Maggie Nelson, “The Cord”

Some of you know that I work hours at a convenience store near campus. Because there is not much to do on campus, the store, I’ve come to realize, has a unique function. It’s where the students go to show off status. Status has less to do with how exclusive or expensive a given party is, and much more to do with who seems like they’re full of youthful energy, surrounded by gorgeous friends, doing whatever they want in a gas station parking lot.

The expectations created through a glimpse of an image are the most unreal.

There are rarely quiet couples in the store. There’s almost always some degree of “higher value” to demonstrate, some smart comment to be made, some expectation asserted from a world only known to one person.

With this in mind, the quietness of Nelson’s poem—the quietness of its eros, its anxiety—strikes me as sublime. I remember my home growing up as noisy, despite stretches of what others would consider silence. I want to turn to the poem and wonder about the love it attempts to present:

The Cord
Maggie Nelson

What is the thing
we can love

Maybe you, maybe
me, maybe
white wine.

You chart what perishes, find
its theme. I accumulate 
daily, like a shelf.

If we could sit and say 
nothing and both
love its music.

What is the thing / we can love / together?—I spent considerable time with Nelson’s Bluets this summer, jealous of her epigrammatic style, wanting her ability to make a few words, a fragment of a scene or idea, hit like a truck. Here, she builds the full thought over a series of discrete moments. “What is the thing” could be followed by “I could love,” “you could love,” “that could unite us,” “that could loosen this tension”—any number of things that might be beneficial for a partner or a couple. It is instead followed by “we can love,” and “together” ends the thought on a note both emphatic and ambiguous. This can feel like the sort of question asked for the purpose of deepening a relationship at an advanced stage.

But it need not be that. It can be asked when a relationship is just starting, or when things are fragile. Maybe you, maybe / me, maybe / white wine—I’m tempted to read this as an undeveloped relationship, as we’re deciding which partner to even love. It feels a bit ridiculous. Does Nelson feel loved? “Me, maybe” seems fearful, anxious. The stanza resolves with the mere trappings of romance, i.e. “maybe white wine.”

However, a lover—at least any lover that’s any good—uses a knowledge which runs deep. You chart what perishes, find / its theme. I accumulate / daily, like a shelf. I’ve said stuff like this when beginning to wonder about “us,” but this doesn’t seem as superficial as my musings. “You chart what perishes, find its theme”—the beloved does not dwell in negativity, but makes sense of things which pass away. Nelson appreciates this and sees herself complementary. “I accumulate daily, like a shelf”—maybe there’s no theme, maybe I’m just a hoarder. I too will pass and you’ll make sense of me. Quietly, if there was a worry about this relationship, it’s been turned into a hope.

Still, that hope could be dashed by miscommunication. If we could sit and say / nothing and both / love its music. Whatever stage this relationship is in, one thing is clear: there’s noise which isn’t helping. I don’t know that I’ve learned anything about the right thing to say, but I do know that the thought of trust, the thought that one can learn to love and be loved, is a quiet resolve of its own.

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