In an interview, Maggie Nelson once explained the thinking behind her distinctive style of writing: “Leaning against other texts, thinking with other minds, letting another person’s writing (or art, or being) haunt you, inhabit you, inspire you, bother you, quite thoroughly, isn’t just a means of spurring one to produce thoughts or books. It’s also a wager about how deeply intertwined our consciousnesses may be.” This belief – that literature should be just like thought, messily inarticulate and aware of its connectedness to culture and art – pervades Nelson’s latest book, titled The Argonauts. It’s not quite poetry, not quite a novel, and not quite a memoir, but a slender volume that gives the reader the pleasant and peculiar sensation of peering into Nelson’s mind, thoughts, and bookshelf all at once.
In Bluets, predecessor of The Argonauts, Nelson combined deeply personal meditation on a painful breakup with quotes from philosophy, poetry, literature, and songs alike; in The Argonauts, quotes in italics blend seamlessly with her own writing, sources unobtrusively indicated in the margins. If every person’s mind is saturated with all we have heard and experienced – what the linguistic theorist M.M. Bakhtin called “varying degrees of otherness or ‘our-own-ness’” – then Nelson’s work is an artful orchestration, a symphony of voices. She affirms the idea that we carry what we read with us, that the books we love never quite leave us. Martin Heidegger once enigmatically proclaimed “the poet’s work is only a listening,” and Nelson has taken this sentiment to heart. What precipitates is the germ of her brilliance: the marginalia she spent years writing in a mode of listening and observation, she later transforms into poems.
In a society and culture whose rigid dichotomies and binaries – man/woman, mother/father, gay/straight, and so on – have radically come into question in recent decades, Nelson’s fierce renegotiation of modern love is remarkable. She writes about queerness, pregnancy, motherhood, and her relationship with her gender-fluid partner Harry Dodge. Speaking of how female sexuality has been socialized by the portrayal of sex in films (widening age gaps between vulnerable young women and men in power; coy disrobing and unbendingly heteronormative love-making), there is an undeniably bitter tone: “I don’t even want to talk about “female sexuality” until there is a control group. And there never will be.”
…the books we love never quite leave us.
After reading the book’s first draft, Harry Dodge was disturbed by the highly personal nature of what Nelson divulges in The Argonauts. At times when reading, I too felt a shadow of that frustration: was Nelson, in portraying her partner’s gender dysphoria and surgical procedures, identifying too intensely with the terrain of a landscape she had never encountered, whose ridges she had never fully felt? When it comes to the experience of marginalized groups, the “shared consciousness” Nelson often talks about becomes problematic – there are some encounters that belong always in the domain of those who experience them. But toward the book’s end, Dodge’s voice surfaces in the same way all others do: as an italicized stream of consciousness (a simple note “Harry” identifying the source in the margin) relating the heart-breaking experience of a mother’s death after a long illness. Dodge’s voice speaks at length, and the reader realizes then that Nelson has not been speaking over Dodge, but with Dodge, her relationship “ablaze with our care, its ongoing song.”
Nelson offers a narrative that widens the breadth of representation that queer and trans people have been so often denied. It is not merely about subverting norms, but turning social and sexual conventions upon their head and rebuilding them – nothing is destroyed, but the result is a new shape, entirely unique to one’s own identity and relationships. Nelson describes the difficulty of transcending “a lifetime of unwillingness to claim what I wanted, to ask for it.” This is as much about life as it is about love and sexual orientation. Most of all, The Argonauts proves that the “radical” nature of any non-heterosexual, unconventional relationship is not an encounter with sameness, but a “shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.” This gem of a book is about the realization that everyone carves out their own narratives, inextricably intertwined with others: “the possibility,” as Adrienne Rich says, “of life between us.”