We may earn a commission through product links on this page. But we only recommend stuff we love.

Maggie Nelson’s New Book Urges Us To Revel In the Art We Love

Before you get into any of the work collected in Maggie Nelson’s newest book, Like Love, you’re confronted with a question that might be difficult to answer at first: “How can the attention one pays to art be an act of love, or something like it, if and when the love object (words, sounds, paint, pixels) cannot love you back?” In the lead up to this line of inquiry that sets up the occasion for everything contained in Like Love, Nelson discusses encountering art as a kid, mostly through her mother’s insistence, and taking her time to fully feel the emotions and meaning conveyed through the piece. She describes how often she couldn’t discuss art with her mother immediately after, that she needed to think about what she witnessed more than those moments allowed. This time we take to “pay attention” to the works we witness, Nelson insists, is imperative to fully understanding them and ourselves.

Like Love is a collection of examples that put Nelson’s attention on display for us. It’s a creative and intellectual road map guiding us through many of Nelson’s influences, curiosities, and obsessions to help us understand in an attempt to answer the question that she poses to us and herself at the start of the collection. Unlike her poetry collections and her memoir/nonfiction books, another side of Nelson is showcased here through her critical writings on various works of art in several different mediums, the artists who created them, the thinkers who challenge and delight her, and a short series of transcribed conversations between Nelson and other working writers, artists, and thinkers. The works collected here have been published elsewhere before — some in publications that are easily accessible to anyone and others in catalogs for artists’ shows or collections — which is one of the most interesting aspects of the text itself.

As with so much of what is addressed in the pieces collected in the text, this is Nelson’s retrospective of shorter works spanning the last 24 years. They aren’t situated chronologically or thematically, but you can see her evolution as a critic, thinker, and person in the world as you move through the different essays. Though this might be a little disorienting to some who have come to love Nelson’s work through Bluets and The Argonauts, her mode is still very much the same. These pieces are most often not simply focused on just the subject at hand. She, as she usually does, works as both the investigator and problem solver, weaving in works from other writers and thinkers that she knows will help illuminate our understanding of what she’s trying to prove to us. Olivia Laing once wrote of Nelson’s work, “The Nelsonian unit of thought is not the chapter but the paragraph, a mode that allows for deep swerves and juxtapositions, for the interspersing of anecdote and analysis.” Like Love follows this exact rhythm — except this time, these detours are less about Nelson probing her own experiences, memories, and vulnerabilities, and more about transforming her rapt attention for her subjects into language we can all comprehend and, perhaps, emulate in our own ways.

The best pieces in this collection achieve exactly that, despite her recognition that “Probably, language does not make art happy.” In a piece on Alice Notley’s feminist skewering on the epic poem, The Descent of Alette, Nelson discusses reaching for the book to prepare for writing about it and Notley in a way that she hadn’t already in her work on the women of the New York School of poetry. Though she’s spent a lot of time with Alette, it’s this rereading that teaches her something new about how the work — a story of a woman who must slay the “Tyrant” in order to liberate herself and everyone else — moves within her: “…The power of Alette — the change I felt within me while taking its ride and after — gave me pause. For I can’t think of another book that changed me — or that makes me feel that radical change is possible — the way Alette did and does.” This realization helps her admit, “The truth is that on many days I feel that the energy I project is really a version of what painter Francis Bacon called ‘exhilarated despair.’ This has its charms and drive, but it isn’t really enough.” The contemplation of the themes, mood, and attitude of Alette leads her on a path of appraisal of the way she has been showing up in the world and invites us to do the same.

A short and incisive essay on Prince’s Purple Rain takes us from Nelson and her sister’s original obsession with what they believed was the movie’s message of sexual empowerment to how the film played a pivotal role in her own sexual development, to how she was able to experience the pleasures of sex without the shame of it. She writes, “I hate the way this possibility of experience for boys and girls and everyone in between gets drowned out in moralistic crap about power and consent, all of which is necessary but too often eclipses the real divine electric dirtiness that is possible between excited young bodies who have accepted that they have desire and somehow manage to find each other. I want people, especially girls, to know that that’s possible. It’s possible even when you’re thirteen, fifteen, and it can be great.” Here, she provides not only an appraisal of her own experiences with this particular piece of art, but offers something to us as well: The works we consume don’t necessarily have to be perfect for us to grow because of them or make our own meanings from them.

Two tribute pieces to Hilton Als and Judith Butler take Nelson’s attempt to show love (more specifically, reverence) to the works that move her to another level. These pieces are not just focused on how their works have altered her thinking, but also how their ways of being and showing up in their work have changed the ways she approaches her own. You can feel her deep admiration for how each of them are able to provoke new recognitions and cognizance within her. Of Als, she writes, “Hilton’s sensibility is also marked by its deep and wild explorations of identification (or disidentification, as the queer theorists like to say) and its wily, torturous relationship to desire. […] Hilton’s persistent forays into these wilds chart another course altogether, one that shrugs off demands for political efficacy or mea culpas, and makes no a priori presumptions about where or how connections will be found.”

Thinking through one of Butler’s assertions in their book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Nelson writes how that very assertion — “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” — has been haunting Nelson’s thoughts since she originally read in 2004. At the end of the piece, she addresses Butler directly: “It’s like — or I’m like — I took you up on your 2004 invitation to face it; now it’s 2022, and I’ve been facing it, yet everything remains a mess. I tried to figure out who you are, who I am, who we are to each others, who is responsible for what, where we begin and end, how to repair what can be repaired (and live with all that cannot), how not to punish each other or project onto each other (unduly), how to handle all the aggression and disappointment our interrelation arouses, how to mourn you. And I still haven’t figured it out! And now you’re retiring!” It might be tempting to think of these tributes as hero worship, but it quickly becomes apparent how superficial that description is when it comes to the way Nelson’s writing illustrates both her intellectual and emotional congruence with the subjects that have significantly altered not just her perceptions of art and human connectivity but also the possibilities that connectivity can afford to us.

What unites the collection is that you can see the string of this mode of thinking throughout every piece collected here. Nelson might still feel apprehensive about what we can do to show our love to works that can’t possibly love us back, but the way she moves through the pieces and people at the center of these essays shows there are radical possibilities in giving ourselves the time and space to truly reflect on the things we believe we love. We don’t have to change the world through our reflection; it’s possible we’ll be changed through that reflection and that can somehow, in some way, extend outward to everything else we hold dear in this life. Of course, Nelson doesn’t explicitly say this. Instead, she lays her cards out on the table and emboldens us to not only read them but also be moved to create the cards that move us and figure out our own ways to give those back to the world.

Like Love by Maggie Nelson is out now.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 84 articles for us.

1 Comment

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!