Bleak Waters


Following the publication of her first two books of poetry, Shiner (2001) and The Latest Winter (2003), Maggie Nelson began writing about her aunt’s murder decades earlier. A couple more books resulted: Jane, a poetic collage of various materials related to her aunt’s life and death, and The Red Parts, a prose memoir blending Nelson’s personal and family histories with a description of the trial that finally took place in 2005. Like each of her previous books, her new collection of poems, Something Bright, Then Holes, is an intrepid chronicle of recuperation and letting go.

Something Bright, Then Holes is broken into three parts. The first describes Nelson’s regular visits to Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal against the backdrop of an unraveling relationship: “The sky moves/from gray to yellow to blue/and I am missing you in the way/that spreads.” Here, the struggle of local plant and animal life to flourish amid bleak, occasionally dangerous conditions parallels her psychic landscape. “It’s a relief to be bereft/of shame, of guilt, to know/what you want. To want,” she writes after a rainfall that both cleanses and washes more detritus into the already toxic waterway. Similarly, the dredging the canal needs in order to regenerate morphs into an internal process.

The book’s middle section contains a visceral clutch of poems detailing a friend’s difficult recovery from paralysis. At its heart is “A Halo Over the Hospital,” an impassioned wail of grief and defiance at the cruel and arbitrary moments when a life suddenly comes undone. Yet change can also liberate, and so it’s only appropriate that the volume concludes with a lyric focus on endings as renewals: “We share a brightness/It’s called death/in life.” Nelson’s book skillfully enacts a variety of poetic modes to investigate experiences and events that can be less painful simply to ignore. If its title alludes to a previously blind person seeing her own hands for the first time, it also unflinchingly asserts the persistent opacity of desire and memory.