After four years in England, I know that summer is not the season of budding trees, shy morning sunlight, blue skies, and merry picnics on the grass that my Midwestern American childhood promised me. It is the season of gray. Every day. For weeks. Into this grayness, enter Maggie Nelson’s collection—or long poem, maybe; it depends how you see it—Bluets. I read the book sitting at a bus stop, on the bus, walking absentmindedly through the city where I live, and alone at a table in a Greek restaurant. All in one day. Bluets is a study in accumulation, the kind you experience when you’re dealing with obsession and love and sadness: accumulation as a kind of charm. Coincidence a steadying hand made of nothing. Nelson keeps herself company by this accumulation of blue. I kept myself company with it, too.
Is it fair to love a poet on the basis of a single work? But I can say I love this Maggie Nelson for writing a book that begins by quoting Pascal— “we do not think all philosophy is worth one hour of pain”—and ends with light. Nelson’s book intruded on the heavy English landscape around and inside me. The blue of the book. The blue space between the sky and the earth which didn’t exist in May in Nottingham. Blue as a space of meditation on destruction, but also on beauty and healing. Blue as a private thing. I observed Maggie Nelson’s tracking of blue and it made me want to be able to track an obsession like that. I watched her gather what blue could be. What it involved: Derrida. Joni Mitchell. W. G. Sebald. Apollinaire. Goethe. Leonard Cohen. Newton. Billie Holiday. Novalis. Mallarmé. Color and hope, color and despair, color as a textural experience, not simply a visual one.
Through the book, between descriptions of a cyanometer (invented by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure in the 1760s) and the revelation of what, exactly, bluets are, weaves a story—a fragment of a story. The story is simple. Familiar. Someone loves someone else, who does not or cannot love her well. Who mistreats her. Out of the relationship comes a refashioning of the world in terms of blue. The terms of blue are the terms of the book. We witness the reconstruction of knowledge and ways of being. We watch the words gather together—Nelson’s words and the other texts she incorporates—to make a new space for living in. In grief, Nelson seeks ways of understanding grieving; in a broken space, she seeks new ways of making sense. Her seeking is poignant, sometimes to the point of pain. Her experience of brokenness is a philosophy of the body, the mind, the world. In the end, Nelson comes to the words of Simone
239. But now you are talking as if love were a consolation.
Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not consolation,”
she wrote. “It is light.”
240. All right, then, let me try to rephrase. When I was
alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.
Weil’s description of love as ‘light’ and Nelson’s movement from blue—the blue of longing, desire, anxiety, anticipation—to light mirrors the scientific understanding of blue that her reference to the cyanometer invokes: from a quality which simply exists and can be accumulated, measured, identified, blue becomes a quality of light, an experience of light scattering. Bluets testifies to that movement: from longing and loneliness, toward possibility. Toward rebuilding, despite enormous brokenness. Maggie Nelson’s poem has made me want to be ‘a student not of longing, but of light.’