Bluets by Maggie Nelson

by Rachel Dean

My virtual Amazon shopping cart is, at any one time, full of roughly six to ten books. These books are ones I plan on ordering and reading, books I’ve been recommended, books whose authors seem particularly interesting. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was one of those books.

When it arrived in a neatly packaged cardboard box in my mailbox alongside a Jorie Graham book of poetry, I was convinced it was the most beautiful set of bound pages I had ever seen. The cover, a rich, cobalt blue spattered with white specks, was both minimalist and magnetic. I was hoping I’d fall equally in love with the book’s writing as I had with its cover art, considering this was the first introduction I had to any of Nelson’s work, and was unsure of what to expect.

Bluets is different in that it’s many things at once, without feeling overtly overwhelming or unfollowable. I read it in a day, sitting on my couch one afternoon, dead to the rest of the world because I was unable to look up from its pages. It is not just Nelson’s prose that speaks to the book’s success, but her way of framing her inner most considerations—how every thought bridges a gap to another thought, and then another, until the reader is deep into the spiraling expanse of the book’s honest and intimate trajectory.

On only the second page of the book, while Nelson is attempting to describe and embody her emotional response to blue, she writes “How could all the shreds of blue garbage bags stuck in brambles, or the bright blue tarps flapping over every shanty and fish stand in the world, be, in essence, the fingerprints of God? I will try to explain this.” In just one simple justification, we are cued into Nelson’s obsession; she sees the color as something erotic, banal, but also divine.

Another noteworthy accomplishment of the book is that it extends beyond Nelson’s own individual musings on color, which made the book appear more like a study on color and its relationship to the human condition. Nelson, like many of my other favorite writers, includes quotes and commentaries from or about other recognizable artists, writers, and philosophers, whose own interests in color provide a kind of index to her own. Nelson writes, “The confusion about what color is, where it is, or whether it is persists despite thousands of years of prodding at the phenomenon. And literally prodding: in his zeal, in the “dark chamber” of his room at Trinity College, Newton at times took to sticking iron rods or sticks in his eyes to produce then analyze his perceptions of color. Children whose vision has been damaged have been known to smash their fingers into their eyes to recreate color sensations that have been lost to them.”

When I finished Bluets, I worried I had read it too fast—that I had missed out on the chance to pause and truly consider each numbered entry in the book. It was no matter, of course, because throughout the next few weeks I continued to come back to it and reread my highlighted sections. I eventually read it twice more, front to back. Bluets made me reconsider my own relationship to color, which I often take for granted. In the book, Nelson combines the apathy and mundaneness of life with ordered observations of blue—how a color can steady, remind us of past moments, cue us into the ripping clarity of our own lives. Nelson writes, “Why is the sky blue? — A fair enough question, and one I have learned the answer to several times. Yet every time I try to explain it to someone or remember it myself, it eludes me. Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal.”

Attempting to pull a theme or narrative from the text for the sake of a review seems diminishing, because, at least for me, I felt as if the book extended outside traditional boundaries. However, if a reader spends enough time with Bluets, she is cued in to Nelson’s own intimacies, and, in a more broader sense, how Nelson considers the human condition and its mark of obsession: its hungry want of things, and the way that manifests itself as an enduring desire to consume and be consumed.

Closing the book left me with feeling rather than a conclusion, a sense of something inexplicably nostalgic and simultaneously hopeful. Nelson writes, “Alright then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing, but of light.”

There is a kind of finality to all of Maggie Nelson’s work that I’ve never found with another writer—a kind of clarifying wholeness. A reader gets the sense that she is truly unveiling herself, studying herself, decomposing on the page. Today especially, that kind of honest work has never been more important, or more wonderfully readable.

— Rachel Dean is a Siblíní Book Correspondent.