A Maggie Nelson Primer

In this week’s newsletter, we look at where prose ends and poetry begins. The Argonauts is one of several brilliant genre-bending books by Maggie Nelson.

maggie nelson, books
Dustin Snipes

Drifting among acute observations, winding reflection, and measured poetry, Maggie Nelson’s oeuvre embodies what a writer once told me: that the organizational systems at bookstores haven’t quite caught up to the authors. The California Book Club’s May pick, Nelson’s book The Argonauts, centers on Nelson’s life as a partner and a mother. In her brief and moving book, she covers a love story, her partner’s transition, and Nelson’s simultaneous pregnancy, three monumental shifts in body and in spirit. It’s difficult to imagine a work as academic and yet intimate as The Argonauts, though some of Nelson’s other works compare. And each of her books highlights her gift for observation and criticism.

After beginning her published career with books of poetry, Nelson let her inclination to bend genre shine in her first book about her aunt, Jane: A Murder, which shifts the true-crime formula and transforms it into something more raw. The book combines poetry, prose, and diary entries with archival material related to Nelson’s aunt’s murder, which occurred shortly before Nelson was born. It lays bare how the shock waves of trauma reverberate through generations and, in this particular case, how the terror of violence against women grips a family. The book is intentionally paced to lead readers to pauses and blank pages, encouraging contemplation and discouraging a shallow read.

The follow-up to Jane: A Murder, titled The Red Parts, covers the trial of a suspect who is arrested for Nelson’s aunt’s murder based on a DNA match decades after her death. Subtitled Autobiography of a Trial, The Red Parts is more focused on Nelson’s firsthand experience of the trial, in which she relives the violence that she wrote about in Jane. Nelson also takes a hard look at the true-crime industry and its sensationalism, engaging in an early conversation about what we now know as missing white woman syndrome. References to her aunt’s death and The Red Parts itself reappear in The Argonauts as Nelson encounters a stalker and evaluates her own safety.

The book that made Nelson’s literary reputation, Bluets, is written in the hybrid genre to which she naturally gravitates—as seen in The Argonauts—mixing prose into imagery so deftly that the lines between even poetry and academia become blurred. Paced by a numbered list, Bluets is a series of poems, philosophies, and confessions centered on the color blue. Blue is grief, loss, nostalgia, heartbreak. The book begins, simply, “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.”

Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning examines how artworks—lowbrow and highbrow, poetry, paintings, and performance—portray (often gruesome) violence to their audiences. At the center of the book are her ethical questions about how much cruelty is permissible in the name of art, both as something to be viewed or heard and as a state created in the process. It is a fitting follow-up to the questions she began to explore in Jane and The Red Parts, zoomed out from her own experiences with violence to encompass some of the works that are most applauded by society.

In her most recent book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, Nelson dissects four distinct topics—art, sex, drugs, and climate—in long-form essays, analyzing how each relates to our cultural obsession with freedom. A topic as hot and tricky as freedom in our age requires the critical eye that Nelson possesses, attentive to nuance and wary of extremes. “Fans of The Argonauts’ intimacy may feel locked out by this new book’s more academic tilt,” Joy Press wrote in Alta Journal, “but Nelson does find ways to personalize and concretize abstract concepts, weaving in her son’s love of trains, her wild whiskey youth and subsequent embrace of sobriety, and her growing grief as she immerses herself in the study of global warming.”•

We hope that you find The Argonauts as brilliant as we do and that you’ll have a chance to check out Nelson’s other books highlighted here. Join us on May 19 at 5 p.m., when Nelson will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Miranda July to discuss her book. Visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the conversation here.


boy on swing against sky


Critic Anna E. Clark explores games, including their repetition and their performativity, in Nelson’s The Argonauts. —Alta

may book picks


Here are 18 titles by western authors and set in the West that we’re looking forward to this May, including Vanessa Hua’s Forbidden City, Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao, and Fernando A. Flores’s Valleyesque. —Alta

becoming story, greg sarris
Heyday Books


In Becoming Story: A Journey Among Seasons, Places, Trees, and Ancestors, Greg Sarris weaves together his personal history as the adopted Indigenous son of white parents who reconnects with his roots and the history of his ancestors’ relationship to nature. —Alta

dave eggers


HBO received rights to author Dave Eggers’s book The Every, which centers on a woman who takes a job at a tech company with the intent of bringing it down from within. —Hollywood Reporter

melissa febos
Beowulf Sheehan


On a panel at the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Nelson, Meghan Daum, Melissa Febos, and Dinah Lenney discussed personal writing by and about women. —Los Angeles Times

los angeles review of books spring issue


Novelist Porochista Khakpour writes about her mixed feelings and relationship to South Pasadena and Los Angeles, where she grew up. —Los Angeles Review of Books

bay area book festival


The eighth annual Bay Area Book Festival will be held in person May 7 and May 8 in downtown Berkeley. —Bay Area Book Festival

old perfume bottles


In an interview, Berkeley author Mandy Aftel speaks about re-creating lost love through fragrance and the scent she composed for Leonard Cohen. —Salon

california book club bookplates

Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.


Jessica Blough is an assistant editor at Alta Journal.
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