Proxies: Essays Near Knowing: {A Reckoning} By Brian Blanchfield

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing: {A Reckoning} BY Brian Blanchfield. Nightboat Books. . .
The cover of Proxies: Essays Near Knowing: {A Reckoning}

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. (Literary aspirants will be sobered by Blanchfield’s frank talk about money, including the puny rates adjunct professors are paid.)

Blanchfield is the author of two well-received books of poetry, Not Even Then (2004) and A Several World (2014). While I admire the dusky erotics and cerebral riddling of Blanchfield’s poetry, the essays of Proxies arrive with a sharp new candor and legibility. Blanchfield’s Jamesian manner no longer functions as a forbidding screen but as a tool for patient self-revelation—a syntactic strip tease that brings the writer toward ever greater admissions of “shame, guilt, and error” (a mantra that Blanchfield repeats atop each new essay).

Dusting off Montaigne, Blanchfield begins with a remote conceit—“On Foot Washing,” “On Withdrawal”—that he presses on “until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability.” Equally a student of Roland Barthes and Emery Jones (his therapist), Blanchfield is as sharp on cerebral concerns—“On Abstraction” is the title of one essay—as libidinous ones. He is rarely less than elegant in his revelations, managing to be sexually candid without swerving into abjection, camp, or scandalous oversexing—more typical recourses of gay memoir. (His walk home from a Brooklyn gay bar with “jizzy jeans” is the sexiest Blanchfield gets, and the raunch is well earned.)

All of the twenty-four short essays hew to a similar form, yet each one kept me in suspense, as I wondered exactly where Blanchfield’s intelligence would roam. Even light subjects go deep. A smart take on Man Roulette (remember the aughties social media fad?) addresses aging, loneliness, and the difficult arrival of sexual self-knowledge. “On House Sitting” begins in cliquish Provincetown, then travels to Tucson, where Blanchfield reveals the hypocrisy of hosts who congratulate themselves on welcoming gays into their home—as long as they don’t actually bring a man to bed. Some of the finest essays treat Blanchfield’s hardscrabble childhood in North Carolina. He is wonderful at drawing characters, fully realizing a broken triangle of father, mother, and adoptive stepfather, each flawed and in their own way heartbreaking. (Adult friends and ex-lovers—Maggie, Eileen, Douglas—mostly receive the New York School name drop and a rapid trill of praise.)

Blanchfield’s mother is an especially compelling figure. “On Peripersonal Space” describes an early intimacy that many gay men will recognize. Two loners, mother and son share a physical resemblance, a bruised temperament, and a close physical bond. A childhood game of “dog”—a pantomime of whimpering and worry—captures their codependence. One of the two hunkers down in child’s pose, face covered, while the other imitates a pawing dog, desperate to gain access. Blanchfield writes, “We were rehearsing breakdown and empathetic despair. The game stood in for actual help.… She could offer only that I was like her…that our bond prevailed.” Blanchfield’s coming out undid the bond, and a single sentence of prohibition captures their foundered relationship: “She forbid me to use the word God, and I forbid her to use the word lifestyle.”

The question of identity politics I raised at the outset does highlight a few blind spots. As much as I savored every refined sentence of the book, a choice few angered me, and they were usually keyed to some boast of sexual privilege. “On the Leave” is a remarkable reflection on sexual adventuring and Blanchfield’s relationship to his father, a pool shark who named several successive dogs “Romeo” and brought his eight-year-old son to bars as a wingman. Years later, Blanchfield finds himself following his father’s patterns in a Brooklyn dive bar, sparring with a callow Manhattan real-estate agent he is “disinclined to like.” But their barbed repartee is of course foreplay. The fellow “liked to be teased and enjoyed performing his scandalized horror as I shared something rather low or, as the evening wore on, dared to turn from aloofness to point-blank directness, full frontal.” (Such swiveling captures Blanchfield’s writing style and is one explanation of its seductive pull.) Blanchfield writes of the trick, “He was quick and queeny and superior and slight and I wanted him to want me.” They circle each other, then press against the pool table, where the broker jerks Blanchfield off into his jeans, “and made sure the three or four others in the room could see.” It’s a hot scene—and yet it irritates me. Is it because I feel excluded from it? Or drawn into it as the demeaned party? Blanchfield reports feeling like “trade” that night (a term for straight-acting), while he slights the other man as “queeny.” Blanchfield is no doubt sensitive to the history of harm contained in that word, so why invoke it? Power to the sissies!

This is one of few missteps in a book that derives much of its power from a willed embrace of the shameful. Blanchfield even sews an ethics of error into the form of Proxies, following an au courant proceduralism—in this case, he avoided consulting any outside source when drafting the essays (and retained the resulting factual errors in the final versions). This procedure seems to have liberated Blanchfield in writing, but it doesn’t feel altogether integral to the essays that result. (Although it doesn’t distract from them, either; in fact, I wouldn’t have noticed any errors if he hadn’t announced the procedure). Blanchfield’s writing is too measured, his erudition too thorough to ever seem improvisatory or errant.

I mentioned grace earlier, 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. “On Withdrawal,” perhaps my favorite essay, best exemplifies this quality. It concerns Blanchfield’s sudden retreat from an unhappy teaching position at a prim boarding school outside Boston. (He captures perfectly the severity of the campus, so blanched it is “as if the green of the lawns and the Puritan white of the wood buildings had suppressed other color.”) Withdrawal manifests early in the essay, when Blanchfield notes that he most often sits in a “rear-facing seat” on the commuter train to the school, because of the “illusion of being drawn from the present into the future.” (How fine this insight into the everyday!) Later in the essay, Blanchfield describes the day he announced his departure from the school to his all-female class. He joins them in watching a popular YouTube video of a marriage proposal, staged for the bride-to-be as a theatrical pageant alongside a slowly advancing pick-up truck. Blanchfield’s bravura description of the video takes on an epic grandeur, not unlike the vision depicted on Achilles’ shield in The Iliad: It contains all of life.

The intended bride sits on the bed of the truck facing backward, and watches agog as a pageant of acrobats, accordionists, long-lost friends, her parents, and eventually the groom-to-be appear on the roadside. “It is Bollywood in its excess, a marching version of ‘Oh Happy Day’ crossed with a Rube Goldberg contraption and an episode of This Is Your Life on wheels,” Blanchfield writes. As the truck slowly advances the woman toward her fate as a wife, she experiences a gradual withdrawal from her previous attachments. In Blanchfield’s brilliant description, the pageant becomes an unlikely allegory of his own withdrawal from his students. Supported by their teacher, they are beginning their convention-bound journeys as workers, wives, and mothers. While they look to the bride-to-be for inspiration, Blanchfield finds himself fascinated by the unseen driver. “Did he get out of the truck after parking it, careful not to close the door and jar the camera? Did he hear her yes?” Blanchfield wonders. “Was he best man material? Would he marry? Could he?” The vectors of identification between this imagined driver and the queer writer–teacher are complex and fascinating to contemplate. What person would devote himself to enabling other people’s dreams while effacing his own desires? I share and follow Blanchfield’s identification with the driver—his proxy—back to the writer himself, who in carefully arranging the patterns of his life into moving form, transports us.

Christopher Schmidt's most recent book is The Poetics of Waste (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).