Bluets is a meditation on love and grief; an exploration of loss; a reverie of blue; a syncopated arrangement of 240 prose poems – at least bookshops often file it under “poetry”. Maggie Nelson calls them “propositions”, evoking pre-Socratic philosophical fragments or the Remarks on Colour jotted down by Wittgenstein in the months before he died. The propositions that compose Bluets were collected across three years of slowly dwindling sadness, from 2003 to 2006, as Nelson recovered from a heartbreak while caring for a close friend rendered quadriplegic. She knows her own sufferings and those of her friend are incommensurable: “Is it a related form of aggrandisement, to inflate a heartbreak into a sort of allegory?” she asks. But her friend “has never held any hierarchy of grief, either before her accident or after, which seems to me nothing less than a form of enlightenment”. Bluets was first published in 2009 in the US but, with the success of The Argonauts, her similarly unclassifiable bestseller of 2015, it’s now thankfully being released in the UK.
The propositions pose questions, then answer them in analogies and parables – an antiphonal, rhythmic reflection on art, literature and emotion. Nelson describes how collecting objects and images of blue distracted her from the worst passivity of her years of depression; the book was her “way of making my life feel ‘in progress’ rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette”. She wonders if she has become a kind of bowerbird, decorating her nest with blue mementos and encounters with others similarly obsessed: “I have met a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ in heartbreaking drag, and another with the face of a derelict whose eyes literally leaked blue.”
The fragments are arranged neither chronologically nor thematically, but according to a poetic, bittersweet logic of their own. Nelson says she has shuffled them around “countless times”, implying an intention to make them flow like Heraclitus’s famous river – the one that you can’t step in twice – which is apt, because no matter how many times I step into this book I emerge changed by it, with new insights and appreciations. She says the words were first written in blue ink, as a reminder (with Keats) that all words are written in water. “I could have written half of these propositions drunk or high, for instance, and half sober,” she says; “I could have written half in agonised tears, and half in a state of clinical detachment.”
That proposition, number 184, alludes to a dilemma in what might be called a therapeutics of grief: when should a sadness be suppressed or drugged into “clinical detachment” with medication, and when should it be lived wholly, unflinchingly, for what its pain might teach? As a GP, I’ve had this unanswerable debate with my patients and with psychotherapists – a physician’s duty to ease anguish can lead to a hurried prescription for drugs, which may conflict with a therapist’s duty to explore the meanings and antecedents of a depression, no matter how painful. Nelson quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson – “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing” – but feels that she has learned from her pain, while continuing to be a student of pleasure and of love. “Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness,” she adds. “I am still looking for beauty in that.”
A couple of propositions describe conversations with therapists, and imply that Nelson found little solace there: “Clinical psychology forces everything we call love into the pathological or the delusional or the biologically explicable, that if what I was feeling wasn’t love then I am forced to admit that I don’t know what love is, or, more simply, that I loved a bad man.” Bright blue antidepressant pills aren’t much benefit either, leaving her to explore other intoxicants: alcohol, beauty, poetry and sex.
Proposition 181 reads: “Pharmakon means drug but as Jacques Derrida and others have pointed out, the word in Greek famously refuses to designate whether poison or cure. It holds both in the bowl.” This is a timeless idea: that anything powerful enough to be therapeutic will be poisonous in excess. Snake venom was the original pharmakon; “In the Phaedrus, the written word is also notoriously called pharmakon,” Nelson writes, recalling the letters both opened and unopened between her and her former lover. “Plato does not call fucking pharmakon, but then again, while he talks plenty about love, Plato does not say much about fucking.”
Nelson doesn’t want to say too much about her ex-lover, the “prince of blue” who floats insubstantially through these pages (“How often I’ve imagined the bubble of body and breath you and I made, even though by now I can hardly remember what you look like”). But she makes it clear that the sex they had together was one of the two “sweetest sensations I knew on this earth” (the other was her love of the colour blue). Even as she articulates that desire she regrets her candour, quoting Goethe’s agonies over publishing The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Sei Shōnagon’s over The Pillow Book: “Clearly I am not a private person,” she writes, “and quite possibly I am a fool.”
But that candour, also evident in The Argonauts, gives Bluets a turbo-charged vitality, precision and authenticity that frees her to reflect on the way female desire is too often sidelined or ignored. It also allows her to make broadside, startling connections, for example between the voyeurism of Catherine Millet’s “beautiful sex memoir”, the Scottish saint Triduana, who tore her eyes out with a thorn, and the mingling of her own sexuality with spirituality: “In this dream an angel came and said: You must spend more time thinking about the divine, and less time imagining unbuttoning the prince of blue’s pants at the Chelsea Hotel. But what if the prince of blue’s unbuttoned pants are the divine, I pleaded. So be it, she said, and left me to sob with my face against the blue slate floor.”
There are similarities between Bluets and Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour; it’s similarly urgent, epigrammatic, fragmentary and illuminating (“… uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem. We must always be prepared to learn something totally new.”). Along the way Nelson acknowledges her debt to Christian and Buddhist theology, to Isabelle Eberhardt’s The Oblivion Seekers, to John Berger, Leonard Cohen, Emerson and Marguerite Duras among many others. The bluets (“cornflowers”) of the title refers to the painting by Joan Mitchell, “dedicated chromophile and drunk”, who “would have preferred to live perpetually in ‘l’heure de bleu’”.
But Nelson doesn’t want to live perpetually in blue; her grief is not bottomless: “It would help to be told that there is no bottom, save, as they say, wherever and whenever you stop digging.” Her grief begins to lose its colour, and the mountain of collected blues becomes just a “pile of thin blue gels scattered on the stage long after the show has come and gone”. In her dark excavation of grief, she has collected messages of great wisdom and powerful beauty. “Love is not consolation,” she says, citing Simone Weil. “It is light.”
Gavin Francis is the author of Adventures in Human Being.
• Bluets is published by Jonathan Cape. To order a copy for £9.34 (RRP £10.99) go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian