Brian Blanchfield, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing

07/12/17, Guardian

With its roots in the Latin ‘exigere’, to examine, and in the Middle French ‘essaier’, to attempt, to put something to the proof, the essay form, from its inception, has been peculiarly alive to the interrogative relationship it has with the self that writes it. Montaigne, held to be the progenitor of the form with his Essays published in 1580, asked the question, ‘Que sais-je?’, in his ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’, the exemplary text of humanist scepticism, the question putting to the trial the horizons of human knowledge and all that is contained within that With its roots in the Latin ‘exigere’, to examine, and in the Middle French ‘essaier’, to attempt, to put something to the proof, the essay form, from its inception, has been peculiarly alive to the interrogative relationship it has with the self that writes it. Montaigne, held to be the progenitor of the form with his Essays published in 1580, asked the question, ‘Que sais-je?’, in his ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’, the exemplary text of humanist scepticism, the question putting to the trial the horizons of human knowledge and all that is contained within that boundary.Proxies is award-winning American poet Brian Blanchfield’s first book of essays and it returns the form to its originary question, Que sais-je?, sounding it first in the subtitle, ‘Essays Near Knowing’ (of which more later), and in the short introductory note, which outlines what might be seen as the book’s USP, ‘a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources’ while composing it. The single-subject essays were written with the Internet off and without consulting books and other works that either feature or are referenced in the pieces; his own memory was Blanchfield’s only guide. Accordingly, there is a twenty-page ‘Correction’ at the end that aims to remedy the occasional blurriness and errors of referencing. And yet this trick, enabling Blanchfield to let the constraint lead him to another kind of constraint, ‘an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability’, is the least interesting aspect of what might well be a book like no other.

As any writer knows, a formal constraint – the fourteen lines of the sonnet, the difficult rhyming scheme of the villanelle – is also a challenge, an invitation. The sheer heterogeneity of the seemingly unrelatable and unrelated interests and fields Blanchfield brings into conversation with each other in each of these essays is exhilarating. A random sampler: Helen Keller, Heidegger and Roman Jakobson rub shoulders in ‘On Propositionizing’, an essay on how language gives us the ability to propose relationships between things; Theocritus, Renaissance pastoral poetry, Rufus Wainwright and the title of a Robert Duncan poem, ‘Often I am permitted to return to a meadow’, will mingle harmoniously in ‘On the Locus Amoenus’, the happy place that is so central to the pastoral; Milton, Edward Dahlberg and a Primitive Baptist upbringing in North Carolina come together seamlessly in ‘On Confoundedness’. The democracy and spectrum of his allusions are startling. Yet it’s not the wealth of references a learned writer pours into a work that matters but its synthesis, and in this the authorial figure standing behind Blanchfield is Barthes, with his concept of ‘idiorrhythmy’, which Blanchfield will gloss as ‘voluntary, nonfamilial togetherness’, the principle behind creating a dossier, which is ‘a repository of otherwise loose relevant material … on a subject.’

What unites everything is, of course, the self that is being written about in the collection, so that one can move from the fundamental unit of form here, the essay, to a looser and bigger genre, memoir or life-writing. Although every single piece here will record some kind of reckoning Blanchfield has with himself, some of them are more memoir-ish than literary-analytical. ‘On Withdrawal’ and ‘On Tumbleweed’ will put together a picture of his life employed in part-time or limited-term teaching jobs. An account of foot-disgust in Sophocles’ Philoctetes will lead to the awful way his stepfather treats his mother and end with two graphic paragraphs on her washing and dressing the open wound (‘frightfully clean, like a throat’) on the sole of her husband’s right foot every evening after dinner. In ‘On Peripersonal Space’ Blanchfield tussles with his mother’s open distaste of his homosexuality. There is the exact moment he falls in love with his boyfriend, John, another poet, in ‘On Propositionizing’. One of the most beautiful essays in the book, ‘On Tumbleweed’, contains a tender portrait of John and his father, the last paragraph ending in a conjoining of love and writing.

Part of the joy in reading Blanchfield is experiencing the way his alchemical mind and style fuse disparate things, always unexpectedly, into gold. The style is a thing of wonder: dense; learned, cleaving towards the academic, without ever being Casaubon-dry; lyrical (we never forget that he is a poet); often joyously gnarled but always surprising. Only in this book will you find the image box – the live videofeed – of a gay dating website called Man Roulette described, with absolute literary-scholarly accuracy, as a ‘font of eidetic fantasy’. He can observe the world minutely, as when he writes how ‘owls have a concentricity about their feathery faces’. In a catalogue of school canteen food, he notes, ‘White crimini mushrooms ever in their bin at the salad bar.’ Why is that ‘ever’ so perfectly positioned, so funny?

Like Montaigne, Blanchfield will probably say that it is only ever possible to tend towards knowledge, never reach it, hence the subtitle, ‘Essays Near Knowing’, where ‘near’ could be both indicative of proximity (but never identification) and also, if we take it as a verb, as a journey towards a destination that is always already elusive, unreachable even. And throughout our journey, often we are permitted to return to a meadow. So, in the end, what does he know? An enormous amount, it turns out. But a more interesting question he might have asked of his project could have been, ‘How do I express what I know?’ The answer to that can be given in one word: inimitably.