In Bluets, poet-essayist Maggie Nelson offered us a portrait of the color blue, and through it, her experiences of grief, beauty, and a singular obsession. Though she published something else between Bluets and The Argonauts, I see them as a diptych, connected and separated by a hinge. Both are essays built out of fragments, but where Bluets relied on Nelson’s chops as a poet, The Argonauts leans on her theoretical savvy. If I were to assign a color to this new work, I would pick pink. The color of peaches and cream, bubblegum, but especially that of a blush—blood rising under the skin, our response to shame, pleasure, and anger.
As familiar readers will already know, Nelson is not here with an agenda. She writes, “I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.”
The experiences Nelson gives us are of (queer) family-making, from marriage and stepmothering to pregnancy, birth, and the death of her mother-in-law. In the process, she touches on sodomitical mothering (dirty and mirthful), the unsustainable binary of normative/transgressive, totem animals, and pleasure in all its messy forms.
While the subjects of her scrutiny are often fascinating, it was her “manner of thinking” that I could not resist. I read this book twice, back to back. Like every great book, The Argonauts formed its own family tree of connected works. Art: Puppies and Babies, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Self-Portrait/ Cutting; theorists: D.W. Winnicott, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Luce Irigaray, Leo Bersani, Jacques Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, Roland Barthes. (And although it never hurts, familiarity with the names mentioned above is not required for entry into Nelson’s gorgeous investigation.)
From the start, we are inside the bubble with her: “You’ve punctured my solitude, I told you.” She is addressing her partner Harry, but his name has yet to appear. For now, he is just “you,” and we share that space with him. She is writing from within the womb of experience and including the reader.
These essay fragments are conversations—with herself, the reader, her partner and children, and with the thinkers Nelson calls, after Dana Ward, the “many gendered mothers of my heart.”
She pulls lines frequently from these thinkers. Without quotation marks or lead-ins, we are only aware they are not her words by the tiny italicized names in the margins. Her text incorporates the others seamlessly. In this way, theory heavy-weights become part of the dailiness, uncertainty, and wonder of Nelson’s anecdotes. Like the many-gendered mothers of her heart, she seems to proclaim: “There is nothing you can throw at me that I cannot metabolize, nothing impervious to my alchemy.”
Drawing from her favorite childhood psychologist D. W. Winnicott, Nelson struggles with the relationship between “writing and holding”: is writing good enough to hold our experiences, especially those of our partners and children? As joyful and tender as this work often is, she includes in it the trials of its fruition. Harry is a deeply private person, Nelson tells us, and writing about their life together feels like an invasion of his privacy, a betrayal. But she pushes on, finding a form that is both personal and theoretical, private and universal: “There is so much to be learned from wanting it both ways.”
Throughout the work, Nelson offers examples of the discomfort others experience at the difficulty she and her family present when it comes to taxonomy. She is well aware that there can be strength in identities, that social change rarely happens without the force of group-thinking. But when you love someone, these social markers are completely irrelevant. Not female or male, not butch or femme, not transitioning. Like Harry saying, “I am not on my way anywhere.”
The book gets its title from the passage in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes where he explains how the person saying “I love you” is like an Argonaut changing the parts of the ship without changing its name. Each time “I love you” is said, its meaning is changed and renewed.
In the course of the book, Harry undergoes top surgery and begins testosterone treatment. Nelson’s pregnancy cleaves her body into two bodies, one within the other. These may seem like radical changes, and they are, but in her characteristic way (“deflating without dismissing”), Nelson reminds us how this is the case with everyone, all the time:
“On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more “male,” mine, more and more “female.” But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.”
This book is nothing if not up-close and personal, but while it is dirty it is never lousy (a phrase she used to describe her and Harry’s sex life). Another thread she picks up again and again: how “contamination makes deep rather than disqualifies.”
There is something amazing in the way she is able to slide out of predetermined notions and comfortable thinking. It’s not pure evasiveness, though that is part of it. It comes from her familiarly with paradox, her need for wanting it both ways. This book is the virtuosic performance of the agility and courage of a mind unburdened with orthodoxy, of a mother and thinker undaunted in the face of shame.
Review of The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.