Proxies: Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning} – Brian Blanchfield

Something a little different to end the month, a book that was recommended to me by Rough Ghosts whilst I was reading Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry”  Brian Blanchfield is a North American poet, with two published collections to his name, Not Even Then and A Several World, which won the 2014 James Laughlin Award and was longlisted for the National Book Award. “Proxies; Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning}” is a collection of twenty four essays, musings on the mundane.
As explained in the opening “Note” each essay was composed using two criteria, they needed to be written fully from memory, with no reference checking, no internet referral, and Brian Blanchfield needed to “stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.”
Even though our writer here is using a “proxy”, authority to act as somebody else, or as Blanchfield says “a stand-in, an agent, an avatar, a functionary” he then gives his reason why he is suitably qualified for such, but it is the raw honesty, the existentialist approach, the honest revelation of self that is the moving, touching component here.
Using, what would, on the surface, seem mundane, we have subjects such as “Foot Washing”, here the historical, and religious symbolism is mixed with the familial and “On Minutes”;
Minutes are so called because they keep a chronological record, or because they guarantee that the proceedings of a meeting will be represented in their minutiae. They constitute the primary mode of clerical documentary nonfiction narrative, and are understood to be entirely faithful to fact, objective and without analysis, very nearly at 1:1 scale. Nonetheless the art of preparing minutes inheres in one’s facility with abstraction, namely paraphrase. There are no quotation marks in minutes. What was said must be related, and the audience is posterity.
At times I felt I was out of my depth with the superior intelligence of Blanchfield, but I was true to his creation process and did not use reference material when reading this collection (it helped that I read it on a long(ish) plan flight where there was no internet and I didn’t pack a thesaurus or dictionary). In the essay “On The Locus Amoenus” he describes somebody as “gracefully intelligent, highly literate”, in my mind that is Brian Blanchfield himself!
A collection that is brilliant in its exploration and revelations, for example to explore a simple word like “confound” and add such depth and meaning shows you are reading a master of language, a writer who is operating at full strength and is enlightening you as part of his journey of self discovery.
In housesitting, you have an established normalcy to play at, an established normalcy to play against. Largesse and obligation alternate and conspire in transitory identity, which wanders the premises with you: minder, keeper, prowler, visitor, charlatan, surrogate, subordinate, beneficiary, help. Because, as you move through the days, the eventual goal is to cover all traces of yourself and leave things as they were, house sitting is situationally criminal, or adolescent at best, surreptitious in any case. The construct is a tidy, socioeconomic parallel of queer desire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
 An in-depth discovery of our writer’s journey and thought processes whilst housesitting. And like the aforementioned Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry” there is reference here to Aristotle too;
This is in language what Donald Winnicott insisted remain free in childhood play, our remake of our surroundings, our exercise of independence. This is what Aristotle mistrusted in poets, makers; we cannot leave things alone. We say what we like. There is a given world and then most of us graduate into a second given, an abstract realm where all of the entities of the given world are players that we can bring into transactive arrangements in sentences, by their names. Standing to reason is only one position. That was a proposition.
Whilst Brian Blanchfield is openly gay and there are numerous references to homosexuality, and essays that address subjects such as male-to-male sex and HIV, AIDS in New York in the 1990’s to restrict his observations and revelations to a purely gay audience would be a great disservice. Let’s hope this work isn’t marketed purely as LGBIT essays!!
Blanchfield’s sexuality is, of course, the subject of many family diversions, an adopted child (adopted by a step father remaining with his blood mother), the relationships with his step father and mother, his real father are often the destination of his unpacking, the “area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability”. As family relationships are for many of us!!!
Be warned though, you can, at times feel as though you are a minnow in the shadow of Blanchield’s learnedness, his writing self-described as, “…the stronger I grow as a writer, my work is not especially welcoming to the uninitiated and one can feel excluded there by a somewhat nuanced consciousness of literary tradition.” As I said…be warned.
With references to other writers, such as Roland Barthes, where he says “agile, esoteric, and unsynthesized, pivoting continually to consult yet another tangential text or discipline”, Blanchfield could be holding a mirror up to his own writing.
And poetry? In the essay “On Reset” he describes reading “Chris Nealon and Kevin Killian and Jena Osman and Harmony Holiday and Aaron Kunin and Bhanu Kapil”…”Each of them, midway, I put down and looked up to find the world changed, a little. That’s what I’m looking for, that transfer, a new attunement.”

 Described on the back cover as singlehandedly raising the bar for what’s possible in the new golden age of creative nonfiction, this is a collection that demands to be read, if essays are your cup of tea here is a fresh approach to what would seem insignificant subjects. A focus on what appears to be mundane shows a deep personal connection to everything that makes us human, where family relationships can bubble in the darkness and only resurface when you are thinking of personal (or more specifically peripersonal) space or the forest or Bre’r Rabbit. Like the “Understory” described in one essay, the multi layers of soft mulch under the forest canopy, this collection is rich in matter, when the light shines through the over growth the focus is intense, but the revelation unique. An absolute brilliant read, one to be celebrated.

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