In Review

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. Graywolf, 2015.

cover of The Argonauts

Reviewed May 1, 2015 by Samuel Ace.

A Consequential Life

How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?

The Argonauts

Long after my transition, my ex-partner and I bought a small property in a little town in New Mexico. Truth or Consequences (T or C) sits on a large aquifer of hot mineral water and hosts an abundance of evangelical churches, empty storefronts, spas, hot springs, healers, yogis, survivalists, artists, musicians, writers, lesbians and gay men, trans people, meth addicts, entrepreneurs, wealthy land owners, real estate speculators, people living off-grid, retirees scraping by on social security, believers in alien abduction, and outer-space enthusiasts. Much of the time, these divergent energies reluctantly (and sometimes happily) co-exist. However, every once in awhile, like the sudden appearance of a hot water geyser in the middle of a town alley, these energies erupt in an enormous conflict. Most sidewalks in the town were constructed during the great public works projects of the 1920s and 30s. Simply walking down the now crumbling concrete can cause some to feel seasick from the movement of the hot waters lying just beneath the surface of the earth.

The town’s diversity complicates the conceptual frameworks called to mind when one of thinks of the terms small town, hot spring spa, or gay mecca. These terms simply do not capture the town’s distinct quirkiness, or even queerness. Similarly, in her new book, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson challenges the cultural assumptions we attach to terms like marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, male, and female, to name just a few. In the spirit of Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), Nelson creates definition out of accretion. Bluets arrives at the color blue through an accumulation of impression, anecdote, argument and description (based on all of the senses), Similarly, The Argonauts defines concepts through an evolving sum of parts, which include and embrace the personal, the theoretical, the philosophical, the reflective, the sexual.

As a grounding metaphor, Nelson calls upon the Argo, a mythical ship that keeps its name throughout all transformations, even though its component parts are replaced over and over again. Nelson, her partner – the artist Harry Dodge, their children, and their extended family are the Argonauts in this extraordinary book. Examining personal experience and relationships, Nelson resignifies vessel-like concepts such as love, gender, family, motherhood, pregnancy, queerness, childbirth, child-rearing, marriage, identity, even the act of writing itself. She also questions language’s ability to accurately represent queer realities. In her hands, cultural terms and their embedded normativities instead become living, breathing accumulations of specificity and complexity.

Nelson illustrates that complexity in describing a mug her mother had made for her. Upon a friend calling the photo ‘heteronormative,’ Nelson attempts to figure out exactly what that term means in relation to her family. On the mug is a photo of Nelson, 7 months pregnant, her partner and stepson smiling in suits, standing in front of a classic Christmas mantle replete with stockings and gifts. This could be a photo of a white, heterosexual couple with one child and a child-to-be, celebrating a Christian holiday with its assumed, normative suggestions of happiness, family, gender, and nostalgia.

The Argonauts insists on the expanded view, the view beyond the mug. The photo is not what it seems. In reality, the portrait shows a queer family with complex gender and sexual identities. It is also a blended family with children from different partnerships. For Nelson, the surfaces of Snapfish mugs, advertisements, commercials, Christmas lights, or pregnant bodies have complicated genealogies. She explores how the bridges of language and assumption might, on one level, enable connection with peers, work friends, people in line at an airport. But the desire to join, to find common ground, to enter into a conversation at the lunch table, to openly exhibit pictures of loved ones on one’s desk at work, perhaps encourage one to slide into an accepted cultural category, even if it doesn’t quite fit the reality of one’s life.

Nelson insists on asking herself and her readers about the veracity of those connections. Who are we in the eyes of others? How do others explain us? How do we fit into others’ abilities to talk about us? In that vein, I wondered if Nelson’s mother, when showing the iconic Christmas mug to her friends, would clarify the truth behind the image of Nelson and her many-gendered family, or if she would choose to remain silent about those particular realities. I have no way of knowing what Nelson’s mother would do in such a circumstance. However I do know how my own mother behaved in similar situations. She remained stubbornly silent.

Nelson points out that “Privilege saturates. Privilege structures.” Being read as something close to what is expected, the momentary feeling of acceptance found in not having to explain one’s unexpected situation, are forms of privilege certainly not afforded to those whose gender appears non-binary. Of course there is loss too, in the unchallenged perception of sameness rather than the specificity of difference. How often do these elisions become a cover for shame or one’s fear of rejection? I am thinking about a father’s inability to talk to his church community about the complex identities of his gay son and his son’s partner, the discomfort another family member feels when talking to a friend about her lesbian sibling’s pregnancy, or the Christmas mug that portrays a seemingly heterosexual family, and allows a mother to show off her offspring to an unsuspecting neighbor who comes over for tea.

Truth or Consequences was the first place I inhabited after my transition, several years after I consistently read as male, where no one knew me as Linda, when I was read as androgynously female. As we met people (many of whom later became close friends), my ex (who was read as female) and I probably seemed to others to be another, vaguely east coast, straight, white couple. I had never been one for hiding my transness. For me, there has been no “before” and no “after.” My life encompasses the ongoing transformations that became and are becoming Sam; I recognize those transformations to be a part of who I am in the present. I am also aware that, from the outside, and for many people in my life, there has been a “before” and an “after.” When I was read as female, I was never comfortable with the assumptions others made about my gender identity. I am now just as uncomfortable with assumptions about my identity when people presume I was assigned male at birth. Intimacy demands revelation and vulnerability. I cannot get to know someone, or let them know me, without revealing more about myself. Some of this courage to disclose is a privilege of being read as white and male – a position that still occupies power in our society. Being read as something that only partially describes my being protects me to a degree. Although I have often felt nervous about a reaction I might get when saying to a friend, I have something to tell you, I have never feared that my friend might harm me. That said, I have also had nightmares about disclosure. A misstep or a failure to gauge a particular person or situation could potentially lead to forms of discrimination or even violence. But in our racist, misogynist, cissexist, binary gendered culture, more visible trans and non-binary people, trans women, and people of color of any gender are still far more vulnerable to violence than I am.

The Argonauts is a story of devotion, or rather many stories, told out of profound love. Nelson refuses the separation of critical thought from the personal. In a form of hyper-hybridity, she crosses back and forth from the personal to the theoretical and into the epistolary as she speaks directly to Dodge: “On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male,’ mine, more and more ‘female.’ But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.” Here Nelson seems to hint at the fact that aging might be the greatest queerdom of all. As we age, the myths and masks of appearance, of gender, of the language used to define us fall askew. What categories do he and she fall into in the face of age? How does one simply fall to pieces in the gaze of the other, as they look away from the aging face, the aging body?

I am a white and trans. A poet. A feminist. My documents, ordered by the courts, appear to align with my gender presentation. What do these little argos of language and documentation say about me, and what do they not say about me? For twelve years, I was legally married to a woman whose documents reflect the argo of female, yet she, like every other human being I know, has a complex gender. In my current relationship, I am probably seen as a gay man when I walk down the street with my lover, who has a beard. After fifteen years on testosterone, when I speak to customer service representatives over phone connections that strip certain frequencies from my voice, I am still often addressed as ma’am.

Nelson confronts many cultural notions about the pregnant body and the experience of childbirth. She examines her own assumptions, including those held by other feminists. She 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?”

About her unborn child, Nelson says “Let him stay oblivious – for the first and last time, perhaps – to the task of performing a self for others, to the fact that we develop, even in utero, in response to a flow of projections and reflections ricocheting off us. Eventually, we call that snowball a self (Argo).” Perhaps unwittingly, Nelson begins these projections by using a gendered pronoun (he), given to her by an ultra-sound technician, before she knows how her baby might come to experience and affiliate with gender.

That said, Nelson moves from a belief that words can describe the unnamable, to recognizing that there might not be language for everything, especially for things “in flow,” where we constantly lose, replace, or add parts to ourselves and the narratives that describe us, more often than we may want to acknowledge. In order to communicate, people sometimes deny (or hide) the beautiful specificity of themselves when invoking cultural touchstones, even as those touchstones ultimately fail. Persistently excavating the complexity of experience, Nelson travels from love to gender to marriage to childbirth to children to perception to family to the writing act and beyond. Take me, she says, all of me. Perhaps you will experience, in my reflection, your own. An image messier than you might think, but much closer to the truth.

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Samuel Ace is the author of three collections of poetry: Normal Sex, Home in three days. Don’t wash., and, most recently, Stealth, with Maureen Seaton (Chax Press). He is a recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant, two-time finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in Poetry, winner of the Astraea Lesbian Writer’s Fund Prize in Poetry, The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, the Firecracker Alternative Book Award in poetry. He was also a recent finalist for the National Poetry Series. His work has been widely anthologized and has appeared or is forthcoming in Aufgabe, Black Clock, Fence, The Atlas Review, Mandorla, Volt, Rhino, Versal, Eleven Eleven, Tupelo Quarterly and Troubling the LIne: Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics.