Category: Maggie Nelson

REVIEW: Belladonna* Chaplet Series // Maggie Nelson

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(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)

by Erin Watson

For many, Maggie Nelson may be synonymous with her essay-poem Bluets, a series of numbered vignettes on being “in love with a color.” Because I picked up Bluets at a time when I needed to read it (voraciously, all in one afternoon-long gulp, mostly while crying on a blue couch), I looked for scraps of blue throughout Nelson’s chaplet “Something Bright, Then Holes.”

Here the blues are mostly flesh: “O bright snatches of flesh, blue / and pink, blinding in the light” towards the end of the first poem, and “elaborate blue tattoos” on the “soggy and blue” skin of an ice maiden in the second poem. Light and flesh trail each other through the five poems in this chapbook, adding up to an affecting meditation on selfhood and understanding.

The titular poem opens “I used to do this, the self I was / used to do this” like an apology. Then we’re told:

Something bright, then holes is how a newly-sighted girl
once described a hand. The continuum cracks, and now I am
half. A whole half. I see that now, though
I still struggle to see the beauty in front of me
O the blindness of having been born able to see. […]

The self who tells this is unstable and contradictory: cracked into “a whole / half” and blinded by “having been born / able to see.” While these couplets flirt with clichés, reinforced by the perfect end rhyme of “see” / “me”, the next stanzas undermine their unfocused abstraction with violence, with references to September 11th (“the planes flew / into buildings […] people and paper came down / like heavy confetti”) and to a consuming other:

…you wanted to eat through me.
Then fall asleep with your tongue against
an organ, quiet enough to hear it kick.

It’s a poem of being abased; resolving to become something new, being blind to just what that newness will be. That it ends without punctuation suggests that this resolution remains incomplete.

The second and longest poem, “20 Minutes,” continues along the brink of self-annihilation: “I don’t care about self I want out / of my story”, the speaker claims about halfway through, followed a few stanzas later by:

and if the purpose of language

is to generate more language

I am not sure I want it

After rejecting narrative (“I want out / of my story”), the poem holds up this uncertain rejection of the one sure thing poems can do: generate more language.

“20 Minutes” seems haunted by youth. After a description of the dead, cold, tattoo-decorated body of the ice maiden, we’re informed:

they know she was young because of
the squiggly line down her skull, a sign
the skull is still knitting itself together

before 30, the skull is still knitting itself together
the seam moving towards seamlessness

my skull, almost seamless

These repetitions build a sense of inevitability, mixed with dread: seamlessness seems too clear, too singular for the stubbornly multiple speaker here. This section foreshadows the poem’s last few stanzas, which return to youth:

When I was young I dreamt regularly
of purity
but I am no longer
that puritan

you, you stand pure as a tree
the question the ground asks of the sky

who cares now why
there is something
instead of nothing

the question now
is how did we become
earth’s affliction

Here is another self to be examined and rejected, as a part of an affliction.

Reading the poems in this chapbook, I often had the feeling of having your pupils dilated at the optician’s, looking through lenses at the eye chart as it clicks into focus. The third and fourth poems both bear the subtitle “from Jane” and continue this optical metaphor. “The Oracle” ends:

Then wait for morning to bring
the bright sediment of things into focus. It
comes clear.

And “Koan,” the shortest poem, starts out “Not yet,” moving through a series of images and adjustments to end:

A girl in a boat the boat full of holes. Closer.
A slit sky. A slit sky and a bowl. Almost.

“The Oracle” and Koan” are the only poems that end with punctuation, suggesting clarity, or at least an approximation of it. That these poems are “from Jane” suggests a kinship between women as a clarifying force. Elsewhere in the chaplet, everything is holed, slitted, frozen, bloody, and unclear. Then it ends on an opening: “and I speak” is the last line.

Each poem resists a unified interpretation. The collection describes a multiplicity of women and girls’ identities and allows them to be contradictory. This openness and contradiction creates a sense of power. You are your own oracle. You are the “I” that speaks.

“Something Bright, Then Holes” is available as a free PDF download from Belladonna*.

Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and online at Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in the self-published chapbooks No Experiences (2012) and Instax Winter (2014). She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award.