Sunday 28 April 2013


I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson's genre-defying little book, Bluets, which I first learned of from a series of thoughtful and beautiful musings by Sigrun in Norway and which Victoria of Tales from the Reading Room recently reviewed in characteristically perceptive and illuminating fashion.

While reading I looked for blue things to photograph, found a plethora of blue things both natural and artificial, all miraculously vivid in the late-arriving strong spring sunshine. The long, cold, bleak winter just ended, and almost unprecedented in this country, was rather like having emigrated, without knowing it, to a new, alarming place. The spring that finally followed – late, fierce and fluctuating – had been so much longed for, but is proving hard, for me at least, to adjust to and embrace. Somehow this sudden light and warmth alarms me too. The contrast is too great. Pushed and pulled as I feel to open to it, I find myself shrinking away. The winter left me shrivelled and defensive, ill-equipped to move towards the sunshine. This is all too obvious and painful a metaphor for life in the longer term.

 Bluets is a small book that tackles big topics, overwhelming feelings: lost love, a friend’s catastrophic injury. To approach passionate suffering through colour seems not inappropriate. The perception of colour - so ordinary and everyday, yet intensely primal and intensely allusive; so essential, yet essentially ephemeral and questionable - opens many doors. I think of John Berger and John Christie’s wonderful I Send You This Cadmium Red. Long out of print, it’s now deservedly an expensive collector’s item, but I’ve been lucky enough to twice see the whole book, along with their original letters and artwork, in London exhibitions: one of the most inspiring, creative and truly collaborative works I’ve ever encountered.

Bluets, of course, is the opposite of collaborative, one woman’s slowly hatched, intensely personal and individual work, but it too opens many doors, gathering so many sources, experiences and emotions into a single brief and quirky little book of short, numbered paragraphs. Why are they numbered? This is not sequential or progressive or hierarchical and “there are no instruments for measuring blue”. It’s not poetry. Not even, I would argue, prose poetry. Also not a story or an essay or any kind of narrative. What holds it together is the strands of blue; along with events, feelings, readings, musings from the writer’s life, they stop and start, weave in and out like short and longer threads plaited into a braid. What this is, and how it does it, I don’t know, but it moves me emotionally and it moves forward, holds the attention, builds and resolves tension.

When linear narrative breaks down, there may still be other approaches, through beauty, creativity, emotional and intellectual leaps and connections. This is a work that resonates, that I expect to reread.


roselle said...

Jean, from up here in the Hebrides, thank you for this post. I need this book! Have you read the wonderful 'Primary Colours'? - Can't think who it's by, though - sorry. Warmest - Roselle

Jean said...

Roselle, I hope you'll read Bluets. It makes me very happy to think of you reading this in the Hebrides. Oh and I can't locate 'Primary Colours' without more info - these words occur too often, as book titles and otherwise. Warmest wishes back to you up there.

Hannah Stephenson said...

It's funny...I just read Bluets last week :). Wonderful book.

I also picked up The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard...equally immersive and obsessive, but but much more sweeping and dizzying in historical/narrative detail.

litlove said...

What a gorgeous response to the book, Jean, and the photos are exactly right - striking, intense and yet everyday. I loved the undefinability of Bluets, the way it drew from several forms and genres without being defined by any of them. You're also quite right that it's blue that holds the book together, like the veins on a body. I'm so glad you read it and enjoyed it - I think it's a special thing.

roselle said...

'The Primary Colours', Alexander Theroux, Jean. Might not be your thing - I don't know - but I found it hugely inspiring. He also wrote 'The Secondary Colours'.

Parmanu said...

The succession of blue photographs here creates a striking effect. This is a new experience, and it makes me want to look at my collection of photos for such not-so-obvious harmonies.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Absolutely gorgeous photos and well-chosen blue subjects. The blue Dalmatian dogs...are they reaL? The book sounds great too.
I've been thinking about the emotional power of colours, how each one is so distinctive and uniquely evocative. Like words and like music but even more so.

Jean said...

Natalie, book hugely recommended - slim volume, much food for thought... Happy to lend when I next see you, if you fancy.

Of course the blue-spotted dalmations are real :-)