Poetry’s Revenge on the Essay: Brian Blanchfield, Maggie Nelson, and the ‘New Nonfiction’

The poet Brian Blanchfield’s new collection of essays, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, is bound by a conceit that could have been precious had it not yielded such inspiriting language. Courting “susceptibility to error,” Blanchfield wrote the essays, which range widely, without the aid of the Internet or reference books. (Proxies ends with an essay-poem of corrections to “errors” in its body.) The resulting items — pieces like “On Containment” and “On House Sitting” — 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, or doing social work — wall his thoughts like a garden. There his apposite selves wander apart, only to meet at the end of the path. In “On Man Roulette,” he begins by considering a website where men have video sex under the aegis of Sartrean gaze. He ends the essay by noting the “inherent third-person perspective” of mutually-observed masturbation. “You’re lucky,” he writes, “if you can read the script you’re acting out.”

While reading pieces like “On Containment,” which begins with the author being attacked by a dog at age nine and carries on as a meditation on human interiority, I began to think of Blanchfield’s place as a celebrated poet. (His A Several World won the 2014 James Laughlin Award and was longlisted for the National Book Award.) It seems clear now, as Robert Polito pointed out recently, that a basic poetical approach to fact and self has retouched the essay and the novel. Writers that otherwise come from different traditions — Maggie Nelson and Ben Lerner, for instance — now find common ground in their shared admiration for the possibilities of facticity and the poeticization of form. And although it often looks like poststructuralism is the strongest influence, it’s more likely poetry — poetry is the common. If Sontag saw interpretation as the “revenge of the intellect upon art,” maybe now we’re experiencing the revenge of poetry upon the intellect. In any case, the poetic refusal of the metaphysics of genre is becoming a genre. Proxies, with its rejection of conventional knowingness, is an act of fidelity to it.

So it’s not surprising that, like Lerner’s 10:04, Blanchfield’s Proxies considers the idea of proprioception (“the sense of the body’s orientation and balance and the weighted proportion of its parts”). Or that, like Nelson’s The Argonauts (and other works of queer autotheoretical writing), it reconsiders family structures. On this subject, Proxies is especially good. In “On House Sitting,” the essay I liked best, Blanchfield recounts his experiences as a house-sitter (another kind of proxy), an occupation that comes with its own politics and “commensalist” gestures; following the convention of a previous house-sitter (his friend Eileen Myles), Blanchfield learns to leave a poem-gift for the “permanent resident” of the house. In this act Blanchfield locates the first-person plural of his own poetry; house sitting becomes a metaphor for “a queer kind of family”:

A family attuned alike, who find each other eventually and dovetail their several courses far from families of origin: the we I mean in my poems, connected preternaturally, manifested similarly, recognizable to one another, is active in our trade of relations and interdependences, a guild, or troupe or battalion of us thrown together by like circumstances, managing perforce a solidarity. The young help the old, and the old help the young, likewise the vagrant and the situated, passing keys, leaving notes. “Here we are all by day. By night we’re hurl’d / by dreams each one…” Robert Herrick gave us bed as a place to be distinct; Whitman cited that same nightly tendency to separate as what we most share.

“Passing keys, leaving notes” — letters among friends: isn’t this what literature is supposed to be? And what politics could be? It’s no surprise that Blanchfield (again, like Lerner in 10:04) arrives at this Whitmanian insight by way of a Whitmanian conceit; each piece in Proxies begins with a ritualized bit of language: “Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.” 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.