my skirt, my fingers red from being tugged and twisted, wrung out. But I’m careful with the proportions of the skirts I choose to wear, the academic cliché of a velvet blazer. The mind makes other demands: What does your work do? An excellent question, a worthy one. I lean on other voices, as Nelson has in the structuring of Bluets, gathering the kindred tones of other people who create work better explained by pointing to words than by summary. And very often, “I never know how to respond,” feeling choiceless, compelled, goofy and inarticulate, overcome. What do you write about? Where do you get your ideas for your fiction? What are your themes? Tell me about your novel.

***

What I didn’t realize until I had read Maggie Nelson’s book is how deeply, and for how long, I have written in love with the color blue. For the last six months, I’ve been writing fiction about the process of making indigo in El Salvador during the 1890s. What I have learned is that the stuff smelled terrible, worse than the vomitous turning of red coffee berries that fills the air of the western mountain village Tacuba now. Indigo’s fumes smelled like piss and poisoned its workers, pickling them mad and sterile. Indigo began golden; with agitation and oxidization, it turned bright blue. Alchemy: another kind of rot. In El Salvador, there’s a gorgeous resonance between the black of the volcanic soil, flakes of igneous rock, coffee grounds, shadowed canopies of forest, black-flecked mountains, and, occasionally, this piercing indigo blue. A speck on the landscape. Nelson reminds me to notice this contrast.

But indigo, stretched to dry over the hills of El Salvador, is something I imagine, not something I have seen. Coffee took over at the beginning of the 20th century.  Instead, I think of Lake Coatepeque, a pool of blue risen from the crater of a volcán whose Nahautl word means “hill of snakes.” This lake’s a relic, a fixture in my father’s favorite childhood memories. The lake was quiet when I visited it several years ago, and for whatever reason, the absence, perhaps, of children playing in its blue and of families picnicking on its rough shore as in the images transmitted by my father’s recollections, this silent blue lake seemed to rinse that day in El Salvador with a little melancholy.

***

Throughout Bluets, Nelson returns to the theme of contrast, of movement and of change:

79. For just because one loves blue does not mean that one wishes 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-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only which lies in its focus.’ wrote Emerson. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what its hue, can be deadly.

I hope I’m not ensnared by a deadly trap, and that my focus is merely keener for having read Nelson’s book. (And shouldn’t art sharpen our eyes? What does your poetry do? Nelson permits John Ashbery to ask and to answer, in entry 183.) Lately, my eyes seek heliotrope, that bright lavender flower, Joyce’s favorite, that turns desirously to the sun. Inside that bead of color is a favorite scarf, a lucky one, found years ago in a deep cardboard box of loose grey-green lentils in Singapore, sheer silk, a purplish blue, but pale and electric, no dull bruise or meek periwinkle, but a color that possesses the supernatural glow of Nabokov’s Karner blues. Also: my mother’s eyes, a sensible, dusty, navy. In Switzerland, where I write now, at a desk pressed against a window facing Lac Léman and Mont Blanc, I look out to a pale, high blue, marbled in white clouds. (Naturally, I think of Maggie Nelson at the gym: “22….At the bottom of the swimming pool, I watched the white winter light spangle the cloudy blue and  I knew together they made God.”) In Istanbul, a city of brilliant evil eyes and a mosque that glows bluely after sundown, I finally found the correct piece of blue to bring back to my generous and wise poet friend. It is a delicate, smooth blue, given to the counterpoint of a greenish turquoise color, and of that I’ll write nothing more, to preserve the surprise.

***

  And here is the strangest and most dreamlike of Nelson’s entries in Bluets, the only entry that might be called truly surreal, and one that, for this reader, evokes the slipperiness of writing:

180. I have not yet spoken of the princess of blue, which is somewhat intentional: it is unwise to give away too much information about a good dealer, and she has been, for almost two decades now, an excellent and primary supplier of blue. But I will say this: the other night I dreamed of visiting her in her forest. In the dream she was sitting cross-legged as I was, but she levitated. She wasn’t a deity–it was just that I had sought her and was now her guest. The forest was translucent. We talked. She told me that pollution, too, could be worshipped, simply because it exists. But Eden, she said, there’s no Eden. And this forest where we’re sitting. it doesn’t really exist.

Perhaps this is how Maggie Nelson got me so good, by pulling me inside this translucent forest. Sometimes, this is where the writing takes place. Somewhere secret, about which, “it is unwise to give away too much information,” but a place where pollution might become material, simply because it exists. Perhaps writing is…, Nelson writes in entry 206., a means of binding color to its object–or feeding into it, like a tattoo needle drumming ink into skin. Ah-ha! What do we come for when we write, but for the very object, its precise, ineluctable color; to borrow two lines from Adrienne Rich: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck, the thing itself and not the myth.”

What do we seek when we write, alone in a chilly apartment, heating leftovers on the stove, blinking at the page, but this blue? We sip coffee gone chalky to sharpen our gray minds. The lukewarm coffee moistens our throats; we haven’t spoken aloud all day long–are we lonely? Yes. Through ingenious devices, we seek the affirmation of our company of fellows, a tug on the rope we’re all clinging to. Keep going! they say. A few turgid hours pass, and we recognize our bodies are hunched. We kill the internet. Perhaps more than anything else, we ache for a dance party, loud and dark, ecstatic. Flashes of bright light. But: three in the afternoon, work to be done. A white sky. Another snack instead. More coffee. Hunching, stretching, desire: our bodies take up space and time, where there might be words on the page. We feel our bellies and desire a quickened core–tight and efficient–yes, this would help us to write. Exercise videos–the more cheesy-frenetic, the better–are often necessary. At other, more fraught, times, we simply stand at a remove from the desk and stretch into a squat, feeling our bodies move. From our haunches, we look out the window again, scan the gray and chalky landscape for that speck of blue. Where is the waving blue? What’s in the center of a flame? A wild heart of blue. A favorite writing teacher asks: Where’s the heat? Pass your hand over the paper, she says, and like alchemy, like indigo, certain words emanate their correct glow.

 

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