Not Poetry

Bluets BY Maggie Nelson. Wave Books. Paperback, 112 pages. $14.

The cover of Bluets

If the past couple of decades have seen poetry slip ever further out of the literary conversation (notices in mainstream book reviews often seem pointed at reassuring even avid readers that nothing’s happened since they parsed Wallace Stevens in college), the genre itself might be said to be laboring at self-erasure. And that actually counts as a promising development. While the conventions of an essay, novel, or memoir have always been elastic, verse has traditionally been defined by specifics enumerated down to the very syllable. A generation of poets, one including figures such as Susan Howe, Clark Coolidge, Ron Silliman, and Anne Carson, has produced work that isn’t just unrecognizable on the page as poetry, but that also subverts the typical poem’s all-too-familiar arc toward epiphany. The classification of their work as “poetry” is a resort more useful to librarians than to anyone desiring an informative designation.

In recent years a fresh cadre of authors—M. NourbeSe Philip, Vanessa Place, Joe Wenderoth, Fred Moten, Cole Swensen, and Christian Hawkey, among others—has furthered this evolution. Of particular note is Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, published in 2009, an unclassifiable text that selects from a wide assortment of written modes to effect a precise meditation on color, perception, feeling, and philosophy. The volume’s numbered passages recall Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” and John Ashbery’s “Europe”; its encyclopedic exploration of a color draws on Goethe even as it dissents from William H. Gass’s On Being Blue; and the personal narrative threaded throughout sounds the piquant, obliquely pitched notes that we find in Lydia Davis’s stories and Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms. While rendered in prose, Nelson’s language possesses the compact lyricism we expect from verse: “The half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean is this love’s primal scene. That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless.”

There is also a decidedly poetic rhythm to the author’s movement from scholarly dictions to those more intimate, from essayistic approaches to her material to those marked by a storyteller’s shrewd eye for sub-rosa drama. Amid an ongoing exegesis of quotes from Goethe, Joseph Cornell, Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein, and Emerson, Nelson embeds a tale of a critically injured friend, their relationship, and her own growing awareness of the vividness of pain and loss: “When I walked into my friend’s hospital room, her eyes were a piercing pale blue and the only part of her body that could move. I was scared. So was she. The blue was beating.”

Where such a book might be shelved, any reader could say. Nelson’s expressive style springs from her subject as much as the content, in turn, inflects her vocabulary, tone, and structure. Seeking such reciprocity—no less an ideal than, say, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”—may radically redefine poetry, as it increasingly becomes the genre that is not one.

Albert Mobilio’s most recent book of poetry is Touch Wood (Black Square Editions, 2011).