A Blue Rush: Discussing “Bluets”

by Charlotte Shane

In 2009, poet Maggie Nelson dropped Bluets, the print equivalent of a mixtape that combines memoir, poetry, art critique, and personal essay. Bluets as a whole is a lyrical meditation on love, grief, obsession, and color, but any given stanza of it — it’s organized into numbered paragraphs — might consist solely of a detail about a nomadic tribe, or a quote from Goethe. You can read a substantial excerpt of it here.

The book continues to exert and accumulate influence as readers discover, re-discover, share, and publicly mull over their impressions of this unique investigation into a steadfastly broken heart. The advent of Nelson’s more conventionally formatted memoir The Argonauts felt like the perfect opportunity to revisit Bluets, though one never really needs an excuse. Here, Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Sara Black McCulloch, Meaghan O’Connell, and Anna Wiener talk about why Bluets remains so powerful, how certain books become incorporated into our lives, and what it means to be “dickmatized.”

Charlotte: I’m curious about the circumstances under which you each found Bluets. How did you end up reading it, and did you immediately recommend it to friends? Or did you savor it alone?

Anna: Bluets was given to me by a bookseller at McNally Jackson (“given to me”? Sold to me, by someone doing their job) sometime in 2010. I had never really read anything like it before — writing that was both academic and heartbreaking, that traded in brevity and never bordered on melodramatic, nebulous but focused, and so smart, intellectually and emotionally.

Sara: About two years ago, I was writing an essay on female desire and boy bands (stay with me), and Bluets came up while I was researching, but it was sold out everywhere and I didn’t have enough time to order it.

I met with my editor a few days later and she brought up Bluets and asked if I had read it; I told her what happened and she pulled it out of her bag. I read it on the train from Toronto to Montreal, and read it over again on the way back. I couldn’t annotate my friend’s copy, so I took notes in a journal. When I got back, I ordered my own.

I recommend it to every woman I know only to discover they’ve read it already.

Meaghan: I got it from McNally, too. My boyfriend worked there and brought it home from work. I usually make a point not to read the things he recommends, which sounds awful, but he is always recommending things and I like to stumble on them myself, keep that part private…This one, though, I put aside my stubbornness and pride for whatever reason. I remember having high expectations thanks to things I’d heard from people I admired. Sitting in the sun, reading it and loving it like it was a revelation.

Re-reading it now, it has kind of lost its spell over me. After The Argonauts the voice sounds so, I don’t know. False? Full of bravado? Maybe those are related.

Charlotte: I understand that, particularly the way that affection comes across so strongly at the start. It’s a very poet-y type of preciousness, grandness that often tries to deny/disown its grandness as it keeps asserting it, because nonchalance is part of the affectation. I know it well thanks to poetry grad school.

I loved The Art of Cruelty so much that this book underwhelmed me at first. I remember getting about 19 or 20 pages in and having not underlined anything and thinking, well, I guess that’s that: this is a book not even worthy of underlining. Which is the cruelest rank you can give a book, in my mind.

I think what ultimately made it stick for me was the format. It’s something I cite routinely whenever I talk to someone about the type of book I’d like to write, and I don’t imagine that influence will go away.

Also, for the record, I re-read it and underlined a lot.

Sara: I think the more you re-read Bluets the less it is what it first was to you. I think it is so significant because that is, at least to me, how grief and loss change over time. The emotional impact changes: it’s either heightened or dimmed. Bluets now is nothing like it was two years ago to me. I still love it, but the only evidence I have for this is the annotations that have accumulated in the margins. I don’t know if I changed or if I’m picking up subtleties I didn’t pay attention to or have access to two years ago.

Meaghan: It’s weird because it’s a breakup book, and ostensibly about loneliness, but there is a reverence in it for love that made me/mine feel known. I love a tiny, intense book, especially one that drops you into its ridiculous conceit, “Suppose I were to begin by saying I had fallen in love with a color.” Okay, Maggie! Every book of hers, I start out a little mad at it and then am won over.

Sara: That’s what I love most: it’s deceivingly small, but it stays with you long after you’ve read it. I love that Maggie Nelson will explore some of the most painful and awful things humans do to each other. [Editor’s Note: Nelson has also written extensively about the gruesome murder of her aunt.] But she’s brilliant, she’s methodical, and most importantly, she takes her time with everything. I don’t know if that’s why I revisit her work too — I know there’s a labor to all of it, and I’m only seeing this finished product.

Ana: Thinking back now, I can’t really say when or how exactly I came to Bluets. It’s presence, in retrospect, feels perennial, perpetually recurring. My friend Lola guided me through her bookshelf — Eileen Myles, Wayne Kostenbaum, Kathy Acker — and pulled out one of Nelson’s books (none of which, besides The Argonauts, I’d read).

That must have been at least a year ago. It isn’t until the last few weeks that I’ve dedicatedly peddled Bluets. I gave it to my partner, in a stack with other books I’d read that he hadn’t. He left Nelson to last, eventually admitting he “hadn’t really gotten into it yet.” I took my copy back, disappointed with its neglected state — though when writing, I went back to my copy and found his earmark, saw his arrows marking some of the same words I underlined (in blue).

Charlotte: My Bluets origin story feels dull in comparison to all of yours, or maybe just kind of lonely. I picked it out in a Seattle bookstore while I was there with a client, and he bought it for me. I’m pretty sure I read it on the plane ride home. I chose it because I loved The Art of Cruelty, and it was prominently displayed on a wall that may have been — booksellers strike again — the employee picks.

I’m fascinated that Meaghan and Anna came to the book through male recommendations. Embarrassing as it is, I will admit I assumed very few men would appreciate a book so excessively and obsessively concerned with ~emotions~. Do you think it has a unique poignancy or resonance for women?

Ana: I have all sorts of “ooof I don’t know” issues with approaching writing this way. The one part that I absolutely hated in Bluets is often the most quoted:

59. There are those, however, who like to look. And we have not heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it, with the eyes staying in the head.

In my copy, I have the phrase “female gaze” crossed out, mostly out of my own uppity-academic snobbishness. Laura Mulvey’s “the male gaze” has been appropriated and mis-defined into irrelevance. I fear the same sloppy misuse happens with the “female gaze,” though I’d give Nelson the benefit of the doubt. But mainly I mistrust such easy genderings. It seems that in the last five years, anytime I’ve seen something associated, or assumedly speaking from “the female gaze,” it’s pastel-colored and Lolita-themed, which makes me roll my eyes to no end. There’s nothing “female gaze-y” about The Argonauts. Nelson encourages a multiplicity and undefined-ness that resists any either/or readings of her work.

Meaghan: I want to say — don’t know if it’s true — but I want to think Dustin was like, “This isn’t for me but I recognize its goodness and know you would appreciate it.” I don’t know if he thinks it isn’t for him, he says he ordered it for the store, so he must have read it. But *I* think it’s not for him. Whether he has read it is irrelevant to me. It is a me book; MY book.

Charlotte: I don’t know men who read voraciously or passionately except, to be honest, for my clients, and they all read things like history and nonfiction. So in the past whenever I’ve tried to talk to men about books I felt strongly about, thinking they would follow me in my excitement because they were a fellow reader and that would trump our genders, they usually say something along the lines of “seems like a book for women.” And I can tell they don’t trust my assessment of it, they have no desire to read it, and I’ve dropped in their esteem some by liking it. In other words, I don’t trust them to read like I do.

My boyfriend just asked me to bring a book for him when I visit him overseas, something “delicious and complex” that I really like, and I keep nixing the titles that most readily come to mind because, in my head, they’re women’s books. It’s not only that I worry about him thinking less of me because my taste in literature proves me to be so resolutely feminine, i.e. loyal to other women who write and interested in the things they write about, like love, beauty, female friendships, and sex. He’s so not that guy, I hope, but I think it in the back of my brain anyway. It’s that I also suspect he won’t even be able to understand or appreciate the work because of his indoctrination into masculinity; he won’t be able to access or recognize the value in it. He’ll get one whiff of the subject matter or get ten pages into the voice of a female narrator, or whatever the red flag may be and already part of his brain will be turning off and losing interest.

This is incredibly sad if true, and not very fair to him for me to assume it, but that’s where I’m at. It’s like clothing retail. You put the unisex pieces in the men’s section, because the women will consider something there, but there’s no way a man is going shopping in the women’s section.

Anna: I’ve never considered Bluets a book for women, but maybe it is. The people I’ve given or recommended it to have mostly been women: friends, a former writing teacher, even a friend’s sister, whom I’ve never met in person. I once sold it to a stranger in a bookstore that I didn’t work at. It tends to resonate with women, I think — the reaction is usually more along the lines of, “oof, holy shit,” than a revelation. Women see themselves in it?

That said, the men I’ve given it to seem to engage with it pretty seriously. There isn’t a lot of literature for or by men — bear with me — that speaks clearly and deeply to the emotional fuckery people put each other through. I wish more men read Bluets. Well, I think I wish that.

I don’t have any part of the book memorized, but a passage that comes to mind every so often is this one:

177. Perhaps it is becoming clearer why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something to say to you.

Just, like: god, of course he didn’t read the fucking letter for months. What a jackass. What a metaphor.

Charlotte: Did any of you read this and imagine the man as worthy of the love and devotion she gives him? I don’t mean devotion in the wide-eyed, naive sense, but her allegiance to his importance in her life. I never question the intensity of her feelings but I think, like Anna, I would probably write him off as a total jackass. She even says “(maybe) I don’t know what love is, or I loved a bad man.” [45] But I’m eternally interested in how we can enduringly esteem and support someone who chooses a partner we don’t respect at all. The general louse-ness of him never makes me think less of her. Also — maybe we should go there — does anyone think it’s just about the sex? (“just”)

Anna: I don’t — would never — question Nelson’s feelings; I do not think she is an unreliable narrator. This might be because the book is ostensibly about the relationship, but really it’s about her — her perspective, her emotional range, her brain. I don’t know that I would read this story as told by anybody else.

But I do think that questioning whether the subject of this book is worthy of her love and devotion is a separate issue. The emotional world this book starts to inhabit feels more obsessive to me. Not in a scary way — just in the sense that in Maggie Nelson’s hands, the relationship has become something outside of itself, something newly subject to personal, intellectual inquiry.

I don’t think the relationship is just about the sex! I do wonder whether she is, in some small way, still protecting him. Maybe the sex is one of the easier intimacies to share publicly.

Meaghan: No way does he deserve her love and yes, I think she’s a little dickmatized.

Sara: Is Bluets a way to recognize when you’re dickmatized? And a lesson in realizing that maybe the sex and the relationship weren’t as good as you thought they were?

Ana: It’s interesting to ask is it just about sex, in a way the same could be posed about The Argonauts, which is mostly, mainly, about “sex,” but in other words: queerness (what does it mean to be queer, when queer is state-sanctioned and corporatized), “queer families,” pregnancy, birth, transitioning. Both Bluets and The Argonauts read like reckonings, but the stakes in The Argonauts are raised considerably. It’s less precious than Bluets, less dismissible in the same way a relationship based on “just a sexual connection” are seemingly dismissible. In The Argonauts, the questions around fucking become political; their implications surpass Nelson’s own interiority.

Anna: I don’t know if I fully agree, though! I thought The Argonauts was primarily about love — familial, romantic.

I think my read on the Bluets relationship was different when I first inhaled it at 22 (when my reaction was closer to “I envy those who cannot relate”) than it is now (a wiser/wizened 27?), where I feel both empathy and sympathy, a sense that maybe it doesn’t always have to be like this. At an angsty 22, it was more like “Oh! it always has to be like this and it will always be like this and in the best-case scenario I might write something good about it.” Which…all lies, thank god.

Sara: What Maggie Nelson does in Bluets is obsess over something because processing things like the end of a relationship and nearly losing a friend is complex and too overwhelming. It’s never just one bad, horrible thing that happens, is it? It’s one thing after another and it’s suffocating. So to have a woman pour everything out like that — to watch her figure out a way to process everything and to process sudden life changes is meaningful because how do you even begin to deal with grief and loss? How memories can be so pervasive and invasive no matter how much we try to tell ourselves otherwise. The book is a space where we (as readers) don’t obsess over unrequited love, but explore why we feel we should care so much about it.

Meaghan: I keep thinking about the part in The Argonauts when she quotes Wayne Koestenbaum who is quoting his ex after they received a bunch of letters from him, “Next time, write to me.” How thoroughly called out.

WK: “…I didn’t know what to do with my befuddled, wounded sense of being a rhapsodic letter writer weirdly instructed to ‘relate,’ to speak to someone instead of the nothingness at the end of writing.”

In the paragraph before, Nelson writes, “One problem with lyrical waxing, as Snediker [author of Queer Optimism] has it, is that it often signals (or occasions) an infatuation with overarching concepts or figures that can run roughshod over the specificities of the situation at hand.” (!!!!)

Anna: It’s interesting to hear Meaghan talk about The Argonauts creeping in, because I think I have retroactively ascribed some of my feelings for that book to Bluets.

The Argonauts has this confidence to it — this sort of steeled defiance — that I loved. It’s no less romantic, but the tenor of the romance feels ferocious. Less vulnerable, maybe; the terms aren’t as nebulous. I wonder whether that’s because of the relationship that Nelson writes about, or maybe some reserve of strength that comes with being a mother. Or maybe it’s just how Nelson is developing as a writer. These books are so personal it’s hard for me place them in a critical frame, sometimes. (Easier — lazier? — for me to place them in a personal frame.)

Sara: She demands that you say what you mean. Always. Every word, every quote, every sentence has a purpose. It belongs there and maybe I’m obsessing over this because I feel as though a lot of writing has lost that element (I’m generalizing, yes). And she’s as hard on her reader as she is on herself as a writer.

Can I share my favorite passage from The Argonauts?

Over the years I’ve had to train myself to write the sorry off almost every work e-mail I write; otherwise, each might begin, Sorry for the delay, Sorry for the confusion, Sorry for whatever. Only one has to read interviews with outstanding women to hear them apologizing. But I don’t intend to denigrate the power of apology: I keep in my sorry when I really mean it. And certainly there are many speakers whom I’d like to see do more trembling, more unknowing, more apologizing.

But am I the only one who thinks that Maggie Nelson is good at unknowing? She’s comfortable enough in her own uncertainty and it’s such an incredible driving force in her writing and in her intellectual curiosity.

Ana: I’ll go ahead and give one of my most treasured Bluets passages:

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.

Charlotte: I find the blue tarp section [18] one of the most readily remembered too. I think part of what I appreciate about Bluets is that the narrator’s continued connection to this man seems, to me, due in part to her sexual fascination with him, how compelling his physicality/their physicality was to her…but then she says she only came the one time. I bet most readers can hear that and understand that their sexual compatibility is still important and true.

Being weaned on and mostly exposed to a strain of feminism that was somewhat strident about orgasms, and the idea that if you’re not having them with your partner you’re being really cheated and undervaluing your own pleasure and even being somehow irresponsible to yourself/all women/feminism as a lifestyle….it makes me feel encouraged and happy and excited that we’re moving beyond this weird dichotomous thinking about sex (orgasms/no orgasms) and letting ourselves (women) discuss it in a way that furthers a deeper sophistication about sexual satisfaction.

Ana: You totally hit on why that blue tarp kept swaying in my mind — it was such a concession, one that is commonly delivered with a conceit of shame or apologia. But she delivers it as a gift. It was the only time she came. And then immediately following that with “It was essentially our lives.” Simultaneously underlining and debilitating the primacy of coming!

Meaghan: There is something to the orgasm mandate — almost like we can’t trust women to know whether they are enjoying themselves or not.

Sara: I’ll share two of mine:

100. It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise. But really, this is like hoisting a harness onto an invisible horse. “There is simply no way that a year from now you’re going to feel the way you feel today,” a different therapist said to me last year at this time. But though I have learned to act as if I feel differently, the truth is that my feelings haven’t really changed.
233. That the future is unknowable is, for some, God’s means of suturing us in, or to, the present moment. For others, it is the mark of a malevolence, a sure sign that our entire existence here is best understood as a sort of joke or mistake.

I have problems both with the idea of “being present,” but also, planning for the future. I still feel like life is at the mercy of chance and I have my superstition about how trying to plan or foresee it is bad luck in a way. And to me, Nelson’s (quadriplegic) friend and her accident are both so representative of that. So is the dissolution of her relationship.

I feel so much like life is in flux always and that, of course, having goals and plans for the near future is reasonable (and some might say responsible), but I think that, also, there are no guarantees. It’s what makes life both beautiful and terrifying. The thing I wanted to bring up was how Maggie Nelson discusses her friend throughout all this: how her body and its pain are separate from her intellect and her mind. It’s interesting to me how Nelson dissociates her friend’s mind from her body and I wonder if this is a coping mechanism for her; one that helps her deal with a different kind of grief and mourning.

Anna: I’m thinking of this, from Chris Kraus’s review of I’m Very Into You:

Writing in the first person about her encounters with recognizable lovers and friends, Acker was frequently praised for the “vulnerability” of her remarkably transparent style. But it was a constructed vulnerability. Her texts and her persona were ingeniously controlled and conceived.

I feel like there are parallels to be drawn here, maybe. Would it feel like a betrayal to place Maggie Nelson’s work in this frame?

Sara: Not everyone is guaranteed a future, and I find it so interesting how we all assume we have one. That’s hope, I guess, but I’m so much more attuned and preoccupied with the present. But Nelson talks about the memories that persist, that somehow resist the mind’s flexibility and its instinct to forget or repurpose memories. We’re so preoccupied with what we’ll leave behind or how we’ll be remembered and, I don’t know, her friend is still there. She’s not gone at all. But the things have changed. I think Nelson is, in a way, defending her ex, but she’s also trying not to forget him.

Charlotte Shane (@CharoShane) is a writer whose work can found at charlotteshane.com. Her TinyLetter is so much more than cool links.

Ana Cecilia Alvarez writes about art, women, and sex. She’s the editor of Nerve, a contributing editor at ADULT, and teaches Sex-Ed at Bruce High Quality Foundation University in New York.

Sara Black McCulloch is a writer living in Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter over here.

Meaghan O’Connell lives with her family in Portland, Ore., and writes for NY Mag’s The Cut. She is a former editor of The Billfold and Maggie Nelson’s future best friend.

Anna Wiener is a writer in San Francisco.