The Book Life

Let’s Dispense With Genre Altogether | June 29, 2009

I’ve already rhapsodized about Maggie Nelson here, haven’t I?

In the interest of not wanting to navigate away from the new post page, I’ll just refresh us all by saying this: I saw her read at the Ohio University Spring Literary Festival (aka LitFest) and immediately bought nearly all of her books. Her poetry is incredible, and her presence onstage is simple, unapologetic, and quietly powerful.

I just finished reading Jane, Nelson’s memoir-of-sorts about the murder of her aunt, Jane, at age 23, 4 years before Nelson herself was born.

I’ll admit my reluctance from the start: In some circles Jane is considered a kind of true crime book, and Nelson herself admitted to reading true crime while working on this book. I do not like true crime books – the reasons why, I’ll save for another day. So I dove in skeptically and would have stayed away entirely, except that Nelson’s other work is so good.

And what a good idea. This book is a memoir. It is true crime. It is poetry. It’s a journal. This is an annoying thing to say, but it transcends genre in an of itself, not as a gimmick, but because there’s no other way to tell the story. It’s entirely fascinating, and not because it’s about the death of a beautiful women (Nelson quotes Poe’s Theory of Composition in the opening, though she later lets us know that Jane was not beautiful).

Nelson uses everything available to her: excerpts from Jane’s own journals, quotations about the murder from newspapers, Nelson’s own poetic inquiries. Here are some excellent lines:

“Skin is soft; it takes what you do to it.”

“Can anyone like blood the way one likes the mountains or the sea?”

And Jane’s own words: “Am I to live this life / with a blameless ferocity?

I really think this book is the perfect example of the wonderful things that can happen when you focus on what you need to say before you worry about how to say it. The HOW comes later, will come on its own. There are a lot of poems in this book, and a lot of white space, a lot of stanza breaks. And I found myself considering the bravery of white space, and wrote this in the margins.

the control




the danger

in leaving

so much space

for breathing






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