PROXIES: Essays Near Knowing by Brian Blanchfield (Nightboat, April 2016) Reviewed by Rosie Clarke

PROXIES: Essays Near Knowing
by Brian Blanchfield
(Nightboat, April 2016)

Reviewed by Rosie Clarke

Brian Blanchfield has been writing poetry and essays for some time—poetry, essays, and a strange mixture of the two forms. Of his new collection, Proxies, Blanchfield has stated, “I’m the single source of the essays, which feels like it connects with the oldest traditions of essaying, a kind of radical empiricism that’s not about getting it right, and that performs thinking on the spot.” This tradition is one many other writers—some of them blinding inspirations—subscribe to. Judith Butler, to take one example, writes in her deeply personal Precarious Life:

Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine.

In a conversational interview with Blanchfield for Evening Will Come, Maggie Nelson (both an inspiration and a contemporary counterpoint) commented, “Gender and sexuality certainly bring the questions of which lives count, which lives are visible/readable as lives, and which are grievable, to the fore.”

It will be beneficial to bear these statements in mind when approaching Blanchfield’s collection, which blends autobiography with criticism, and veers from objectively theoretical to painfully personal in a matter of sentences. Framed by unwavering self-reference, each short essay ultimately investigates Butler’s notion of the public/private dichotomy of personal ownership, and how this interacts with the connections Nelson has drawn between visibility/readability and mourning, particularly regarding queer bodies. Although these poetic essays were originally written separately, for various publications, their collection here allows Blanchfield to show how he has consistently woven notions of queer identity into a rich tapestry flecked with literary theory, a tapestry that encompasses such multitudinous loci as housesitting, foot washing, owls, the game of sardines, and the Ingénue.

These essays somewhat awkwardly rub shoulders with contemporary titles like Nelson’s The Argonauts, Gary Indiana’s I Can Give You Anything But Love, Sergio Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory,” and Simon Critchley’s Very Little…Almost Nothing. All meld personal experience with critical engagement and varying degrees of academic sensibility. Proxies has been categorized by its publisher, Nightboat Books, as “essays/memoir,” and that ambiguous conjunction encapsulates the challenge in defining books like this that straddle genres. Simultaneously essay and autobiography, Proxies rejects neat categorization, and therein lies one if its greatest charms.

Blanchfield prefaces his Whiting-award winning collection with “A Note,” in which he explicitly lays out the intention of the subsequent work: “unresearched essaying, analytic but non-academic,” fixating on a number of subjects, and staying with each subject “until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability.” Adding to this considered and deliberate injection of intimacy and exposure, each of the twenty-four essays is subtitled “Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.” Here, Blanchfield appears to ask the reader to not judge too harshly the sentiments and experiences held within, as any sort of external judgment cannot match his own self-criticism, founded in part in his difficult upbringing and years of social persecution and intensified over decades.

Blanchfield was born in North Carolina to a Primitive Baptist family, moving to New York in his twenties, where he worked as an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and later taught at Pratt Institute. As readers of Proxies will learn, Blanchfield has worked—and not worked—all over the United States, currently residing in Tuscon, Arizona. While the references to his professional life offer some insight, and will elicit assenting nods from those also struggling to survive as academics and professors, the depictions of Blanchfield’s youth and adult relationships plunge us most deeply into his psyche, offering the most authentic means for empathetic identification.

Inextricably tied to Blanchfield’s fraught relationship with his mother is his identity as a gay man. Raised as a physical and psychological extension of her, the subsequent suffocating closeness was shattered by Blanchfield’s sexuality. Recalling his (rightly held) fear of coming out to her: “You’d better not be gay, she said. Privately devastated, I believe I managed only sarcasm. What a nuanced and thoughtful philosophy of parenting you have. Such was the condition and extent of our mutual alienation and impasse.”

Later, their reciprocally sustained alienation was only broken by a decisive refusal by Blanchfield to conceal his authentic self, manifested in an act that would sever the residual thread tying him to his mother:

There was a way to align myself in right relation; to develop at least consciousness of feeling, even at thirty-six…to openly acknowledge to her what is hurtful and unacceptable to me; and to heal, which would mean a refusal to conceal or be concealed.

Here, Butler’s notion of the division between public and private body becomes most visibly manifest, within the struggle that arises from our inability to comfortably locate a sense of proprietary “self” without some kind of rupture. For Blanchfield, growing up gay in the 1980s further complicated his struggle of self-definition. In North America at that time, “queer” was frequently conflated with “AIDS,” and all that the disease entailed. His essay “On Frottage” focuses unflinchingly on how closely sexuality was tied to one’s mortality:

In 1988, if you privately understood you were gay and were capable of basic logical continuity, you had made the further implicit equation between your own attraction to men and the depthless suffering of AIDS victims stranded in their crisis on the nightly news.

Stating flatly, “I never had a sex life without having a status. The two were inextricable,” Blanchfield reminds of the fate—and fatality—inscribed on the bodies of gay men by society at that time (a fate that lingers even now). Such fate was writ so deep that the public depiction of queer identity was inseparable from one’s private sense of self:

I remember in the complex acceptance a feeling of immanent correctness, in consigning myself to a short life expiring on one of those iconic cots, abandoned, ravaged, fouled, destitute, panicked, eyes listing in their bony orbits. I was what I was; it was in me already.

However, despite this harrowing reminder of the plight of many in the not-so-distant past, an equally significant aspect of the representation of queer identity in Proxies is Blanchfield’s exploration of the idea of “queer family” in “On Housesitting”:

The we I mean in my poems, connected preternaturally, manifested similarly, recognizable to one another…thrown together by circumstances, managing perforce, a solidarity. The young help the old, and the old help the young, likewise the vagrant and the situated, passing keys, leaving notes.

Here some respite is offered by the identification of a space where those joined by difference can find a bed unlike those “iconic cots,” and a family distinct to those fled from, or cast out by. Surviving in a “barn-cat semi-independent way,” Blanchfield describes how those born under the “specter of HIV” were thrown together, and in that togetherness found a sense of family more authentic than ancestry. Reminiscent again of Nelson’s The Argonauts, the emphasis of such a family’s crucial importance challenges the erasure of queer identities: from the sick to the healthy, the dead to the vibrantly alive, Blanchfield places their bodies defiantly at the fore.

One of the most appealing aspects of Proxies is how it functions as confession; an exposure of the author’s “soul.” Selecting the form of the critical essay to do so may seem peculiar, given its analytic nature, but perhaps such an execution was the only manner Blanchfield found suitable. His adoption of a fairly consistent method of framing personal recollections with the theories and experiences of others suggests a supportive framework was required, before personal agonies and pleasures could be allowed to unspool.

We are given the impression that Blanchfield was not encouraged to be open with his feelings as a child; certainly the relationship he had with his mother was repressive enough that he denied his sexuality to her for years. Writing offered a space in which creativity could bloom, but within certain protective constraints—criticism, for example, is a safe space in which to communicate one’s opinions and feelings with the frame of another’s work as reference. For many critics—myself included—the move from critical to personal essay is filled with at best trepidation, at worst: dread. Blanchfield as a poet offers a more personal look into his inner workings, but the nature of his poetry is abstract, impersonal, and ambiguously autobiographical.

Proxies, then, could be considered as the next phase of Blanchfield’s confession—here are his memoirs, without poetry’s protection of intangibility, but still, he cannot quite relinquish the buffer of others’ words, thoughts, and feelings. That same buffer keeps us at arm’s length; never quite close enough to really connect. Thus, Blanchfield’s lifewriting is not distinct from his intellectual endeavors. In one interview, he claimed the creation of this collection was driven by the desire for “a fervently non-academic independence,” but this drive does not align with the language, tone, and allusions of Proxies.

One way in which Blanchfield makes the switch from critical to discursive is his exploration of the private/public divide using the transformation within the writer from personal, private to poetic, public voice. In “On the Locus Amoneos,” he writes:

No one writing a poem, achieving pleasure in discovery of intention and pattern and melody and association and parallels and syntactic and other tensions, is trying to be someone else. But once made, the poem so made registers as speech. And lyric speech is always, rather mysteriously, someone else’s.

There are echoes of Maurice Blanchot’s proposal that the “space of literature” was one in which the writer simultaneously seeks out and loses him or herself, and that inherent to the act of writing is an kind of self-erasure, followed by the creation of something new—through being written, the literary creation takes on a distinct identity from its creator.

The creative space to which Blanchfield refers, and indeed writes within, behaves like a site of constant making and unmaking. To the extent to which he locates himself within these essays, Blanchfield’s voice is always that of another. In naming himself, and inscribing his memories, they become detached from the intimate space where they formerly resided, and in allowing us to consume them, they are irrevocably changed. Furthermore, in adding a degree of removal, the extraction of memories becomes less painful, and less subjective: while still his, they now have the potential to be ours.

Connected to this idea that the space of writing is a place in which one’s words are both one’s own and suddenly, unintentionally, someone else’s, is Blanchfield’s interest in the notion of what he calls the “peripersonal.” This space is an invisible, undetectable, and flexible region emanating from and surrounding one’s body. The peripersonal can be distinguished from the merely “personal” in how the peripersonal interacts with external objects: it absorbs them temporarily into the body by dissolving the boundaries between internal (the individual) and external (that which surrounds them). For example, when one drives a car, that car becomes an extension of one’s body, as do the bag of groceries in the footwell beside you, and the cup of coffee wedged behind the parking brake.

In the essay “On the Peripersonal,” Blanchfield uses this notion of the peripersonal to describe and explore his troubled relationship with his mother—particularly in considering himself as an extension of her, with all the neuroses and self-loathing that entailed—and while doing so, he recalls two unnamed psychologists on the radio show Science Friday. They had proposed on the show that the self was not merely a physical body, but also included “everything within its immediate orbit…experienced—in their potential for interaction—by that person as part of him or herself.” Just as this broader, peripersonal interpretation of “the self” clarifies Blanchfield’s relationship to his mother, so can it also be applied to a reader’s experience with a novel, or any work of text with the capacity to engage. In the case of Proxies, which is a product of Blanchfield’s creation and indeed a peripersonal extension of him, when the reader is pulled into the text’s gravitational field they come into interaction with its “body,” itself a proxy for Blanchfield himself.

The eponymous “proxies” embody several meanings—in one sense, a proxy is a kind of resignation to inaccuracy, imprecision, even failure. In another, a proxy is an avatar that stands in for something, or someone, else. Blanchfield identities with both connotations; as these essays demonstrate, he has often felt like a proxy; housesitter, acting editor, temporary faculty, stepson, lover. Even as a son he feels like a proxy for his mother, describing a parent as someone that “successfully, unilaterally claimed you and your body as part of him or herself.” And these essays act as proxies, approximating conclusions that may or may not be possible to attain from an actual study of dossiers, tumbleweed, or Br’er Rabbit. Each short meditation is an exercise in deconstruction, followed by a remodelling performed by meticulous self-examination of beliefs, memories, experiences, and regrets.

This remodeling goes beyond Blanchfield’s indisputable skill for literary analysis. More significant is how Proxies can be read as an act of radical reclamation of a body that is been split between public and private, and whose ownership is challenged by a hegemonic power—in this case matriarchal—that denies absolute possession of the self. When discussing the impact Roland Barthes had on the creation of these works, Blanchfield rejects his notion that “to be a writer is, essentially, to violate a primal taboo, to “play with the mother’s body,” claiming instead “(l)anguage eventually was for me...the realm that provided for the rejection of that body, and for the drift beyond that orbit.” Proxies performance of this rejection leads to liberation from externally and internally applied pressure to obey and conform, which Blanchfield communicates with an undeniable, and infectious, joyousness.

 

That joyousness clashes somewhat with the complexity and verbosity of Blanchfield’s arguments and theories. While he is successful at integrating the personal into the academic, the latter ensures these are essays for those “in the know”; those who understand what is meant when referencing Barthes and Heidegger; who can sympathize with the plight of a professor without tenure; who speak the language of queer theory. That is not to say that the collection is exclusionary. Blanchfield writes with such sincerity and familiarity that one does not feel closed off from the autobiographical accounts. However, the theory and criticism enveloping them is worked so closely into “Brian Blanchfield: the man” as to be inseparable. The distance felt between Blanchfield’s “confessions” and our own experience mean we rely on comparisons drawn with our own lives, but if there are none, then Blanchfield’s intellectualization of memoir will fail to connect.

 

Rosie Clarke is a New York-based writer, and works for literary non-profit The Center for Fiction. Her work has appeared in World Literature Today, The Times Literary Supplement, 3:AM Magazine, The White Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and more.