Knowing Better: Brian Blanchfield’s Essay Collection ‘Proxies’

Brian Blanchfield (photo by Samuel Ace) (click to enlarge)

The 25 essays in Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies are erudite and intensely personal, deftly traversing the distance between the intellectual and the corporeal, between the meditative and the resolute. His poetic sensibility is evident throughout this painstakingly close reading of the events and ideas that inhabit his memory.

In Proxies, Blanchfield has set himself the task to write briefly on a range of topics (owls, tumbleweeds, housesitting, abstraction), without consulting other authoritative sources, and committing to “stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability.” The resulting essays are composed only of what he knows, remembers, or estimates, and are driven by a lifetime of reading, self-assessment, and a startling capacity for insight.

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In “On Foot Washing,” a short piece that begins with a meditation on the nature of humility and service through the Christian tradition of foot-washing, he ends with a scene of his mother washing the wound on his stepfather’s foot. The description is so visceral, so precise, and so unsettlingly beautiful, it gives the reader chills.

The wound on his sole has intermittently wept and cracked and granulated for years, but never closed, despite a number of stimulative water and pressure and debridement treatments, and its inability to heal is the single reason he has been prohibited the kidney transplant for which he arranged a donor long ago but for which he would need to be infection-free during post-operative immuno-suppression therapy. The aperture of his wound has varied from dime to half-dollar size and I have seen it three or four inches deep. Even then, it was frightfully clean, like a throat.

I doubt I have ever encountered this comparison before, and this image leaves an indelible mark. The passage reads like much of this book: sentences are so finely wrought that we follow them unhesitatingly as they lead us to moments of surprising and often unsettling intimacy.

Reading Proxies, one can often feel like the recipient of great generosity in the form of hard-won self-knowledge. “On Completism,” one of my favorites in the collection, concludes:

My failure continually to complete anything is not, as logic may indicate, a fear of death, but – to the contrary – a fear of life. When I back away from a poem I back away at that exceptional moment it begins to come together under my attentions and other slants of propitious light. The deepest breakthrough I have experienced thus far with Emery Jones, LCPC, of Missoula, Montana, is that when I cried so much as a child, nearly daily until fourth grade, it was often because I had been touched by something or demanded by something and had felt the sudden reality of my presence and then the deep shame – particularly in an embrace with a kind or alarmed adult – that theretofore I had been something (and on purpose, by choice), something other than alive.

Of particular note is “On the Leave,” which begins with a discussion of the term “the leave” in billiards and weaves its way artfully through the author’s own early recognition of his attraction to boys, against the backdrop of his father’s pool playing and eventual abandonment of the family. “On Peripersonal Space” similarly dwells on a term – here, from psychology, referring to the space beyond one’s own body, within one’s reach – to arrive at a moment of unflinching personal revelation about the complexities of the parameters of parental love.

There is a 21-page “Correction” that follows the essays. I have heard Blanchfield describe it as the most “lyrical” section of the book. Although he notes that these fragments are intended to “set right” what he may have misremembered or misrepresented, they are not numbered, as one might expect from endnotes, nor do they in any way explicitly refer to their respective essays.

I found this choice to be inspired and exhilarating. Allowing the corrections to exist untethered from their referent introduces another site of inquiry. What authority do these statements of fact bestow on what has come before? These are declarative statements, made as in an inventory:

The young man enlisted to gain Philoctetes’s trust and obtain his magic bow is Neoptolomus, son of Achilles, one of the sailors who originally stranded the ogre on his island.

The Eleanor Wilner poem about Helen Keller is called “Of a Sun She Can Remember.”

In “The Open Happens in the Midst of Beings,” by Norman Dubie, the speaker has dinner with his wife, his mother-in-law, a psychic hypnotist, and the hypnotist’s assistant. There are no deer, but there is an anecdote about an automobile that struck a barn and some cattle.

After the emotional vulnerability and probing self-reflection that characterizes many of the essays, there is some refuge to be taken in this litany of fact. Certainty, after all, can be seductive. The cumulative effect, however, at least on this reader, was one of questioning. Meaning can be slippery, and a statement like “There are no deer, but there is an anecdote about an automobile that struck a barn and some cattle” may clarify some prior statement, but here, unmoored from its context, it raises questions of its own. “What deer? What cattle?” the reader might ask. What do the deer and cattle have to do with Norman Dubie and his wife? Reading this way, one is invited to reflect on how we make meaning from the countless bits of information we encounter. And what, then, are the limits of our knowing?

In the end, this section, as well as the fragments themselves and the leaps of association we are invited to make between them, serve to reiterate the central concerns of Proxies:, How do we come to know ourselves, and from where are we granted the authority to make meaning of our own lives? To retreat to one’s own knowledge as a means to know one’s own mind more deeply is a worthy practice that seems increasingly difficult to enact. It is far easier, it seems, to repeat what others say; to collect and curate rather than to create new ways of knowing. Blanchfield’s bold experiment offers one compelling alternative.

Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (2016) is published by Nightboat Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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