Maggie Nelson normally charms me, so I was surprised to find myself yawning through this book, mostly a function of mood, as I was headed out the door to gift it to a friend. For some reason I thought I’d read it before, and when I bought a copy of it, I’d intended it for my forever shelves. In her usual way, she meanders around Gertrude Stein and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Goethe’s theory of color and various and sundry Greek philosophers and Joseph Cornell, Monet, Mallarme. What I like best is the meditation on a central theme that anchors the book but allows wide sway. Is it poetry, is it digestible mainly because of its tiny fragments that our attention-addled brains can grasp onto?

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial

I like Maggie Nelson’s work. This is her 2007 memoir about 2005 the cold case murder trial for her aunt Jane’s 1969 killing. She spent five years working on a book of poems about her aunt’s murder, all while a detective in Michigan was working on the cold case, unbeknownst to her. This memoir is an exploration of grief, understanding violence against women, uncovering things deeply buried.

“How does one measure the loss of anyone? Is measurement a necessary part of grief? Is a life less grievable if its prospects for the future… don’t appear bright?”

During the trial, she has drinks with an old friend and walks home to the rented home her mom waits in after a stop by the railroad tracks to lay down and listen to the quiet world. “For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating… To make your claim on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into its sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive. It’s a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling. Many still try. You’ve been told a million times that to be alone and female and in public late at night is to court disaster, so it’s impossible to know if you’re being bold and free or stupid and self-destructive.”

She finds comfort in the arms of the same lovers I do: Schopenhauer, Winnicott, and various literary lions. Winnicott’s quote, “Fear of breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced,” was solace for Nelson (shoe’s already dropped!) until she realized that it’s not that breakdowns don’t recur but that the fear of the past may cause its repetition.

The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

I was afraid to read this book, not wanting to face the images that Nelson might foist upon my brain, but admiration for her writing won out and I primly frolicked through the pages. My overall impression is a smudge of characters (Artaud, de Sade, Plath, Kafka, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Chris Burden, Wittgenstein, Gaitskill, Derrida) whose names act as shortcuts or passwords for entry into this realm of thought. The biggest takeaway was learning about some pieces I’d never known about and confirming that the 1970s were probably the best decade by far for making art:

  • Burden’s crazed work of the early 1970s: 220– filling a gallery with a foot of water/4 wooden ladders/climbing up with 3 other people/tossing in a live electrical current and remaining in danger for 6 hours; Deadman – laying down in traffic on busy La Cienega Blvd in LA with 2 flares by his body, covered by a tarp. Cops ask him what he’s doing, “Making sculpture.”; his famous Shoot where his friend shoots him in the upper arm with a .22; the failure of TV Hijack where he pretended to hijack a news anchor on live TV; and his TV Ad where he purchased as much air time as he could afford – 10 seconds – to air a snippet of footage of another piece where he crows on his stomach through broken glass only wearing underwear.
  • An early work (1974) of Marina Abramovic in Naples, Italy, similar to Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece: Rhythm 0, performed only once, where she stood motionless for six hours with objects laid out for audience to use on her body, including a gun, scalpel, needle, knife, rose, olive oil. “Violations to Abramovic’s body begin slowly, then pick up speed. By the end of the performance, her clothes have been cut off, her body burned, sliced, and decorated. Eventually a man holds the loaded gun to her head and tries to make her fire it, at which point some audience members intervene to stop him.”
  • Gordon Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecture” in the 70s, making core cuts in buildings scheduled for demolition in NYC.
  • Eleanor Antin’s 1972 piece Carving: A Traditional Sculpture which used her body as living marble along with a thirty-six day diet, photographing her body slimming “almost imperceptibly over the days, her vacant stare prohibiting any happy before-and-after narrative.”
  • Nao Bustamante’s 1992 Indig/urrito performance inviting white men from the audience to get on stage and kneel in penance for the 500 years of white-male oppression of natives then bite the burrito she wore like a strap-on.
  • Not intentionally an art piece, but the surveillance cameras along the Mexican border used in the Texas Virtual Border Watch Program where users at home can pick a spot to monitor. One housewife in Rochester, NY watches at least four hours a day. Nelson visits the website: “there were fifteen cameras rolling on scenes of bucolic calm. My favorites were Camera 5, which featured a still patch of golden weeds with the directive, ‘During the day watch for subjects on foot carrying large bags,’ and Camera 10, which featured a swiftly moving river alongside the directive, ‘During the day if you see four or five men in a boat report this activity. AT night if you see a vehicle, boat, or people movement report this activity.’ The static, unending nature of the footage bears a weird resemblance to the endurance-based, art-house aesthetic of, say Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964)—a film that consists of eight hours and five minutes of continuous footage of the Empire State Building—or that of a virtual yule log, albeit one of a more sinister variety.”

Nelson gives a shout out to a list of women writers, including Jean Rhys, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Marguerite Duras, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Octavia Butler, Eileen Myles, Gaitskill, Highsmith, Compton-Burnett.


Just went down a Lydia Davis rabbit hole and discovered a great interview with her. This part about not naming characters resonates:


You rarely give your characters names. Why is that?


I’ve always felt that naming was artificial. I’ve done it. I wrote about one woman and called her Mrs. Orlando, because the woman I based her on lived in Florida. Recently I wrote a story called “The Two Davises and the Rug” because I have a neighbor named Davis and he and I were trying to decide which one should end up with a certain rug, and I was very fond of using that name, even though it wouldn’t make much difference to anybody if I called it “The Two Harrises and the Rug.”

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.