Letting It Rip in “Like Love: Essays and Conversations”

Towards the end of The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson writes that she considered writing a letter to her son before he was born but decided against it because it felt too much like an act of naming, or of “irrevocable classification, interpellation.” She briefly recalls Linda Hamilton at the end of The Terminator heroically recording a message for her unborn son, the future leader of the human resistance. But she dismisses this model as overly romantic, concluding that she will need to look for more humble, everyday ways of creating an original relationship with her child. “This is a deflation, but not a dismissal,” she writes. “It is also a new possibility.”

I begin with this moment because I wonder if Maggie Nelson thinks about naming her books similarly; or, more importantly, because I think the same issues of classification and interpellation are in play. Something Bright, Then Holes, the title of Nelson’s 2007 book of poetry, is a good example. Nelson borrows the phrase from Annie Dillard, who borrows it from a 1932 book called Space and Sight, which details the experiences of 66 congenitally blind patients who regained their sight after medical operations. The phrase—“something bright and then holes”—is one of the newly sighted patients’ descriptions of a human hand. For Dillard, its strangeness suggests how much we take for granted when we observe the world and give names to things (“hand”). For Nelson, it names her poems as a challenge to naming, or as an attempt to regain some of what we lose in our daily observations.

The title of Nelson’s new book—Like Love: Essays and Conversations—works in a similarly layered way. The phrase appears in Hilton Als’s book White Girls when Als writes of a close friendship that helped shape his way of being in the world. Riding on the subway to meet his friend, Als sees “how we are all the same, that none of us are white women or black men; rather, we’re a series of mouths, and that every mouth needs filling: with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love.” In the preface to her new book, Nelson writes that she thinks of this phrase often because she doesn’t understand it, and it helps her generate productive questions. Returning to the passage in a longer essay later in the book, she expands on this point, writing, “it’s one thing to theorize the workings of identity and desire, as so many have done; it’s another to set those workings loose in language and let them rip. To give them mouths.” This, then, is what Nelson promises with the title of her new book: 23 essays and 7 conversations where she lets her desires and identities rip—gives them mouths.

For Nelson, exploring desires and identities means creating conversations with art and artists, and the essays in Like Love reflect this orientation. Some respond directly to an artwork (“On Kara Walker’s Event Horizon”), some reflect on a lifetime of artmaking (“The Reenchantment of Carolee Scheemann”), some proceed from specific historical moments (“On rereading Natalia Ginzburg’s ‘Winter in the Abruzzi’ at the start of a pandemic”). The venues or occasions for the essays vary widely: exhibit catalogs, book reviews, prefaces for novels, remarks at symposia, to name a few. But they all honor Nelson’s commitment to adapting her formal approach to the questions at hand. Her pieces on the artists Matthew Barney, Rachel Harrison, and Tala Madani were all written for exhibit catalogs, for example. But while the piece on Barney reads as a straightforward retrospective essay on his work, the essay on Madani is broken into sections with subheadings inspired by Madani’s paintings, and the piece on Harrison is a list of “Eighteen Theses on Rachel Harrison.”

If the essays in Like Love show how Nelson explores her desires through art, the conversations show that she creates and maintains her friendships in a similar way. Some conversations are with longtime friends like Wayne Koestenbaum and Eileen Myles. Others are with artists or writers who Nelson has admired (and vice versa) but never met, like Jacqueline Rose and Björk. The conversations that took place before 2020 were conducted on email; after 2020, on Zoom. The email conversations understandably tend to involve longer, more polished thoughts and fewer interruptions. But again, Nelson modulates her style to fit the occasion, to meet her conversation partner on common ground. In her conversation with Bjӧrk, Nelson adopts some of her interlocutor’s digital informality, playing with punctuation and capitalization in new ways. Björk seems to notice this in her response: “ha ha ha when that universal voice / in your books shapeshifted into a personal / voice to me: it was humbling…”

Insightful as they are, I’m not sure the essays and conversations in Like Love offer the same feelings of risk and vulnerability that characterize Nelson’s more well-known books, or Als’s White Girls. Which is to say, I’m not sure these pieces fully let it rip. But I don’t want them to. When I read a book review or an exhibit catalog, I hope it will put me in touch with a novel or an artwork in a new way, or even alert me to a writer or artist whose work I didn’t know before (this happened a lot in Like Love, I should mention), but I don’t expect it to have the same level of personal exploration as The Argonauts or Bluets. This is not to say that book reviews or novel prefaces are disposable, nor that Nelson hides behind an intellectual voice in Like Love. Just that the genre of the pieces requires that they play more of a minor role relative to the works they address, rather than starring with them in an ensemble cast. It’s a credit to Like Love that its essays and conversations consistently recognize the nature of these roles and play them so well.

And still, there’s at least one essay in Like Love where Nelson lets loose. “My Brilliant Friend: On Lhasa de Sela” was originally part of the 2022 book This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music, co-edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson. In it, Nelson writes about her friendship with Lhasa de Sela, a singer-songwriter who recorded three albums in the late-90s and early 2000’s and achieved significant popular and critical acclaim, before dying of breast cancer in 2010.

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The essay has a recognizable, maybe even predictable structure. It begins with the horrible moment when Nelson reads of her friend’s death in the New York Times, flashes back to their first meeting in high school in the late-80s, then gradually moves forward to a concluding scene in the present, with Nelson trying to make sense of her friend’s death by watching videos on YouTube. When we see this structure in Hollywood films, the flashback makes sense of the opening scene and deepens its meaning when the film returns at the end (think A League of Their Own or Saving Private Ryan, or apparently any movie with Tom Hanks in it). But Nelson’s essay can’t provide such easy closure because the two friends fell out of touch years before Lhasa’s death. She doesn’t have the same resources for making sense of Lhasa’s death that she does in her essay on Eve Sedgwick earlier in Like Love, when she recalls an inspiring talk Sedgwick gave in 2000 when she knew she was dying. In her talk, Nelson recalls, Sedgwick inhabited the knowledge of her death and modeled how that knowledge can inspire “a complex brew of curiosity, vulnerability, and ceaseless intellectual shrewdness” rather than fear or despair. Nelson has nothing like this with Lhasa, so her desire to make sense of her death remains painfully incomplete.

In the preface to Like Love, Nelson asks the following questions in connection with her book’s title: “What is something that is ‘like love,’ but not love? Would such a thing be a cruel—perhaps the cruelest—of substitutes? Or can something that’s like love, but not love, offer its own form of sustenance? How would one know the difference?” “My Brilliant Friend” doesn’t feel cruel to me. There are wonderful moments in the middle of the essay when Nelson recalls her high school friendship with Lhasa (her list of their shared loves is deeply touching). But I still feel more pain and regret than love in its pages. It feels like what happens when a desire for love fails to insist on itself against the indifference of time. And I don’t know if expressing this sort of unfulfilled desire offers any kind of sustenance, or how we might know the difference. Maybe, if readers respond to “My Brilliant Friend” with the same kind of care and honesty that Maggie Nelson poured into it, the difference won’t matter much.

Like Love: Essays and Conversations
by Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press
Published April 2nd, 2024

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