Spectral Blue; Colour in Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

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‘Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a colour…’

– Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson, in her book Bluets (2009), singles out one colour, blue, for special attention, however, it becomes clear very quickly that no colour can exist in isolation, despite the narrator attempting to seek it out in its most pure and powerful forms. Nelson’s blue has a spectral quality that it shares with other elements in her poetic prose. In Bluets the reader is confronted with the highly evocative and subjective nature of colour, juxtaposed with its role as both mediator, cultural marker and symbol. This multifaceted, and at times contradictory use of colour is complemented by Nelson’s poetic prose as a form that flows between multiple literary constructs, creating a work that guides the reader through the loss and yearning of the narrator of Bluets. This essay is not purported to be a forensic or comprehensive look at Nelson’s use of colour in Bluets as the book itself is a rich and dense exploration of that very subject. This essay is an attempt to tease out some of the key deployments of colour and how they relate to themes and form within the work.

When talking about colour in Bluets it is important to outline the way in which Nelson identifies and subcategorises blue into different shades. Blue is used as an umbrella term for such variations of the colour as ultramarine, periwinkle, navy, indigo, lapis lazuli, azure and most notably turquoise. These manifestations are not assigned equal value as Nelson’s narrator indicates; ‘I must admit not all blues thrill me. I am not overly interested in the matte stone of turquoise, for example, and a tepid, faded indigo usually leaves me cold’ (Nelson 2009, pp. 24). Whereas she speaks of the intensity of her feeling towards other shades of blue explicitly throughout the text, for example, the ultramarine pigment that she is hopelessly drawn to without a clear idea of how to address and gratify the deep yearning that she feels (Nelson 2009, pp. 14). In singling out the blue for special attention, Nelson actively engages with discourse surrounding the power of blue as symbology and a more instinctual reaction to the colour without the weight of cultural context as argued by Fallon (2014). Fallon argues in their interrogation of the relationship between blue and the divine through a lens of literary theory and colour theory, that blue is capable of evoking feeling by its effects. This idea of blue as invoking the divine and the sublime is explored then refuted by Nelson;

‘How could the shreds of blue garbage bags stuck in brambles or the bright blue tarps flapping over every shanty and fish stand in the world, be, in essence, the fingerprints of God?’ (Nelson 2009, pp. 11)

‘But what kind of love is it really? Don’t fool yourself and call it sublimity.’ (Nelson 2009, pp. 14)

Resisting the temptation to call her love and desire for blue a yearning for the divine she instead looks for the genesis of the intensification of longing for the colour in her emotional vulnerability during a period of loneliness; ‘I know loneliness can produce bolts of hot pain, a pain which, can begin to simulate or to provoke-take your pick-an apprehension of the divine. (This ought to arouse our suspicions.)’ (Nelson 2009, pp.11).

It is during these early pages of Bluets that we are first introduced to the potential of the nonhuman colour blue in demonstrating human characteristics;

And what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?

37. Are you sure-one would like to ask-that it cannot love you back

– Nelson 2009, pp. 23.

The power of colour to evoke specific feelings is not limited to blue, for no colour exists in isolation within the text. Nelson uses red repeatedly as a means of comparison to blue; Where red is used it is a stop sign (Nelson 2009, pp. 26), the colour of violence (Nelson 2009, pp. 63), the favourite colour of children and one of the colours linked to ‘fucking’. Red is an intense colour that demands attention in contrast to the blues that provide relief and mimic (or manifest) sublimity. The other colour inside ‘fucking’ that flows in inky ribbons along the blood-red ribbons is black. Black is also the void of the galaxy (Nelson 2009, pp. 73) and paired with white is the monochromatic absence of colour (Nelson 2009, pp. 76-77). Yellow, on the other hand, invokes feelings of incompletion, in the case of the bower birds’ nest (Nelson 2009, pp. 38) and the yellow poncho that the narrator wears while desperately seeking blue (Nelson 2009, pp. 104). It is a sickly colour as in the unbearable yellow walls that are painted with a colour like ‘death warmed up’ (pp. 42) and the ‘baby-shit’ yellow of the walls in the showers (Nelson 2009, pp. 20). Where Nelson alludes to blue as a cure for something unidentified (Nelson 2009, pp.17-18), perhaps yellow signifies that unidentified malady.

The symbology of these colours is not unique to Nelson’s work. For example, Fallon points out blue has long been associated with the divine, serene and sublime (2014) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses yellow in a similar fashion to Nelson to convey nausea and discomfort in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (Gilman 2013). Parsons (2018) explores this use of colour as a societally constructed constant that effectively bridges the gap between audience and writer, using colour for its commonly recognisable and evocative nature to traverse culturally constructed barriers. This use of colour as a ‘tool’ (Parsons 2018) for making sense of trauma appeals to the reader’s sense of colour to evoke feelings similar to those being experienced by the narrator. Evocative and emotive experiences of colour that are drawn upon such as a particularly blue sky, sea or blue glass catching the sun tap into everyday occurrences that may form an emotional marker by which the reader can relate to the desire and loss felt by the narrator.

The symbology and societal connotations of the colour blue extend beyond divinity and the sublime. Nelson juxtaposes the linguistic use of ‘blue’ as a term referring to sadness and depression with her narrator’s feelings of joy and desire surrounding the colour; she says that she never saw blue that makes her sad. However, she does acknowledge the ‘blues’, in particular, Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues (Nelson 2009, pp. 63) and Joni Mitchell’s album Blue (Nelson 2009, pp. 27) as being somewhat expressive of her state of loss and yearning. The narrator also ruminates on the use of the term blue to refer to the taboo, the sexual or the rude such as Andy Warhol’s sexually explicit ‘Blue Movie, otherwise known as Fuck’ (Nelson 2009, pp. 80). Blue is established as the colour of desire early in the text in which the narrator talks of tracing her nipples with blue pigment (Nelson 2009, pp. 14) and in which the spectacle of sex is depicted in a bluish hue (Nelson 2009, pp. 29). This yearning for blue manifests in a multitude of ways including corporeal forms like touching and gathering. However, this tangible and corporeal desire and yearning are identified as separate and different from the physical act of sexual intercourse; ‘there is a color inside of the fucking, but it is not blue’ (Nelson 2009, pp. 29). Blue is able to be sexual and attractive, it can even be sensual, but it is not a part of the corporeal mechanics of human sex. Sex or ‘fucking’ as Nelson uses the term to connotate the extreme corporality and violence of the act, is made of red, the colour of violence and black the colour of void and absence of light. Nelson makes clear the distinction between the emotive spectacle and the physical, with blue symbolising an unattainable desire that at the moment of acquisition morphs into something else. An example of this is the dissatisfaction that the narrator feels when she assembles her collection of blue objects to find that the sought after meaning or essence of blue has still somehow evaded her (Nelson 2009, pp. 102).

In Bluets the bounds of the human form and what it is capable of being attracted to is challenged in a distinctly post-humanist fashion (Badmington 2000, pp. 1). At points Nelson refuses to differentiate between the human and colour, she is in love with a colour in many ways the same as one might love a human, ‘shredding her napkin’ as she confesses to that love (Nelson 2009, pp. 14). The boundaries of the human form and indeed the literary form are continually challenged and broken. This breaking down of colour and the human form allows Nelson to convey the difficulty of knowing another person (McConnell 2018, pp. 521) and defining the boundaries of their presence. This is echoed in the way Nelson’s narrator struggles to define blue and the problem presented by colour as a spectrum when attempting to categorise something. The colour bleeds and blends invading other spaces and defying simple definition in the same way as the narrator’s lover has seeped into other parts of her life. This spilling over and spreading of colour, desire and identity make the problem of loss and removal of a particular element or person painful and seemingly impossible.

In an effort to make sense of her experience of colour, Nelson’s narrator draws on scholarly research and theoretical writing in a way that sometimes borders on the scholarly. These theories and histories of colour as ruminated on by ‘great thinkers’ and Nelson herself, in turn, are used to unpack and rationalise emotional responses (Parsons 2018). Rather than provide a stable metric for understanding desire, loss and the colour blue the reader and the narrator are confronted with the societal preoccupation with quantifying and identifying the nature of colour. However, the ambiguity and spectral nature of colour provide ‘a distilled demonstration of our inability to share an exact understanding of the world with one another’ (Parsons 2018). The narrator interrogates the efficacy of academic constructs such as scientific theory, philosophy and history in explaining something as evocative and emotional as the desire for colour or the loss experienced at the end of a relationship. 

Despite the use of colour as a cultural marker or societal constant, its spectral quality means that not only are their many kinds of blue, there are also manifestations of colour that some may call blue that the narrator sees differently as in the incident with the jacaranda tree which appears to the narrator as purple (Nelson 2009, pp. 61). There are points at which her ‘correspondents’ bring blue items to her that do not move her emotionally and she feels extraordinary pressure to be excited and enthusiastic about a blue item that brings her no joy, so much has her identity become entangled with blue (Nelson 2009, pp. 25). The love of blue has become a defining characteristic of the narrator; she is the woman who loves blue, the woman who is writing about blue and the woman who is collecting blue. In this way using colour as a cultural marker, something that remains fixed and easy to identify becomes woefully inadequate. Blue and indeed all colour is not fixed, and the narrator is not, despite others tethering her identity to it, an arbiter of what is blue and what is not. More than once we find that her knowledge of blue is fallible exemplified by her assertion she had known ‘all along’ that the colour of the universe is blue, when it is, in fact, beige (Nelson 2009, pp. 101). 

The multifaceted use of the colour blue and its spectral neighbours is not only reflected in the structure of the prose but enhanced by it. Poetic prose as a hybrid form (Atherton & Heatherington 2015) mimics and enhances the posthumanist vision of desire in which multiple human and nonhuman entities and concepts interact with little regard for human exceptionalism. Nelson’s text combines biography, lyrical verse and essay in much the same way as blue as depicted in Bluets as colour, the object of desire, emotional state, and almost human its capabilities. The Prince of Blue and the Princess of Blue are tied up within abstractions of blue as a colour, they are part of the blue collection, they are blue ‘correspondents’ and they are a symbol. Using prose poetry Nelson can sustain ‘simultaneous’ and ‘heterogenous’ spaces (Atherton & Heatherington 2015) in which ‘blue’ is capable of embodying a multitude of meanings and in which human entities are brought into focus and obscured as needed.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson is a text that delves into the concept of colour in multiple modes aided by the poetic prose structure that she has adopted. Through her narrator, Nelson presents the woeful inadequacy of human comprehension when faced with the sheer enormity of loss and desire. Using the common social construct of colour Nelson can communicate intense emotions to the reader, providing a useful marker by which the reader can relate to the narrator. Bluets does not provide any concise or comprehensive answers about the nature of colour, rather evokes the vast and engulfing shared experiences of loss, desire and the fallibility of our own senses and understanding in generating meaning.

References

  • Atherton, C & Hetherington, P 2015, ‘‘Unconscionable Mystification’?: Rooms, Spaces and the Prose Poem, New writing, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 265-281.
  • Badmington, N 2000, Posthumanism, Macmillan International Higher Education, London, UK.
  • Fallon, B 2014, ‘A (blue) nt: Beyond the Symbology of the Colour Blue.’, Literature & Aesthetics, vol. 24, no. 2.
  • Gilman, CP 2013, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, Harper Collins, Google Books edition.
  • McConnell, A 2018, ‘Writing the Impossibility of Relation: Marguerite Duras’s La Maladie de la mort, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story.’, Comparative Literature Studies, Project MUSE, vol. 55 no. 3, pp. 512-539, <muse.jhu.edu/article/704946>.
  • Nelson, M 2009, Bluets, Wave Books, Google Books edition.
  • Parsons, A 2018, ‘A Meditation on Color and the Body in Derek Jarman’s Chroma and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets’, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 375-393, doi: 10.1080/08989575.2018.14455870.

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