Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, April 17, 2017

Brian Blanchfield, _Proxies: Essays Near Knowing: a reckoning_

VERY MUCH LOOKING forward to the poetry collection that will be the sequel to A Several World, but glad to have this.

The twenty-four essays in Proxies were written, a prefatory note tells us, with two compositional principles in mind: one, they are based only on what Blanchfield could call to mind, without recourse to the internet or "other authoritative sources," and two, they "stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there."

The first principle means that the essays contain their share of misstatements, but Blanchfield provides a useful appendix, "Correction," in which the record is set straight and we learn (for instance) that Sylvia, not Juice Newton, recorded the hit version of "Tumbleweed." (I flipped back to "Correction" on finishing each essay, but I noticed that it would also work well read straight through from beginning to end, so perhaps it could be seen as the 25th essay.)

The second principle means that this is one amazing, delightful, continually surprising, and deeply worthwhile book. A brave book--not in a showy way, but convincingly brave nonetheless--and a beautiful one.

Presiding presences here include Montaigne, recalled in the titles (e.g., "On Owls," "On Sardines," and so on) and in the essays' "que sais-je?" premise; Roland Barthes, especially the Barthes of Mythologies, in the book's willingness to put under the microscope such routine and seemingly (but not really) inane phenomena as minute-taking and academic dossiers; Maggie Nelson, for the unsensationalized honesty of pieces like "On Man Roulette" and "On Frottage"; and the great Guy Davenport, for the whole book's boundary-hopping intelligence, lucidity of style, and clarity of perception.

(By the way, Blanchfield has a wonderful essay on Davenport in the Spring 2017 issue of Oxford American, and you should go read it right now.)

I read the book one or two essays at a time over about several weeks, which worked nicely, but the book has a gathering momentum, becoming as it proceeds more personal, virtually a memoir, so by the time you get to "On Reset," "On the Understory," and "On the Near Term," it actually becomes rather difficult to put down.

Is the rumor true that he has been hired by a university in Idaho? If so, smart move, Idaho.

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