EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

By Lisbet Portman, CutBank Nonfiction Editor  

Recommending a book to someone can feel loaded, like asking that person out for the first time by suggesting a short trip to O’ahu. I’ve never recommended a book so fiercely as I did Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts—I’m talking mass texts, Christmas presents, chain emails: read this.


I even went so far as to assign it, perhaps irresponsibly, to a class of undergraduates in a nonfiction writing workshop. Because suddenly I was standing in front of twenty-two students, foaming at the mouth, expected to speak plainly about a slim, dense book in my hand. We made out all right in the end, but the way there was as messy, loaded, and as meandering as could be expected from this picnic of a memoir to which everyone and everything has been invited.

The Argonauts is true to its name—Argo (the Greek ship manned by a crew of heroic sailors—nauts), which was reconstructed so many times that eventually every piece had been replaced, only its name an original. In this book, Nelson conducts an intensive, playful, holy interrogation of her performance in the world as a queer woman, a lover, a mother, a feminist, a writer, and a body. The story lives in chunks of varying sizes, each of which read as a poem or mini-essay when lifted from the bulk. Nelson invokes theorists and philosophers not to support her claims, but organically—these are the voices she has swallowed, their words now entwined with hers. Quotes are embedded in the chunks of text and italicized. The authors' names are kicked to the margins where they hover in white space—at once cast aside and memorialized.

To Nelson, artist Harry Dodge is that “someone with whom my perversities were not only compatible, but perfectly matched.” What follows is a story of their relationship as lovers and intellectuals, the trials of trying to conceive, their “summer of changing bodies” when she was four months pregnant and Harry was six months on T, her experience of pregnancy as someone who had spent years “harshly deriding ‘the breeders.'” What follows is an erotics of the anus, motherhood, discourse, dicks, art, constipation, intimacy, cocktail parties, virgin daquieries, writing, semen in a salsa jar, parenting, fucking, Prop 8, feminism, cruelty, florida, falling forever, clits, vanilla sex, white ceramic horns, death, ceiling fans, etc.

To a few students who found the language difficult to understand, I encouraged them to read as they might listen to a piece of music. There is no way, no need to keep close tabs on the violin and snare drum activity, that kind of focus would in fact detract from hearing the song as it is—buzzing, oh very much alive. Listen to how it moves, pay attention to the lines that pierce. I’ve read the book four times, and each read was different. This experience aligns with certain insistences within the text: Nelson strains against our impulse to “name” things as a way of congealing “difference into a single figure,” and assumes “we are always moving, shape-shifting.” In an interview with ARTFORUM in 2015, she said, “We might not literally be able to call something into being. But we can always sing.”

The internet is fat with reviews of The Argonauts and interviews with Maggie Nelson the poet, the critic, the essayist. I’m not unique in falling for the book and I don’t have anything of note to contribute to the conversation, I’m just telling you that one afternoon I got pinned to the couch and forgot to eat, forgot to pee: read this. And loads of people have. Whether Nelson likes it or not, since its publication in May 2015, The Argonauts has also been taken up by straight people in book clubs in hopes of learning more about the queer and transgender community. While the book interacts with these “names,” it won’t sit tight in any genre: “it’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unsustainable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.” Although fully aware that she is partaking in a longer history by telling her own, Nelson didn’t set out to be a spokesperson: “I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.”

The Argonauts is a production in which Nelson both betrays and honors a multiplicity of selves by asking “a question from the inside.” She can’t bring herself to address her unborn child until the very end:

I want you to know, you were thought of as possible—never as certain, but always possible—not in any given moment, but over many months, even years, of trying, of waiting, of calling—when, in a love sometimes sure of itself, sometimes shaken by bewilderment and change, but always committed to the charge of ever-deepening understanding—two human animals, one of whom is blessedly neither male nor female, the other of whom is female (more or less), deeply, doggedly, wildly wanted you to be.

Lisbet Portman is an MFA candidate in nonfiction and a writing instructor at the University of Montana. Her work focuses on addiction policy in the US and sometimes, glitter. She is originally from Ohio and earned a B.A. in American studies from Smith College in Northampton, MA.