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Bluets by Maggie Nelson

“I will admit […] that writing does do something to one’s memory — that at times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve.”
from Bluets by Maggie Nelson

On Saturday afternoon the winter sun filled the living room with long slants of light and I stretched out on the sofa & read the whole of Bluets, a pencil in my hand, a cat on my lap. Oh what rare bliss! To read a book in a single sitting and follow the wandering path of someone’s thoughts from start to finish. A small boy with a ‘deep cough’ lay on the rug beside me building an intricate system of cogs and asking a question for each of the 95 pages of the book, but that didn’t take away from my pleasure.

Bluets is a poet’s meditation on blue — “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color”. Nelson weaves art, science and philosophy with two strands from her own life: the breakdown of her relationship with the man she calls ‘the prince of blue’, and a friend’s horrific accident and its aftermath. Constructed in 240 numbered paragraphs or Wittgensteinian propositions (Wittgenstein and Goethe are listed as ‘principal suppliers’ in Nelson’s credits), it’s the best kind of collage, made of pieces that are interesting and beautiful on their own, but combine to create a repetition and patterning that makes something more of the whole.

And the pleasure of reading it all at once was the pleasure of immersing myself its net of references and its simple understated sentences. Nelson took me to places I’ve never been — Wittgenstein’s philosophy for one, the art of Joan Mitchell for another — but also back to places I have: Marguerite Duras and the opening of The Lover, Novalis and his unfinished story of the blue flower (though, sadly, not on to Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower), the writing of Adam Phillips. There’s a great collection of some of Nelson’s references here.

Like the bowerbirds who ‘collect and arrange blue objects’, Nelson presents us with her scraps and pieces and tiny treasures of blue. ‘Am I trying, with these “propostions” to build some kind of bower?’ she asks. ‘–But surely this would be a mistake. For starters, words do not look like the things they designate (Maurice Merleau-Ponty).’ But, whatever it is she’s built out of her pieces of blue, this collection of the very personal and the universal has lured me into its spell. Here’s how Nelson ends, after telling us that Simone Weil warned, ‘Love is not consolation. It is light.’

“When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.”


I was pointed to this piece by Tim Parks on reading pen in hand in the comments section of Kerry’s blog. I’m an instant convert. Though, only pencil is going to touch the pages of my books. Already, writing this was made much faster by being able to find the sections I wanted to straight away. (Strangely I have no problem reading pencil in hand with non-fiction books. My reverence and problems only start when I’m reading fiction or poetry.) (And, final thing, I read the Tim Park’s column on my phone. Amazing! My Instapaper problem may be over.)


  1. Well, I’ve been coming to your blog (and enjoying it) on account of that comments section too–isn’t it interesting how connections are made? Have now added”Bluets” to my list-to-read, I recall hearing about it some years ago. — But, re marking books. I just gave it my first-ever try (beyond the days of university when I marked my texts for study purposes) with a P.D. James book I had on my shelves but had not yet read, but now did in honor of her (because of her recent death), “Innocent Blood”. I have to say, the jury is still out for me. It feels so raw somehow, the reactions enroute instead of gathered up in my book journal at the end. Though I do like being able to page back and quickly find underlined sentences that wowed me. — Well, I’ll give it another go. But definitely, only pencil! All best.

    • Thanks, Dora. Lovely to know that you’re here. And, yes, these connections — and the new places they lead to — are great. I had such a happy half-hour in the archives of Tim Parks’ column after I’d read the piece you referred to. I know what you mean about the rawness of writing in a book. My usual system is to use those little sticky flags to mark pages. But they count as treasure to my magpie children & seem to disappear only to turn up again when I’m shaking out someone’s pockets or changing their bed. So the simplicity of a pencil was quite an advance. Thinking back though I realise that I only underlined — no scribbled questions or thoughts, which was perhaps more what Tim Parks was advocating. Maybe that’s the next stage. So often I returned to those little flags & couldn’t remember why I’d marked that particular passage. I’d love to hear how you get on with your next try. I thought he was so persuasive about the need to stay alert & active as we read (which is to say, as I read). Oh and, as an aside, I love other people’s marginalia in secondhand books…that great combination of sharing their reading experience & reading something that wasn’t necessarily meant to be made public!

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