In German, to be blue—blau sein—means to be drunk. Delerium tremens used to be called the “blue devils” (Burns, 1787.) In England “the blue hour” is happy hour at the pub. Joan Mitchell—abstract painter of the first order, American expatriate living on Monet’s property in France, dedicated chromophile and drunk, possessor of a famously nasty tongue, and creator of arguably my favorite painting of all time, Les Bluets, which she painted in 1973, the year of my birth—found the green of spring incredibly irritating. She thought it was bad for her work. She would have preferred to live perpetually in “l’heure de bleu.” Her dear friend Frank O’ Hara understood. Ah daddy, I wanna stay drunk many days, he wrote, and did.
What is this passage? An inquiry result from a search engine that relies on algorithms that favor the fascinating? And is there any reason why whatever it is cannot be poetry?
Poetry has been under threat of death for so long, entire generations have labored under the question of its demise, and now the condition itself has acquired permanent scare quotes. It’s no longer the death of poetry, it’s “the death of poetry?”, question mark inevitably included. The persistence of this anxiety betrays our uncertainty about either what constitutes death or what counts as poetry, but in either case, the concern is misdirected. While the cultural value of poetry is perpetually up for debate, its longevity is guaranteed, because poetry is anthropologically determined. In other words, you cannot stop people from doing it; you can only quibble over how to identify what they’re doing.
I mention this because Wave Books doesn’t market Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a collection of 240… somethings, as poetry. It’s sold as Essay/Literature. And while Nelson has published poetry “proper” (with Hanging Loose and Soft Skull), she’s also published two hybrid prose works, Jane: A Murder and a book inspired and provoked thereby, The Red Parts. She’s also the author of a critical study: Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions.
It’s tempting but useless to ask which of these genres is Nelson’s home, as if we could track her deviations from a compositional norm and count them as evidence of what kind of writer she truly was. But the fact of the matter isn’t that she proves poetry is inevitable by periodically returning to it; she does so by applying the same aspects that enliven her poetry to whatever she writes. Her art’s in the gradient, not the line.
Poetry, of course, isn’t the only human inevitability. You also cannot eliminate or even retard spiritual inquiry, erotic obsession, or pursuit of beauty, all of which make for spectacular disasters, in which the act of analysis and its object become indistinguishable. And while Bluets is the record of a whole cascade of fruitful ruin, it is no accident that its poetry is prose. Consider entry 19:
Months before this afternoon I had a dream, and in this dream an angel came and said: You must spend more time thinking about the divine, and less time imagining unbuttoning the prince of blue’s pants at the Chelsea Hotel. But what if the prince of blue’s unbuttoned pants are the divine, I pleaded. So be it, she said, and left me to sob with my face against the blue slate floor.
Cast in more traditionally “poetic” form, the degree to which this expresses both the comic and the abject might force a polarizing preference for one or the other: a self-ironizing gag or a plangent plea unaware of the potential for absurdity it contains. When we conceive poetry as sculptural, we begin to think of forced choices that disallow multiplicity; prose, more often imagined as architectural, might let us grow capacious without becoming tumorous. Sometimes Bluets reads as architectural in a ways that resembles the Winchester House, with its recursive construction, its windows gazing on rooms, its stairways to nowhere. Given the breadth of the book’s conception—its first words are, “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color,” an introduction that retreats from itself even as it snaps into being—there’s very little that requires exclusion and much that begs exploration. We don’t necessarily need trains of thought sliding into their conclusive stations any more than that house needs a room into which its stairways open; while made of the same materials, and made with the same care, the architectural intent isn’t exactly the same. As blue is one color that is many shades, even a single room is many mansions.
Thus Bluets argues that not only can you live in an architected dream, there’s great reason to believe that you cannot live in anything else. In addition to appending echoes to historical and material occasions of blue, she also tells stories, and among Nelson’s recurring narratives is not only her baffled judgment of her own capacity for sexual desire (for that aforementioned prince of blue) but an impeccably tender and moving set of exchanges about a friend who has suffered an accident that has left her quadriparalytic:
Over time my friend’s feet have become blue and smooth from disuse. Their blue is the blue of skim milk, their smoothness that of a baby’s. I think they look and feel very strange and beautiful. She does not agree. How could she—this is her body; its transformations, her grief. Often we examine parts of her body together, as if their paralysis had rendered them objects of inquiry independent of both. But they are still hers. No matter what happens to our bodies in our lifetimes, no matter if they become like “pebbles in water,” they remain ours; us, theirs.
This is a fascinating moment, because it fully capitulates to the lyric without denying the cost the lyric imposes on the occasions that inspire it. Paradoxically, Nelson is both indulging a Romantic solipsism and somehow standing outside it, judging its origins and consequences. There’s something powerfully accurate about this, something disorienting in its accuracy: the poem and its authorship and making, all equi-present. Nelson doesn’t want to leave anything out, as suits a collector’s project. Thus, in the same way that she wanders among blue objects (shards of glass, bottles of ink, stones and tattoos and the nests of bowerbirds) and accidental theorists of color (Goethe and Newton and Duras and Novalis) and the color’s utility in human imagination (blue moods, blues music, the blue divine), she likewise wanders among the positions the orchestrator of these lists must adopt. This results in an admixture of candor, passion and detachment that makes for irresistible intimacy. As Nelson herself notes,
Writing is, in fact, an astonishing equalizer. I could have written half of these propositions drunk or high, for instance, and half sober; I could have written half in agonized tears, and half in a state of clinical detachment. […] – how could either of us tell the difference?
And this observation predicts a later one:
I suppose I am avoiding writing down to many specific memories of you for similar reasons. The most I will say is “the fucking.” Why else suppress the details? Clearly I am not a private person, and quite possibly I am a fool.
Well, the solution is that she’s made it impossible to tell the difference by disappearing the presumed contradiction between agony and detachment. The speaker who suffers the first is still the analyst of the latter, and to write otherwise is pretense, the condition of, and fatal problem with, choice. The most pernicious expression of this is the implied schism between making and evaluating, between feeling and thought, sentiment and reason, statement and question. Yet only the lucidly wise could wonder, in fact believe and understand, their foolishness.
I don’t think the fact of exponential choice is exclusively the dilemma of contemporary poets, or even modern ones, who famously went to such extravagant and influential lengths to develop forms that mirrored the multiplicity inherent in the freedom and anxiety of the suspicious subjective. The problem continues, but it appears less and less as a conundrum that form can solve and more and more as a conflict between the tones, points of references and correspondent dictions the writer can simultaneously access—or perhaps might feel compelled to suppress. Plenty of our current writing chooses the suppression option, but the competitive clamor of alternate registers has now become potentially complementary and cannot be ignored, since the contemporary reader participates in the same condition as does its writers. Some attempt to remedy this by shuttling between different genres; thus, the difference between, say, Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet and The Beauty of the Husband.
Yet Bluets reads like both at the same time, and many other books besides. Why not? The failure here isn’t Nelson’s (for I think this is a wild, brilliantly successful book) but how it is marketed. And while I cannot blame Wave Books for wanting to expand the readership for such an accomplished and fascinating book, it doesn’t help matters to deny Bluets as poetry. It does what Nelson’s admitted poetry does; it also does what her mixed-genre work does. The differences between Pope’s An Essay on Man and Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and H.D.’s Trilogy aren’t differences that demand a clarification of which is and is not verse; why then should something that tacks between the strategies of each invite that question? Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, for instance, was not exactly a “book” yet it remains a book of serpentine subtlety and beauty.
Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.
When you lose the option of choice, you just have to figure out—as Nelson has, through great pain and great intelligence—how to make do with everything.