Category: Maggie Nelson

Black and Blur

Maggie Nelson for 4Columns

Maggie Nelson responds to Fred Moten’s new essay collection, Black and Blur, for 4Columns

Because I know Moten in a world that opposes entanglement and clear-sightedness, this must technically be a “response” rather than a “review” of Black and Blur. (The book is the first of three to be published as the consent not to be a single being series, a phrase borrowed from Édouard Glissant; two companion volumes, Stolen Life and The Universal Machine, are blessedly, impossibly, soon to follow.) And thank God this isn’t a review, really, because how preposterous and off the cake it would feel, at least for me, to drag Black and Blur into the world of appraisal or evaluation of argument. Others can do that, and do it well. It’s not that I’m not interested in Moten’s contributions and interventions into ongoing, crucial discussions about the relation between, say, as he puts it, “the critical analysis of anti-blackness to the celebratory analysis of blackness.” I am, and deeply so. As Moten intimates in Black and Blur’s preface, that relationship is, in some sense, what it’s all about: “It hurts so much that we have to celebrate. That we have to celebrate is what hurts so much. Exhaustive celebration of and in and through our suffering, which is neither distant nor sutured, is black study.” (As in the opening of 2003’s In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Moten locates this foundational interdependence in the work of scholar Saidiya Hartman: “In the Break also began with an attempt to engage Hartman; as you can see, I can’t get started any other way.” Indeed, it’s Hartman’s theorization of “the diffusion of terror” in black expression that summons and undergirds Moten’s inquiry into the nature of that diffusion, its multiple ontological possibilities.) 

It’s more that so many debates between, say, something we might call “celebration” and something we might call “terror,” or something we might call “optimism” and something we might call “pessimism,” or something we might call “Afro-diasporic cosmopolitanism” and something we might call “the African American cultural field,” or something we might call “aesthetics” and something we might call “politics,” often become legible only via an unwarranted polarization that Moten’s work not only sidesteps but labors to offer inventive (yet also already-there) alternatives to. It feels more vital to me to use this moment to note how Black and Blur produces felt experiences of these alternatives, carves new pathways through art and thought, which, in turn, re-makes and multiplies the possible relations between them. Such a focus admittedly foregoes, at least for the moment, any granular attention to Black and Blur’s specific content (the essays include kaleidoscopically rich ruminations on Patrice Lumumba, Glenn Gould, Miles Davis, Lord Invader, Charles Mingus, Pras/Ol’ Dirty Bastard/Mýa, Theodor Adorno, Benjamin Patterson, Thornton Dial, Masao Miyoshi, Mike Kelley, Jimmie Durham, Theaster Gates, Charles Gaines, Wu Tsang, Bobby Lee, and many, many others—ruminations made ocean-deep via Moten’s particular style of layering a wide variety of figures and discourses in each essay). But it may shed some light on how and why Moten’s writing has become so crucial to so many in recent years, which links to how and why the publication of Black and Blur feels like nothing less than an ecstatic occasion—both in and of itself, and as a promissory note of more to come. 

Simply put, Moten is offering up some of the most affecting, most useful, theoretical thinking that exists on the planet today—a true leg out of the rut so much criticism has fallen into of pointing out how a certain phenomenon has both subversive and hegemonic effects (“kinda hegemonic, kinda subversive,” as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once put it) that has proven so durable since (at least) Foucault. It’s hard to write such sentences without being (happily) haunted by the fact that Black and Blur, like all Moten’s writing, disallows the kind of heroic “radical singularity” that might otherwise attach itself to the proper names of Moten’s subjects, including “Fred Moten.” (Hence the “consent not to be a single being” rubric.) As Moten writes about Black Panther Bobby Lee in Black and Blur’s final chapter: “Bobby Lee is another name we give to the xeno-generosity of entanglement: the jam, that stone gas, a block club in a block experiment, an underpolitical block party, a maternal ecology of undercommon stock in poverty, in service, genius in black and blur.” In a 2015 interview, Moten explains further, vis-à-vis Bessie Smith: “I don’t think I’m so committed to the idea of the radical singularity of Bessie Smith as I am committed to a kind of radicalization of singularity, that we now come to recognize under the name of Bessie Smith, which the figure, the avatar, that we now know as Bessie Smith was sent to give us some message about. I think of Bessie as an effect of sociality—she was sent by sociality to sociality, in that way that then allows us to understand something about how the deep and fundamental entanglement that we are still exists in relation to and by way of and as a function of this intense, radical, constant differentiation.” 

As moved and impressed as I am by Moten’s writing—its spectacular range, its unending nuance, its voluminousness, its flashes of pique (don’t miss the footnote addressing British scholar Paul Gilroy on pages 293–95), its swerve and song—I’m perhaps even more inspired by its felt understanding and communication of what it means to be “sent by sociality to sociality,” and its depth of commitment to enmeshment, manifest in its style, orientation, and sound. Back in the 1980s, critic Barbara Johnson pointed out that the self-resistance performed by so many (white) male poststructuralist theorists often had the paradoxical (though altogether predictable) effect of consolidating the theorists’ authority and visibility. It’s like, given the system’s (name a system) longstanding need/desire for male genius, those dudes couldn’t even give it away. Some might argue that the ultra-passionate lauding of Moten courts a similar effect. But I’m not worried. Unlike a lot of those guys, Moten really doesn’t care about that consolidation. He really doesn’t. His work tirelessly deflects it, unravels it, renders it irrelevant and antithetical to the tasks at hand. Selflessness, for him, and for us in reading him, isn’t a new coin to spin in the marketplace of ideas. Rather, as he writes, “It’s nothing. It ain’t no thing. Selflessness ain’t about nobility or even generosity. The substance of its ethics is of no account, no count off, no one two, just a cut and then people be grooving.” 


Beyond Lyric Shame: On Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson

Ben Lerner for Lit Hub

For Lit Hub, Ben Lerner reconsiders prose poetry and the ‘lyric I’ through the works of Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson 


Language poetry’s notion of textual difficulty as a weapon in class warfare hasn’t aged well, but the force of its critique of what is typically referred to as “the lyric I” has endured in what Gillian White has recently called a diffuse and lingering “lyric shame”—a sense, now often uncritically assumed, that modes of writing and reading identified as lyric are embarrassingly egotistical and politically backward. White’s work seeks, among other things, to explore how “the ‘lyric’ tradition against which an avant-garde anti-lyricism has posited itself . . . never existed in the first place” and to reevaluate poems and poets often dismissed cursorily as instances of a bad lyric expressivity. She also seeks to refocus our attention on lyric as a reading practice, as a way of “projecting subjectivity onto poems,” emphasizing how debates about the status of lyric poetry are in fact organized around a “missing lyric object”: an ideal—that is, unreal—poem posited by the readerly assumptions of both defenders and detractors of lyric confessionalism.

It’s against the backdrop that I’m describing that I read important early 21st-century works by poets such as Juliana Spahr (This Connection of Everyone with Lungs), Claudia Rankine (Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric and, very recently, Citizen: An American Lyric), and Maggie Nelson (Bluets). I mean that these very different writers have difficulty with the kind of difficulty celebrated by Language poets in particular and the historical avant-garde in general. Their books are purposefully accessible works that nevertheless seek to acknowledge the status of language as medium and the self as socially enmeshed. I read Rankine and Nelson’s works of prose poetry in particular as occupying the space where the no-longer-new sentence was; they are instances of a consciously post-avant-garde writing that refuses—without in any sense being simple—to advance formal difficulty as a mode of resistance, revolution, or pedagogy. I will also try to suggest how they operate knowingly within—but without succumbing to—a post–Language poetry environment of lyric shame or at the very least suspicion.

I call Rankine and Nelson’s books works of “prose poetry,” and they are certainly often taken up as such, but their generic status is by no means settled. Both writers—as with many Language poets—invite us to read prose as a form of poetry even as they trouble such distinctions. Rankine’s books are indexed as “Essay/Poetry” and Bluets is indexed as “Essay/Literature.” Bluets is published, however, by Wave Books, a publisher devoted entirely to poetry. Rankine’s two recent books are both subtitled “An American Lyric,” begging the question of how a generic marker traditionally understood as denoting short, musical, and expressive verse can be transposed into long, often tonally flat books written largely in prose. On an obvious but important level, I think the deployment of the sentence and paragraph under the sign of poetry, the book-length nature of the works in question, and the acknowledgment of the lyric as a problem (and central problematic) help situate these works in relation to the new sentence, even if that’s by no means the only way to read them.

Both Bluets and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely open with a mixture of detachment and emotional intensity that simultaneously evokes and complicates the status of the “lyric I.” In the first numbered paragraph of Bluets, quoted above, a language of impersonal philosophical skepticism—the “suppose,” the Tractatus-like numbering, the subjunctive—interacts with an emotional vocabulary and experiential detail. The italics also introduce the possibility of multiple voices, or at least two distinct temporalities of writing, undermining the assumption of univocality and spokenness conventionally associated with the lyric. “As though it were a confession”; “it became somehow personal”: two terms associated with lyric and its shame are both “spoken” and qualified at the outset of the book—a book that will go on to be powerfully confessional and personal indeed. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely opens with a related if distinct method of lyric evocation and complication, flatly describing what we might call the missing object of elegy:

There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died. This is not to suggest no one died. When I was eight my mother became pregnant. She went to the hospital to give birth and returned without the baby. Where’s the baby? We asked. Did she shrug? She was the kind of woman who liked to shrug; deep within her was an everlasting shrug. That didn’t seem like a death. The years went by and people only died on television—if they weren’t Black, they were wearing black or were terminally ill. Then I returned home from school one day and saw my father sitting on the steps of our home. He had a look that was unfamiliar; it was flooded, so leaking. I climbed the steps as far away from him as I could get. He was breaking or broken. Or, to be more precise, he looked to me like someone understanding his aloneness. Loneliness. His mother was dead. I’d never met her. It meant a trip back home for him. When he returned he spoke neither about the airplane nor the funeral.


Darling Nikki

Maggie Nelson writing for the New Yorker

Author Maggie Nelson recalls her first and most formative encounters with Prince, for the New Yorker:

 In 1984, when I was ten, my father died. He was a small man, five-five tops, jammed with energy. I understood. Energy felt to me then, as it does to so many kids, like an unstoppable force run through a kaleidoscope of affect—at times electric, then liquid, popping, burning. Above all, it felt uncontainable. The miracle is that our skin contains it, for the most part. Was I sexual at ten? I don’t know. I know my father died, and then, suddenly, there was Prince.

1984 was also the year of “Purple Rain.” We saw it in the theatres and then my sister and I watched it innumerable times downstairs in our TV room. Our lair. I had already watched and would watch a lot of rock musicals—“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The Song Remains the Same,” “Tommy,” “The Wall.” I liked parts of these movies and had moments of cathexis, but nothing really stuck. Maybe because they were full of white British men whose angst was fundamentally inscrutable to me, and seemingly tethered to Margaret Thatcher, whoever that was, or grossly thefted from American blues. Maybe it was because the girls in the movies were sticks—who wanted to be Strawberry Fields, chained up while Aerosmith sings “Come Together” at you menacingly? And while, God knows, I wanted to be the hippie chick conjured in Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” I already knew that was just some guy’s dream, because the hippie girls I knew that fit the part either had to go along with their hippie-fascist boyfriends in a haze of suppressed agency or they spoke up and the dudes lost interest “pronto.” Anyway, that girl was pretty and probably liked to get fucked in a field of flowers, blond ringlets spread out on a velvet blanket strewn with empty goblets, but she wasn’t seething with electric energy, she didn’t talk, she didn’t grind.

Then there was “Purple Rain.” Did I want to be Prince or be with Prince? I think the beauty is, neither. He made it O.K. to feel what he was feeling, what I was feeling. I wanted to be a diminutive, profuse, electric ribbon of horniness and divine grace. I bought a white shirt with ruffles down the front and wore it with skintight crushed-velvet hot pants, laid a full-length mirror on the floor, and slithered on top of the mirror, imitating Prince’s closing slither on the elevated amp in “Darling Nikki.” Yeah, he’s telling Apollonia to come back, but you can tell he doesn’t really give a shit about Apollonia. He’s possessed by something else, his life force onstage. Half naked, wearing only black bolero pants and a black kerchief tied over the top part of his face, his torso slick with sweat, Prince is telling us a story. An important one.


‘Immediate Family’

Hilton Als on Maggie Nelson for the New Yorker

Writing for the New Yorker, Hilton Als paints an intimate profile of Maggie Nelson — “the poet who writes prose; the memoirist who considers the truth specious; the essayist whose books amount to a kind of fairy tale” — and the bodies closest to her:

May 5, 2015: that was when Maggie Nelson’s ninth book, “The Argonauts,” came out. Published two months after the author turned forty-two, the slim, intense volume, which tells the philosophical, sometimes comic tale of Nelson’s ever-developing consciousness, combines—like a number of other masterpieces of American autobiography—memoir, literary analysis, humor, and reporting with vivid instances of both the familiar and the strange. Central to “The Argonauts” is the story of Nelson’s great love for Harry Dodge, a West Coast sculptor, writer, and video artist who is fluidly gendered. As Nelson embarks on her intellectual and emotional journey, Harry also goes on various excursions in order to become the person he is now, whom Nelson describes, quoting a character from Harry’s 2001 film, “By Hook or By Crook,” as neither male nor female but “a special—a two for one.”

Sara Marcus, in an elegant and concise review of “The Argonauts,” for the Los Angeles Times, notes the way that Nelson circles “away and back again to central questions about deviance and normalcy, family-making and love.” What Nelson is asking, throughout the book, Marcus says, is “How does anyone decide what’s normal and what’s radical? What kinds of experience do we close ourselves off to when we think we already know?” Last month, the book won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, but long before that it was passed around and praised by any number of readers who knew nothing, or next to nothing, about Nelson’s interest in queerness, let alone lives like the ones her memoir grew out of and embodies. What those fans responded to most viscerally, perhaps, was the fact that it’s a book about becoming, both mentally and physically—about what it takes to shape a self, in all its completeness and disarray.

In “The Argonauts,” at the time that Harry is taking testosterone and having a double mastectomy, Maggie is pregnant with their son, Iggy, who is now four. It’s one of the rare moments in modern literature where the pregnant woman does not stand alone, wondering what will become of her or her child; Papa’s going through some fairly significant shit, too. But before the reader can settle into any kind of cozy acceptance of all that, Nelson shifts course again, asking what family can mean when the body is no longer a body but dust and then a memory. Is memory the tie that binds? Is love?

When Harry talks about his life—as he did, with great affability, one evening last August, at a corner table in a dark Los Angeles restaurant—the diminutive, auburn-haired Nelson listens with quiet seriousness. Her pale face turns nearly as red as her hair when Harry says something about their connection, or when she interrupts him to interject an idea or a detail about his own life which he may have forgotten. Afterward, Nelson may blush again or quickly smooth down her hair or say, even more quickly, “Right, right, right,” as a way of marking time, before continuing on with, or going deeper into, whatever she was talking about.

Speaking freely but thoughtfully is important to Nelson, in part because as a kid she was teased for being a “Chatty Cathy,” and in part because she finds ideas irrepressible and exciting to explore. Not surprisingly, Nelson has a very precise relationship to language—and to the vicissitudes of personal history, including the self-mythologizing that goes into making a transformed self. She has published four volumes of accomplished verse, but it’s her prose works, which cover an array of intellectual and social issues, that have brought her a wider readership: the devastating “The Red Parts” (published in 2007 and reissued this month, by Graywolf), for instance, focusses on the aftermath of the 1969 murder of Nelson’s aunt and the trial, thirty-six years later, of a suspect in the case; in “The Art of Cruelty” (2011), Nelson explores the role of the body in an age of extremity; and in “The Argonauts” she questions what it means to be a lover, a parent, someone’s child—“heteronormative” roles—when you don’t feel heteronormative, let alone comfortable with such traditional labels as “gay,” “straight,” “female,” and “male.”

In all of her books, Nelson picks at the underbelly of certainty and finds scabs—the white-male-patriarchy scab, the smug-female-thinker scab, the academic scab—and yet she gives these voices a place in her work, because, as her friend the novelist Rachel Kushner put it, “she knows exactly what kind of language, at this moment, what kind of views, are important, but she also understands that people are vulnerable and they get things wrong, not through malicious intent. Sometimes it’s just a misstep, or they’re too far from the other person’s subjectivity.” Matthew Barney, an artist known for his high-risk, epic exploration of American masculinity, told me that, for him, “The Art of Cruelty” was “the missing piece of a puzzle,” in terms of analyzing a world saturated with pornography and torture. “Maggie’s voice had a certain level of doubt and a self-reflective vibe that made me trust her, even when she was criticizing stuff that I really love.”

It’s Nelson’s articulation of her many selves—the poet who writes prose; the memoirist who considers the truth specious; the essayist whose books amount to a kind of fairy tale, in which the protagonist goes from darkness to light, and then falls in love with a singular knight—that makes her readers feel hopeful. Her universe is “queer,” fluid, as is Harry’s (tattooed on the fingers of his left and right hands, respectively, are the words “flow” and “form”), but this sense of flux has little to do with the kind of sentimental hippiedom that emerged, say, in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of Maggie and Harry’s home town in the sixties. Nelson is just as critical of the politics of inclusion as of exclusion. What you find in her writing, rather, is a certain ruefulness—an understanding that life is a crapshoot that’s been rigged, but to whose advantage?


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