Although The Arnogauts is listed on several suggested summer reads lists, it should not at all be mistaken for a light read. Indeed, Maggie Nelson’s latest work seeks to complicate issues too often oversimplified, such as those regarding families and motherhood. Or perhaps more accurately: Nelson’s writing points out the complications and complexities that already exist but are frequently omitted from polite small talk, social media quips, and cable news sound bites.
A writer, poet, and academic, Nelson’s body of work is diverse. She has published several works of poetry; Bluets (2009), a book-length prose poem; two works that addressed her aunt’s violent rape and murder in 1969 (prior to Nelson’s birth); and several more culturally focused works, including The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2012). Nelson’s writing often blends genres depending on her subject, and The Argonauts is no different: the work is a 143-page essay that meanders from one idea to another and then circles back to thread them together without more than short section breaks between thoughts.
The Argonauts takes its name from Roland Barthes’s self-named work; in it, he compares the person who says “I love you” to the remaking that happens to Jason’s ship, the Argo, in Greek mythology. Over time, each piece of the Argo was replaced as needed by its sailors, which eventually resulted in a new ship, though the name (and form) remained unchanged. In the same way, Nelson’s interest is in exploring how this change might be possible—or always already happening—in a relationship, or more widely, such as in the social institution of marriage, even as the assigned name remains the same.
The question of whether transformation is possible once words have been used, names assigned, is fraught for a writer. Nelson has written elsewhere that “words are enough,” yet when she brings the concept of the Argo to sexuality, she immediately understands the necessary paradox which exists between our words and our genders and identity. Thus, the question of how to make our words malleable. It is here where Nelson spends most of her time, one of her primary subjects being her partner, artist Harry Dodge, who identifies as fluidly gendered, neither male nor female: “Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again.” As such Nelson’s project is to take socially loaded words, such as gender, marriage, and mother, and push at the edges in an effort to discern whether it is possible to expand the boundaries of an idea once we are inside it. Maggie Nelson’s gift is her ability to convey how this question is relevant to a larger audience, one that is also interested in continually challenging and expanding binaries and other limiting terms that restrict our engagement with the world around us.
At the time of the book’s writing, the question of how to both retain and renew is especially pertinent. Nelson’s life is rife with significant changes: a new relationship with Dodge; a new role as a stepmother to her partner’s young son; extended efforts to conceive at the same time her partner is transitioning his body with testosterone and top surgery; her eventual pregnancy and the birth of her son, who had serious health problems during his first year; and the illnesses and deaths of mentors and family members.
Nelson uses these experiences to ground her much larger inquiry into queerness, intimate and familial relationships, and numerous aspects of parenthood. She skillfully weaves together moments of the everyday with larger theoretic questions and quotations from scholars, artists, and writers. The typesetting of the book references authors of quotes in the left and right margins of the book, thus eliminating the need for awkward attributions or footnotes, and allowing the book to take on the form of an uninterrupted extended essay.
The Argonauts is not Nelson’s first hybrid work anchored by the personal, but it is perhaps more relentlessly universal, political, and cultural in its scope than Bluets or The Red Parts. Indeed, the more distance I get from reading The Argonauts, the more Nelson’s questions and concerns resurface in my thinking and reading. The pertinence of her questions is timely considering the intense media coverage surrounding Caitlyn Jenner, photos from Pride parades across the country, and the Supreme Court’s ruling that gay marriage is now legal.
Nelson writes of her own wedding just before Proposition 8 was passed in California (banning gay marriage) and whether there is still the potential for queerness while also participating in such a hetero-normative institution: “Poor marriage! Off we went to kill it (unforgiveable). Or reinforce it (unforgiveable).” Later, in speaking about an art installment, Nelson considers the work as one that “reminds us that any bodily experience can be made new and strange, that nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it, that no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical or the so-called normative.”
The body underlies much of The Argonauts, as it relates so directly to Nelson’s foci. The first paragraph notes the sexual position Nelson and her partner were in the first time she said, “I love you,” which works precisely to indicate that lives, emotions, and relationships are deeply embodied in a way that is often ignored, deliberately omitted or censored. Though sexual moments are presented to the reader, intimacy is clearly maintained between the lovers; these are not the times Nelson is most vulnerable to her audience, nor are these the times Nelson is posing questions or inviting a response. Instead, it is when Nelson recalls her individual moments of doubt or embarrassment that she is most open, such as in describing the time she and a friend used Google in an attempt to determine her partner’s preferred gender pronoun: “I want the you no one else can see, the you so close the third person never need apply.”
Later, when she is pregnant and Dodge is recovering from surgery, Nelson writes,
You pass as a guy; I, as pregnant. Our waiter, cheerfully tells us about his family, expresses delight in ours. On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more “male,” mine, more and more “female.” But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.
Ultimately, The Argonauts takes up numerous conversations, ties them together, and then sends them out into the world to be considered separately or as one. It offers a draft for how we might all go about “bearing each other loose witness,” by deeply listening to each other and acknowledging the reality of others’ experiences, but also by reexamining our own axioms over and over again. It is in the latter Nelson demonstrates how to continually ask questions, to push words to their farthest limits and back again, and find pleasure in the process.
Emily Gould’s interview with Maggie Nelson for Poetry Foundation.
Micah McCrary’s interview with Nelson for Los Angeles Review of Books.
About the Reviewer
Karen Montgomery Moore received her M.A. in English from Colorado State University. Her research and writing focuses on depictions of the body in literature and cultural studies.