Bookmarked: Maggie Nelson’s ‘Bluets’ Makes Loneliness Lyrical

Writer Hailey Gates mulls over the 95 pages of Maggie Nelson’s 2009 book “Bluets” and all its poetic contemplation.

If anyone has ever made delusion beautiful, it’s Maggie Nelson in her 2009 book “Bluets.” 

As Nelson comes to terms with love and loss after a turbulent ending to a toxic relationship, Nelson meditates on loneliness and her complacency in it. Abstractly synthesizing fragments of her life with inspiring pieces of writing, philosophy and art, Nelson ponders her solitude through an unorthodox mechanism — the color blue. 

“And so I fell in love with a color — in this case, the color blue — as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns,” Nelson writes.  

Using the color blue as a metaphor for her melancholic feelings, Nelson oscillates between personal encounters with the hue and her experiences with grief to convey her inability to let go of the past. 

“Bluets” teeters between memoir and philosophical exercise, as the 95-page book is written in short, lyrical bursts of prose numbered one through 240. 

Teeming with brute honesty and a self-awareness occasionally morphing into self-reproach, Nelson’s writing is acutely vulnerable. Although the described events are unique to Nelson, she recalls them in a universal manner, leaving the reader torn between resonating with and recoiling from her shocking sincerity. 

“Last night I wept in a way I haven’t wept for some time,” Nelson writes. “I wept until I aged myself. I watched it happen in the mirror. I watched the lines arrive around my eyes like engraved sunbursts; it was like watching flowers open in time-lapse on a windowsill.” 

In moments like these, reading Nelson’s thoughts feels like gawking at a car crash you can’t look away from. 

And yet, she finds the blue beauty in the midst of her tragedy. Grueling memories are broken up by winsome epiphanies reflective of Nelson’s dedication to working through her sadness. These passages convey a discrete sense of hope. 

“That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it,” Nelson writes. “To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless.”

Nelson’s capacity for language makes “Bluets” a must-read. Her commitment to detail and honesty make her emotionally explicit anecdotes enrapturing and image-inducing despite their abstract nature. 

It’s apparent that writing the book itself is a therapeutic endeavor for Nelson, as the reader seems to accompany her on a journey of introspection and self-growth. 

“Writing is, in fact, an astonishing equalizer,” Nelson writes. “It, too, kills the time.” 

Yet, Nelson also discusses the difficulty of writing throughout “Bluets,” contextualizing the nuanced and unrelenting nature of her inability to let go. 

“I have enjoyed telling people I am writing a book about blue without actually doing it,” Nelson writes. “But you talk of all this jauntily, when really it is more like you have been mortally ill, and these correspondents send pieces of blue news as if last-ditch hopes for a cure.” 

Nelson’s conception of blue becomes both a cancer and a cure, a cyclical reprieve from her life and herself as well as a constant reminder of it. 

As she orbits around the color blue, Nelson begins to unravel the roots of her loneliness. Relying on words, memories and an army of blue accoutrement, she comes to terms with past and present, looking instead towards the future. 

“Mostly, I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness,” Nelson writes. “I am still looking for the beauty in that.” 

At the end of the book, Nelson is still looking. But as the contemplations end, her rhetoric takes an overtly auspicious turn. Almost a call to action, the final lines leave the reader with a sense of hope for what is to come. 

“All right then, let me try to rephrase,” Nelson writes. “When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.” 

“Bookmarked” is a recurring book review column. 

Featured image by Ryan Pittman / The Phoenix

Hailey Gates

Hailey Gates