Book Review: The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson

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Although summer is now officially over, school is back in session, and all of us here at the minnesota review are back to reading submissions, I wanted to share my thoughts on a book I read this summer. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which came out earlier this year, chronicles not only her relationship with her partner, Harry Dodge, who does not prescribe to any set gender label and who starts using testosterone throughout the course of the book, but also how they build a (nuclear) family through Nelson’s process of having a baby.

Nelson, whose work I came to admire greatly as an undergraduate student after reading one of her previous books, Bluets, uses The Argonauts (both the book and the Greek myth) as a vehicle to question the different facets of not just her own life but of human existence, including gender, sexual identity, heteronormativity, motherhood, and the meaning of language. Nelson begins this exploration at the beginning of the book, when she recalls the moment that she first said I love you to Harry:

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you a passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing the ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.

This idea of changing identity sets the course for the rest of the book, which like Bluets is broken into paragraph entries that read like pages from a diary, in which Nelson recounts her memories. However, Nelson also intersperses quotes from famous poets and theorists such as Lucille Clifton, Anne Carson, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick among others, in order to foreground her own thoughts and challenge our very notion of what is “normal,” how we think about the world, how we think about the people with which we interact, and – perhaps the biggest existential question of all – how we define ourselves. For example, she describes one night in which she and Harry attend a dinner party:

Soon after we got together, we attended a dinner party at which a (presumably straight, or at least straight-married) woman who’d known Harry for some time turned to me and said, “So, have you been with other women, before Harry? I was taken aback. Undeterred, she went on: “Straight ladies have always been hot for Harry.” 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 other “straight ladies” who were hot for my Harry? Was his sexual power, which I already felt to be immense, a kind of spell I’d fallen under, from which I would emerge abandoned, as he moved on to seduce others? Why was this woman, who I barely knew, talking to me like this? When would Harry come back from the bathroom?

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Another aspect of the book I liked is how honestly Nelson asserts herself and her position to us as readers. For example, midway through she says,

I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking for whatever they are worth. I would also like to cop easily to my abundant privilege – except that the notion of privilege as something to which one could “easily cop,” as in “cop to once and be done with,” is ridiculous. Privilege saturates, privilege structures. But I have also never been less interested in arguing for the rightness, much less the righteousness, of any particular position or orientation. What other reason is there for writing than to be traitor to one’s own reign, traitor to one’s own sex, to one’s class, to one’s majority? And to be traitor to writing.

Thus, The Argonauts, which tackles the difficult task of exploring several different, important themes, serves as a bare portrayal of Nelson’s views and experiences, one in which we put our trust in her to show us how to think about our lives in different ways in the hopes of breaking down barriers, stereotypes, and preconceived notions. This is no slight feat for Nelson, culminating in a well-thought-out book that is sure to be celebrated for years to come.


Kevin West is a first year MFA candidate in poetry from Maryland. He is a graduate of Towson University, where he majored in English with a concentration in creative writing, and has previously published a poem in Grub Street

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