Maggie Nelson is the author of four collections of poetry and will serve as a guest poetry editor of the PEN Poetry Series beginning in March 2013. Read an excerpt from Bluets (2009) below.
22. Some things do change, however. A membrane can simply rip off your life, like a skin of congealed paint torn off the top of a can. I remember that day very clearly: I had received a phone call. A friend had been in an acci-dent. Perhaps she would not live. She had very little face, and her spine was broken in two places. She had not yet moved; the doctor described her as “a pebble in water.” I walked around Brooklyn and noticed that the faded peri-winkle of the abandoned Mobil gas station on the corner was suddenly blooming. In the baby-shit yellow showers at my gym, where snow sometimes fluttered in through the cracked gated windows, I noticed that the yellow paint was peeling in spots, and a decent, industrial blue was trying to creep in. At the bottom of the swimming pool, I watched the white winter light spangle the cloudy blue and I knew together they made God. When I walked into my friend’s hospital room, her eyes were a piercing, pale blue and the only part of her body that could move. I was scared. So was she. The blue was beating.
23. Goethe wrote Theory of Colours in a period of his life described by one critic as “a long interval, marked by nothing of distinguished note.” Goethe himself describes the period as one in which “a quiet, collected state of mind was out of the question.” Goethe is not alone in turning to color at a particularly fraught moment. Think of filmmaker Derek Jarman, who wrote his book Chroma as he was going blind and dying of aids, a death he also forecast on film as disappearing into a “blue screen.” Or of Wittgenstein, who wrote his Remarks on Colour during the last eighteen months of his life, while dying of stomach cancer. He knew he was dying; he could have chosen to work on any philosophical problem under the sun. He chose to write about color. About color and pain. Much of this writing is urgent, opaque, and uncharacteristically boring. “That which I am writing about so tediously, may be obvious to someone whose mind is less decrepit,” he wrote.
24. “In view of the fact that Goethe’s explanation of color makes no physical sense at all,” one critic recently noted, “one might wonder why it is considered appropriate to reissue this English translation.” Wittgenstein put it this way: “This much I understand: that a physical theory (such as Newton’s) cannot solve the problems that motivated Goethe, even if he himself didn’t solve them either.” So what were Goethe’s problems?
25. Goethe was interested in the case of “a lady, who, after a fall by which an eye was bruised, saw all objects, but especially white objects, glittering in colours, even to an intolerable degree. ”This story is but one of many Goethe relates of people whose vision has been injured or altered and who seemingly never heal, even when the cause of the injury is psychological or emotional in nature. “This indicates extreme weakness of the organ, its inability to recover itself,” he observes.
26. After my friend’s accident, I began to think of this lady of the bruised eye and these glittering white objects with more frequency. Could such a phenomenon be happening to me, with blue, by proxy? I’ve heard that a diminishment of color vision often accompanies depression, though I do not have any idea how or why such a thing is neurologically possible. So what would it be a symptom of, to start seeing colors—or, more oddly, just one color—more acutely? Mania? Monomania? Hypomania? Shock? Love? Grief?
27. But why bother with diagnoses at all, if a diagnosis is but a restatement of the problem?
28. It was around this time that I first had the thought: we fuck well because he is a passive top and I am an active bottom. I never said this out loud, but I thought it often. I had no idea how true it would prove, or how painful, outside of the fucking.
29. If a color cannot cure, can it at least incite hope? The blue collage you sent me so long ago from Africa, for example, made me hopeful. But not, to be honest, because of its blues.
30. If a color could deliver hope, does it follow that it could also bring despair? I can think of many occasions on which a blue has made me feel suddenly hopeful (turning one’s car around a sharp curve on a precipice and abruptly finding ocean; flipping on the light in a stranger’s bathroom one presumed to be white but which was, in fact, robin-egg blue; coming across a collection of navy blue bottle tops pressed into cement on the Williamsburg Bridge, or a shining mountain of broken blue glass outside a glass factory in Mexico), but for the moment, I can’t think of any times that blue has caused me to despair.
31. Consider the case of Mr. Sidney Bradford, however, whose corneal opacities were grafted away at the age of fifty-two. After his vision was restored, he became unexpectedly disconsolate. “He found the world drab, and was upset by flaking paint and other blemishes; he liked bright colours, but became depressed when they faded.” Not long after he gained vision and saw the world in full color, he “died in unhappiness.”
32. When I say “hope,” I don’t mean hope for anything in particular. I guess I just mean thinking that it’s worth it to keep one’s eyes open. “What are all those / fuzzy-looking things out there? /Trees? Well, I’m tired / of them”: the last words of William Carlos Williams’s English grandmother.
33. I must admit that 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. Sometimes I worry that if I am not moved by a blue thing, I may be completely despaired, or dead. At times I fake my enthusiasm. At others, I fear I am incapable of communicating the depth of it.
34. Acyanoblepsia: non-perception of blue. A tier of hell, to be sure—albeit one that could be potentially corrected by Viagra, one of whose side effects is to see the world tinged with blue. The expert on guppy menopause, whose office is across from mine at the Institute, tells me this. He says it has something to do with a protein in the penis that bears a similarity to a protein in the retina, but beyond that I cannot follow.
35. Does the world look bluer from blue eyes? Probably not, but I choose to think so (self-aggrandizement).
36. Goethe describes blue as a lively color, but one devoid of gladness. “It may be said to disturb rather than enliven.” Is to be in love with blue, then, to be in love with a disturbance? Or is the love itself the disturbance? 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?
38. For no one really knows what color is, where it is, even whether it is. (Can it die? Does it have a heart?) Think of a honeybee, for instance, flying into the folds of a poppy: it sees a gaping violet mouth, where we see an orange flower and assume that it’s orange, that we’re normal.
39. The Encyclopedia does not help. “If normally our perception of color involves ‘false consciousness,’ what is the right way to think of colors?” it asks. “In the case of color, unlike other cases,” it concludes, “false consciousness should be a cause for celebration.”
40. When I talk about color and hope, or color and despair, I am not talking about the red of a stoplight, a periwinkle line on the white felt oval of a pregnancy test, or a black sail strung from a ship’s mast. I am trying to talk about what blue means, or what it means to me, apart from meaning.
41. On the eve of the millennium, driving through the Valley of the Moon. On the radio a DJ was going through the best albums of the century, and somewhere, I think around number thirty, was Joni Mitchell’s Blue. The DJ played “River,” and said that its greatness lies in the fact that no woman had ever said it so clearly and unapologetically before: I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad. Progress! I thought. Then came the song’s next line: Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.
42. Sitting in my office before teaching a class on prosody, trying not to think about you, about my having lost you. But how can it be? How can it be? Was I too blue for you. Was I too blue. I look down at my lecture notes: Heártbréak is a spondee. Then I lay my head down on the desk and start to weep. —Why doesn’t this help?
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