Maggie Nelson defies classification. She is the author of nine books, spanning poetry, autobiography, art criticism, and theory. This week, Soft Skull Press has reissued her book of poetry, Something Bright, Then Holes. First published in 2007, Something Bright was Nelson’s fifth book, and she has not published a new book of poetry since. Nelson’s nexus is fluidity: gender, pleasure, desire, and the body are questioned with equal rigor as modality, criticality, and theory. Those concerns are present in Something Bright. “I don’t have to be ashamed of my desire / Not for sex, not for language,” the narrator tells us in “A Halo Over the Hospital.” But in this collection, Nelson’s heady, narcotic philosophizing is underpinned by a more personal vulnerability. “Live with your puny, vulnerable self / Live with her,” we are told.
While Something Bright, Then Holes charts many landscapes—from the polluted Gowanus Canal, to a friend’s hospital room, to the inner tautologies of “leave-taking”—the collection centers around the issues of love and loss. “What part of this autonomy / am I not supposed to like?” the narrator expounds in “The Mute Story of November.” The self and the other (romantic, or intellectual) are like binary stars. They threaten to destroy or consume one another: “Yesterday we found something very hard / at our core, a fierce acorn. I don’t know / if we were born with it, or if its mass simply accrued / in the darkness.”
I wondered if you could talk about the experience of having a book reissued ten years later. Is there a sense of Didion’s invitation to check in on the selves we once were? An old friend come to visit? Or, the sort of estrangement that one often feels as an artist from the work that came before?
It’s a beautiful edition, so I feel very lucky. It’s also sweet to me that my dear friend Tara Jane O’Neil did the first cover and then did this one as well. I feel estranged from this book in the sense that it is my last book of poetry—not like, the last book of poetry I will ever write, but the last one I’ve written, and it’s wild that a decade has gone by since. But I can see many themes in these pages that have cropped up in my more recent prose books, so I feel a strong continuum of thought. There was kind of a magic splintering happening inside me at the time of Something Bright—very painful, but also magic. It’s also the last book I wrote in New York, and I can really feel that—all that time spent talking to and about strangers at the canal, all that looking outward, all the late nights, the wandering, the perching. My life isn’t like that anymore. Anyway, it’s nice to see these poems again.
There’s a line in Something Bright, Then Holes which struck me as a kind of legend to the emotional mapping of this collection—“there’s this enormous surplus of feelings and/or words / and we prick at the tarp, letting little pinwheels of light come in / but never really touching the source.” For me, this line exemplifies the visceral “thingyness of things” you catalogue in this collection—“The Canal Diaries,” which is “home to piles / of tires, oil fires, suitcases / full of chopped bodies,” or the line from “These Days”—“Last night a stranger called / at 2 a.m., said, THE CODE WORDS IS / SHOES”—and the way in which you posit the body as a similar collection of physical refuse. From 37 Days, “I don’t want to be writing these poems into winter, the outline of your cock / still etched in my brain, all new life hiding or dying / as the canal chokes with ice.” Love is both tangible and seismic here. Confessional and biblical. “I’m living a lie” ends a poem which a few lines earlier draws a parable aside the polluted Gowanus—“He doesn’t / really know what he wants, the hippie says / as his dog sniffs the water.” This desire to balance the tangible with the ephemeral is mirrored in the final section of the book in the line “We share a brightness / It’s called death / in life / I toss and turn all night, hearing you say / I want to touch you / without using my hands.” This dialectic has always offered, for me, such bursts of pleasure in reading your work. I wondered how you hold space for the particular and the universal as you draw them?
I’ve been pretty obsessed with this particular, universal question for some time now. My book on the New York School takes it as its foundational question, refracted through the question of abstraction. In abstract painting, the more abstract the work gets, the more material, which fascinates me. That inquiry led to a related obsession with color in Bluets, as color is both a very material phenomenon and also felt by many to be a portal to the transcendental. Lately I’ve been rolling the question over in a more political realm, vis-à-vis Saidiya Hartman’s work on the particular and the universal in the development of liberalist discourses around freedom—i.e., the ways in which the universal subject always depends on castigated subjects and their “fleshy substance” to construct its “ethereal splendor.” Anyway, poetry offers a terrific, focused arena for this play—not in the one-way sense people always talk about—like, Wow, your particular details really led me to some universal truths—but more like, as Bob Creeley used to say, in poetry you’re often trying to describe something very specific and material, even if it’s a state of mind or emotional landscape. It’s just not as specific as saying, I’ll be back in five minutes, or, I have to go to the bathroom. The title Something Bright, Then Holes, which comes from my mentor Annie Dillard, is about that, too—it’s a description of a hand by a newly-sighted person, a literal description of what she sees, while also serving as a description of a feeling, an apprehension of presence and absence.
In “A Halo Over the Hospital,” the narrator has come to visit a sick mentor in the ICU who is paralyzed, her face “reconstructed / by a team of surgeons … your skin hung on a rack / and they gave you titanium cheekbones and a titanium jaw.“ “I’m there when you open your eyes,” the narrator assures the mentor, “as you’re slightly stricken / upon remembering the prison / your body has become … I read you an essay / of mine about troubling the passage from the particular to the universal.” The mentor offers this bit of advice, “Maggie, the problem now is to think the singular.” I wondered if you might talk about this idea of singularity—a theme you wrestle with in all of your work. How does it relate to the shifting you?
Well, she’s a brilliant academic who, from her hospital bed, was explaining to me the argument of a book by the postcolonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty. Incredible. She has since written her own amazing book, called A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain, which I highly recommend. I can’t really speak to the singular in the sense she was using it, nor the “technological singularity” sense, but I can say that paying attention to a singular person or thing can be a way of expressing love, of paying homage to their uniqueness, their difference from everything else that exists. And that paying that kind of attention can be a way of understanding difference as something that holds us together rather than signifying our apartness. Then there’s the fact that addressing someone singular in poems may be a way of paying attention to them, maybe even of loving them, but of course once it’s published, it’s a bit fraught, because you’re making a public poem rather than a private communication, which brings you into different waters.
The ineptitude of singular pronouns in capturing the valence of gender and sexuality is a theme continued in The Argonauts. “The presumptuous of it all. On the one hand, the Aristotelian, perhaps evolutionary need, need to put everything into categories—predator, twilight, edible—on the other the need to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live. Becoming Deleuze and Guattari call the flight: becoming-animal, becoming-woman, becoming-molecular.” Similarly, the impossibility of defining a singular hue or color is echoed in Bluets. “I don’t know how the jacarandas will make me feel next year. I don’t know if I will be alive to see them, or if I will be here to see them, or if I will ever be able to see them as blue, even as a type of blue.” I wondered if you might talk about this act of becoming in the text itself. Is it a radical act?
Not sure I know what you mean here, about “becoming” in the text itself. Certainly I would like my books to do something paradoxical, which is intimate things that fall outside of categories, or language, even, by being exceptionally clear about what I see, think, apprehend. That’s the Wittgensteinian ticket. But I don’t lay claim on radical acts, such a term feels pretty unuseful to me at this point.
Given that the book doesn’t exist before it’s written, it most certainly becomes. Of course once it’s published there’s a certain freezing of the flight—the many books that might have been shrink into the one that is. But that’s okay, because that likely keeps one pushing onward.
Hilton Als said in his profile of you for The New Yorker, “Balancing pathos with philosophy, she created a new kind of classicism, queer in content but elegant, almost cool in shape.” Having been in a long term gender-queer relationship myself, I’ve always wondered, Is the idea of “queering” the text or the memoir, either formally or in terms of content, a statement you relate to? Balk against?
I don’t really relate to or balk against it. Queering as a verb has never meant that much to me, especially not these days. Sometimes I might use queer as an adjective, but mostly as a kind of shorthand for a particular scene or vibe. Also, it’s a little strange to talk about queering a genre, like memoir, when so many of my favorite books in that genre are already so queer—Eileen Myles, David Wojnarowicz, Herve Guibert, Paul Preciado, Audre Lorde, Hilton Als … the list could go on and on. It actually seems plausible to me that someone could argue the opposite of what Hilton here says—that is, that some of my books present hetero content in queer form. Anne Carson’s a great model in that regard. But what’s queer form, anyway? I don’t know. The art critic David Getsy has thought a lot about this vis-à-vis sculpture, in his Abstract Bodies.
The body in Something Bright, Then Holes is often referred to as a prison. “When did this become a narrative of / captivity,” the narrator in “6:30 a.m.” asks. “From what am I trying to break free?” I wondered if you’ve since answered that question. You’ve spoken before of Wittgenstein.
Nah, not yet. But I am writing a book about freedom right now, so more will come.
Love, as both an intellectual desire and a bodily imperative, is omnipresent in all of your works. And yet love and sex vacillate between the autonomic and the transcendent. In “Seen It All,” the narrator explains, “Just when you thought you’d seen it all / A man stands by the open passenger door of a parked SUV / rocking steadily, eerily / It takes a moment to see he is fucking a body / Not make of female, just thighs / White, hairy, gargantuan thighs/ pushed overhead.” Yet this visual and emotional remove is underscored by more trenchant lines. “How many ways are there / to get saturated in another’s mind?” Or, in “September,” “I hosted / a flood here, it changed / my contours.” Is this what love is? “The desire to hold anyone / who seems contagious?” A “Hospital for Special Care?”
Autonomic, love it. My partner, Harry, has just written a great book that has to do with the eros of the machine. Anyway, love is a great many things. Poetry would be totally deprived if we ever agreed upon a unitary formulation about it, as would life itself. So I can’t answer to that. But, speaking of hospitals, I will offer you this quotation I recently came upon, from Bifo, in case it helps anyone in these miserable political times. “No one is depressed because he is aware that there is no way out of the trap. That is desperation, not depression. And desperation is a condition of the mind, not of the heart nor of the body … Even [Pope] Francis said it in a wonderful conversation published in La Civiltà Cattolica immediately after his election to the Throne of Saint Peter. He said that the church is a field hospital and that among the theological virtues neither faith nor hope are important. Charity is important: hugging, caressing, solidarity.”
Annie DeWitt is a novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Her debut novel White Nights in Split Town City made the New York Times Book Review’s short list. Her story collection Closest Without Going Over, which is in progress was shortlisted for the Mary McCarthy Prize.
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