paperback, 200 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 in
Publication Date: 2016
A go-for-broke essay collection that blends cultural close reading and dicey autobiography.
Past compunction, expressly unbeholden, these twenty-four single-subject essays train focus on a startling miscellany of topics —Foot Washing, Dossiers, Br’er Rabbit, Housesitting, Man Roulette, the Locus Amoenus—that begin to unpack the essayist himself and his life’s rotating concerns: sex and sexuality, poetry and poetics, subject positions in American labor (not excluding academia), and his upbringing in working-class, Primitive Baptist, central-piedmont North Carolina.
In Proxies an original constraint, a “total suppression of recourse to authoritative sources,” engineers Brian Blanchfield’s disarming mode of independent intellection. The “repeatable experiment” to draw only from what he knows, estimates, remembers, and misremembers about the subject at hand often opens onto an unusually candid assessment of self and situation. The project’s driving impulse, courting error, peculiar in an era of crowd-sourced Wiki-knowledge, is at least as old as the one Montaigne had when, putting all the books back on the shelf, he asked, “What do I know?”
Listen to Brian Blanchfield read from and speak about Proxies on KCRW's BOOKWORM.
Praise for PROXIES:
What do you know? I mean, What do you know without your cyborg parts attached?
Brian Blanchfield wrote his 2016 book Proxies: Essays Near Knowing using no outside sources. He wrote what he knows in his body. The book contains essays on Owls, Peripersonal Space, Locus amoenus, Sardines, Confoundedness, Tumbleweeds, and Man Roulette. Proxies makes a person feel human again. It’s a corrective for a post-truth, technology-choked era because Proxiesis really about what it means to have a body that is mortal, to live with our own damaged selves and the places where we fail. Blanchfield has included a twenty-page endnote amending, confessing, and celebrating the facts he got wrong. Here are the faults, the flesh, the holy wonder of our undigitized minds. Here’s the truth of our wrongness. —Samantha Hunt, Lapham's Quarterly
The breathtaking excellence of Proxies, poet Brian Blanchfield’s first collection of personal essays, is an urgent reminder of how shortsighted it would be to take identity politics as the sole measure of value in queer writing. Blanchfield—who is white, male, and gay—does not treat these contours of his life as extraordinary in themselves. He attends instead to the subtlest registers of misfit between a queer self and its world—and with such sensitivity, he provides a startlingly detailed map to a territory we only thought we knew well. Again and again, he finds unexpected grace in grim circumstances: growing up gay in working class North Carolina, struggling to find his vocation in heady millennial New York, reckoning with the diminished economic prospects of the writer’s life…I mentioned grace…and I locate this quality not in the book’s procedure, or even in its charged confessions of shame. The grace is most present in the, yes, poetic way that Blanchfield observes his own darkest qualities mirrored back to him in his surroundings—as perceptual patterns, omens, even blessings.” —Christopher Schmidt, Bookforum
Brian Blanchfield’s brief, multivalent essays are titled to echo the master of the form, Montaigne. They include ‘On Withdrawal,’ ‘On Tumbleweed’ and ‘On House Sitting.’…Mr. Blanchfield’s more high-flown reflections [are] slyly used in juxtaposition with the plain-spoken memories of this ‘working class white boy’ from North Carolina….He calls the essays “inroads to disinhibited autobiography.” One becomes acclimated to, and impressed by, the way he transitions from, say, an etymological investigation of billiards terminology to the way his father shot pool. —John Williams, The New York Times
The quiet but searing vulnerability in Brian Blanchfield's writing is as wide and trembling as the wingspan of his otherness. He writes with a beguiling sagaciousness that made me bow my head so many times that I lost count. These are essays about honesty and the revelation of self in which shame and guilt are dissected and anything extraneous scrubbed away. Each sentence is a live wire. Diverse, maybe mismatched styles, genres and topics accrue to great and moving effect, a profound whole made from an unlikely assemblage of parts. He appears to be forging a new genre before your very eyes. —Whiting Award Citation
The 25 essays in this collection from poet Blanchfield are small, highly polished jewels that together form an intricate mosaic. Giving himself the project of following a thought to its uncomfortable edges, in each entry Blanchfield picks a subject—foot washing, authorship, owls—and examines it from several angles until the connection between metaphysical principle and lived experience suddenly crystallizes, often producing an analogy as surprising as it is lovely. Blanchfield will typically betray a glimpse of erudition—a reference to cult cinema, Greek tragedy, or Noam Chomsky—alongside raw confession, balancing “a poetics of impersonality” with “disinhibited autobiography.” Thus, the billiards term “leave” proves connected to his father’s departure, a meditation on ingénues extends to his experience of 9/11, and the story of a dog bite becomes the story of his coming out. The themes of secrets and concealment pervade the collection, as does a “spellbound trade in vulnerability and openheartedness” conjured by Blanchfield’s prose style, with its catch-and-release rhythm—sometimes lyrical, sometimes barbed. The concluding essay “Correction,” which fills in or corrects details for the other selections, offers its own tribute to the processes by which we construct meaning—the real subject of this elegant and astonishing book. —Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review)
Into what some are calling a new golden age of creativ nonfiction lands Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies, which singlehandedly raises the bar for what’s possible in the field. This is a momentous work informed by a lifetime of thinking, reading, loving, and reckoning, utterly matchless in its erudition, its precision, its range, its daring, and its grace. I know of no book like it, nor any recent book as thoroughly good, in art or in heart. —Maggie Nelson
Proxies: Essays Near Knowing brings a slowed-to-meaning lens to the remembered moments of a life. Blanchfield’s readers wander into his ordinary-extraordinary quotidian—the vulnerable longing of a singular voice expressing a peopled intelligence. Not since Hilton Als’s White Girls have I read anything as interrogative, unsettling, and brilliant. —Claudia Rankine
Brian Blanchfield’s sentences are modern marvels. They coil, insinuate, embellish—and then land on the tender spot. If Hart Crane had survived to write a book of autobiographical essays, it would resemble Proxies—but would Hart have given us the low-down on frottage? Blanchfield is a staggeringly accomplished stylist, whose artful elucidations deserve to be savored, studied, and, yes, worshipped. —Wayne Koestenbaum
Early on his humble and stunning Proxies, Brian Blanchfield asks: “In what kind of place is all the hearing overhearing?” He knows, mostly we eavesdrop on ourselves. We call it thinking. There is no delicacy of mind like that one that moves through the facts of its own errors to arrive at understanding, and here, essay by essay, Blanchfield sifts through the astray archive of his memory to recall what all it is he needs to live. These essays remind us, as they discover inside themselves, the deep virtue of saying, “I don’t know.” —Dan Beachy-Quick
Maybe short says it best. Sexy book. —Eileen Myles
Blanchfield’s best known as a poet, and though poetry shows up here as a subject, this isn’t a poet’s essay collection, meaning that these aren’t hyperlyric half-prose essays shot with the poetry cannon: this is a book of excellent prose written by someone born to write exactly this. These are high-wire acts that are a ton of fun to read…performing close readings of cultural phenomena and tracking—with great, even heroic care—minor and major emotional transactions and tendencies. The result is a book of dynamic, thoughtful, and flat-out moving essays. —Ander Monson, BOMB
It’s a beautiful book, and as the essays move forward chronologically…the voice is immediate, musical, and easily speaks about both theorists like Jose Muñoz and his dad’s truckdriving and barroom hustling. Blanchfield blends the intellectual and the personal projects of the essays, in a form where “lifewriting is indistinct from a kind of free intellection,” as he says of Maggie Nelson and Alison Bechdel. —Michael Sheehan, The Rumpus
“[These essays] are little wonders of ghosted knowledge. Each entry works like a bridge suspended between feeling and fact…Blanchfield’s approach, his dispositif, affords him the freedom of the self-governed; his erudition and sensitivity to his own life experiences — growing up as a Primitive Baptist in North Carolina, for example — wall his thoughts like a garden. There his apposite selves wander apart, only to meet at the end of the path. What do you find when you allow the poetry of self-trust to guide you? Commonalities — new ways of living. The reanimation of old forms. You could almost call it knowledge.” —Jonathon Sturgeon, Flavorwire
“Like M.F.K. Fisher, Blanchfield often begins by standing us at a safe speculative distance, allowing us to consider the complexity of human endeavor without immersing us in its messy physicality, so that when he finally does plunge us into the intimate details of his own autobiography — with excruciating honesty — we are left defenseless. Armed with mind only, our hearts and guts are left vulnerable, and the narrative tears them open…[The technique] seems to arise out of a deep humility in the face of complex emotion, a diffidence that relies on the intellect to prepare both writer and reader for the soul- and body-baring disclosures to follow….This is humility as seduction: you can’t help but trust him and lower your guard. Then you lean forward, listen closely, and follow wherever he leads.” —Scott Nadelson, Los Angeles Review of Books
Blanchfield’s project pitches us back behind Descartes’ certain subject who doubts only as a step toward knowing, to a Montaignian roaming, embodied, feeling consciousness. Blanchfield’s courting of error becomes a brave and radical attempt to rethink the self…Blanchfield’s analyses are keen, and Proxies establishes him as a key thinker in contemporary poetics, queer theory, and cultural criticism. —Nathan Goldman, Full Stop
The story the essays in Proxies gradually tell would be a compelling one in almost any method of telling. Blanchfield discusses his relationship to his family; the aftermath of his stepfather’s death; his complex and conflicted relationship with his mother, especially as it relates to his sexuality. But for a book that’s this intensely personal, the effect of finding out how Blanchfield remembers certain things can also be illuminating. It’s one thing to write about your life with this kind of candor, but another entirely to essentially provide readers with a map of how your mind works…Deftly written, frequently moving, and narratively compelling.—Tobais Carroll, Vol. 1 Brooklyn