Graywolf Press, 143 pp.
As I read The Argonauts, a list of questions lengthened in my mind. Who should I share this book with? Who, at least within my immediate family, would best relate to Maggie Nelson’s love, her tendencies toward delaminating names, and other habits of language? My aunt, not by blood, who made me mix-tapes of women rockers to listen to over and over again as a small child? Melissa Etheridge, Tina Turner. And then, VHS supercuts of doomed heroines. Ellen Ripley, Thelma and Louise. My stepdad, who came into a bad situation and stayed until it got better? Who then came out. All the women, with their chafed perineums and post-pregnancy “pizza-dough-like flesh” (this is Nelson speaking); the women who the babies will forget (this is psychoana-lyst D. W. Winnicott, who appears throughout like Virgil)? Their babies?
This book—which at its very heart is a story of love and motherhood—will be talked about in terms of an idea Nelson brings about in an episode from grad school: the private made public. And, from the stack of dildos in the first paragraph to the climactic twining of death and birth, it is a private story, but one that never quite goes public. Sure, there is the publication, a book tour, reviews like this one—but the language throughout does anything but distance. Everything is kept in the foreground, immediate.
The title refers to the Argo, the ancient ship replaced piece by piece by the Argonauts—turned into a different ship—without having to change its name. In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, the French writer describes how “I love you,” since it also remains the same phrase, must similarly be renewed with each use. This book is one of transitions: Nelson’s coupling with artist and filmmaker Harry Dodge, pregnancy, testosterone therapy, birth, and death—some can be named, while others represent the moment when “all that is unnamable falls away, gets lost, is murdered.”
Along the way, Nelson digresses into passages about normativity, both hetero and homo; anecdotes involving a vicious Rosalind Krauss and Allen Ginsburg’s corpulent mother; totem animals; and X-Men. It’s wrong to think of these digressions as secondary—each tangent is inseparable from the flow of the text.
In one passage, Nelson says that she is “interested in the fact that the clitoris, disguised as a discrete button, sweeps over the entire area like a manta ray, impossible to tell where its eight thousand nerves begin and end.” So, too, is the structure of The Argonauts. The book spreads out into innumerable bright points on the page, but then continues further. Throughout, Nelson inserts aphorisms and truncated lines from writers and critics who she shares something with, even its only a moment’s affinity or disagreement.
The strength of Nelson’s metaphor, and the structure that I’ve so awkwardly yoked it to, speaks to her breadth as a writer. She has written nine books, five of which are volumes of poetry. Throughout her works, she writes with an economic freedom that hydroplanes across image and thought. But she’s also a critic, one of our best. The excerpted lines that stud the text are transformed into her own exegetic blooms. Eve Sedgwick, Deleuze and Guattari, Barthes, Judith Butler.
And for each reference that is written, another is suggested. When Joan Didion is engaged midway through, in a paragraph about children, economic suffering, and privilege, the reader might jump back to the book’s first sentence: “The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes.” In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion describes the violence of the same winds, how their shredding presence always spells bad news. Like Nelson, she also pivots on a quotation about domesticity. Specifically, one from Raymond Chandler, who wrote that when the Santa Ana blows, “meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” Tangents like this appear and disappear with a shifting breeze, but their faint presence takes on gravity over the course of the short book. Asides aren’t really aside.
For being a love story, The Argonauts has its share of violence. One of its subplots is spurred by Nelson’s 2005 book Jane: A Murder, which examined the unsolved murder of her aunt (then a first-year law student) through a variety of written forms. In The Argonauts, Nelson is contacted by a man who at first seems harmless, but increasingly becomes more threatening. When he begins stalking Nelson around campus, she hires a private eye to keep watch on her house. Her previous work, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, looked at the recurrence of violence in avant-garde and popular culture from a critical distance. Here, she’s living it. Aside from activating some primitive fear in the reader for the well-being of her newborn, the episode shows how swiftly Nelson can move between types of writing. For a few pages, the book reads as LA Noir (Chandler’s influence, perhaps?). This is a book of spilt fluids; traversing genre boundaries is just another leakage.
In the last pages, Nelson intersperses short paragraphs describing the birth of her son with excerpts from letters written to her by Dodge, about the death of the artist’s mother.
“The car is where the pain turns into a luge. I can’t open my eyes. Have to go inside…” writes Nelson, recounting her thoughts while on the way to the hospital.
Then Dodge: “…on the last night, i put a pillow under her knees, and i told her i was going to take a walk. that i would smell honeysuckle and see fireflies, wet my shoes in the midnight dew. i told her that i was going to do those things because i was going to do those things because i was going to stay on earth in this form. ‘but your work here is done mama.’”
It continues, in this fashion, for several overwhelming pages. At the end, the reader looks up to see the world, like the Argo, renewed.