Thursday, 02 June 2016 09:21

The Argonauts: Book Review

Written by
in Poetry
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Self Portrait/Cutting
Self Portrait/Cutting
by Catherine Opie

Prue Chamberlain reviews Maggie Nelson's new book, available as a pdf at https://www.facebook.com/pdf2download/posts/358936340983173.

In the London Review Bookshop, Maggie Nelson reads from the opening pages of The Argonauts:

the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad.

Her tone betrays nothing: through the description of anal sex and details of her newfound vulnerability while falling in love, there is an evenness that implies the considered structuring of her work. But her even tone, the performance of the writing, seems to speak to a wider risk within The Argonauts: to foreground the personal without a sense of shame.

Before I move onto the importance of this, I see the even tone and the revelation of self as inherently feminist. Nelson has unabashedly discussed her personal life, and while she might – in part – be performing a highly-crafted version of herself within the writing, there is still a sense of truth and reality that pervades the text. However, unlike Sylvia Plath (who Nelson attests to loving), there is no feeling of confession. The revelation of the personal is not like Plath’s tortuous strip tease in ‘Lady Lazarus’ but a matter-of-fact point of discussion, an interest that is propelled and perpetuated through her experience.

In The Argonauts, Nelson quotes Eileen Myles, a woman often described as the rock star of poetry. She writes:

When it comes to my own writing, if I insist that there is a persona or a performativity at work, I don’t mean to say that I’m not myself in the writing, or that my writing somehow isn’t me. I’m with Eileen Myles – “My dirty secret has always been that it’s of course about me”

The ‘dirty secret’ is one that is shared: its public nature is the very thing that makes it dirty or soiled, while the caveat that a secret is ‘dirty’ simultaneously makes it permissible in the public sphere. The dirtiness of the secret makes it less internalised, less confessional, and less prized: it perhaps, takes the sting of pride out of the hidden object. Dirty secrets allow the listener to root through, getting their hands muddied, and the nails blackened, in the process. The virtue of the mudiness, the mess, the potential frisson of the dirty secret, is that it will in some way reveal a thing that is both besmirched and private, something that in becoming public is consolidated in its status as being dirty.

In spite of the trappings of the dirty secret, Nelson most importantly positions this moment as a refusal of shame. She refuses to feel shame for her desire, and she refuses to be ashamed of writing about herself, as if foregrounding the self in some way negates cultural or social commentary. This speaks – importantly – to both feminist and queer histories, in which the former needs more women to vocalise experience, and the latter is bound to feelings of both pride and shame. By refusing shame, Nelson is not necessarily a proud speaker. In fact, she is too flawed and honest within The Argonauts to ever be accused of pride, but it is similarly important that she refuses to experience shame about identity, relationships, or sex. And at no point will she be shamed with the accusations of “well, it’s just a book about you, isn’t it?” – she has already told us.

Nelson began as a poet, but moved into prose writing The Bluets, where she says verse just lost its lyricism. When the line breaks were removed the writing took on a necessary complexity. It was this difficulty of prose that she chose to use in The Argonauts to discuss her relationship with Harry Dodge, transitioning, motherhood, and starting a family as a queer couple within an increasingly conservative country. That Nelson left poetry because it could not say enough is a concept that pervades The Argonauts. In spite of its realisation in prose, the book opens with Nelson saying that she ‘had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed.’ (2015: 1). After she falls in love; after she is challenged by someone who finds themselves marginalised by the language we use; Nelson no longer believes that words are enough. Where poetry has failed her, language itself begins to, with its strictures and its silences, limitations and capacious absences.

In spite of language’s continual failure throughout the book, which is foregrounded explicitly as opposed to enacted through elisions, fragmentation, and obfuscation, Nelson’s relationship with revelation feels like a full one. Her opening paragraph of The Argonauts describes the accidental omission of love, while being fucked in the arse by her love object. As Nelson’s face repeatedly hits the concrete floor, she finds this incantation of love, an emotion that changes and develops.

In a sense, The Argonauts is a text of becoming: much like the love declared within the opening paragraph, anything that seems fixed or certain in the opening, is subject to processes of becoming. Nelson writes ‘a becoming in which one never becomes, a becoming whose rule is neither evolution nor asymptote but a certain turning’ (2015: 53). Nothing and no-one finds a resting point, which resonates – perhaps – with language’s own failure; its attempts to define is a form of stasis, whereas life is continual transition. As Nelson’s love changes, moving from incantation to the reality of everyday life with someone, she becomes pregnant, her partner, Harry Dodge, begins to transition, and Dodge’s mother dies. Bodies, their engagement with the world, and interaction with one another, are forced to re-orientate: as language is not enough, bodies are also inadequate, they can only be understood in relation to one another.

While the book seems to span the human experience, as well as critical theory, art, literature and philosophy, it is also about devotion and freedom, cruelty and tenderness. These ideas might also sit somewhere between the tensions of prose and poetry, where the devotion to failing words needs the freedom of the expansive line, and the cruelty of inexpressibility requires the tenderness of time and labour. Throughout The Argonauts, Nelson plays ‘Fallen Soldier’ with Dodge’s first son, cares for Dodge after his mastectomy, plays witness to Dodge nursing his mother through to death, has her child Iggy with whom she is discovers love has been entirely renewed. None of these instances are burdens of care, but acts of devotions, and ones that don’t impinge upon Nelson’s freedom. Similarly, the love that she expresses for Dodge is incredibly tender, but played out against the backdrop of an increasingly homophobic and heteronormative USA. The tenderness with which she approaches Iggy is only mitigated by the cruelty of IVF, the number of failed attempts, and the slow disappearance of hope that pregnancy will ever happen.

The Argonauts is not didactic, nor is it a call to arms: Nelson expresses a real resistance to comrade:

I’ve never been able to answer to comrade, nor share in this fantasy of attack. In fact I have come to understand revolutionary language as a sort of fetish – in which case, one response to the above might be, Our diagnoses is similar, but our perversities are not compatible.

It might be, then, that the book hinges on compatible perversities. In the first sex scene with Dodge, he asks Nelson her pleasure, and sticks around to hear the answer. While her words are not enough, what this establishes is a space somewhere between devotion and freedom, cruelty and tenderness, in which language can be adequate within the moment.
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Prue Chamberlain

Prudence Chamberlain is a Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing. Her first collection is forthcoming with Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, while her collaborative work with SJ Fowler, on Disney, will be released later this year. She is currently writing a book on affect and the fourth wave of feminism for Palgrave Macmillan.