The other day I ran into a student of mine who said “I just read an amazing book. I loved it. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets.” I nodded and agreed, since I had just read the same book, but I felt an interesting reaction rising inside me: No, no, you did not read it like I read it, did not love it like I loved it; it did not shake you so as it shook me.
Still, despite this lack of generosity, if I could come to everyone’s house and hand them a copy of Bluets, I would. It’s a slim book of two hundred and forty short, numbered paragraphs, “propositions.” It may be an extended lyric essay; it might be safe to say it is a meditation on the color blue, but that probably wouldn’t prepare you; it concerns loneliness, fucking, is haunted by blue tarps, discusses bowerbirds, touches down on Goethe and Wittgenstein, Novalis and Isaac Newton (I think even Derrida is mentioned—does this sound pretentious? It’s far from pretentious; it’s the opposite of pretentious; it’s the most straight human thing I’ve read.).
It’s an impossible book to describe without simply handing it to you; it is, hackneyed as it is to say, a book to be experienced. I can only report that I am reading it again and again, that the resonances between the (seemingly) disparate propositions are startling and emotional, that I suspect your reaction will be different and also quite wonderful. Let me entice you by sharing a proposition or two:
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
38. For no one really knows what color is, where it is, even whether it is. (Can it die? Does it have a heart?) Think of a honeybee, for instance, flying into the folds of a poppy: it sees a gaping violet mouth, where we see an orange flower and assume that it’s orange, that we’re normal.
71. I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.
72. It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it? –No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence to be a sort of wink—Here you are again, it says, and here am I.
That’s only a taste; I hate to give you only that, to not be at your house with the book in my hand, blushing as I hold it out and stammer something as inarticulate as this written appreciation. This book, it provokes. Since I read it, as I’ve been reading it, I’ve been wondering about colors and the emotions they generate, and whether colors and emotions are the same, and whether “seeing” and “thinking” are aligned in ways I didn’t suspect. I am more deeply confused now than ever before about the difference between what is inside and what is outside, and I am happier for this confusion.
Bluets is a collection of words that keeps vibrating, that can never be worn out.