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Book Review: Bluets by Maggie Nelson

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My dictionary defines the color blue as “any color between green and violet in the spectrum.” In traditional symbolism, blue represents the great deep, the feminine principle of the waters. Blue is the color of the Great Mother, the Queen of Heaven and all sky gods or sky powers, such as the Azure Dragon. And fully half of the Western world’s population claims blue as their favorite color.

Strangely enough, the term ‘blue’ also defines “a pedantic literary woman.” This usage comes from the colloquial term ‘bluestocking,’ which referred to the blue worsted stockings worn by women at literary meetings in 18th century London.
I very much doubt that Maggie Nelson wears blue worsted stockings. She is, however, pedantic in the best sense of the word, and very literary. She’s the author of Bluets, a small, lyrical gem of a book, which pokes an insistent finger at everything blue.

A bluet, I assume, is a small piece, a chunk, an eensy-weensy bit of blue. And what Maggie Nelson does in Bluets is fan out these bits of blue and explore them one by one. Taking a cue from Suetonius, Nelson formats her lyrical explorations numerically. Which means each paragraph stands on its own, yet is organically connected to the others. The effect is that of reading a catechism or a book of aphorisms. It sounds boring. But it’s not. What it is – is simply delightful.

Fortunately, Nelson does not borrow from Suetonius stylistically. Suetonius used words like a drummer, beating them out with deadpan delivery. Nelson’s delivery resembles a Cherub caressing a harp. The notes flow forth expansively and with harmony.

For example, when trying to answer the question of “why is the sky blue?,” Nelson first quotes from an optics journal. “The color of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sunlike star will also be blue.” Which is probably good science, but who cares, right? Well, Nelson does. But she takes a stuffy, scientific explanation and, like an alchemist, turns it into pure gold. In the very next sentence she writes, “In which case blue is something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.”

Now you’re talking!

Elsewhere in Bluets, Nelson considers “having the blues,” being sad or depressed or lonely. She talks about Billie Holiday’s song “Lady Sings the Blues.” Nelson notes that “Nonetheless, as Billie Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in deeper and deeper saturation is eventually to move toward darkness.”

It’s semi-religious, almost philosophically nihilistic, evocations such as this that make Bluets superb.

Mostly, Bluets reminds me of Annie Dillard’s For The Time Being. And such literary comparisons are – more often than not – either cheap cop-outs, which reviewers use as filler, or vaguely insulting. In this instance, though, the comparison is meant as the highest compliment. For both authors – bluestockings – share their most intimate thoughts about the activities of humanity and the universe, all the while trying to infer the truth of a notion, directly from its nature or condition in the mind. Or try it this way: they give you a peek inside their souls. Which is what great writing is all about.

Bluets is wonderful stuff. It’s the exploration of love, philosophy, religion, sex, history – of Life, as viewed through the hue of blue. Books like this, writing like this doesn’t come along very often.

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