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  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
  • Debbie Hagan (bio)
Maggie Nelson. The Argonauts. Graywolf Press, 2015.

In 2012, poet and critic Maggie Nelson and her partner, artist Harry Dodge, underwent major physical and emotional changes. Nelson, after years of ridiculing women for turning into “breeders,” conceived a son through artificial insemination. As her body stretched, becoming more and more ovoid, Dodge’s became straighter . . . and hairier. After thirty years of torturous breast-binding devices, Dodge opted for top surgery and began testosterone injections.

While most romantic relationships evolve into tests of tolerance and endurance, this one stretches the normal elasticity. Even so, they mold their relationship into one that suits them, while the outside world struggles to understand, embrace, and define them.

Largely this is what Nelson explores in her ninth book, The Argonauts. On the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling last year that all states must recognize same-sex marriages, Nelson releases an intellectual book that examines the nuances of coupling when gender lines are blurred.

While many critics call this book a memoir, I see it as more of a genre-bender: a nonlinear essay that happens to be 143 pages. Without chapters and sub-headers, it reads like a collage of ideas, some just a paragraph long, while others are a page or two. At first Nelson’s thinking seems a bit meandering and stream of conscious; four or five pages into the work, however, the reader picks up the idea threads and falls in step with the author’s poetic rhythms and distillation of ideas. It’s then the book becomes an enlightening journey, enriched further by the author’s clever connections, broad research, and humor.

On page one, Nelson tells us, “I had spent a lifetime devoted to [Ludwig] Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed… . Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.”

The expressed, as she sees it, falls short of the full, unbiased story. Thus, she draws from many sources: intellectuals, artists, and writers, including Wittgenstein, Eve Sedgwick, Catherine Opie, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Gertrude Stein, Denise Riley, and John Cage. She pairs their ideas with examples from her own life. If this were a memoir, she might step back, ruminate, and give alternative voice and perspective. Rather, she presents her ideas, then moves on. Thus, readers are left staring into the margins, filling in the gaps.

For example, Nelson describes when she first met Dodge. She didn’t know whether to use a masculine or feminine pronoun. Thus, she avoided all pronouns and writes, “The key is training your ear not to mind hearing the person’s name over and over again.”

However, it’s easy to grow weary of such mental gymnastics. Thus, Nelson hoped to solve the pronoun mystery by watching Dodge’s movie By Hook or By Crook. In it, Valentine (Dodge’s character) says, “I’m special—a two for one.” In fact, the movie’s characters strategically use both pronouns. Butch characters refer to each other as he and him, but characters on the outside use she and her. Nelson tells us, “Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure.”

In this early, exploratory phase of their relationship, Dodge brings Nelson to the home of old friends. Before dinner, the hostess bluntly asks Nelson, “So have you been with other women, before Harry? Straight ladies have always been hot for Harry.”

Nelson is taken aback. “Was Harry a woman? Was I a straight lady? What did past relationships I’d had with ‘other women’ have in common with this one? Why did I have to think about ‘straight ladies’ who were hot for my Harry?” [End Page 39]

Nelson doesn’t elaborate. Thus, readers are left staring into the white space and wondering, what entitles a stranger to pry so intimately into Nelson’s sexual history? Would she do the same with a woman in a hetero relationship? Or is it because this is a queer couple—that’s stepping outside society’s norm—that the speaker believes she’s exempt from normal social graces?

But how...