Rumpus Blog

World Cup Slaves: A Rumpus Roundup

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Earlier today, the United States Attorney General charged 14 FIFA officials with 47 counts of corruption, racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering. FIFA is the international association that oversees football (soccer), including the World Cup.

Pundits have already begun to ponder what these corruption charges mean for upcoming World Cups in Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022). (more…)

Mystery Maven Memoirs

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In the wake of the destruction of precious cultural artifacts during the unrest in Iran and Syria, a quiet memoir from the queen of mystery, Agatha Christie, remembers the landscape and archeological legacy. The autobiographical Come, Tell Me How You Live never technically went out of print, but HarperCollins will re-release the book in time for Ms. Christie’s 125th birthday. The new volume will include rare photographs of the author.

Amazon Faces Off Against Penguin Random House

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Last year’s battle between Amazon and Hachette over book prices and online sales seems only to have been a portent of an ongoing crisis between publishers and the online retailer. While HarperCollins was able to rather quickly negotiate a deal earlier this year with the online retailer, Amazon is now in a similar showdown with Penguin Random House. Penguin Random House was formed by the merger of two already huge publishers, Penguin and Random House (who disappointingly did not become Random Penguin). This negotiation with Amazon is its first as a combined company. Melville House breaks down the latest sticking points of the negotiation, including rumors that Penguin Random House might block book sales on the site.

Word of the Day: Quiddity

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(n.); the essence or inherent nature of a person or thing; an eccentricity; an odd feature; a trifle, nicety or quibble; from the Latin quid (“what”)

“He was friendly, polite, and deeply interested in even the fine points I raised, and to my astonishment accepted a number of my changes, later saying that he had learned a lot in the process. … He spoke admiringly of Betsy Uhrig, his copyeditor at Little, Brown, and said that I ought to meet her. When we had finished, he sent me a poinsettia.”

–Martha Spaulding, “Editing David Foster Wallace’s ‘Host’”

This week, two Atlantic editors pay homage to two different literary figures whose personalities featured strongly in their writing lives. Most of us in the writing world are aware of the recent passing of Bill Zinsser, whose seminal guide On Writing Well remains an essential handbook for aspiring and experienced writers alike. Corby Kummer writes an affectionate, intimate piece in memoriam of Zinsser’s life, painting a portrait of a life of uncommon enthusiasm and sincerity. Our second article evokes a less recent but still poignant loss to the literary world, as Martha Spaulding offers a brief but rare glimpse of the perpetually surprising David Foster Wallace from the editing process of his 2005 short story, “Host.”

Write for Us!

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The Rumpus is looking for new bloggers!

We need 2-4 volunteer bloggers to help out with the Rumpus blog on an ongoing, weekly basis. Send a brief email with relevant experience and a sample Rumpus blog post to marisa@therumpus.net for more information.

Dante for Days

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All of Italy, it seems, is gearing up for a serious, extended celebration in honor of the 750th birthday of the beloved poet Dante Alighieri. John Kleiner writes for the New Yorker about the festivities and the country’s intense relationship with Dante, and attempts to put it all in context for an American audience:

The obvious comparison is to Shakespeare, but this is like trying to make sense of Mozart by means of Coltrane: the number of centuries that divide Dante from Shakespeare is practically as large as the number that separates Shakespeare from us.

Notable San Francisco: 5/27–6/2

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Wednesday 5/27: Jan Ellison will discuss her new novel, A Small Indiscretion, with Kirsten Jones Neff. Ellison was a recipient of a 2007 O. Henry Prize for her first story to appear in print, and has been short listed for The Best American Short Stories and a Puschart Prize. Free, 7 p.m., Book Passage Corte Madera.

Thursday 5/28: Poetry Flash presents The Marin Poetry Center’s Traveling Show featuring Barbara Swift Brauer, Rafaella Del Bourgo, Gerald Fleming, Connie Post, Ann Robinson, and Jeanne Wagner. Free, 7:30 p.m., Moe’s.

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Letters for Kids Signed Book Giveaway

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We’re doing another Letters for Kids giveaway! Win a beautiful hardcover edition of Breaking the Ice, signed by the author Gail Nall. (Gail also wrote our next Letter for Kids.)

For a chance to win, comment on this post by June 1st. The winner will be announced on the Letters for Kids Facebook page on June 2nd.

For more information on Letters for Kids, click here. Or click here to subscribe now, and get Gail’s letter delivered to your favorite kid’s mailbox! And, to receive our new, free newsletter, click here!

Big Data is the Key

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Over at The Nation, Moira Weigel gives a thought-provoking perspective on digital humanities, and identifies some of the field’s intellectual precursors. The idea that big data holds the key to unlocking mysteries of literature and history is the logical extension of a larger cultural obsession with computer analysis; it’s also a little absurd to any number of literature lovers. Weigel looks at a 1976 nonfiction work that attempted to trace the word “culture” through a popular resurgence, and recounts some pitfalls of the burgeoning field of digital humanities.

Travelling Without Moving

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In the finished novel, this journey will take up four sentences. My virtual mapping of the route will have almost no discernible impact on the prose that I’ve already sketched out – as adjectives go, “nondescript” doesn’t paint much of a picture – and, once again, what I justify as research might just as easily be dismissed as the writer’s tendency to arse around. It’s certainly less costly and time-consuming than visiting Bologna, but it still feels a little like cheating. What if I’ve missed something? Isn’t being there part of the job?

Over at the Guardian, British novelist David Nicholls shares his experience of using Google to research places for his novels compared to visiting them in person.

Photo May 21, 8 04 51 AM

Fresh Comics #2: Transmissions from Beirut

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What are the fundamental differences between telling your own story, telling the story of another, and telling your story about trying to understand someone else’s story? (more…)

Zen and the Art of Shepherding

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For The Millions, Caroline Crampton explores the prevalence of “sheep lit” (writing about shepherds and sheep) in 20th century British literature. According to Crampton, writing about sheep shows a relationship between the way shepherds “interact with their land,” and their personal histories. The result is writing that does not render details into “extravagant, writerly prose,” but rather writing that is “straightforward” and “connected to the place that inspired it.”

Big, Ugly Truth

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Conservative pundits have been attacking Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who spent the last year carrying around her mattress in protest of how the university handled the discipline hearing after she was raped, labeling her a liar. Most of these criticisms seem to forget that three other women also filed complaints against her attacker, Paul Nungesser. One of Nungesser’s victims went through the Columbia University discipline process and Nungesser was deemed “responsible,” at least before the university granted him an appeal. That victim has now spoken out, publishing an account of the incident and subsequent fallout on Jezebel. (more…)

Weekly Geekery

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Your new lesson plan: Be smarter than a computer.

John Henry. But instead of a railroad, it’s a computer. And instead of John Henry, it’s NPR’s Scott Horsley.

Your stories may not persuade like you thought they did.

The charming tale of a robot coming to destroy you.

You aren’t measuring your baby right.

This could be anyone of us, probably.

Get Cosmic for Sun Ra’s Birthday

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It would have been Sun Ra’s 101st birthday last Friday, and to celebrate, Harte Recordings has released a 40th anniversary edition of the artist’s otherworldly cosmic trip, Space is the Place. We’ve done our share of commenting on the proliferation of Sun Ra remasters out there and how they’re organized for consumption in an Internet world, but this one—with its restored footage showcasing the film’s truly incredible sets—seems like it’s more than worth a peek. The reissue comprises a DVD, CD, and book including all the features you could want from a release like this: commentary from the directly relevant to the celebratory, the film’s producer Jim Newman to famous fans like Wayne Coyne; cut and uncut versions of the film; never-before-published photographs; and all other kinds of anniversary edition fanfare. Watch the film’s intro after the jump and check out the full details of the release at Birdman Records.

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Five Things About Ashley Ford

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Blogger and writer Ashley Ford is profiled at the Indianapolis Star. She talks about her childhood in Indiana, writing a memoir, and more:

We’re never going to see eye-to-eye on what’s OK to write about. I’m not trying to embarrass or hurt anybody but telling my story is something I can’t compromise.

If I’m not telling it, it’s because I’m ashamed or feel guilty, and I don’t want to live in those places emotionally anymore. I spent a long time there. There’s some risk of overexposing myself but at the same time, telling my story is how I counteract the very real desire to hide everything about me.

The Era of the Very Long Novel

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At Vulture, Boris Kachka looks into the recent trend of publishing “mega-books,” with the hopes of answering a seemingly straightforward question: “When did book get so freaking enormous?” In his analysis, Kachka touches upon works by Knausgaard, Tartt, and Catton, all authors of recent works of significant length that have received a great deal of literary acclaim.

Wearing God

Wearing God by Lauren F. Winner

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“For me religion is a vast, valuable museum… and yes, I know the treasures of it are not the same as going to the Louvre… although now that I think of it, there’s a good deal of overlapping, isn’t there?” –Elizabeth Hardwick, Paris Review interview

The task of describing God can be likened to many things. It might be like lassoing the moon, or like putting on an old sweater, or like nothing at all. Or it might be like describing what you saw one afternoon at the Met. “I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an afternoon, and when I come out, I try to describe it to you, but all I am really describing is this blue Turkish bowl or that Flemish painting or possibly the sandwich I ate in the café at lunchtime,” Lauren F. Winner writes at the outset of her new book Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God. We don’t let the impossibility of the task at hand stop us from making attempts. Like untrained and ill-prepared mountain climbers trying to summit Everest, we continue up the side of the unknowable.

Winner, a former orthodox Jew whose conversion to Christianity she chronicled in her memoir Girl Meets God, parses centuries of people trying to make sense of God by drawing comparisons to concrete objects and ephemeral ideas. We talk about God in riddles and metaphors, in metonym and childhood constructs, or we don’t talk about God at all. Try as we might, God is easier depicted as a concept or in a simile than by direct approach, and we often hear the same words over and over again: King. Shepherd. Father.

But Winner deploys her lively spiritual imagination and bookworm sensibility to take us beyond cliché and into new territory. Or, really, old territory: As she opens the book with a chapter on God as clothing, we’re reminded that the conversation about imaging God goes back at least to Genesis, when God is depicted as clothier: “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” In this case, God was giving a gift to the mother and father of the human race; covering them up when their nakedness would have brought them shame. But it didn’t end there: Winner cites Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are one in Christ Jesus”) to illustrate the point that Jesus is like a school uniform; a democratizing force that undoes social divisions rather than reinforcing them. Winner turns to a monograph about clothing in Emily Dickinson’s poems for clues about Jesus as a freeing garment, and reflects on her own experience of body shame as it relates to God’s good gift: “I so rarely even name this shame to myself; layers and layers of feminist politics and willed insistence that I love my body as it is keep me, most of the time, from a direct encounter with the shame.” If God is the one who clothes us, that says something about the goodness of our difficult, stubborn bodies.

There is a chapter on smell in which Winner deftly sketches the social connection between scent and virtue—the less you have of the former, the more you have of the latter—and asks us to consider what Jesus, in his often-homeless, wandering state would reek of. There is the story of a widow who wears her beloved’s Oxford shirts, and the suggestion that God may be like a mourner who is comforted in God’s grief by our scent. God and laughter is a separate subject of study, and here Winner makes an uncomfortable dive into the fact that most of God’s laughter in the Bible is a defiant laughter at injustice. There is a note from a woman’s prison—where Winner regularly teaches a class—on her decision not to include a chapter about the Biblical image of God as an abusive husband in Ezekiel 16 because it is hard to know what to make of this image from a place where 90% of women have been physically or sexually abused. Where we pray and where we read the Bible are issues of deep importance, and omitting this image is a sort of protest on Winner’s part.

The God of Christianity is often made to seem abstract and inaccessible, and images can only tell us so much about a thing before we run up against some sort of obstacle. But a composite of Scriptural images of God can create a helpful mosaic; where before we saw only two or three pieces, now we see something approaching a whole.

Lauren F. Winner

Lauren F. Winner

God as fire is not an uncommon metaphor, and it is a testament to Winner’s spiritual imagination that she translates this image with deeper examination. “[T]he fiery God is also a sleuth. Fire can tell the truth about an object’s composition… sodium produces a yellow flame, potassium a lilac flame, lithium a lovely crimson, and barium an apple green.” To say that God is fire, then, is not just to say God refines or God consumes or God destroys—although it is also to say those things—but that God knows what we are made of. This comparison of human hiddenness with elements like sodium and lithium does a lot of work for Winner, and brings to mind the Biblical idea of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. What color is joy, I wonder? What does kindness looks like when God reveals it? “What color flame do I produce when lit afire?” Winner asks. “Do I want to know?”

There aren’t many religious books in which women feature as prominently as they do in this one. It isn’t just that Winner is a woman and gives us a female lens through which to read; it’s that she gives us examples time and again of women who understood God in a way that illuminates our understanding of the divine: Catherine of Siena, a medieval Christian mystic; Nhat Chi Mai, a Buddhist nun who self-immolated in a demonstration for peace in Vietnam in 1967; the Raging Grannies, a group of older women who sing protest songs at Moral Monday demonstrations in Raleigh, North Carolina. Early on in the book we read “A Short Note on Gender and Language for God,” where Winner writes that “language arranges power.” Winner handles words like powerful things. I was once at a lecture Winner gave in which she referred to God as “she,” and someone in the audience, clearly upset, protested during the Q&A. The Bible calls God a mother hen and a laboring woman, Winner responded, not unkindly. If it’s good enough for the Bible, it’s good enough for us.

God is also imaged throughout the Bible as bread and wine, substances many middle-class American women have a complicated relationship to. “I know that every year, around February, I decide the most efficient way to lost the weight I gained in the deep-winter holiday months would be to forswear alcohol and to stop eating foods whose primary ingredient is flour… This is not so many steps from panicking about Communion bread.” One of the strengths of Winner’s writing is that she sees invitations to consider mystery where many of us, myself included, see only a wall. I, too, have looked at my stomach or hips and refused bread and butter when I was hungry, but I never stopped to consider that a piece of bread might be an invitation to be nourished by Christ; might, in fact, be more important than the size of my jeans.

Winner ends the book by considering the tradition of apophatic theology—the notion that we can better think about God by saying very little about God. “Maybe that is the best way to speak about God—to say and then unsay whatever we say.” How close can words come to capturing the infinite? But what else can we use, when words are all we have? Our language is capable, but the object of worship surpasses capability.

Notable Los Angeles: 5/25–5/31

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Monday 5/25: Happy Memorial Day. Everything is closed. Y’know, because it’s a holiday.

Tuesday 5/26: Anastasia Higginbotham with Ben Karlin, Abraham Higginbotham, Peter Paige, and Michaela Watkins present Divorce Is the Worst (Ordinary Terrible Things). 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

Laina Villeneuve discusses and signs The Right Thing Easy. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

The Women Group return for their monthly reading. 7 p.m. at Stories Books and Cafe.

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Weekend Rumpus Roundup

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Happy Memorial Day!

In this weekend’s Saturday Essay, Amanda Parrish Morgan returns to a favorite film of her childhood, Dead Poets Society, as a high school English teacher with a more critical eye. Parrish Morgan ties the sad “martyrdom” of the movie’s hero, Mr. Keating, in with the New York State Legislature’s new, unrealistic standards for evaluating teachers. The unfortunate reality is that: “In most communities, teachers are compensated so poorly and afforded so little respect that in many cases the primary compensation is martyrdom.”

Meanwhile, Ann van Buren offers a review of Paul Muldoon’s collection, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing. Part elegy for Seamus Heaney, part elegy for Muldoon’s lost homeland of Ireland, the book at turns compels and repels van Buren. Obscure references make the collection challenging. “In every phrase of yours,” Van Buren tells the poet directly, “we see a thousand synapses firing.”

Then, in the Sunday Essay, Suzanne Clores has nightmares about her own murder at the hands of her loving husband and wonders where they might come from. The boundary between female intuition and genuine precognition becomes blurred. “In my more sane and confident moments,” Clores writes, “I am certain he is the non-murdering gentleman I married.” But the symbolism is continually frightening.

The Argonauts

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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“You always write about love,” a friend once said after reading an essay of mine. I immediately realized that she was right. It was meant as a criticism. I balked at her insinuation that this was a fault, but I also felt ashamed. To always write about love and desire is to always be writing about oneself. However linked to my own survival it feels, and however universal the findings, excavating one’s own heart is a luxury occupation.

Among writers and critics (less so readers), there is a bias against personal narrative—it is indulgent, solipsistic, irrelevant, narcissistic, uncrafted (for a concise history of the bias, see Ben Yagoda’s Slate article “A Brief History of Memoir-Bashing”). Most of us inclined to write it worry our stories, imagining a threshold of confession that, if crossed, will invalidate our intellectual pursuit of ideas and answers and reduce us to diarists. Implicit in this bias, and the resultant fear, is the belief that these things cannot occupy the same space. This is a sexist mechanism, founded on the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male), and intended to subordinate the former.

That is, Knausgaard is a genius, while all my female graduate students are terrified to write about being mothers for fear that they will be deemed (or, that they already are) vacuous narcissists.

Or, as Maggie Nelson, in her latest work, says of a man inquiring how she could possibly pen a book on the subject of cruelty while pregnant: “Leave it to the old patrician white guy to call the lady speaker back to her body, so that no one misses the spectacle of that wild oxymoron, the pregnant woman who thinks. Which is really just a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks.”

Nelson is a personal writer (she has written two books concerning the murder of her aunt), but she is also squarely a critic and an intellectual. (Her last book, The Art of Cruelty, investigated avant-garde art and the nature of violence.) In The Argonauts she occupies the simultaneity of these roles more completely than in any of her previous works. Maybe, than in any book I have ever read. I don’t believe that a writer must tangle explicitly with ideas in her work to be intellectual, but I do want to make every student of mine read this book.

The Argonauts is skinny but dense—I consumed it slowly and greedily, like a very fine piece of licorice—and I look forward to watching writers attempt to summarize it for the rest of my life. That is, it’s a challenging book to speak of, and one of that people will speak of for a very long time. It is always difficult to describe innovation—we have to assemble new combinations of our own words to name it satisfactorily.

The (mostly) chronological narrative that occupies the book is about Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, with whom she falls in love in the book’s first pages. Their love is forged in the passionate collision of two astute minds (“We argued and argued… full of fever, not malice”), but their story, as she tells it, unfolds (mostly) corporeally. Over the course of 143 pages: they marry (just under the wire of Prop 8); Dodge, who rejects binary gender definition, begins injecting testosterone and undergoes top surgery; Nelson navigates the confounding and delightful task of step-parenting Dodge’s son; they conceive vis-à-vis taxing rounds of IVF; and, in the book’s dazzling finale, Nelson gives birth to their son, Iggy.

It is a book about queer family building, a book that investigates what “queer” means and has meant. As an answer, Nelson settles most comfortably on the example (rather than simply the rhetoric) of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. “She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement… a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while giving the slip,” Nelson tells us. She explains how Sedgwick also claimed that the appropriation of the term for heterosexual application “‘would be to dematerialize any possibility of queerness itself.’” Sedgwick herself was long married to a man, and came to mostly identify with gay men, and all these possible contradictions seem to delight rather than confuse or offend Nelson. “There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways,” she says. Sedgwick’s embodiment of these supposed contradictions is the best answer Nelson can find, and it is a good one.

Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson

It’s a pleasure to watch Nelson’s mind work on the page. She unspools the words and ideas of other thinkers, and threads them through the questions of her own life. She is often funny. (Unclear what to do with a New York Times announcement of her Guggenheim award that her mother has laminated, she employs it as a catch-all under her son’s high chair, and explains, “Given that the fellowship essentially paid for his conception, each time I sponge tidbits of shredded wheat or broccoli florets off of it, I feel a loose sense of justice.”) And the nuances of her analysis, whether they reach a conclusion or not, go on and on. Even as she is pondering the nature and meaning of “queerness,” she is queering the genre of nonfiction; she is depicting the inverted otherness of passing as a hetero family, and the vulnerability of outing herself.

As a queer woman myself, who is now, for the first time in many years, dating a man, Nelson’s acknowledgement of the variance within our individual queerness felt like a permission I hadn’t known I needed. Navigating the intricacies of marginalized communities can be a lonely thing. (When I recently told a gay friend that I was dating a man, he whistled through his teeth, girl, they are going to come for you—meaning, other queers.) To be outside the outsider circle, but uncomfortable “passing” as mainstream, is an odd and very real challenge.

Nelson’s intellectual, moral, and emotional ponderings lead her to the profoundly inclusive conclusion that “any bodily experience can be made new and strange, that nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it, that no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical, or the so-called normative.” It is an persuasive argument because she makes it not pedantically, but by demonstrating her own process of arriving at it. This humility is what makes her so trustworthy as a narrator. It is what renders this book, improbably, accessible to people both familiar with and strange to the experiences described therein.

What makes the book challenging to describe, however, is not the narrative. It is how Nelson carries each of her experiences in a plasma of ideas. On nearly every page, she wonders on her life events, and applies to them the ideas of people who have wondered on similar topics of gender, motherhood, sexuality, art, and the body—Roland Barthes, D.W. Winnicott (for whom, like me, she has a particular affection), Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eileen Myles, Lee Edelman, and many others.

In a recent issue of Poets & Writers, Nelson describes the long reading periods that lead up to her writing: how she annotates passages in mechanical pencil, copies the passages into her own document—“[rewriting] other people’s words helps me understand more what they were saying”—and then prints and uses these collages for reference in her own work. One can see this integration and conversation in the text of The Argonauts, whose paragraphs feel at times like a list, a current of ideas moving fluidly in and out of the narrative of her life with Dodge, her pregnancy, and her creative process. Its form is as accurate a depiction of the relationship between ideas and living as I have ever seen, and very close to the one I (and I’m sure many more of her readers, and most writers) know intimately.

By the book’s end, Winnicott is Nelson’s Winnicott—her interpretations and applications of his work develop their own integrity, and they will be subtly and immeasurably assimilated into my Winnicott. This delicate and marvelous bastardization of ideas might be offensive to our purely scholarly peers. But to me it seems the surest way to keep ideas alive, and to transmit them to an audience for whom they might mean most.

The book is also an ode to teachers—how we reconcile uneasy questions and opposing truths is by carrying the interpretations of others, and combining them with our own. Nelson is a teacher of mine, in this way. (Which sweetened the honor of her having chosen an essay of mine about the texts of my childhood for a prize soon after I decided to write this review—a detail I feel obligated to mention.) I read her book Bluets—a philosophical investigation of the color blue told in numbered paragraphs, often called a “cult favorite”—many times. The first time out of curiosity. The second time, for its beauty. The third time, to understand the what and how of it, and to clarify what it lacked. I don’t mean lacked in a general or objective way. Bluets is a complete work. It makes a promise to the reader from its first page, and it fulfills that promise. As a writer, I aspired to much of what it achieved: how to make ideas accessible, to integrate texts, to use lyricism without hiding or posturing, to convey feeling vis-à-vis intellectual discourse. But it also helped me define my own work in contrast. When I first read it, I had just begun the manuscript I am now finishing—a book that also combines personal narrative with my formative texts (including Winnicott), albeit in a manner completely different from Nelson’s. I wanted to pry open the personal story, to avoid obfuscation, to be willing to embarrass myself by being specific about my own hurts and failings—something that Bluets enacts only obliquely.

I have an impulse to hide, to reference my hurts obliquely, and my practice of writing has become, among other things, a practice of running at them as directly as I can. Nelson speaks about a similar experience of evasiveness in The Argonauts: “I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own way of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure.” Bluets is beautiful, like a net thrown over some sea monster. Each of its numbered passages is a gleaming knot, and in that constellation I could see the silhouette of the caught thing. In The Argonauts, Nelson has shown us that thrashing thing, which is, of course, herself. Maybe, more exactly, it is herself in mid-wonder, baldly asking the question before she has the answer.

Out of her entire body of work—nine books—it is clear that The Argonauts is by far Nelson’s most personal. The Argonauts is not oblique—it is glorious in its giving. The thoughts, now tethered to a story, have a mesmerizing motion, and their reach stretches even further off the page.

At the recent AWP conference, I moderated a panel on women writing in unconventional forms, with the premise that the new freedoms of creative nonfiction are allowed only superficially to marginalized writers. My panelists brought the packed room of (mostly women) writers to its feet. It is a tremendous experience to witness the power of giving people permission to be what they already are. In my own presentation, I critiqued the notion of “navel-gazing” and claimed that I could probably write an essay about my own navel that defied the definition. If I had a thesis, it was that personal transformation and intellectual discourse are not mutually exclusive. Well, in The Argonauts, which I reread on the plane ride home, Nelson does just so of the anus, the lactating breast, and yes, “the dirt that collects on your belly button when it finally pops out, revealing its bottom—yes, finite after all.” Part of what enabled me to give that permission was the proof that Nelson (and so many other writers) had already given me.

Queer families ignore the voices that insist that they don’t or shouldn’t exist, and their continued growing and thriving is the best argument against those voices. It is the proof that will bear out over history. And books like this one, that so elegantly, so confidently and effectively marry personal narrative and ideas, and birth new ideas and insights—they persuade us that there is room for it all, that writers are already inhabiting that questionable space, and while others argue its existence, they are making it even bigger.

The title of the book comes from a passage of Roland Barthes, “in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase ‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’ … whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed with each use.” The title then, is a thesis, and by the end of The Argonauts, Nelson persuades us that love is necessarily new each time we utter it, each time we choose to call the happening within us, between us and another, by that same name. In this way, she gives me permission to keep writing about love—insists that it is always new. That it excludes no other subject.

Soon after that explanation of her title, Nelson claims to be especially moved by Winnicott’s definition of “feeling real.” She explains that, “for Winnicott, feeling real is not relative to external stimuli… It is a sensation—a sensation that spreads. Among other things, it makes one want to live.” This reminds me of my personal favorite bit of Winnicottian insight: “It is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found.” When I set down The Argonauts, I was consumed by a feeling of vivacious life—one that was both deeply grounded and metaphysically crackling. I felt real. And maybe that is the truth, both demonstrated and described by The Argonauts—that some parts of ourselves we find first named in the work of others.

Notable NYC: 5/23–5/29

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Saturday 5/23: Shiv Kotecha, Diana Hamilton, Mark Francis Johnson, and Danny Snelson celebrate the release of Kotecha’s collection EXTRIGUE. B.H.Q.F.U, 7 p.m., free.

Elana Dykewomon and Irena Klepfisz celebrate the release of What Can I Ask, new and selected poems from Dykewomon. Blue Stockings, 7 p.m., free.

George-Thérèse Dickenson and Fanny Howe join the Segue series. Zinc Bar, 4:30 p.m., $5.

Sunday 5/24: A. H. Jerriod Avant, Catherine Pikula, Alexis Pope, Chase Berggrun, and Dillon J. Welch join the God Hates You reading series. Mellow Pages Library, 7:30 p.m., free.

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