The Last Book I Loved: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets


My Bluets

1. In 2009, my dad was in a debilitating motorcycle accident. He had been on a day trip somewhere in Central Illinois with my stepmom. They drove, as they often did, without destination. They got lunch at a little barbeque place and enjoyed the empty Illinois highway. It was a beautiful day. A few miles from home, he made a left hand turn into a Starbucks parking lot in front of oncoming traffic. He collided with a van; his helmet snapped off of his head; he sustained facial fractures, internal bleeding in his brain, and a crushed hand; my stepmom broke her arm. At first, the doctors were not optimistic for his recovery. In the following days, he made miraculous progress. After he was taken off the ventilator, after the swelling in his brain went down, after the surgeries on his hand, after, in short, his body seemed to recover—he was released. It was the beginning of a reckoning for him as he struggled to understand and come to terms with his role in the accident and a condition (Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI) that none of his caretakers had warned him about: a condition that would include struggling with wildly unpredictable emotional responses, struggling with impulse control, memory loss, inability to concentrate, increased anxiety, & more. These are symptoms he will have to deal with for the rest of his life.

2. During this recovery period, Dad became fixated on getting a bluebird tattoo, something he and I had discussed before. One evening, alone at the house, he impulsively hopped on his bike and made a late night stop to the tattoo parlor. The tattoo, on the soft vulnerable inner part of his right forearm, is a picture of a bird with her wings outstretched, about to fly off of his body into the ether.

3. In my family, the bluebird is something of an unofficial family mascot; my grandfather has one on his forearm, perhaps from his military days serving in Vietnam. He claims it is a symbol of the gang he was a part of in his youth, growing up in East St. Louis. As my grandfather is a storyteller of Olympian capability and skill, no one knows whether to believe this origin story. It is probably a lie. Before Dad got his tattoo alone, he and I had often talked about getting this tattoo together. A family crest. It’s not clear to me now why we were eager to take on the crest of someone so free with his definition of the truth.

4. I think now that the bluebird tattoo was, for my dad, part of the slow process of gathering himself to himself. The accident called his body and his mind into question—made them variable, unreliable and strange. He stitched this talisman to it to reclaim himself, as a colonial force enters foreign territory and plants a flag, announcing to all parties that the land has been conquered and is newly owned, even before that fact is actually true.

5. Sherry Turkle, psychologist and technology theorist: “Trained psychoanalytically, I am primed not to ask what is true, but what things mean” (240). For whatever reason, the bluebird has become a symbol in our family of some essential Schmid-ness. Perhaps the lie is part of that symbol: the Schmids are all gifted oral storytellers, and are not especially interested in empirical truth.

6. The symbol, of course, first belonged to his father, someone he is often at odds with. In this way, Dad’s adoption of that symbol is a reclamation, a revision. The bird became a symbol of who he was, and who he didn’t wanted to be.

7. Perhaps the bird is not flying off of his arm, but beginning to land.

8. After the tattoo, he wrote a poem about it. In part, it reads:

If you see the bluebird of happiness on the road

Kill her. She’s my buddha.

She is my next blue tattoo.

Why you must kill the holy as a way of claiming it is not entirely clear to me, but the language of religious fervor is rarely sedate.

9. In the end, meaning of the symbol eludes firm definition. Nor is it clear to my dad, who reached for it in a time of great emotional upheaval to steady himself. If the meaning of the symbol is clear to my grandfather, he doesn’t say. Recently he showed up in pictures on Facebook with a large tribal tattoo on his face—I suspect his personal symbology will remain obscure to us forever.

10. This is often how holiness works, I have found: it is a secret language that calls to you and buoys you. It is an obscure mystery; an internal yes that reaches for its likeness. After Maggie Nelson learns of her friend’s paralyzing accident, she starts to notice transmissions of blue all around, little messages that accumulate to comfort her, to populate her, crowd her. “…I knew together they made God” she says (9).

11. Nelson’s Bluets seems at first to be the taxonomy of blue: a cataloging of blues. But that word taxonomy is not quite right, is it? Taxonomy implies the shedding of mystery, and a move from personal language to empirical knowledge. Nelson has no such desire. (“It will not say, ‘Isn’t X beautiful?’ Such demands are murderous to beauty” (5).)

12. “…each blue object could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe” (2). For Nelson, this longing for blue is deeply personal and unable to be fulfilled (a longing-to-possess-without-ever-quite-possessing), and these qualities are what make the blue holy. Holiness, for Nelson: equal parts obscurity and unattainability.

13. These aforementioned elements are also part of what is means to crave, to long, to crush: desire + mystery + distance. No wonder that the blue, for Nelson, is also a symbol of the unreachable beloved.

14. To crush: an ominous word for violent, insensible passion. It implies a passion so vast that it weighs on the lover.

15. Bluets becomes a space for desire (thwarted), for mystery, for obscurity and unattainability. To explore the space where these intersect in Nelson is the project of the book.

16. Just as the male bowerbird in “bluet 67” collects fragments of blue to adorn his bachelor pad nest for his lady friends, Nelson collects her blues for the reader as an invitation to intimacy.

17. And it is intimate, though she admits half the Western world shares her love: “I feel confident enough of the specificity and strength of my relation to it to share” (61). That personal language again: it is not so much that she attempts to translate it, rather, she attempts only to make it visible. In this way, the numbered list suits the aims of the text: not to elaborate, but to collect discrete objects, and by the act of collecting, create a whole.

18. Mary Ruefle, from her book of lectures Madness, Rack & Honey: “You might say a poem is a semicolon, a living semicolon, what connects the first line to the last, the act of keeping together that whose nature is to fly apart” (4). Nelson’s lyric meditations are united by form: the numbers collect and anchor that whose nature is to fly apart—her blues. The other form that connects and collects those blues: Nelson’s desire, her obsession.

19. “I knew together they made God” (9). (Emphasis mine)

20. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” says T.S. Eliot in “The Wasteland.” In Nelson, as in Eliot, the “I” is in ruins and seeks to create order. Holy order. The fragments, a gathering, hold chaos and grief at bay.

21. In this reading of the text, it is the ‘I’, the collector, who creates unity and order out of chaos. The act of collecting is a revelation of the collection and the collector. So the act of collecting makes the personal, in some ways, public.

22. Or think of it this way: your grandmother has a curio cabinet where she stores her tchotchke, her knickknacks from 70+ years of gathering. She adds to it every year, takes things out and puts new things in. Little ceramic deer, shot glasses from Canada, dried flowers your grandfather got her one time after a bad fight. The collection is a bunch of disparate, unconnected objects…strange-looking to an outsider. Junk. But you, who love your grandmother, look at the collection as a precious remnant of the beloved person. A hinted at inner life and love, a secret message she’s coded and placed in her living room for all to guess at. You have some of the code, you know what some of it means. The rest remains a mystery, remnant of memory.

23. So the act of collecting makes the personal both public & obscure, because not all meaning translates.

24. When I say “collecting,” do I mean “writing”?

25. No accident that Nelson feels an affinity for Joseph Cornell, whose film, Rose Hobart, is a collection of images of Rose from her performance in a B-movie (67). Cornell is also a famous sculptor, who created shadow boxes out of found objects. Poet Charles Simic, on Joseph Cornell: “Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, his religion…” (14). He continues, “Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist. For Cornell, it’s the opposite. To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions” (61). This impulse is the driving force of Bluets.

26. (Brief interlude here for a mini-discussion on craft: I would like to now suggest to you, without being accused of essentialism or sentimentality, that all the most compelling art comes out of this desire to explore obsession: to shed light on the self’s personal language.

27. What if you stopped worrying about what you have in you that is worth writing about, and instead focused on exploring, in even greater detail, your personal obsessions?

28. As a young poet, Frank Bidart felt crushed by the great Modernist and Postmodernist writers. He did not know how he could write—if he took Joyce, Eliot & Pound as his models, then there was nothing, he felt, left to write. Bidart’s revelation came from realizing that his unmapped inner life could be his art: “But if you turn from them, and what you look at is your life: NOTHING is figured out; NOTHING is understood…Ulysses doesn’t describe your life. It doesn’t teach you how to lead your life. You don’t know what love is; or hate; or birth; or death; or good; or evil. If what you look at is your life, EVERYTHING remains to be figured out, ordered; EVERYTHING remains to be done…” (21). Plumbing the depths of his unknowable self has fueled Bidart’s lifelong career and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.)

29. Nelson hopes that writing about the bluets will “empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things” (77). For Nelson, the act of collecting her blues into the book does not exorcize them, but creates more space for her obsession. She stokes the fire ever higher.

30. I have found it so, in my life, that obsession made visible does not eradicate it. This is also true, I think, for my father, who killed his buddha and wore her on his arm to remind himself of who he was. Perhaps exploring the personal language of desire alleviates the longing a bit, and explains our selves to ourselves. …Thus making room for new longing, new space for new obsessions to occupy.


Works Cited

Bidart, Frank, and Mark Halliday. “Frank Bidart—An Interview.” Ploughshares 9.1 (1983): 11-32. JSTOR. Emerson College. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems, 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. Print.

Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Seattle: Wave, 2009. Print.

Ruefle, Mary. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. Seattle: Wave, 2012. Print.

Simic, Charles. Dime-store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell. New York: New York Review, 2011. Print.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic, 2011. Print.

Katie Schmid is a poet living in Lincoln, NE. Her chapbook, Forget Me, Hit Me, Let Me Drink Great Quantities of Clear, Evil Liquor, is available from Split Lip Press. More from this author →