Nothing, it seems, falls outside Maggie Nelson’s field of inquiry. The author of four books of poetry and five books of non-fiction, she extends the possibilities of both forms, refusing to settle for, or into, either. Unsettling definitions and reworking categories is not only the modus operandi of her writing, but also its subject matter. Bluets (2009) is a whole book of what might be called poetry, about the colour blue, which is also, of course, about other things: desire, heartbreak, loss. She has written two books about the murder of her aunt, Jane: A Murder (2005), which thinks through the trauma of the event, and The Red Parts (2007), a more documentary account of criminal and social justice, that accounts for new evidence that emerged while writing the first.
The Art of Cruelty (2011) is a study of the avant-garde that rethinks the boundaries between art and life that much of twentieth century art worked so hard to perform. By examining her own simultaneous attraction and repulsion to works of art that engage with cruelty, she makes a cogent case for both looking at, and turning away, from violence. It is this kind of response – a critical model that locates value not in argument, or in partisan positions, but in receptivity, sensitivity and tenderness, that Nelson gives us a new kind – the right kind – of language through which to think both the messiness of life and the possibilities of art.
Her most recent book, The Argonauts, is a love story, which is also a story about motherhood, about queerness and representation. It’s a story that exists in transitional space, in the possibilities of love, the inevitable failures of intimacy, the limits of identity, the paradoxes of queer futurity and in paradigms that are constantly undergoing revision as their context shifts. It explores not only what kinds of love we have to give, but what family-making (a word she hates) might mean and what good-enough mothering might entail. Most of all, it considers what kind of transgressions are worthy of thinking about, what kinds of freedom we need to fight for, and what privacy we need to protect.
I met Nelson in a cafe in Highland Park in Los Angeles on a rare, overcast morning. She had just come from reading The New York Times’ op-ed, ‘Love and Merit: Parenting in America is experiencing a silent epidemic of conditional love.’ In person, she is disarmingly generous, fiercely smart, exhilaratingly curious and tender, the hallmark qualities of her writing.