Local independent publisher Graywolf Press is on a winning streak. Over the past several years they have been publishing some really fantastic stuff. They make me feel both proud and lucky to live in Minneapolis! One of their 2015 publications, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is another winner. Nonfiction to be sure but not one of those books that fits into a neat category.
The volume is slim, only 143 pages. The book is written in thought chunks. I have no idea what else to call them, these paragraphs of varying lengths separated by a band of white space much wider than a regular paragraph break. Each chunk is complete but the chunks flow together too to develop an idea or make an argument or tell a story. Then there are slightly wider bands of white space that indicate a change in direction or the beginning of a new story. It makes for a meditative mood and works like thinking or conversation where you circle around things, go off on a tangent and then come back then leap to something that seems completely unrelated but turns out to be associated in some way or another. I very much liked this style and it suits the subjects Nelson writes about as well her exploratory approach.
The Argonauts themselves, you may remember them from mythology, were those who sailed with Jason on his ship the Argo to get the Golden Fleece. They had other adventures too, of course, but that is the one they are chiefly known for. So before even knowing what the book is about, we are given the signal that it is an adventure, and exploration of some kind. Within a few pages of the book we are provided further explanation:
I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase ‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’ Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use, as the ‘very task of love and of language is to give one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.’
The “you” Nelson is addressing is her spouse, artist Harry Dodge, who is gender fluid and does not fully identify as either male or female. Though over the course of the book Dodge begins taking testosterone and has a mastectomy. That information alone might give you an idea about how “Argonauts” applies in an even broader sense than Barthes’ original intention.
Nelson also writes about her pregnancy and motherhood and all of the cultural complications it entails as well as the physical and mental changes it brings. She writes about giving birth and how it felt like she was falling to pieces and sometimes like she was melting. She writes about her postpartum body and how she is supposed to immediately get to work according to all the magazines, and lose the baby weight, get back to her career, get back to a sex life and being sexy, pretty much as if nothing happened at all and there was no pregnancy and no baby. And she writes of her need and desire to define a boundary between her and baby:
I’ll let my baby know where the me and the not me begin and end, and withstand whatever rage ensues. I’ll give as much as I’ve got to give without losing sight of my own me. I’ll let him know that I’m a person with my own needs and desires , and over time he’ll come to respect me for elucidating such boundaries, for feeling real as he comes to know me as real.
The Argonauts is beautifully intimate without being confessional. Nelson balances out the personal with the scholarly, quoting Barthes and Derrida, Judith Butler, Jaques Lacan, Lucille Clifton, even Ralph Waldo Emerson gets a quote. She explores the broader social landscape and the effects it has on her and her family as well as the effects her “genderqueer” family has on society.
Nelson comes to no firm conclusions about anything. She accepts being in a state of constant change, living with ambiguity and having no real closure. Any time she gets near to being able to create some kind of closure, she refuses to do so. This seems to be a theme in a number of nonfiction books I have read in the past year or so and I must say I like it very much. Nelson acknowledges that ambiguity and refusing closure is uncomfortable for a good many people, but being willing to live with uncertainty creates a space for discovery and transformation. One could say it is the demesne of the Argonauts.