The Argonauts
Maggie Nelson
Graywolf, $23 (cloth)

The most radical thing about The Argonauts is not Maggie Nelson’s love affair with her genderfluid partner, Harry Dodge, or the fact that she mentions ass fucking and Wittgensteinian paradoxes on the first page. It’s true: Nelson is more than willing to give us searingly intelligent musings on philosophy, scenes of love, raunchy sex, her thoughts on queerness—and does so, often. But while these topics are hugely important, requiring continual probing from the world’s radical citizens, they are rarely as ghettoized as motherhood, procreation, children, and family are in the creative world and academia. Where most writers would hold back, Nelson lopes forward: “I was ashamed, but undaunted (my epithet?).”

Nelson writes about what it feels like and what is going on chemically in the mind when breastfeeding, and how much she loves her new infant’s little butt. She describes her experiences of late-pregnancy constipation, sexual penetration post-childbirth, the post-partum period, and the toxins passed to the baby via breast milk. Nelson gives us accounts of herself as a woman so undomestic she lets hardened mouse shit stay uncleaned in her oven, to years later, when she is pulling leaves from her infant’s mouth, the writing leaning into the feminism of both of those acts. I hate to call it brave because it shouldn’t be, but it is. We live in a world where if you are a parent and an artist and/or an academic you are often overlooked or not considered serious enough. If you’re queer and have given birth, you are a “breeder” according to some in the radical queer population—or, to many in the conservative camp, destroying the nuclear family. As Nelson states in a recent interview on The Argonauts, “If you dug The Art of Cruelty because I talk about edgy guy art but then feel yucked out or disinterested here because I’m describing a placenta, your loss.”

Nelson targets both conservative and queer thinkers for their focus on “normative” domesticity and procreativity. She writes, “I beheld and still behold in anger and agony the eagerness of the world to throw piles of shit on those of us who want to savage or simply cannot help but savage the norms that so desperately need savaging.” The trouble, she suggests, comes when people dictate the methods for upending or critiquing those norms. For Nelson, “whatever sameness I’ve noted in my relationships 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.” This understanding includes an awareness that not only are those who are more obviously opposed to a radical queer feminist’s decisions (misogynists, bigots) going to try to police you—but so will your peers, your compatriots in the fight against the patriarchy.

I hate to call it brave because it shouldn’t be, but it is.

In one passage, a colleague reassures Nelson, who has offered the explanation that she “just had a baby” as the reason for taking time before her next book, that her desire to focus on her work (note what he considers “work”) would likely return. As in Bluets (2009), Nelson denotes a shift in topic with an abrupt break between prose paragraphs, a break that delays the delivery of meaning or argument. Think Roland Barthes, Claudia Rankine. Nelson circles back to earlier ideas and addresses them askance, a paragraph or two away. A page after this interaction with the colleague, Nelson mentions a seminar with theorist Jane Gallop and art critic Rosalind Krauss she attended as a student. Gallop projected photographs of herself and her newborn, of her messy domesticity, and Krauss thrashed Gallop’s thinking: “the tacit undercurrent of her argument, as I felt it, was that Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind.” The implications of Nelson’s own colleague’s statements are thus thrown into relief: “In the face of such shaming, I felt no choice. I stood with Gallop.” These gestures—the postponement and recurrence in the delivery of meaning—work much like memory does. One moment seems notable to us, then resurfaces when another, years later, rings with the same overtone. Only then, through a deep trust in her reader’s attention and intelligence, is her attitude toward the initial incident made clear.

Nelson quotes others, offsetting their words in italics and adding their names in the margin. The eye interacts with the marginal text with a kind of economy similar to a footnote, but with more intimacy. This device (taken from Barthes) allows for an easy flow between Nelson’s ideas and those with whom she finds herself in conversation (poets, theorists, artists, scholars). Unlike inline quotations, which she also uses, italicized quotes seem to indicate a deeper level of access to Nelson’s mind, where voices, for good or for ill, demand her attention, even infiltrate her line of thought.

But let’s return to that enticing first page. Nelson lays out her obsession with a thought, her motivation to write: “Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed.” “Words are good enough,” she insists, and then notes, “Before long I learned that you [Dodge] had spent a lifetime equally devoted to the conviction that words are not good enough. Not only not good enough, but corrosive to all that is good.” Rather than allow themselves to be repelled by the difference in opinion, they push on it, together, hashing it out with passionate arguments, both parties ultimately conceding (a little). This kind of heady philosophical debate is paired with description of intense physical attraction and sexual pleasure, presented in small but revealing kernels: “Just don’t kill me, I said as you took off your leather belt, smiling,” and, “Why did it take me so long to find someone with whom my perversities were not only compatible, but perfectly matched? Then as now, you spread my legs with your legs and push your cock into me, fill my mouth with your fingers.” The book is at times wonderfully lewd.

As their relationship progresses, Nelson and Dodge begin “passing” as a cis-heteronormative couple. Dodge starts injecting testosterone; Nelson attempts pregnancy via in vitro fertilization. Though Dodge “identif[ies] as a butch on T,” Nelson’s swelling middle and Dodge’s top surgery (not to mention Dodge’s son often in tow) means they are read by many as a procreative hetero couple. “But what about it is the essence of heteronormativity?” Nelson asks. “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s ‘normal’ state, and occasions a radical intimacy with—and radical alienation from—one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?” When traveling alone and pregnant, requiring the aid of strangers to lift or haul something, she found the kindness of strangers “nothing short of shocking … So this is the seduction of normalcy.” But the seduction stops there—at seduction. Neither normalcy nor the usual tenets of radical queerness provide what Nelson and Dodge desire.

Nelson turns to the poet George Oppen and his wife Mary Oppen—the ideal heteronormative couple, though radicals to the core, and deeply in love. These figures act as guides for Nelson, a radical trying to move through the world purposefully while also curious, ethical. She writes, “So far as I can tell, most worthwhile pleasures on this earth slip between gratifying another and gratifying oneself. Some would call that an ethics.” Dodge and Nelson marry before California’s passing of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, and she writes: “Poor marriage! Off we went to kill it (unforgivable). Or reinforce it (unforgivable).”

The book concludes with Nelson’s narration of her experience giving birth to her son Iggy—an event rendered in terrible and inspiring detail I have read in the works of few others (namely Sarah Vap and Molly Sutton Kiefer). Nelson gives us childbirth in its full agony and terror (“How deep can pain go” she asks, and offers her parenting guru D.W. Winnicott’s statement as a refrain—“falling forever, going to pieces”), as well as the beauty in her supportive loved ones. Iggy’s birth is braided with Dodge’s own writing describing his mother’s death. Both Dodge and Nelson write beautifully about facing the unknowns in these events, staring off these cliffs, standing just at the edge. This plaiting of birth and death does more than punch up the drama. Nelson writes, “If all goes well, the baby will make it out alive, and so will you. Nonetheless, you will have touched death along the way”—she documents the physical death of one mother while death brushes a new one for the first time.

The issues of gender and identity Nelson addresses in The Argonauts occupy a place on a vast spectrum of inquiry around sex, love, queerness, pedagogy, and death. Its voices include those of Eileen Myles, Foucault, Dodie Bellamy, James Schuyler, Sedgwick, Deleuze, and others. Yet The Argonauts is ultimately a fierce interrogation of the transforming and transformative nature of love, be it toward a lover, child, or parent. One specific moment—just after Dodge’s top surgery away from home, Nelson at the end of her first trimester, both of them feeling strange in their bodies—seems to apply more broadly to their love. Nelson writes how both of them were nervous walking among a crowd, but “we were protected by our force field.” Nelson’s generosity gives us access to the interior of that force field, what one normally protects from the exterior world.