This is a book braver than I am.
I am not even certain where to begin to unravel my reaction to reading this collection of essays. Until recently I was resisting the dawning recognition that what I needed to say—the subjects I wanted to explore—would be best met through essay/memoir writing. Or to put it another way, I realized that I have neither the patience nor aptitude for fiction. But what of the essay and its personalized variant, the memoir? I wasn’t even sure I liked the form. So I have learned to approach reading essays with an eye to writing. I read not simply for the joy of encountering well-crafted, intellectually and emotionally engaging prose. A work that excites me, in style, content, or both, invariably sends me to my current notebook where I spin, inward and outward, a cascade of thoughts, images, and ideas… fuel for my own scribblings.
Proxies, by the American poet and essayist Brian Blanchfield, is one such work.
Subtitled Essays Near Knowing, the pieces that comprise this collection were composed under a particular creative constraint. Blanchfield decided to refrain from seeking any guidance from authoritative sources during the writing process. Thus these essays were written unplugged, if you like. Of course, adopting a learned tone without fact checking (and we all do it, especially in conversation), necessitates allowing for a margin of error. Consequently, pages of “Corrections” addressing many of the resultant inaccuracies and inconsistencies, close out the book. However, Blanchfield also gives himself a secondary challenge in this project:
Having determined that this would be unresearched essaying, analytic but nonacademic, I was almost immediately drawn to a second constraint—or better, invitation: to stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.
As he hits these points of reflection that effectively bend the essay toward memoir, there is, he admits, a certain fumbling allowed, stimulating a transition that, in its sometimes sudden movement, creates an energy that is dynamic, emotionally raw. What begins as a focused consideration of a topic, a concept, or theme, seems to turn personal in a heartbeat, and works its way through to a resolution, however ambivalent that may be. No grand narrative arcs here, only furtive digging through the fragmented moments of life, each essay preceded by the same caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.
Blanchfield’s starting points are varied. As a poet, it is not surprising that many start with language and meaning: “On Propositionizing”, “On Confoundedness”, “On Abstraction”, “On the Ingénue”, “On the Near Term”. Some have more tangible contexts at the outset: “On Minutes”, “On the Leave” (as in the game of pool), “On Dossiers”. He often draws on specific images from his own life to set the stage, but those musings typically lead him much closer to the bone as the essay takes shape. Relationships with his parents, the tenuousness of his chosen profession, and his sexuality—his queerness of being—are common themes that regularly surface as he ventures into those areas of private anxiety and susceptibility.
As personal as he gets, and he can lay himself bare, these essays are rich with fascinating intellectual ideas, with references to philosophers, psychologists and, naturally, poets. Some essays are simple and relatively self-contained, while others seem to mutate, in the reading, as the author reaches for a subject that expands, like a pool of liquid, resisting the ordered shape one might anticipate. At best, at their most intriguing, these are essays meant to be experienced as much as read.
Take, for the sake of illustration, “On Minutes.” This piece begins, objectively, with a discussion of meeting minutes, the recorded, dispassionate account of the details of a meeting—no place for embellishment, dramatic flair. Expanding on this basic subject, Blanchfield recounts his own experience working as an executive assistant at a performing arts organization in Tuscon at a time when he and his partner were struggling to make ends meet on one salary. It was a job borne of necessity not desire to say the least. He slides from the drudgery of typing up minutes into memories of accompanying his mother to her office job on weekends as a young child, occupying himself creating stories while she worked, reading them aloud to her co-workers at the end of the day. These childhood creations are then parlayed into a link to the remembrance of his return to his mother’s home for his stepfather’s funeral. From there he passes into a reflection on “Paraphrase”, a poem by Hart Crane that, for Blanchfield, “gets the sudden, lights-out fact of death right.” At this point, what has become a quick dip into the territory of memoir, turns again and, as it shifts, the language of the essay slides into richly poetic territory with a meditation on the closing stanza of Crane’s poem in which the white head of the deceased is observed as a “paraphrase” among the roses on the wallpaper:
The word choice is inexplicable, querulous, oblique, just right. A paraphrase among the rows of roses—a relief receding there—renders their locked pattern a kind of language, but what can it say?; and the head in the place where the living being lay is nominated as this titular hermeneutic tool, useless as such without its objective genitive of. It cannot be said what original locution this paraphrase summarizes. A case, I think, for Crane, of Flesh Made Word again. A reversion. Revelation withdrawn.
The essay winds down with thoughts of Crane who, fittingly, worked an office typist; and the speculation that the imagined head on the bed might have been that of his lover’s father. Some strange, small circle, elegantly wrought from very humble beginnings. The essays in this book move like this, through memories, reflections, ideas and poetic contemplation.
One of the most profoundly moving pieces in the collection arises from Blanchfield’s attempt to address his relationship with his mother—once loving, now long strained by her inability to accept his sexuality. “On Peripersonal Space” begins with the notion that an individual’s concept of the self includes all the space within reach around his or her body. He hears a radio discussion with the authors of a book on the subject, a mother and son team, a collaboration that, within his own scope of experience, is unimaginable. Yet he finds it difficult to approach his desired subject, as much he feels it is essential that he make the attempt. This is a challenge I understand—writing about those with whom our relationships are close but complicated, is an uneasy task:
Since I began this project, I have tried a number of times to write about my mother and me, and have abandoned a few attempts already. If these essays are, in part, inroads to disinhibited autobiography, as I have come to claim they are, and demand they be, I feel the imperative to address the subject above all others. But ours is a relationship so deep and damaged and (still) so tenuous it has defied emergence.
So how to start? He takes the peripersonal space as a cue, beginning with an account of the closely bound emotional intimacy and playful games that he, as an only child, and his then divorced mother used to enjoy when he was young. His description and the psychological implications of their connection is startlingly frank and triggers a concern that I also share with respect to writing about close family members:
It is more than embarrassing to relate all of this. I come up against the inappropriateness of, for one thing, sharing what is only half mine to share. But is that partiality, expressed by that proportion—half of one—ethical, or healthy for a grown man? Roland Barthes has famously said that to be a writer is, essentially, to violate a primal taboo, to “play with the mother’s body.” No, I love Barthes and he is a signal influence on my conception of this very book; but the remark presumes a class and level of literacy I was not born into.
The resulting essay achieves a surrogate catharsis of sorts, but not between the author and his mother. The roots of their (as yet) unresolved divide lie deep in the American south where Blanchfield was raised in a Primitive Baptist family. He had to leave to live openly as a gay man, moving to New York City in his early twenties. The years that have passed, and the miles that have separated them have not healed the rift. Honestly sharing the pain of rejection, the frustration at his mother’s inability to come to any terms of respectful disapproval, and the sting of hearing her say “I shouldn’t have to choose between my God and my son” leaves a deep sorrow that lingers on the page.
Essayists are no strangers to the practice of blending intellectual and literary observations with autobiographical reflections. What Blanchfield seems to approach here is a means of allowing himself, as a writer, to push his way inward, passing from the factual (more or less), the abstract or the sentimental into the territory of the immediate, the raw, and the real. He touches nerves (his own) but avoids falling into two traps that can snare those who venture toward autobiographical writing: the artificial narrative and the open air confessional. At the most personal end of the spectrum, what he is sharing are unguarded moments of naked emotional vulnerability, decidedly queer, but recognizable and resonant to anyone who has lived, loved, won and lost.
For prospective or developing essayists, Proxies is, as a project, idiosyncratic, bold and illuminating. Barthes’ essays, as he admits, are an ever present influence and Blanchfield demonstrates a similar natural ease with the form. To be able to unfold ideas and follow their course without fact-checking is an interesting exercise in itself, useful at the very least in drafting an essay in its early stages. Lifewriting in this format offers ample reward for readers and some significant points of interest for those of us who struggle to achieve the balance between a story we want to explore and the open wounds that may not have quite healed—the truths that give a personal essay its soul.
For me, this book generated a series of provocations, flash points for my own writing, current and potential. I loved the way Blanchfield focuses in on ideas and uses them as pivot points to make his way from concept to experience and back to ideas. It took me, I confess, over a month to read this collection of twenty-four short essays. But in that time I lost both of my parents, the outcome of two intersecting, but unrelated series of events. I sat long at the bedsides of both my mother and father, witness to their final days. I want to attempt to capture the immediate experience, in its unfiltered rawness, before my memories begin to become distorted by time. I gleaned some possibilities, some instances of inspiration, some ideas to bring into my own project which will be, in its own way, necessarily imprecise, emotionally liable, and queer.
And that, to borrow from the title of the final essay, will suffice for the near term.
Proxies: Essays Near Knowing is published by Nightboat Books.