The Argonauts

If you must read about parenting, it’s best to read Maggie Nelson, who melds the weird things that happen to your body when preggers with philosophy, art, literature. I dredged this book up via the NYC Bluestockings reading group, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The title refers to the Roland Barthes quote that the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Nelson describes her relationship with Harry, “You’ve punctured my solitude… It had been a useful solitude, constructed, as it was, around a recent sobriety, long walks to and from the Y through the sordid, bougainvillea-strewn back streets of Hollywood, evening drives up and down Mulholland to kill the long nights, and, of course, maniacal bouts of writing, learning to address no one.” She weaves in quotes from D.W. Winnicott (of course), Gilles Deleuze/Claire Parnet, Foucault, Emerson, Anne Carson, etc. and notes the perversity that the most cited and respected books about babies are by men (Winnicott, Spock, Sears, Weisbluth) before chiding herself for not seeking out child-care books written by women. “Am I unconsciously channel-surfing for the male weatherman?” in reference to the fact her mother used to look for this figure on TV since men’s reports seemed more reliable despite both genders working from the same script.

Her relationship with Harry delves into the emotions that come along with a female-to-male transition, the need to write about their relationship but the hurt that Harry has when he views early drafts, and the perils and joys of raising a step-son (and then their own son). On being annoyed by ‘same-sex’ marriage: “Whatever sameness I’ve noted in my relationship with women is not the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.”
She analyzes the relationship of Mary Colby and George Oppen, how Mary marries Oppen’s fake name David Verdi to give Oppen’s family the slip and make it ok that they slept in the same hotel room across America. They were married for fifty-seven years, “fifty-seven years of baffling the paradigm, with ardor.” Mary writes an autobiography (on my list!), which Nelson mentions seeing on Amazon with a single review by a guy who hated it, complaining, “Purchased this book hoping to gain insight into the life of one of my favorite poets. Very little about George and a lot about Mary.” Nelson then rails, “It’s her autobiography, you fucking moron.”

On babies, “I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write,” and “I’m an old mom. I had nearly four decades to become myself before experimenting with my obliteration.”

Some great words on the fearlessness of teachers:

“It’s like she’s pulling Post-it notes out of her hair and lecturing from them,” one of my peers once complained about the teaching style of my beloved teacher Mary Ann Caws. I had to agree, this was an apt description of Caws’s style (and hair). But not only did I love this style, I also loved it that no one could tell Caws to teach otherwise. You could abide her or drop her class: the choice was yours. Ditto Eileen Myles, who tells a great story about a student at UC San Diego once complaining that her lecturing style was like “throwing a pizza at us.” My feeling is, you should be so lucky to get a pizza in the face from Eileen Myles, or a Post-it note plucked from the nest of Mary Ann Caws’s hair.

As she travels the country promoting her book, The Act of Cruelty, while pregnant, she encounters terrible questions, “I can’t help but notice that you’re with child, which leads me to the question–how did you handle working on all this dark material [sadism, masochism, cruelty, violence, and so on] in your condition?” Her response:

Ah yes, I think, digging a knee into the podium. Leave it to the old patrician white guy to call the lady speaker back to her body, so that no one misses the spectacle of that old oxymoron, the pregnant woman who thinks. Which is really just a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks.

Learned: Gertrude Stein’s Q.E.D. tells of a love triangle with May Bookstaver, and Alice jealously omitted every appearance of the word May or may when she re-typed it.