When Poetry Meets Essay Meets Memoir

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which I recently read for the first time and am already rereading, puzzled me. It’s a memoir mourning the death of a relationship. It’s also a series of numbered mini-essays, meditations and aphorisms linked to the colour blue, in its literal and metaphorical manifestation. At times, it reaches poetic intensity, but this is not what we would usually describe as poetry. (Foyles had it displayed in the poetry section, however.) It is the prose-poem mix and research-intensive, allusive type of poetry which has become fashionable in recent years:  practised by Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Ariana Reines and Bhanu Kapil. (There are plenty of earlier examples of it, but it seems to be much more mainstream now.)

I like each of the above-mentioned poets and I liked this book too, if we think of it as poetry, as sudden illuminations of a dark area of the human heart and mind. Vignettes about loss and pain, where the anguished cry of hurt and anger is kept at bay through careful selection of information, data points, quotations. Mediated through this semblance of rationality, the unruly emotions can be filtered for public consumption, unlike the angry, self-pitying outpouring on a blog for instance (just talking about myself here). So a very useful device for passionate writers who want to avoid descending into self-pitying bathos .

135. Of course one can have ‘the blues’ and stay alive, at least for a time. ‘Productive,’ even (the perennial consolation!). See, for example, ‘Lady Sings the Blues’: ‘She’s got them bad/ She feels so sad/ Wants the world to know/ Just what her blues is all about.’ Nonetheless, as Billie Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in deeper and deeper saturation is to eventually move towards darkness.

138. But perhaps there is no real mystery here at all. ‘Life is usually stronger than people’s love for it’ (Adam Phillips): this is what Holiday’s voice makes audible. To hear it is to understand why suicide is both so easy and so difficult: to commit it one has to stamp out this native triumphance, either by training oneself, over time, to dehabilitate or disbelieve it (drugs help here), or by force of ambush.

The author acknowledges this distancing effect. By writing things down, by finding words to share certain moments or feelings with others, she is robbing those moments or feelings of their mystical power. Which can be both good and bad. It might work as a way of overcoming sorrow and loss, but at other times it feels like you’re giving up something too precious:

193. I will admit, however… 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. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many blue things – I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.

Maggie Nelson, from Goodreads author picture.

However, there are two objections or hesitations that I have with this kind of writing. First, if it is poetry, it is too much ‘telling’ and not enough showing. I don’t think rationality and emotion have to be at odds with each other, but when I read or hear poetry I like to feel as if the poet is reaching directly inside my chest and pulling at my heart, or has seen directly into my head and made me aware of things that I’d previously hardly dared to voice. It’s very much like Emily Dickinson said: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ There has to be something unspoken and ungraspable about it. It encompasses all of the poet’s feelings, plus mine, plus so much more.

Secondly, when this type of book is supposed to be a novel, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculationit feels to me like an incredibly lazy way of handling a story arc. Vignettes, no matter how well written, avoid the connective tissue and real plot development. Perhaps it’s a trick writers use to hide their lack of ideas for plotting. It’s as if I were writing the exciting scenes of a novel but leaving out all the links between them, anything which might explain character development (other than the narrator), or running away from the saggy middle because I can’t think how to improve it, or chickening out of a proper ending because I’m afraid I can’t handle it.

This is not the case with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, but I now feel the urge to read her The Argonauts, which has a clearer narrative structure, to see how she handled that. While I agree that modern life is messy and oddly dislocated, it is:

a) Not a new thing: Modernist literature is entirely predicated on this loss of innocence and decline of society.

b) I don’t see why coherence has to be sacrificed to describe messiness in fiction. Perhaps in a time of confusion, we need the boon of structure more than ever, supporting us just enough so that we can play freely within it.

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2016: A Year of Goodbyes

All I seem able to write lately are non-fiction, personal essays or rants about perceived unfairness. Things I’ve always avoided writing before. I hope normal service will resume soon (poetry, book reviews, writerly stuff).

Goodbye, Mont Blanc!
Goodbye, Mont Blanc!

After an insane 2014, a stagnating cesspool of 2015 (I’m talking personal rather than global troubles here), I was looking forward to 2016. It was going to be a year of starting afresh, making changes, taking control. But 2016 has proved fierce, fearsome and unknowable so far. It has drained me more than it has energised.

It has robbed me of David Bowie and Prince, two of my childhood idols. It has robbed me of Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood, whom I got to know and love later. Of course, these are not people I knew personally, but we all feel we know celebrities, just like we feel we know ‘the culture of a country’.

In many ways, the greatest tragedy this year has been that it has robbed me of many of my illusions about and feelings for Britain. For me, it had always been a country that stood out as a beacon of civilisation and civility, fairness and even-handedness, where people talk to each other in moderate tones instead of breaking out into street fights. Over the past few weeks leading up to the referendum, I was beginning to recognise (from the media and the comments in the media) that Brexit had become a real possibility. It did not quite catch me by surprise, but it nevertheless hurt me. It’s not the vote in itself which makes me sad and scared, but the animal it has unleashed, how easily a country (and its people) can change beyond recognition. And yes, I know that there are still plenty of decent people there who are equally bewildered, shocked and hurt by what they see.

This reminds me of a divorce in far too many ways. Which is something else that 2016 is throwing my way, so bear with me as I work through this metaphor:

  1. It’s about emotion rather than rationality. After weighing the pros and cons for far too long, trying to be very rational and fact-based, there comes a time when you lose all common sense. You can only see the things you hate about the other, you cherry pick those arguments and behaviours which prove your point. In other words, you ultimately vote with your gut. And we all look foolish when we react in anger.
  2. There’s no such thing as a clean cut. Perhaps if you are a young couple who’ve been together for a very short while and have no children or joint property, it’s easier to separate. For the rest of us, there are a hundred links, some visible, many invisible, which need to be severed. It’s like cutting off a living organism with profound roots in foreign soil.
  3. You don’t know how much you might be damaging the future generation. Even if you have the best intentions in the world and the most unified approach to parenting, the children will struggle to understand and cope with a divorce. Just imagine what happens when the parents are warring with each other, no one has a clear plan for what happens next and you, the child, are blamed for some of the problems too!
  4. The fault never lies with just one side. It’s tempting to buy into just one side of the story, but the truth always lies somewhere in-between. A marriage seldom falls apart solely through the fault of (the other) person, even though it may be cathartic to believe that for a short while. However, if you continue to believe that, you will never learn from your mistakes and will be an impossible person to live with in your next relationship.
  5. You will feel guilty no matter what. If only I had listened more… If only I had spotted the warning signs earlier and done something about it… If only I could behave more like a grown-up now and not let these emotions get the better of me… If only these children weren’t judging me every day with their eyes…
  6. You will move on, survive and perhaps thrive. You fear for your relationship with your children, your finances, whether you will still have a roof over your head. You go through the motions every day, barely keeping up with the formalities you did not wish for, allowing balls to drop all the time because this kind of juggling isn’t what you wanted to do with your life.

It seems difficult to believe in a period of meltdown, but the hatred won’t last forever in its volatile state as an unstable isotope. You have a choice. You can either allow it to harden into an ice-cold little kernel which will prevent you from ever trusting anyone again. Or you can let it decay, evaporate, blow away like fine dust… and build a more stable isotope to take its place.

Here is a song that has helped me through these last few days in particular, but also for most of the year.

Sia: Unstoppable

 

Goodbye for today, from your Porsche with no brakes and, despite everything, no fear of speaking her mind…