I just read the n+1 essay on Maggie Nelson and I think I absolutely have to read The Argonauts. I wish I had read this essay before I finished my piece on Dodie Bellamy, if for no other reason than that it’s a beautiful example of writing about an author’s entire body of writing intelligently. I haven’t read everything Bellamy’s written but still. Would have been a good model to go off of.
The Argonauts seems to be in this realm of extremely personal mixed with heady theory that I’m all about these days, that’s a lot of what Bellamy’s Academonia is about. Talking about bodies, being unashamed of talking about bodies, knowing that bodies are just as important as ideas. You know, I could never read erotic love poetry before I came upon Anne Sexton, she justified the whole genre for me. Erotic poetry that men write about women’s bodies grosses me out so much, there’s something so dissecting, so under-the-microscope about it. I dunno, I don’t wanna sound old or conservative but it’s all so pornographic. There are other ways to think about bodies, is all I’m saying.
Did you ever read Written on The Body? Sorry, I swear I think about stuff besides books sometimes — I’m getting to a point here, sort of. In Written on The Body the main character falls madly in love with this woman who’s married to some big shot doctor, some jerk, but his research has furthered the fight against cancer. Well, they both think the doctor guy can just go shove it and they run away together and are happy and stuff, but then the main character gets a phone call from the doctor-husband one day. “She’s got cancer, she’s dying,” he says. “The only chance she has is if you bring her back to me — I can take care of her. I have all the right resources. You don’t.” Well, of course, they bring her back to the doctor-husband, because they love her and don’t want her to die. And they never hear from her again.
After a few miserable months, the main character (they’re unnamed throughout the book, which is why I’m having to use such clunky language) realized they’re crazy without this woman. They need to feel near to her somehow. So they go to the library and read up about every aspect of her cancer, of what it does to the body, of what cancer cells are and do.They want to be present, inside this person they’ve given up. They want whatever intimate knowledge of this woman’s body they can get.
And maybe that’s kind of a weird thing to do. It seems obsessive, unhealthy.
But it’s also a different way to think about a body. The body of a woman you love, even. Because, as it turns out, there is nothing inherently pornographic or erotic about a woman’s body — it’s the gaze turned upon the body that can make it so. There are other ways to think about bodies.
I’m not very good at writing love poems. Every time I’ve tried I end up being disappointed or grossed out by own efforts. It feels like trying to put on clothes that just don’t fit. It feels like I’m disrespecting the subject instead of praising them, because the language I have for writing a body is all the language of the male gaze, it’s the language of porn. If I’m going to write a body, construct it out of language, I want to do it in a queer way, in a way that is new and constructive and empowering. In The Argonauts, Nelson writes about the process of her partner Harry’s gender transition and her simultaneous pregnancy:
“On the surface, it may have seemed like 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.”
To look at the loved one and not project your own thoughts or desires onto the surface of their body, but, rather, to try to simply see what is really there seems to me to be the ultimate display of love. To write this kind of love does not mean to write the body: to construct the image of the loved one with your own language, but instead to write on the body: to let your language cover and caress the body of the loved one loosely. To ‘bear loose witness’ with your words, as it were.