Essays, Recent

The Pursuit of It: Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom

by Gabrielle Bates | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Tuesday, September 14, Maggie Nelson will read and discuss her work in conversation with Danzy Senna at 6:00 pm PST. Tickets to future events in the Poetry Series can be purchased at the SAL website.


On a typical weekend, you will not catch me with a critical theory text on my bed stand. Even when I was a graduate student, I wasn’t drawn to books like this, dense with quotations from folks like Foucault, and to be totally honest, for over a year now, I’ve found it difficult to read anything in its entirety but the occasional sexy novel. In light of this, maybe it was foolish of me to agree to read On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson ahead of her SAL lecture. 

What to say about this book? I’ve just finished it, and I’m unsure. So let me come at it, first, a bit slant.

When considering the notions of care and constraint in my own life, I think about the paradox of formal poetry: how accepting a series of constraints (fourteen lines and a rhyme scheme, for example) can allow some poets to access a wilder—freer, one could say—expression of certain human experiences. Every poet I know who writes “in form” describes this paradox to me at some point. As animals are sometimes calmed by close-fitting jackets and humans sometimes reach new heights of sexual abandon within the context of long-term monogamy, poets can sometimes only say what they need to say if they try to write it out in ten lines of ten syllables each. 

Furthermore, as a poet myself, I am obsessed—perhaps to a detrimental degree—with imagery. I rely heavily in my own poems on concrete detail and visual narrative as a way to approach abstract concepts. Love, fear, goodness, shame, courage, truth . . . These are concepts essential to our experiences as human beings on this earth, and we’d do ourselves a great disservice, certainly, to never grapple with them, but I struggle to understand the value of grappling with abstraction using abstraction. I have a lot of questions, and a lot to learn, when it comes to the theoretical enterprise.

Luckily for me, On Freedom opens with a poem. Revisiting it now (“Leviathan” by George Oppen), I’m grateful for the relative spareness of the words on the page, the short sentences, and the strange, visceral description of wind moving in a cold circle. It begins with a claim about the nature of truth (“Truth also is the pursuit of it”), which highlights, in regards to the concept, the importance of an active, ongoing search, and ends with what can be read as a call to courage and togetherness, an indicting lament, or both: “Fear / is fear. But we abandon one another.” Complexity and difficulty are alive and well in this poem, but the brevity of the units and the intimate urgency in the voice—the repetition of “We must talk now.”—invite me to reread and unpack the layers. 

In Nelson’s introduction for On Freedom following this poem, she describes how the word freedom is used increasingly by white people with far-right interests, and how this, she feels, has largely stripped the word of positive meaning and usefulness. “Can you think,” she writes, “of a more depleted, imprecise, or weaponized word?” I understand her frustration, but to say a term has been “capture[d] by the right wing” or “depleted” seems to imply the term once held some intrinsic meaning or belonged precisely to a particular ideology, doesn’t it? I don’t think even Nelson believes that’s how language works, given her quotations of Wittgenstein later, so it’s confusing to encounter this logic up top, at the book’s genesis. Furthermore, to imply that because language is energetic as a rallying cry in one context automatically zaps it of its power in others does not feel true to me. The same words have always been used to galvanize forces towards different and opposing ends, haven’t they?

Oppen himself provides, I think, an interesting test site for this. I don’t know a ton about him, but I know that he was Jewish and a communist activist, writing within the same aesthetic grouping (objectivism) as fascist collaborator and blatant anti-Semite Ezra Pound. Could Pound, by harping on the same individual units of language (words like “truth” and “fear,” for example) to rousing effect in support of anti-Semitic fascism, lessen the power and meaning in Oppen’s work against those forces? I don’t think so. If anything it might add levels of resonance to Oppen’s usage, in contrast, by deepening the words’ shadows. 

Words make meaning in relation—in context—as they provoke thought, feeling, and action. As Nelson herself enacts in On Freedom, every statement in language drags with it a complex and difficult entanglement with differing, contrasting ones. See, for example, this excerpt from her chapter “Art Song”: 

Forcing all abstract work (or any kind of work, really) under the lens of so-called identity politics can be throttling. But, as the riddle of [Darby] English’s book title How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness suggests, it remains a challenge to shed the habit of predictable, reductive, identity-based responses (such as those that would treat, as English has it, all abstract art by Black artists as “the cryptic articulation of fierce racial pride awaiting disencryption”) without simultaneously reifying the idea that if we could just get past all these annoying differences of lot and station, the real subjects of art would reveal themselves to us, especially as this latter mindset risks reaffirming, yet again, the stale hierarchy in which the universal lords over the particular, the abstract over the figurative . . .

The big question, it seems to me, is how can a writer acknowledge the fact of ever-present complexity in regards to an abstract concept like “freedom” or “care” while also energizing people toward liberatory and caring actions? How can we ensure that our desire to unpack every thorny counterpoint does not ensnare readers in mental thickets, unable to see clearly or move in any direction? 

I believe, after reading On Freedom, that Nelson believes action is necessary in regards to many things (coercion, climate change), but I don’t see, in the book, specific calls to action. I also couldn’t stop thinking as I read about the specter of literal human confinement, i.e. mass incarceration, which I only noticed Nelson mention briefly, in a single line amidst a discussion of risk management in higher ed art classes: “It’s no accident that, in a society with more people locked up per capita than anywhere else on earth, we wouldn’t have many ready or inventive answers,” she writes (about the question of what to do with artists, art teachers, and students who do “unacceptable” things). The “War on Drugs,” similarly, is mentioned fleetingly in the context of white memoirists writing about addiction, in the chapter “Drug Fugue.”

I know writers can’t always control where their obsessions or scholarly interests take them, but the absence of substantive discussion about incarceration or literal policing in a book called On Freedom by an American writer in 2021 felt palpable to me. On any given day in the U.S., where Nelson and I both live and write, approximately one in twelve Black men in their thirties is locked inside a prison or jail. Due to laws and policing practices, over 2.2 million human beings in the U.S. are held behind bars, and most people currently confined in U.S. jails have not even been convicted of a crime; they are detained pre-trial, unable to afford bail, or waiting to pay it. And when it comes to children and teens, most are locked up for nonviolent offenses or zero crime at all. 

“Acting upon entanglement,” Nelson writes in her final chapter, “—like acting on care—is more difficult than simply professing fidelity to the principle.” Reading this, I think: Yes! That’s so true! And then I think: OK, so let’s go into that difficulty. Who does stasis serve? 

Given the scholarly, theoretical mode of On Freedom, I’m hopeful that Nelson’s lecture at SAL will provide some more grounding in Nelson’s lived experience. I would also love to hear how she thinks her ideas about freedom might be in service, in tangible ways, to people in confinement, and how her mode of inquiry has changed—or hasn’t—in this book’s wake. 

In the meantime, if you’re interested in liberation as an ongoing practice and want to focus your energies in directions where the cages are literal, here are just a few resources and organizations you might find helpful:

Gabrielle Bates is the author of Judas Goat, forthcoming from Tin House in 2023. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she currently lives in Seattle, where she works for Open Books: A Poem Emporium and co-hosts the podcast The Poet Salon. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Catapult, and elsewhere. On Twitter: @GabrielleBates.