Maggie Nelson's Something Bright, Then Holesby Elizabeth Block
Something Bright, Then Holes
(Soft Skull Press, 2018)
If I crashed—shuddered by whiplash—boat wrecked and abandoned on a deserted island, and I had to choose only one author’s texts with which to spend my days, that author would be Maggie Nelson. Her words would be my drug of choice. The locution “innovative” has repeatedly been used to describe her work. Yet “innovative” in literature is now its own genre that encompasses subgenres, manifestos, regional affiliations, and particular styles. Nelson’s inventions transcend and surpass the genre, give birth to something beyond language, something that actually electrifies the body.
Originally published in 2007, inspired by Annie Dillard’s observations on the impulsive nature of seeing, Nelson’s 2018 reprint provides precise evidence of her singular and true innovation in content, form, and timeless(ness). It drops controlled dollops of poetic meter, rhyme, and lyricism. It steals from multiple styles (Nelson cites her “thefts” on the acknowledgement page), it exudes nuanced understanding of postmodernity. It cries with confession; boxes with language. Nelson is raw, honest, rough, and tender. She creates a picture without pretense. Nelson, perhaps, becomes a linguistic apothecary of fine Northern California edibles and extracts served up at the loveliest Los Angeles dispensaries. Language is pure natural delight. Interpretation, we are reminded, is not fake news. It is a joyful romance of words touching words loving words. We may pause from this abominable moment in American history.
Let us now praise idiosyncratic gender non-conforming women of letters.
Nelson begins with a one-page introductory poem. Although it begins on Annie Dillard’s phrase (the title of the book), I feel like I am reading a compressed version of Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck in one swift moment. Smash cut to Gowanus Canal (The Canal Diaries), a what the what to most non-New Yorkers (or once New Yorkers). It is quite a stunning leap, yet the understatement of visual observation makes sense in terms of the subject of the canal in relation to the book’s original history and contemporary transformation of the canal via Brooklyn gentrification. Nelson’s portrait of her intimate relations can neither be separated, as her personal reflection is not separate from her act of seeing/experiencing the canal landscape around her.
The new publication itself is an experimental subjectivity, which reverberates on so many levels. The book is a kind of beautiful “grotesque” landscape photography Diane Arbus may have chosen had she been a landscape photographer. Nelson cites Arbus, “Then I began to get terribly hyped on clarity.” Reprinted at this time, the book becomes an intricate and specific color portrait, dependent upon awareness of analog and digital chromatics (the past and the present), Nelson’s constant employment of blue and green (and bright light) as metaphorical mixture of natural and chemical (toxic canal, unnatural landscape). Blue, in her prior book Bluets, is a color Nelson has explored deeply in reference to the painter Joan Mitchell (and others), the loss of love, the meaning of existence. Blue here is also “mercurial” in two of its definitions. It is “quick and changeable,” and she wonders, when the silver breaks will it turn blue? Perhaps color is a visual bridge linking landscape and interior monologues/poems about loss, love and longing. It unites the external and the internal worlds, makes them interchangeable. Hues enable the written observation of landscape coupled with interior expression to feel like a tangible photograph within grasp, and also a tease for what can never again be.
Color also opens the door to aesthetics. Nelson writes, “can beauty save us?” Rarely does one associated with “innovative” writing dare such a query. Beauty is a dirty word for trained contemporary poets. But then again, that’s the magic of Nelson. She doesn’t conform to any literary rules and yet she chooses rigorous structure on her own terms. One has to know the rules to break them so eloquently. She’ll even surprise with a reference to William Faulkner’s Light in August, in “Morning Prayer,” though it isn’t William Faulkner’s original reference.
The 2018 version of Something Bright, Then Holes also reveals itself as a sort of camera lucida in that it is a meditation on what can seemingly be prodded about the past and the present in the context of time having passed since the first publication. The landscape of Gowanus Canal has been transformed/gentrified (and thus perhaps the way a reader might reinterpret the parallel landscape of Nelson’s interior landscape). It is a longing of love and loss and a photograph of words teetering between past and present—begging for reinterpretation. It reminds me of Roland Barthes’s “punctum.” It seems like an odd reminiscence, yet Nelson’s reprint brings out so many delightful incongruities because of profound changes in the world since 2007.
And yet the book is complete, and timeless. Nelson is an innovator of innovators. Her words become palpable, her sentences grow like children, her poetry creates as much of a story as a visual drama. Her world becomes life. The poem unfurls like a full-blooded tale. It ignites sensory textures and it dances. Open. Now. Then. Walking. Breathing. Singing. I am alive, and it feels great. Recently, I received a beautiful 4’ x 5’ monochromatic charcoal drawing portrait of Diane Arbus, made by an art student. She looks at me from the wall. I look back. Finally, I am getting to know her.
ELIZABETH BLOCK, recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, is the author of A Gesture Through Time and Celluloid Salutations. Her films are distributed by Canyon Cinema.