Tag Archives: Graywolf Press

Love in the Time of Identity Politics



In her slim but sprawling memoir The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson recounts her romantic relationship with Harry, a woman transitioning to man, and her own pregnancy, while liberally interspersing their story with reflections on the nature of gender and sexuality.

Nelson, to her credit, feels no compulsion to portray the female body as a sex object or something pretty to gaze at. She demonstrates that the female body, for all the charm attributed to it, can be just as vile as the male.

Here she is when her midwife demonstrates that she’s already making milk: “In one stunning gesture, she took my breast into her hand-beak and clamped down hard. A bloom of custard-colored drops rose in a ring, indifferent to my doubts.” Milk is the most pleasant of the substances she describes emitting.

She doesn’t hide her pleasures in sex, either: “[Y]ou spread my legs with your legs and push your cock into me, fill my mouth with your fingers.”

In the face of those who condemn her sexuality or her lack of shame around it, she is defiant, challenging popular conceptions of, for example, the sameness at the core of a lesbian relationship. “[W]hatever sameness I’ve noticed in my relationships with women,” she writes, “is not the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.”

Throughout, she calls out the patriarchy she encounters, from the cab drivers who tell her how women should live, to the man at a lecture of hers who asks how she can write about dark subject matter while pregnant.

If The Argonauts was simply this, a frank memoir of a woman’s romance, pregnancy, and academic career, it would be perhaps half its length, and much more compelling. Unfortunately, much of this book is made of smatterings of theory indulging in the worst of identity politics, like her knee-jerk dismissals of outside commentary or tendency to read vast significance into personal anecdotes.

“How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution,” she wonders, “that sometimes the shit stays messy?…How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?”

Sure, good point. We shouldn’t rush to impose our narratives on others. Lord knows, in the past fifty years we’ve made great (but incomplete) progress towards turning the “neutral” viewpoint into something more inclusive than the merely white and male.

But imposing our views of reality onto others isn’t inherently wrong. Every effort to accurately represent reality—whether it’s a scientific model, a newspaper article, or a book of theory as loosely organized as The Argonauts—inevitably distorts it. The ideal response is not to let every individual have his or her own “version of reality,” but to strive to find the version of reality that most closely represents the thing itself. Some views of reality are more realistic than others; not everything is a matter of one’s taste or “personal journey.”

In more concrete terms, the proper response to bigots is not to express indignation that they dare challenge your version of reality, but to tell them why their version of reality is wrong. Don’t tell a homophobe that it’s wrong to have an opinion different from that of the gay rights movement; tell him (if he’ll listen) about the many gays who live lives of peace and wholesomeness, who raise families, work and worship beside their straight neighbors.

An appeal to objective reality is often seen as a right-wing position, but it’s not. After the discrediting of “A Rape on Campus,” Rolling Stone’s sensational article about a rape at the University of Virginia, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote in the socialist journal Jacobin that personal narratives can only go so far. “The strength of leftist critique,” she wrote, “is that it concerns itself with the broad, the historical, the powerful, the structural. Contrast this with right-wing accounts of politics, which focus on individual choice and disposition, private and personal interests, and folk-legendary tales of bootstrapping.”

Holding a personal narrative against greater standards isn’t shellacking, it’s fact-checking.

Nelson strays further onto shaky ground when she presents a pat response to critics of identity politics. Responding to criticisms of gender theorist Judith Butler, she writes:

[T]he simple fact that she’s a lesbian is so blinding for some, that whatever words come out of her mouth…certain listeners hear only one thing: lesbian, lesbian, lesbian. It’s a quick step from there to discounting the lesbian—or, for that matter, anyone who refuses to slip quietly into a ‘postracial’ future that resembles all too closely the racist past and present—as identitarian, when it’s actually the listener who cannot get beyond the identity that has been imputed to the speaker. Calling the speaker identitarian then serves as an efficient excuse not to listen to her, in which case the listener can resume his role as speaker. And then we can scamper off to yet another conference…and shame the unsophisticated identitarian….

In summary, Nelson argues that criticism of identity politics hinges on 1) defining the argument by the identity of the arguer, then 2) dismissing the argument based on that identity.

But much of identity politics does derive its legitimacy not from the quality of its arguments but from the identity of the arguers, and the simplistic dualism of privilege and oppression they’re placed in. We see this right after the excerpt above, when Nelson complains about academics “at the feet of another great white man pontificating from the podium, just at we’ve done for centuries.”

Now, I’ve rolled my eyes as much as the next guy at hilariously aloof white men saying I can’t see why we don’t all move beyond this, as if overcoming centuries of tragic history is an attitude problem. But to dismiss the arguments of white men, who may happen to be great, based on their identity is cheap rhetoric. Let’s stop defending it with rebel cool.

(And come on—white people aren’t that bad. They gave us liberal democracy, which, for all its flaws, is the best form of government we variously colored, hairless apes have yet to experiment with.)

This book unwittingly proves many conservatives talking points about academic leftists—that they’re navel-gazing, that they’re in the throes of adolescent rebellion, that they’re ivory tower intellectuals with no relation to reality.

Academia is home to many genuine agents of change, whose research helps bolster the case of people calling for the change in the streets (and in congress). Research—like the American Psychological Association’s studies suggesting that homosexuals make perfectly fine parents—does more for the gay rights movements than any number of navel-gazing memoirs. The personal may be the political, sometimes, but The Argonauts stretches that saying to its limits and reveals its absurdity.

It may be unfair, anyway, to expect coherence from Nelson, as she seems content to abstractly theorize without following her thoughts to their conclusions: “I have…never been less interested in arguing for the rightness, much less the righteousness, of any particular position.”

The Argonauts. By Maggie Nelson. Published in May by Graywolf Press. 160 pages. $23.00



“Tesla: A Portrait with Masks” by Vladimir Pistalo



In this novel, Pistalo’s first to be translated into English, Nikola Tesla is not only an inventor but a prophet as well, as inspired, fervent, and (unfortunately) unheeded as any in the Old Testament. Throughout his boyhood in the Serbian countryside, his student days in Graz, and his career as an engineer and inventor in New York City, Tesla is deeply aware of the universe’s natural phenomena and imagines their application toward the betterment of humanity. His alternating-current motor makes him a celebrity, but his greatest hopes are never fully realized, as his fickle benefactors—including J.P. Morgan, one of many historical figures to appear here—reject his ideas or lose patience with his research. While Tesla’s indifference to romance and wealth spares him the petty angst he ignores in others, his devotion to science doesn’t prevent him from struggling with debt and despair. Pistalo’s third-person narration moves seamlessly between Tesla’s psyche and the world around him, between reality and vision: “He walked on water and danced his mental waltz. His elfish ears touched heaven. Stars revolved in his hair. The walls and frames that provided worldly limitations disappeared in those moments of creation.” Tesla leaves this reader hoping that more of Pistalo’s works will be available in English soon.

–Available January 6th from Graywolf Press. Translated by Bogdan Rakic and John Jeffries. 472 pages. $18.00

“See You in Paradise” by J. Robert Lennon



Technically, it would be accurate to call this short story collection absurd and fantastical. It contains, after all, a woman attacking her dinner party guests with fried onion slices, a man resurrected after his death in a boating accident, and a magic portal in a suburban family’s backyard. Yet beneath such elements, Lennon (author of several novels and a previous short story collection) maintains a strong sense of familial love, and the disappointment that often accompanies it in middle age. He shows us the aforementioned magic portal and the worlds it leads to, but also conveys a father’s angst as his family drifts apart: “I’m tempted to blame the portal for all this, the way it showed us how pathetic, how circumscribed our lives really were. But I didn’t need a magic portal to tell me I was no Mr. Excitement—I like my creature comforts, and I liked it when my wife and kids didn’t demand too much from me….” Some more realistic stories, like an account of stunted lives intersecting at a dilapidated restaurant, are no less moving. Lennon’s stories contain many bells and whistles, usually put to good use, but their greatest strength is compassion.

–Published November 4th by Graywolf Press

A Poetical Moderate Leads a Tour of His Contemporaries



Even among avid readers, poetry is often inaccessible. At times it’s a country club, hiding its luxuries behind stanzas we can read but not comprehend; at others, a coffee shop that’s unrelentingly quirky but serves bad coffee.

In Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays, Tony Hoagland—an established poet and author of a previous essay collection—acknowledges that there’s a bit of truth to those perceptions. But if we stick around, he’ll explain the mechanics of poetry, examine skillful and less skillful uses of poetic devices, and introduce us to some of his favorite poets (he defends one, Sharon Olds, from “puritan” critics). He’s neither a traditionalist nor a revolutionary, accepting modern trends in poetry while noting their limitations.

In an essay on the use of disassociation in poetry, he praises its more substantive uses, those which “[give] us a chance not just to be bewildered but to respond,” while criticizing those that don’t quite say anything:

[N]o discourse does accumulate, because in this universe, each moment, each insight, each breath, each memory is transient, anonymous, and oblique; each insight reiterates its instability. The reader waits in vain for something besides the speaker’s disconcertedness to manifest—more “plot” of some kind….Can we praise a book for its intriguing concept, and method, or even its brilliant individual lines, if the method creates monotony?

Throughout, Hoagland reminds us that concepts are not enough. Poems need shape and substance, and, if not certainty, conviction. Poets in the postmodern era aren’t required to be as certain as their predecessors—not when people are questioning everything, including the ability of language to represent whatever this is—but should still say something more than “look at this meaninglessness.”

Hoagland’s stately, affable prose occasionally leaps into joyous poetic flourishes: “pretentious ponderous ponderosa of professional professors will always be drawn to those poems that require a priest.”

Despite Hoagland’s best efforts, it’s hard to imagine poetry being “restored to its position in culture, one of relevance and utility.” But in his appreciation for content as well as concept, and his treatment of poetry as craft rather than magic, he makes poetry accessible to those of us who’d otherwise be, quite literally, prosaic.

–Available November 4th from Graywolf Press

“Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine



This farrago of prose, images, and free verse attempts to delve into the relationship between black Americans and the racism they face, as found in the memory of murdered young black men, the on-court tribulations of Serena Williams, and Rankine’s psyche, shaped by everyday encounters with racism. Unfortunately, any substance the author can contribute to this worthwhile task is obscured by the opacity of her style. Citizen is a caricature of both theory’s abstractness and free verse’s disdain for coherence: “Memory is a tough place. You were there. If this is not the truth, it is also not a lie. There are benefits to being without nostalgia. Certainly nostalgia and being without nostalgia relieve the past.” (Some of the material is adapted from performance art pieces; perhaps it was more compelling in its original form.)  Citizen fails not because it isn’t an easy read—difficult topics warrant difficult books—but because, for all its murky atmosphere, it offers nothing to be challenged by.

–Published October 7th by Graywolf Press

Motherhood, Medicine, and a Bit Too Much Metaphor



Like the best of essays, Eula Biss’ On Immunity: An Inoculation is hard to pigeonhole. It’s at once a memoir of maternal anxiety, an exploration of the metaphors that have been used to explain illness and vaccination, and a sympathetic rebuttal to the arguments of anti-vaccination activists.

Biss suggests that much opposition to vaccination stems from a view of the body as a “homestead” rather than an interconnected part of a community. When people say they don’t need vaccines because of the strength of their immune system, they ignore that people with weaker immune systems—those who may not be able to receive vaccines—depend on the vaccination and immunity of others to reduce their chance of exposure to disease. Public and private health, she writes, are inseparable.

In this book’s warmest passages, Biss details the love and worry she feels for her son, whose birth prompted her research on vaccination: “Every day with a child, I have discovered, is a kind of time travel. I cast my mind ahead with each decision I make, wondering what I might be giving or taking from my child in the future.

On Immunity follows not an argument or narrative but a wandering trail of research and meditations. Biss guides us along, pointing out findings from literature, medical research, and the dregs of the internet, occasionally stepping in to introduce herself. Her skepticism and self-deprecation evoke Joan Didion’s. She recalls of her youthful self: “I had read enough to be troubled by the belief that one must enact one’s beliefs, and perhaps even embody them.”

It’s often frustrating to see vaccination given the poetic treatment (the author is a poet as well as an essayist). Biss renders a bitter pill—you need to vaccinate your kids—in prose as slow and sweet as melted molasses, crawling towards more musings and factoids instead of conclusions.

In her hands, metaphor and simile become ends in themselves, rather than means of explaining. In turn-of-the-century Britain, she writes, “[i]nformation was moving in new ways, reaching people it had not reached before. This was also a time in which new technologies were rapidly emerging and changing the way people lived. A time, in other words, not unlike our own.” This is as true—and as mundane—as saying that both modern and ancient Israel suffered from turmoil. Described generally enough, anything can be “not unlike” anything else.

Yet this book’s gentle, meandering nature makes me hope it’ll find its way onto the reading lists of anti-vaccine activists including, say, Andrew Wakefield, who published the first study “linking” vaccines to autism.

The rhetoric of anti-vaccination activists often draws immediate dismissal. Everyone who participates in public discourse has the duty to rebut misinformation, especially that which can harm people. But contempt only makes things worse, as it’s so often aimed not at misinformation but the people who believe it. Seeing a door slammed in their face and their character impugned, anti-vaccination activists cast themselves as underdogs and their critics as persecutors. They them grow more ardent, prompting more contempt.

Biss steps outside the cycle, acknowledging the legitimate concerns of anti-vaccination activists before refuting their arguments on their own ground. Yes, capitalism is pervasive and often corrupting, she writes, so she can see how vaccines may appear to be a profit-driven scam. But vaccines aren’t as profitable as other drugs, and the vaccination system is one “in which both the burdens and the benefits are shared across the entire population. Vaccination allows us to use the products of capitalism for purposes that are counter to the pressures of capitalism.”

And while Biss understands distrust of the medical establishment—it’s often reflected prejudice as much as hard science, particularly when treating women—she distrusts the paranoia that sees a system-wide conspiracy as well. Describing the research of theorist Eve Sedgwick, she writes, “paranoia very frequently passes for intelligence. As Sedgwick observes, ‘to theorize out of anything but a paranoid critical stance has come to seem naïve, pious, or complacent.’ She does not believe that paranoid thinking is necessarily delusional or wrong, but only that there is value to approaches that are less rooted in suspicion.”

The metaphor of inoculation suggested by this book’s subtitle isn’t fully applicable. Protection against fear, particularly unfounded fear, requires continuing learning and conversation, which can’t be administered by a doctor.

Though marred by its eagerness for metaphor, On Immunity has the potential to start a conversation about vaccination among its most fervid critics, acknowledging their concerns and gently rebuking their fallacies.

–Published September 30th by Graywolf Press