Loneliness on My Hands: A Conversation with Maggie Nelson




IN Something Bright, Then Holes, Maggie Nelson quotes a friend: “You say I don’t have to be ashamed of my desire / Not for sex, not for language.” This call for abundance infuses the book, which buzzes with a heartbroken sort of longing. In it, Nelson gains and slowly loses a lover. She unravels this narrative in poetry over three disjointed places and states: a beautiful (but toxic) canal in Brooklyn, a paralyzed friend’s hospital bed, and a more interior struggle with accepting her own freedom.

Something Bright is Nelson’s fifth book, first published in 2007 and now reissued by Soft Skull Press with a new, startling yellow cover. “It’s a book full of intensity, strobing, a certain manic energy edged with grief and loss,” she tells me over email. From poem to poem, the mood swings easily from expansiveness (“Living as if every moment announced a beloved / and it does”) to soft smallness (“Live with your puny, vulnerable self / Live with her”). Inspired in part by her mentor Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, it also delights in sitting and observing the world moving by — a dog that can’t make up its mind, a sky “full of blurry swans,” or a chaotic vegetable garden that “could break / a hard-won sobriety / just by looking at it.”

With its clear, cool, fluid voice and interrogation of desire, Something Bright in many ways anticipates Nelson’s work to come, though it is her last true book of poetry. Mostly, Nelson’s writing resists categorization — her nine books span poetry, criticism, autobiography, theory, and the hybrid spaces in between. She is best known for her critically acclaimed The Argonauts (2015) and Bluets (2009), but no matter where you pick up, Nelson’s language is heady and visceral. She pays as much attention to pleasure and the body as she does to the academic: taking her formal training and putting it in bed with the messiness of life — and all the enormous desire of it.

Nelson talked with me about Something Bright from her home in Los Angeles.

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CLARE SHEARER: Could you tell me a bit about the occasion for the reissue of Something Bright, Then Holes?

MAGGIE NELSON: It’s been 10 years, incredibly, and also there’s been more interest in my earlier books after the visibility of The Argonauts. But beyond that, I don’t really know. The goodness of Soft Skull’s heart? Any which way, I’m thrilled for it.

In the first line of the collection you say, “I used to do this, the self I was / used to do this // the selves I no longer am / nor understand.” Does Something Bright feel like a kind of document of a past self? Can you reaccess the person you were writing it?

Oh yes, it’s definitely a document of a past self. But so is every book. I don’t really think much about the solidity of past selves, though — recently I heard Laurie Anderson say that when she looks in the mirror, she thinks: “Not bad. But not me.” I feel the same way about these poems, I guess.

The title Something Bright, Then Holes comes from Annie Dillard’s essay “Seeing,” which I also love and return to often. What is it about this specific phrase that stayed with you?

I’ve always loved that phrase. It’s from a girl who has been been blind her whole life, and it’s how she describes her hand when she can first see. I love the defamiliarized version of the body that she’s offering, as if she’s an emissary from one system of perception to another. It’s also a phrase very much about presence and absence, and Something Bright is about that — it’s a book full of intensity, strobing, a certain manic energy edged with grief and loss. So the phrase seemed right.

In “The Canal Diaries,” the first section of this book, you sit by a toxic canal in Brooklyn while you struggle with the dissolution of a relationship. It reminds me of Dillard sitting by Tinker Creek, though your questions are more interior — questions of the heart. Why did the canal become the backdrop for these? What brought you back over and over again?

Yes, that was the idea. Annie is deeply important to me. (She was once my teacher, and she always encouraged her students to go out and sit in new places and write all they could see.) It’s important to remember that Dillard’s Tinker Creek was also belated — it had trash in the bushes, and so on; people actually think Thoreau’s Walden was belated in its way, too. Eden has always already been lost, is the point. So, as Thoreau once said, it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. The Gowanus is (was?) a notoriously polluted site, with a lot of nefarious and interesting things happening in and around it. I found it a fascinating place to sit each day. I sat there either in the morning or evening for about 40 days, and wrote that section during that time. It was an astonishingly strange chapter in my NYC life, in that it was actually quite bucolic, with wild animals and flowers and a moon reflected in the water, et cetera, all taking place around a body of water so lavender and frothy you couldn’t touch it for fear of being poisoned. A place of contrasts, to be sure.

In this collection you say, “All last year // I planned to write a book about / the color blue. Now I’m suddenly surrounded // by green, green gagging me / pleasurably.” Two years later, you published Bluets, which follows many of the same themes — your friend’s paralysis, your own heartbreak, loneliness — through a lens of your love for the color blue. Do you feel that they’re companions? How did writing this book of poetry make way for Bluets?

Yes, they are definitely companions. Bluets was the book I wrote directly after I removed myself from all the situations described in Something Bright, whereas in Something Bright I was still deep in the mix. The books are also very different, in that Something Bright was kind of my last “I do this, I do that” New York School type of book; Bluets was a product of moving to a quiet place with a lot more time and loneliness on my hands, so rather than just scribing what I saw, I was thinking, constructing.

Each of your books takes on a different form, but at times they all circle similar questions, building on one another, looping back, picking up where the other left off. How do you find the form of each new project? Do you approach a book of poetry differently from a book of prose?

It sounds cheesy but things just find the form they want to come in, sometimes from the start, sometimes via a lot of trial and error. I’ve never set out to write a book of poems — poems just come or they don’t come, and then they accrue. Poems haven’t come to me for a while, but you never know. The prose books are totally different animals.

Following up on the last question, by the time you come to The Argonauts, you have a strong feeling that “the inexpressible is contained — inexpressibly! — in the expressed” (from Wittgenstein). Did you feel this way when you were writing Something Bright, Then Holes, or did you come to this over time?

I’ve always felt this to be true.

What are some of your thoughts, if you want to share any, on this strange and unsettling time in politics? Are you engaging with it in your writing?

It’s a shit-show beyond belief. I’m writing a book about freedom, which has everything to do with this moment, so when it’s done, it will say a lot more than I have time for here.

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Clare Shearer is a California-based writer and editor specializing in music, film, style, art, and culture.


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