1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession

Maggie Nelson, Bluets (Jonathan Cape 2009)

These are the opening lines of Maggie Nelson’s work, Bluets. The book was first published in the U.S. in 2009 but did not arrive in the UK (and thence, in English, to continental Europe) until 2015 after Nelson had proven with The Argonauts that she could sell books.

Bluets is a slim volume of 240 brief numbered passages. How to classify it? If bookshops are any guide, then Bluets is a collection of prose poems, a term that itself defies definition. I, on the other hand, bought Bluets thinking that I would get a collection of lyric essays. Nelson calls the passages that comprise Bluets “propositions.” The inspiration for Bluets reportedly derives from all three sources: the philosophical tract, lyric poem, and autobiography.

The Blue Correspondents

The genesis for Bluets apparently lies in Nelson’s obsession with the color blue. She is not the only person to fall for a shade. Han Kang’s The White Book is a meditation on the color white, using it as a vehicle to explore death, mourning, and rebirth.

14. I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book about blue without actually doing it. Mostly what happens in such cases is that people give you stories or leads or gifts, and then you can play with these things instead of with words. […] I have been introduced to a man who had one of his front teeth replaced with lapis lazuli […] and to another who worships blue so devoutly he refuses to eat blue food […]
15. I think of these people as my blue correspondents, whose job it is to send me blue reports from the field.

Maggie Nelson

Blue is my favorite color, too. For me, it evokes Catholic school uniforms, ink stains, and sadness. There is plenty of sorrow in Bluets. At its delicate core sit an ex-lover known as the prince of blue and a beloved friend trying to recover from an apocalyptic accident that has left her a quadriplegic. But Bluets is not only sad.

34. Acyanoblepsia: non-perception of blue. A tier of hell, to be sure—albeit one that could be potentially corrected by Viagra, one of whose side effects is to see the world tinged with blue.

Maggie Nelson

Nelson describes the male satin bowerbird who builds a trysting place in order to lure a female to mate. He adorns it only with blue objects:

bus tickets, cicada wings, blue flowers, bottle caps, blue feathers plucked off smaller blue birds that he kills, if he must, to get their plumage

Maggie Nelson, no. 67

Nelson can relate. She has been trying hard to find dignity in loneliness. (no. 71)

Direct address

Most of the time, it seems that Nelson addresses her propositions to her ex-lover, the prince of blues.

177. Perhaps it is becoming clearer to you why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something to say to you.

Maggie Nelson

Occasionally, Nelson turns her baby blue eyes on the reader to ponder matters as diverse as the cyanometer, Buddhism and the process of writing Bluets.

184. 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. But now that they have been shuffled around countless times—now that they have been made to appear, at long last, running forward as a river—how could either of us tell the difference?

When I first read an extract from Bluets for a lyric essay course, I thought I could hear Nelson breathe between each numbered segment. I saw her go about her day: setting tea or shredding old love letters as the day became night became day. I felt like Nelson was speaking to me, saying: suppose, and so, and well, what of it?

The Philosopher Queen

I have to say that, as Bluets comes to a close, I become distracted by all the philosophical threads. Like the dark roots of a peroxide blonde, I would rather not see the links between Nelson’s “propositions” and the many philosophers she quotes. Nelson acknowledges Wittgenstein and Goethe as “The Principal Suppliers” but there are more. Emerson, Byron, Duras, Cornell, Bodhidharma, Heraclitus, Leonard Cohen, the list goes on.

I prefer the visceral Nelson, the one with “spade in hand, cold whiskey sweat bearded on your brow” (235). The one who is deranged by her loss.

238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.

23 Feb 2022 | Karen Kao