Essaying the Vulnerable Self

Brian Blanchfield’s essay collection examines selfhood and queer identity through a new kind of lyric

Already established as a poet with two published collections, Brian Blanchfield dives into the world of lyric prose with Proxies: Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning}. Part memoir and part intellectual discourse, this project draws on the writer’s academic background to enrich a web of deeply personal stories spanning from early childhood to the time of the essay collection’s composition.

What makes Proxies unique is that the source material is strictly memory-only: any information or references — whether a line from a poem or findings from a study once featured on NPR — must be something Blanchfield remembered in the writing process, without the aid of a search engine. The final essay, “Correction,” sets straight some of the details from the previous twenty-four.

In his preface, “[A Note],” Blanchfield lays out the productive constraints: that the essays will be “unresearched… analytic but nonacademic” and that he will “stay with the subject until it gives into an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.” He refers to Montaigne asking his bookshelves the question, “Que sais-je?” (“what do I know?”) and decides that it “seems like a good start.”

Each essay unpacks a chosen topic — e.g. “On Foot Washing”; “On Confoundedness”; “On Peripersonal Space” — and each contains this refrain as its subtitle: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source. Blanchfield is cracking open the lyric essay while also cracking open himself; half-remembered knowledge mingles with half-remembered lived experiences, and gradually, the poet himself emerges.

By queering the essay form in this way, Blanchfield also constructs a new way of looking at his own identities, where “self” and “other” are perpetually braiding into each other in a radical vulnerability. This vulnerability sometimes emerges in subtle ways, as in the essay “On Housesitting” —

Housesitting, like playing house, is identity rehearsal — practice, of course. For what? You’re writing a future into a present, you’re writing an other there onto the self here, and quote yourself back to yourself.

The displaced self, as house sitter, experiences a simultaneous gain and loss of control. I won’t spoil his anecdotes of housesitting mishaps.

In other moments, the braiding of “self” and “other” produces an unsubtle vulnerability, piercing and dangerous. The essay “On Frottage” reflects on Blanchfield’s coming of age as a gay man during the height of the AIDS crisis — “I never had a sex life without having a status” — and being part of the younger generation of gay men who, because of HIV risk and stigma, shunned the older generation and often exclusively explored non-penetrative sex. He writes, “What did we solve (a metaphysics, a phobia?) each time we made our mutuality exterior? We met each other there.” When HIV status is such a critical aspect of developing selfhood, interiority and exteriority take on whole new meanings. “On Frottage” is one of the most memorable and moving pieces in the collection.

The South Is Sufficiently Haunted

In the framework of Proxies, selfhood and identity are inextricably linked with memory and knowledge. Several other essays further explore queer identity through this lens, veering away from known narratives of “identity politics” in favor of a queer selfhood that centers relationships and vulnerability rather than structures of oppression. (Blanchfield’s relative privilege as a white member of the queer community grants him the ability to de-center oppression in his narrative; the failure to address this nuance is perhaps one of his shortcomings.)

The essay “On Containment” threads through different forms of this approach, wandering from place to place in the way lyric essays often do. First, we encounter a threat to literal bodily containment — a childhood memory of Blanchfield’s own exposed jawbone after a severe dog bite (vulnerability is wound-ability, after all); then, taking a step back, a meditation on the threshold of unbearable tickling —

It’s my recollection that the Winicottian psychologist and essayist Adam Phillips himself extrapolates broadly from his analysis of tickling; but, if not, the generality I have found so insightful is mine: beyond any fear is a great circumambient fear — a terror — that one will be insufficiently able to hold the fear. That if the stimulus is present and ongoing, unchecked, one might fall apart, come to pieces, in her faculties disintegrate. In sustained tickling we know (we learned) there exists an outer lip or membrane between the simpler immediate excitement of fear and the shameful and complete loss of bodily control and mental composure…

Then, from the topic of tickling, Blanchfield drifts into another kind of containment: the containment of one’s sexuality, always initially “secret” in a world that assumes heterosexuality unless told otherwise. But instead of the self being trapped inside of the secret (as with the common dialectic of “in the closet”/“out of the closet”) he makes another move, flipping the traditional narrative on its head —

Early on you have a secret. It is almost as if the secret is there before you. You are ever in relation to it; you are its container, and because by definition the one imperative is that you cannot share the secret — perhaps you develop the understanding that no one in your small world may be entrusted with the knowledge of what’s inside you — you become, through and through, a holding environment for the secret.

When Blanchfield takes the imagery of being “in the closet” and turns it literally inside-out, the relationship of the self to the outside world looks radically different.

The passages quoted above already provide an impression of the overall tone: a conversational intimacy intersects with a deeply analytical backbone. Blanchfield’s introductory claim to being “nonacademic” might be a stretch — anyone who frames his essays by quoting Montaigne in the original French can’t place his work entirely outside of academia. Though the essays are accessible for the most part, they do require a willingness on the part of the reader to interact with certain “Ivory Tower” greats, both canonical and obscure. He demonstrates a self-awareness of this quality in “On Confoundedness”: “One might even say [I am known as] a poet’s poet. Though less baffling the stronger I grow as a writer, my work is not especially welcoming to the uninitiated and one can feel excluded there…”

In Proxies, the self absorbs everything it touches. For a well-read person like Blanchfield, it seems that pulling from the likes of Sophocles and Barthes comes as naturally as drawing on his own childhood memories. Like his peer Maggie Nelson, he manages to integrate source material — from King Lear to Hart Crane — in a way that usually feels organic. In this endeavor, his “internet off” writing restriction may have been more beneficial than restrictive.

But why Proxies? Let’s return to Blanchfield’s preface:

A proxy in one sense is a position: a stand-in, an agent, an avatar, a functionary […] In sciences I think proxy additionally expresses a kind of concession to imprecision, a failure. It’s the word for a subject you choose to study to produce data that can approximate the data you’d get from the actual, desired subject, if it were not prohibitively hard to apprehend.

In a way, these twenty-four essays — and the twenty-fifth essay of corrections and amendments — are proxies for the self, the “desired subject” (or, sometimes, object) that cannot be directly examined or defined. Like the imperfect memories that circumscribe it, the individual self-as-writer must always be beholden to the changes of time. That’s part of what makes memoirs so interesting to read: memory becomes a character in itself, unfolding through the writing process. Here, Blanchfield’s memory-only restriction focalizes his own conceit, where memory serves as the foundation for the essays as well as the self. And, like many writers, the core of his memoir ends up being — surprise! — about writing and living as a writer.

The age of “fake news” has ushered in a new need to interrogate the different meanings of truth and truthfulness, and nonfiction writing outside the realm of journalism still has a role to play. The genre of “creative nonfiction” occupies a fascinating and ever-changing position in today’s literary culture; Blanchfield’s essays, simultaneously genuine and flawed, stand in as proxies for the examination of a genuine and flawed self. Like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, this collection demands a reader who can question different modes of truth and storytelling. Identity, memory, and trauma are never straightforward.

In “On Withdrawal,” Blanchfield begins by discussing his preference for facing backwards on trains. He writes, “I like the illusion of being drawn from the present into the future […] I have my eye on what I’ve left.” This “illusion” is fitting for the experience of reading his essays: the sensation of looking into the past yet being drawn ever forwards.

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