I Wish I Had a River (Any River Will Do): Maggie Nelson and the Color of Hurt
I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live. I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any “blueness.” Above all, I want to stop missing you.
He searched the backseat of my car, grabbed Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. What’s your favorite song, he wanted to know. “Case of You”—was that cliché? I couldn’t help it. I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints. “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” he said. (I hadn’t asked.) You think you’re immune, go look at your eyes, they’re full of moon.
His eyes are blue. When we were together, I called them “cornflower” after the small blue flower also known as “bluebottle” and “bachelor’s button.” Had I read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets then, I would have known that although delicate cornflowers (les bluets) grow in the French countryside, in a dream they could easily be “shaggy, wild, strong. They might not signify romance…sent by no one in celebration of nothing.” Had I read Nelson’s beautiful collection—a lyrical essay of her historical, philosophical, and intimate investigation of the color blue—perhaps I would have described the color of his eyes in terms of light or the absence of light: “something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.”
Bluets is a list of two hundred and forty prose fragments: accumulated scraps of information (theories and meditations on the color blue by great writers, artists, and thinkers) and memories that amass to assemble a picture, but not necessarily a whole. Similar to the artist Joseph Cornell, Nelson “builds a bower” of borrowed text and personal details with “fragments of blue dense.” In this way, Nelson is also “a gatherer, not an owner” of these blues, and like a Cornell box, each component is placed purposefully and methodically, condensed to a diorama where all the pieces point to each other, but cannot be summarized.
Inside the blues of this carefully constructed box, an interrupted narrative is articulated through the pain of losing a lover and witnessing a friend suffer the physical trauma of paralysis following a serious accident. If blue becomes “a single hurt color” in “an arrangement in a system to pointing” (Stein), then Nelson’s Bluets is a collection of fragments participating in a composition where each one is dependent upon and related to the other. Both despair and hope are viewed through a blue filter or washed in a blue “rinse.”
I have always believed in making lists, as if I could tidy the grief in my heart by numbering it. After he was gone, I built my own bower of quotes, news scraps, and poetry verses. I keep it as an email draft, one I will never send—a virtual collection that can be abandoned forever, deleted in a single click. Nelson knows the painfulness of forgetting how much you loved someone and speculates that perhaps it can be prevented by accepting “the fundamental impermanence of all things.” She writes: “This acceptance bewilders me: sometimes it seems an act of will; at others, of surrender. Often I feel myself rocking between them (seasickness).”
Someone once told me that the ocean is a forgetful body of water, but I think it is the river that leaves its memory behind. Nelson’s blue fragments “have been shuffled around countless times—now that they have been made to appear, at long last, running forward as one river.” Today when I listen to Joni’s Blue album, I skip to this one:
When do we stop collecting the blue? How much is enough? I’ll admit, his eyes were never a cornflower hue; a more accurate comparison would be sky. “The blue of the sky depends on the darkness of the empty space behind it.” Over time, each bit of “blue dense” dissolves and fades, and sometimes “gives way to darkness.” Then, almost miraculously, “without warning, darkness grows up into a cone of light.”
Maggie Nelson:: Bluets:: Wave Books