Body of work

Cate McGehee

January 27, 2016

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson seeks to clear things up by muddling them, by sweeping a careful hand through our delicate Manichean constructs of what’s gay, trans, queer, female, and more. In a mixture of memoir and critical meditation, Nelson recounts her relationship with her partner Harry Dodge, her efforts to become pregnant, and the birth of her son, Iggy, using the quotidian tools of family-building to pick apart our words and notions.

For example, a friend of Nelson’s finds a mug in their cabinet customized with a photo of Nelson, seven months pregnant in a leopard-print dress and ponytail, beside Harry and his son in in matching dark suits, “looking dashing.” They’re about to go to the Nutcracker, standing in front of the monogrammed stockings of Nelson’s mother’s mantle. Nelson writes: “Wow, my friend said, filling it up. I’ve never seen anything so heteronormative in all my life.

Is it heteronormative? Can it be, given Harry is neither male nor female and Nelson is gay? What does heteronormative even mean? Is pregnancy inherently heteronormative, or is it the way they’re dressed, or is it the Nutcracker, or is it that her mother “made me a mug on a boujie service like Snapfish?”

This melting understanding of heteronormativity is coupled with a melting understanding of its opposite, whatever that is. “The conservative anxiety and despair about queers bringing down civilization and its institutions (marriage, most notably) is met by the anxiety and despair so many queers feel about the failure or incapacity of queerness to bring down civilization and its movements,” writes Nelson. Further, she says the most annoying thing about hearing the phrase “same-sex marriage” bandied about in the debates is that she knows almost no queers “who think of their desire’s main feature as being ‘same-sex.’”

Nelson isn’t interested in parsing the semantics of queer politics so much as she is in illustrating ways in which “words cannot be good enough.” It seems Nelson had two great loves in her life (before Iggy): words (and her Wittgenstein-borrowed belief that, “Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly”), and Harry, who shirks any sign and invites Nelson to look for meaning beyond the point where words are useful.

I’m a special—a two for one,” Nelson quotes Harry’s character Valentine saying in his film By Hook or By Crook.

The beginning of The Argonauts is about Harry, and Nelson spends some time deconstructing the “developing mainstream narrative” that attempts to slap the prefix “trans” on anyone who’s sought to redefine—or rather, undefine—their gender identity. For example, Nelson’s partner Harry, though male-passing with male pronouns, is happy to identify simply as “a butch on T.”

In the beginning of their relationship, Nelson enlists her friend to help her determine Harry’s preferred pronouns using the internet:

“Look, here’s a quote from John Waters, saying, ‘She’s very handsome.’ So maybe you use ‘she.’ I mean, it’s John Waters.” That was years ago, I roll my eyes from the floor. Things might have changed.

Nelson says she wants “the you so close the third person need not apply,” and she mourns that we live in a world where it does apply, often. She has a hard time making airline reservations for Harry, must tango with her human resources department “with flashes of shame and befuddlement.” Sometimes, even Nelson struggles with Harry’s gender identity—when Harry begins injecting T (testosterone), Nelson fears for how it may change him, and when he seeks top surgery — a bilateral mastectomy — she admits that, “for my sake, not yours,” she wants his chest to stay the way is. She eventually resolves that though “on the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male,’” and hers “more ‘female’” through pregnancy, inside they were simply “animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.” Their steps weren’t toward their polar gender roles, because they were taking their steps side by side, becoming more and more able to, together, stretch their arms around a bigger swath of human experience.

One of Nelson’s mantras throughout the book is an evocation to the “many-gendered mothers of my heart,” as borrowed from a Dana Ward poem. Nelson means her “good witches,” her “sappy crones,” or in other words the many nurturing forces towards which she bent her nature, such as James Schuyler, Allen Ginsberg, Lucille Clifton, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

I consider Nelson one of my own mothers, as do many women I know. Another mother-to-many is the art critic Jen Graves, who’s been been writing for The Stranger for over ten years, bringing two English degrees and a keen eye for personal appearance to her weekly reviews.

One of my favorite articles from Graves is her long feature “Getting Patrick Pregnant” from 2007. It’s not only a heroically honest account of Graves’ pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage, but an informative investigation into the possibility of male pregnancy — specifically, the pregnancy of her partner Patrick. Which, I learned from the piece, is a lot more possible than people assume.

"There is no reason why a man could not carry a child,” Graves quotes British fertility expert Dr. Simon Fishel saying. “The placenta provides the necessary hormonal conditions, so it doesn't have to be inside a woman."

When Graves wrote this article, there hadn’t yet been a successful uterine transplant, but in October 2014 a woman in Sweden gave birth to the first baby born through uterine transplant, and there have been three other births since, with another expected literally any day now. And now an American team in Cleveland is prepping ten women for the next round; the medical world is humming with the prospect of not only transplants for women without uteruses, but also for transgender women or, many muse, for men.

Graves, apparently, had been beguiled by the idea of Patrick’s pregnancy since 1996, when a professor mentioned in a lecture that someone in England was offering a million dollars to the first man who volunteered to get pregnant. Today, this would entail transplanting a donated uterus into Patrick’s abdomen, giving him supplemental hormones, and delivering by C-section. Some doctors speculate we’re only 5-10 years away from this procedure.

“Several times, when I've brought up male pregnancy,” writes Graves…

…friends and acquaintances have acted as though what I'm talking about is a perversion of nature. I'm not so sure it's nature they want me to respect so much as the nature of gender that we've set up—a nature that science and society have chipped away at for as many years as it's been built up, that used to shut men out of the birthing room and women out of the voting booth. Meanwhile, Patrick and I are more like each other than we are like even our own recent ancestors.

If men can get pregnant (and even, as Graves notes, lactate), what does gender even mean anymore? A straight, cis-male pregnancy like the one Graves imagines for Patrick seems like the coup de grâce for that “nature of gender we’ve set up,” at which science and society have chipped away with measures like Harry’s T or top surgery, or even Nelson’s artificial insemination with an oral syringe and a semen sample left by a friend in a salad dressing bottle. While some voices plead Is nothing sacred? for every square inch of that “nature of gender,” (e.g. “same-sex marriage”), it’s so refreshing to read a book like The Argonauts which suggests we had it the wrong way around when we defined the sacred and profane.

At one point in Argonauts Nelson is talking about how when you’re pregnant “the growing baby literally deforms and squeezes the lower intestine,” and your shit backs up in your colon behind where the fetus is pushing. This is why so many women shit during labor—someone finally takes their foot off the garden hose. Nelson writes that during labor she “knew that if, or when, I could let go of the shit, the baby would probably come out. But to do so would mean falling forever, going to pieces.” Nelson is quoting pediatrician and child psychologist Donald Winnicott in her italics, whom she cites often throughout Argonauts, and she repeats these phrases — falling forever, going to pieces — as a kind of mantra to describe birth and motherhood.

Nelson’s description of her labor is twined with the story of Harry’s mother’s death. Nelson writes, “I grow very quiet and concentrated. Counting, counting. Jessica says breathe into the bottom and I can tell that’s where the baby is,” immediately followed by Harry’s words:

each of the volunteers told me that my job was to let my mom know that it was ok to go.”

Letting a baby go is like letting a mother go — both a fall, both a going to pieces. Nelson doesn’t tell this birth story and death story together as opposites, but to illustrate the sameness of the experience. “If all goes well,” she writes, “the baby will make it out alive, and so will you. Nonetheless, you will have touched death along the way.” And later: “People say women forget about the pain of labor, due to some kind of God-given amnesia that keeps the species reproducing…[but] it isn’t the pain that one forgets. It’s the touching death part.”

In “Getting Patrick Pregnant,” Graves gets too close to death to be immediately granted that God-given amnesia. When she first learned she was pregnant, she was excited, even though Patrick described himself as “horrified.”

I was not horrified, partly because my best friend, Linda, was pregnant, too. I felt weird, but safe, and understood.

Four weeks later, Patrick's father was dead, and four days after that, so was our baby. I call it a baby because it had a heartbeat, a slow one. I do know it's supposed to be called a fetus.

(…)

Less than three months later, Linda's son, Phoenix Lind Anderson, my godson, was born.

At first, I couldn't be around him, which was awful. Then I didn't want to be away from him. He was so happy, I almost took it personally. He coaxed me out of mourning.

Eight months after the miscarriage, we were ready to try again. My desire to have Patrick's child remained uncomplicated. Then, on July 7, 2005, I got two calls from Swedish Hospital instructing me to come immediately. When I got there, I took Phoenix and held him. He was 7 months old. He'd just died, suddenly, of bacterial meningitis.

“Getting Patrick Pregnant” is a stunning piece in that it’s simultaneously a scientific inquiry, light-hearted gender spoof, probing examination of gender roles, and a heartbreaking story of loss that is no less poignant for its many purposes. Though Nelson writes books and Graves writes articles, it’s amazing how much their work has in common. Is it female to write through your losses? The Argonauts is the first book where Nelson is writing through her gains, and it’s amazing how much they resemble the gains in Graves’ oeuvre.

In April 2015, Graves reviewed the book H is for Hawk, just after giving birth to her first (at last) child. In the review, she contrasts author Helen “McDonald’s blood lust, my blood love,” and basically abandons any attempt to really “review” McDonald’s book because McDonald is writing in the throes of her father’s death, and Graves in the “bloodshot days of the life of my firstborn,” and despite all the critics praising it she just can’t summon the attention. Graves writes:

Usually I'm not a torn-apart body leaking milk and leaning desperately toward any pillow I can find. Usually I'm the critic. Sometimes I'm part of the procession, and I know it. I know when I'm praising something everyone likes. Are we right or are we just the majority? I'm imagining Kant's idea — and this is paraphrasing, but I think you get the idea — that a hungry person has no business appraising a still-life painting of food. Neediness of any kind does not make for good criticism. Or maybe it's just important to note in a review, I was hungry, I was tired, I was in my own pool of bloodlove, I'm not the objectivity you're looking for. How embarrassing all that is. How contingent. How, in this case, female. (Would criticism be more interesting if, at least sometimes, critics admitted to being messes?)

Nelson is exactly the kind of critic Graves is asking for, and also the kind of critic Graves is — both prefer the profanity of their own bloodlove over the sanctity of the critic. In an interview with The Believer, Nelson says:

If I’m known for anything, I think I’m known for being a bleeding heart, confessional, poet, and someone who also writes smarty-critical-thinky things. There are a lot of perils in the former. Sometimes I read reviews, and people say, ‘This sounds like her diary,’ or ‘She should’ve kept her breakup to herself.’ I think, ‘Yeah, maybe you’re right.’ But it’s okay with me that I’m working on the edge of being sentimental.

In Argonauts, Nelson remembers a seminar in which the scholars Jane Gallop and Rosalind Krauss responded to each other’s presentations of new work. Gallop had been known for her “heady, disobedient books on Lacan,” but at the seminar presented a slideshow of photographs of her and her new son, taken by Gallop’s husband, some depicting the nude folds of their bodies in the tub or curled on the bed.

The “Ivy League, Upper East Side” academic Krauss tore into “the mediocrity, naiveté, and soft-mindedness of the work Gallop has presented to us today,” defending the sanctity of art criticism she felt besieged by “a pudgy mother in love with her son,” as Nelson described Gallop’s crime.

“The tacit undercurrent of her argument,” remembers Nelson, “was that Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind—besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting…The lashing Gallop received that day stood for some time in my mind as an object lesson.”

It’s clear from the Believer interview that that lesson still rattles in Nelson’s brain like pebble, and it is clear Graves also fears her “embarrassing, contingent, female” moves towards mess. Has her maternity rotted her mind? “Usually I'm not a torn-apart body leaking milk and leaning desperately toward any pillow I can find. Usually I'm the critic.”

“I can actually count two, on my hand, birth stories I’ve ever read in the first person by another person who’s given birth. I think it’s a faulty meme that’s been told many times,” says Nelson in an interview with KQED, after the interviewer opened with the insipid question, “It seems like there are a lot of birth stories out there already. Why write about pregnancy, and in turn, motherhood, in this way?”

I have wondered often since reading The Argonauts if Graves and Nelson know one another, or if, at least, they have read one another. Do these same-gendered mothers of so many hearts see a reflection of themselves in the other, and does it make them feel confirmed? One could go ape with the application of Lacan’s mirror stage to this discussion, but it seems a book review should be more Gallop than Krauss—I wonder how often, in addition to fearing the the messy narcissism of the personal and ordinary, Graves and Nelson have feared that they are boring because they dwell in theory and abstraction when people just want to see you wallow in a puddle of bloodlove.

Interestingly, these texts are a book review by the art critic Graves and a discussion of art in a book by the author Nelson. Both dabble deep in their multitudes of interest. Maybe Nelson’s evocation of falling forever evokes the fall of man from Genesis, suggesting that the experience of “going to pieces” is the fall of woman (as Gallop’s son ushered her fall from the ivory tower). But when things fall, they shatter, and perhaps falling forever is to continuously fragment yourself because, like the hydra-head of the human egg that multiplies by division, there is strength in breaking down, and power in the pieces of duality, and as science and society keep chipping away at all the binary constructs of gender, motherhood, and art the only things that will be able to stand in the future are those that constantly redefine or undefine themselves, “just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo.”

Books in this review:
  • The Argonauts
    by Maggie Nelson
    Graywolf Press
    January 26, 2016
    160 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Cate is a writer and reader in Seattle who's living la vida washed-up comedian in LA.

Follow Cate McGehee on Twitter: @closetomyself

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