The Argonauts

By Maggie Nelson


May 2015

Reviewed by Liz Greenhill


In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson takes us, as she has before, through the life of the mind and into galleries of contemporary art, swales of the human experience, and the collective hues of our emotions. Yet this time, Nelson opens us, port to vein, into her relationship, her family's secrets and struggles, through hospital stays and periods of loss, and the unveiling of many things held secret. She opens, as if it were a window, a portal into her home.

Rare is writing that couples such startling intimacy with critical theory and philosophy. Nelson references Foucault and Kristeva alongside ruminations on the ennui of social disparagement and professional conflict, and these are interwoven with a non-linear narrative about fertility challenges, assisted pregnancy and birth, as well as a candid portrayal of family as queer, step, birth, transgender, estranged, healing, ransacked, and beleaguered, in times of thrift, grief, and threat.

While reading this, one might ask, what kind of amalgamated writing is this? What varied nonfiction, what a lot of departures, what strange returns, what a quick pace to this scrolling feed of subject matter and disclosure. Where are the parameters on Nelson's design?

An intellectual writer, high-minded and inquisitive, Nelson seems at home plucking ideas and quotations from her stand-by favorites in literary criticism, theory, philosophy and psychology. While her mind satellites the interpersonal to a remembered conversation or overheard remark, she is just as apt in this book to splice in a quick portrait of her step-son with lyrical panache. Queer, you might say, about this curious blend of commentary, critique, portraiture, and reflection. Yes, queer. Gratefully so.

Home is where you make it, Nelson seems to say: heart and hearth, familiarity and safety, and always, always, the tiny (yet infinite!) capsule of the mind. The mind is Maggie Nelson's most precious asset, and in this book we are welcomed into that domain. It's a pinball game in which the shiny sphere of thought bounces from the personal to the political to the private to the public: a transformative Anne Carson reading, impromptu Prop-8-reversal marriages, urban art instillations buoyant with balloons, puppies, babies and leather whips, crushes, jealousy, snide remarks, "sodomitical maternity," parenting, step-parenting, daughter-ing, loving, the long-lasting love story of George and Mary Oppen, Ginsberg, and ass-fucking with Beckett on the nightstand.

It's a wild ride when you sign on with Maggie Nelson. And yet through it all, the book's good pacing keeps it varied, compelling, and delicious.

Intrapersonal, incantatory, Nelson's voice in this book is close to her chest, as if it were being transcribed for a baby in her bjørn carrier, or mumbled under breath (as thinkers often do), or an itemization of ideas in transfusion to the lover-partner, or even, the lover's anima—something from a Frida Kahlo painting—a small body of fur and nerves burrowed in the fleshy heart.

The Argonauts, as it unfolds, is a meditation on the risks of love. And by meditation I don't mean a rainbow-colored ho-hum sigh, I mean it is an examination both internal and external, a thinking process, a feeling process, a creative process, an investigation from within and around through the medium of writing.

Nelson uses as many angles as her ideaphoric mind can spin on, not comprehensively, per se, but via collective thought and bursts of the performative. Amidst such overtures of "phallocentric gravitas" she quick-shifts to the personal:  

As my due date neared, I confided in Jessica, the woman who would be assisting our birth, that I was worried I wouldn't be able to make milk, as I had heard of women who couldn't. She smiled and said, You've made it already. Seeing me unconvinced, she said, Want me to show you? I nodded, shyly lifting a breast out of my bra. In one stunning gesture, she took my breast into her hand-beak and clamped down hard. A bloom of custard-colored drops rose in a ring, indifferent to my doubts.

In Nelson's collision of the academic and the lyrical, she is also investigating writing. Self-reflective, hyper-analytic, in a segment on the topic of assertive language and apology, Nelson admits: "My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me."

Bold, yes. Professionally, creatively, in theory and in form, Nelson is stretching the unwritten limits of her artistic license. On the page, this book is comprised of left-and-right-aligned chunks separated by double bars of white space. It's a presentation of fragments, a design move she shares with some of her contemporaries: Claudia Rankine's Citizen, Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. Like prose poems, there are no indentations to identify these passages as paragraphs.

Again and again, Nelson pushes at the edges of things: edges of relationship, of solitude, of genre, of the strata we assign to maternity, of our preconceived definitions of feminism. She even pushes to the edges the convention of footnotes, embedding quotations into her sentences in italics and itemizing the writers and thinkers she references in the margin of the text. In doing so, she literally (and I mean it) marginalizes the status quo of quoting. Writers embedded in the white slice of Nelson's golden mean are as varied as her subject matter: Annie Sprinkle, Eileen Myles, Julie Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Anne Carson, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Judith Butler, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, to name just a few.

One drop of each of the essences of these writers could probably create in a sense the figure that is Maggie Nelson, if such literary biogenic alchemy were possible. They have created the books that surround her, that have shaped her, and that have brought her home. This is the book she gives us as home, a new place, an amalgamated collective, a hive of thinking, a mesh of lines drawn—this pinged to that, a body of fragments.  

In as much, Nelson's new book is daring and careful, planned and impulsive. It is made of the steam that rises off the embrace of the sexual and the maternal, of milk and blood and tears and sweat. It is of fierce tongue and unremitting chatter and of thoughtful pause and delegation. In a word it is hers.