Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

What do you know?


Gay poet Brian Blanchfield's new collection is Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Photo: Nightboat Books
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The essay is having a hard time of it these days. The bleeding torso that has not been consumed by the blogosphere has been co-opted by the stable of writers who used to call themselves "working journalists," and who now appropriate "essay" to refer to the most meager of reviews. But for a serious take on the venerable form at its most robust, the essay as extreme sport, there's gay poet Brian Blanchfield's masterful, boundary-pushing new collection Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat Books).

The risk of condensing a poet's stated scheme is grave, but there is some explaining to do. Among the challenges Blanchfield set for himself in these 24 essays, written as early as 2009 but mainly in 2013-15, was to compose them without consulting other sources. He took his cue from the great essayist Montaigne, who is said to have addressed his personal library with the question, "What do you know?" Hence the subtitle, essays Near Knowing, and a sub-subtitle, {a reckoning}, that sits so central on the title page you can't ignore it.

The notion of "proxies," he explains, addresses a range of "near" states suggested by roles he has taken: stepson, adjunct professor, house-sitter and more. The word's scientific use to describe a "concession to imprecision" leads to a motto that appears under each of the essay titles, "Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source." Despite the repetition, you read it every time. The essays are no wade into Lake Lacan; instead they work rather like music, the aleatory John Cage a good "proxy." Blanchfield includes "sortilege" among his methods. He writes, "Having determined that this would be unresearched essaying, analytic but not academic, 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."

The writing is bravely personal, open, and amused with itself in all the right ways. There's frank comedy in the fact that the 24 short essays, seldom longer than a half-dozen pages, are followed by the book's longest section, a 20-page coda: Correction. With a period. For a certain type of footnote reader, it's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Blanchfield's American sensibility is also "gay" less in its confessions than in its queer alchemy of irony and playfulness. The essays range from "On Owls" to "On Peripersonal Space" by way of "On Br'er Rabbit" and "On Frottage," while not ducking "On Man Roulette." Given the draw of the topics, it warrants saying that the writing is not for the faint-hearted. No pantywaists or open-toed shoes allowed. You don't skate over this prose, and, poet that Blanchfield is, not all of the words are familiar, though all are germane. Even advanced readers will take to their dictionaries – eagerly, I suspect.

"On Propositioning" (no, not that) begins with reflections on the impact of Helen Keller's learning words for her experience, then invokes Roland Barthes, "[who] uses nearly the same quivering expression as Keller, writing about the pleasure of choosing a word, not for its fitness or this or that sonorous or rich quality but for its 'vibrating' potential, its readiness to be 'put into play' with others." Other essays are more homey. "On House Sitting" drops words like "commensalism" and "citational" into places where they vibrate, speaks tenderly about what constitute gay families, and settles old scores.

There's a bit of sex, flirty bar stuff that starts with pre-cum and ends with a walk home in "jizzy Jeans." But there's far more about intimacy and its discontents and the homely sacraments in which people in general, and gay men in particular, find meaning.

"On Containment" opens with a harrowing account of a face-lacerating dog attack on the boy Blanchfield, and of tickling. "In sustained tickling we knew (we learned) there exists an outer lip or membrane between the simple immediate excitement of fear and the shameful and complete loss of bodily control and mental composure." There follows a discussion of secrets and "being a holding environment for the secret" that leads, by way of a brilliant return to the idea that a dog "smells" its fearer's fear, to the realization: "The secret is how you feel. Then, one day, you wake up to the new reality that walking the same Earth you have lived on all these years, growing increasingly proficient as the keeper of your contents, is at least one creature endowed with the singular ability to sense something you are concealing for your life, a creature whose report is loud as a gun. It smells your fear. In its presence I could not contain myself. Even then, starting then with new dread, I felt myself; I couldn't have said by what extroversion, but I knew eventually I was coming out."

Few writers in any genre come out as deeply, about so much, as Blanchfield does in Proxies, which a less humble writer might accurately have titled Dead On.


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