Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Seven

Something a little different for today’s “favourite” work of 2016. This year I branched out a little and read a number of essay collections, and to narrow my favourite essays down to a single collection for the whole year would be a little harsh, so I’ve given myself a little liberty and allowed myself three books to take the seventh spot on my “Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog”.

In no particular order, these three books all excelled at a criteria I regularly use for my reading, they all have pushed the boundaries of the form, they all enrich my thinking through mechanisms that are not standard, they all make fine use of language, poetic throughout, all a pleasure to read, in their own personal way.


First up “Proxies: Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning}” by Brian Blanchfield. 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.


Next up Sun Yung Shin’s “Unbearable Splendor”. As publisher Coffee House Press tells us, “Sun Yung Shin is the author of poetry collections Rough, and Savage and Skirt Full of Black, which won an Asian American Literary Award. She coedited the anthology Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, and is the author of Cooper’s Lesson, a bilingual Korean/English illustrated book for children”. With their blurb of the book saying, “Poetry as essay, as a way of hovering over the uncanny, sci-fi orientalism, Antigone, cyborgs, Borges, disobedience.”

Doesn’t help much does it?

An essay collection blending micro-fiction, poetry, graphs, all musing on themes linked to cultural or scientific references. We have Borges, Kafka, Antigone, the Minotaur, Dante, Pinocchio, the movies Alien and Blade Runner. Starting off with the universe’s creation, astrophysics, light, and black holes:

Maybe I am a kind of star. Burning – sending you the light to read by. A valley you might come upon gradually, not a hole to fall into.

Don’t be perturbed by the early graphs, showing ‘moving’ and ‘still’ plotted against axis’ of ‘human likeness’ and ‘familiarity’, the opening appears complex, but as you work your way through this fragmented poetic text the messages of identity and singularity come clearly into focus. In these graphs, the axis ‘human likeness’ appears as a demarcation line, policed with cameras and guns. As our poet was born in Korea the DMZ (demarcation zone) immediately springs to mind.

Parallel to Sun Yung Shin’s journey as a star, is her journey from Korea to the USA as an adopted child, a two-year-old. Attempting to explore her roots we have an ‘essay’ titled “One Hundred Days In The Cave” where Sun Yung Shin explores Korean history until the Bronze Age, as well as Korean creation myths.

Our time is recursive and forking. Our time is a garden in which all realities are simultaneously possible. All paths are truly one path. From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence. This sentence is utterly, heartbreakingly unique. Never before and never again. Yet they, in ensemble, create One Sentence. It holds and houses us. Announces and defends us. Blesses and confesses us. Curses and condemns.

Not your usual collection of ‘essays’ you need to dwell on the poetics, the message behind the written word, the timbre and the metre. Mixing myth with poetics, with familial recollections or dreams this is a startling revelation of a search for identity.


Lastly Mary Ruefle’s “My Private Property”. Before I even opened this small book, I was excited, beautifully presented, in slim hardback, exquisitely bound, containing a luscious thick mottled paper cover, I have started looking at other titles from Wave Poetry, books that would make fantastic additions to any collection.

Opening with an epigraph by Walker De La Mare’s “Memoirs of a Midget”;

The cumbersome bones, the curious distance from foot and fingertip to brain, too; and those quarts and quarts of blood. I shuddered. It was little short of a miracle that they escaped continual injury; and what an extended body in which to die.

The reader knows they are in for an existentialist journey. The collection contains thirty-one short prose pieces and ten reflections on colour (more on that later) over 103 pages and opens with ‘Little Golf Pencil’;

…in the beginning you understand the world but not yourself, and when you finally understand yourself you no longer understand the world.

These short sharp pieces poignantly, poetically capturing multitudes in a few short sentences. The piece “Please Read” opens with a Clarice Lispector quote “Once upon a time there was a bird, my God.” And in the opening sentence we are told that the character in this piece dies within an hour. Little scatterings of information like “She filled out a card stopping the mail” are enough to allow your imagination to run riot, this is a very moving piece musing on the simple joys of nature.

“Pause” an emotional and realist essay on menopause, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (a character who keeps popping up in works I read) gets a reimagination and a new relevancy as a teaching method in the piece “Take Frank”.

The ten pieces on colours, each feature a different colour and are attached to “Sadness”, here is “Red”;

Red sadness is the secret one. Red sadness never appears sad, it appears as Nijinsky bolting across the stage in mid-air, it appears in flashes of passion, anger, fear, inspiration, and courage, in dark unsellable visions; it is an upside-down penny concealed beneath a tea cozy, the even-tempered and steady-minded are not exempt from it, and a curator once attached this tag to it; Because of the fragile nature of the pouch no attempt has been made to extract the note.

Memory recollections, poignant and touching pieces that may not make logical sense but are all moving. At the end of the collection we are advised that we can replace the word sadness with happiness and nothing changes.


Something I will be visiting more often in 2017, the essay that pushes writing’s boundaries, ones that can mix poetics and literary styles, ones that can put restrictions on the writer and come up with something absorbing, thought provoking and entertaining.


4 thoughts on “Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Seven

  1. I have acquired quite a few essay collections and book length essays this year. Some of the larger ones I am slowly making my way through. I did love Proxies and I have Unbearable Splendor (on your recommendation). Seems that essays and poetry have been catching my attention lately. Sign of the times, perhaps?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have noticed quite a few people moving towards poetry recently, I thought maybe my blinkers were off. but I also had thought “sign of the times”. The move to more meaning in our reading (lives).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ive not got into reading essays – part of me thinks they could be too challenging to read at bedtime which is when I get to read mostly. Plus i don’t know really where to start – where do you find these collections? I don’t think our public library system even has a category for essays so would be difficult to find if you don’t know what to look for

    Liked by 1 person

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