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Proxies: Essays Near Knowing

4.25  ·  Rating details ·  329 ratings  ·  49 reviews
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 concer
Paperback, 183 pages
Published April 7th 2016 by Nightboat Books (first published March 1st 2016)
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Average rating 4.25  · 
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 ·  329 ratings  ·  49 reviews

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Jul 09, 2016 rated it liked it
I loved when Brian Blanchfield got vulnerable with us. I felt riveted when he wrote about his former lover coming out to him as HIV positive in another friend's house, the intimate and now-embarrassing games he used to play with his mother, and the insecurity and upstream battles he has fought as a creative writer in academia. These essays contain a lot of intellect - from queer theory to linguistic analysis to literary allusion - but they shine most when Blanchfield inserts himself, the tender ...more
Apr 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An instant (queer) classic. I can't get over how damn good this was. Blanchfield is a modern, American, less obtuse Barthes. Proxies is a stunning, delicate memoir of a middle-aged gay man disguised as a collection of essays elucidating and exploring various topics and ideas. Intricately and precisely written, it packs more onto a single page than most books hold between their covers. I look forward to re-reading this many, many times in the years to come.
Joseph Schreiber
Jun 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Admittedly I read this as a writer with an eye to seeing what Blanchfield was attempting to do with the essay form. His life as a gay man in early middle age, with a fundamentalist Baptist background and the complicated family of origin issues that carry over do take a centre stage in many of the essays, but there is much more here. An intelligent, engaging exercise in free form essay writing. See my full review here: ...more
Sep 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: queer
To be perfectly frank, Blanchfield and I are in some kind of erotic humiliation relationship. I keep returning to him and he keeps making me feel stupid and useless. What kind of mind writes this way? From his poetry to his essays, I am obsessed. But, I never fully get any of it. Constantly in awe. Spank me!
Patty Gone
Apr 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Blanchfield positions his distrust of intellect and memory, two aspects of the mind that readily fail, as his guiding light. I cannot recall a book that so honestly eschews the need for context to be correct. To not look up the 'facts' until after the book was written is a defiant act, and draws focus to the development of individual intellect outside of research, outside Google and Wikipedia. Proxies also airs the incongruity of academia, the placeholder aspect of queerness, and of being a cult ...more
Peter Rock
Apr 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is such a brave book, and it's not afraid to be smart, either. Wow. I mean, read "On Owls" and then you're so in.
Sep 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Mar 08, 2017 added it
Parts went over my head but other parts were very moving.
Matthew Hall
Apr 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016
Strong collection of essays exploring a diverse array of topics, always hovering near the beating heart of memoir. Definitely in conversation with Maggie Nelson's Argonauts and Leslie Jamison's Empathy Exams (also Roland Barthes' short essays) and shares their comingling of the confessional and critical theory. At times loses itself in academese, but clearly, Blanchfield is a deep thinker. The portions that weave in his personal history as a gay man are the most poignant and moving.
Nov 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
"On Tumbleweed," "On House Sitting," "On the Leave," "On Abstraction," "On Dossiers" and "On Reset" were my favorites.
Rachel B
Jun 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A perfect bookend to Maggie Nelson's Argonauts. Wonderfully complex and insightful.
Jun 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essays
Beautiful is not a word I thought I'd ever use to describe an essay collection, a book of essays on topics as diverse and sometimes cold sounding as Foot Washing, Dossiers, Housesitting and Man Roulette. But written without the internet and without reference material, this book is not about these things but rather the author's interaction with them. The book purposefully rejects objective information and even fact in preference of the subjective. Not "what is there to know about X", but "what do ...more
Delia Rainey
Oct 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
what a delightful book, why isn't everyone reading this book and talking about it? why are all my favorite nonfiction books by poets? some of these lil essays were just fun explorations of words and time, all starting somewhere and ending in a completely different part of Brian's brain and life. his particular queer experience was so importantly depicted, although this was not a book purposefully about identity or activism. the tougher the exploration, the more successful the proxy. prodding dee ...more
Jan 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: queer, on-writing, memoir
I heard Blanchfield read "On House Sitting" at the Queer Heart panel at the &Now conference a few years back and have been eager to read this collection. The last essay starts there, actually (at the conference), a meditation on queer love in uncertain times. All of these essays are tightly constructed yet airy with rumination and allowing for errata. I especially appreciated the ways Blanchfield writes about the South and also the academic job market for creative writers. Favorites, in addition ...more
Oct 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Genuinely astounding. Comparable to Barthes, but interior -- focused on a raw, honest history of the self, and of growing up gay in rural North Carolina. Having also grown up gay in rural North Carolina, I struggled to extricate myself from the text; sometimes it felt like reading a funhouse mirror, what my life would have been like if I were male. Really incredible prose and a novel, genius concept. Utter brilliance.
Andrew Bertaina
There is a lot to like in this erudite collection, which ranges from the personal into the abstract and devotional and back. Kudos to the especially demoralizing essay about the academic job market.
Whether Blamchfield is writing about frottage after the AIDS crisis or reflecting on the struggles in his relationship with his mother, he is relentlessly intelligent and interesting.
Sep 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Each vignette of Blanchfield's Proxies fascinates, focuses the readers mind on a pattern of association or map of thought, that is intensely detailed and yet does not proscribe interpretation. Instead they bring together drives of longing, curiosity and an interpretation of life as undelimited texts that point continuously beyond themselves, unwinding the knotted nature of their energies and coincidences to achieve a stillness of acceptance, appreciation, and beauty in repose.

I'll need to keep d
Mar 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Demands to be read twice, but who has time for that? Either way, half the pleasure is in reading the corrections. It's more personal than the gimmick suggests, and that's the source of its power; some details will mark you indelibly. Flirts with gobbledygook at points, but (thankfully) never jumps into bed with it.
Dec 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
One less star due to the vast stretches of this book that were not intelligible to me. The concept of this book is as important as the content - in style, you could certainly draw parallels to Maggie Nelson, though in form you could also nod to Sarah Manguso's Ongoingness. These are essays that draw strongly from the self and process of thought, and as noted at the very beginning, research was not a part of this book - except, after it was done, to include afterward notes containing clarificatio ...more
Mary Perkins
Jul 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
The professor that served as the chair of my graduate thesis committee (CNF) recommended this book to me after writing a review for it on Rumpus, and I wasn't even halfway through when I emailed him back to gush about how much I loved it. This collection embodies everything I love about "the essay." It explores, it discovers, it's a "loose sally of the mind." The topics touched upon and made touching comprise are comprised of rich language and original perspectives. For me, this book achieves (i ...more
Jul 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: queer-studies
An excellent collection of biographical essays showcasing the queer mind at work. Blanchfield jumps from the mundane to the profound with ease and grace, often blurring any distinction between the two.
Mar 24, 2016 added it
DNF. Maybe in the future. Too dry and removed for my current reading appetites.
Alex Hubbard
Jul 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Gorgeous and complicated. It's rare I read things I learn from, wonder at, and enjoy so much that I know I will reread them later; Proxies is one such book.
Nov 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Something a little different to end the month, a book that was recommended to me by Rough Ghosts whilst I was reading Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry” Brian Blanchfield is a North American poet, with two published collections to his name, Not Even Then and A Several World, which won the 2014 James Laughlin Award and was longlisted for the National Book Award. “Proxies; Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning}” is a collection of twenty four essays, musings on the mundane.
As explained in the opening
Eric Sasson
Oct 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating and original, but easily the book that has left me feeling the most stupid in quite a while. I give it four stars because I think Blanchfield is on to something here, creating a category of essay that didn't really exist until he wrote this collection. So kudos for that, but the problem is that the reading experience, while often very engrossing, is also terribly off-putting because of Blanchfield's reliance on pedantic, academic terms that are too cerebral by half. I'm sure he knows ...more
Dulma Altan
May 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book blasted open what the essay can do for me. It takes the essay and marries it with equal parts poetry and critical (yes, even academic) intellect, all held aloft by searing vulnerability and range in these compact little gems, some as short as two pages. It's dazzling. The prose swivels and turns like poetry, the topics (from gay Chat Roulette to the pitfalls of housesitting) are in turns wrenching and hilarious and mundane, and the constant willingness to not fully know is the thread t ...more
Glen Helfand
Apr 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
Proxies is a "repeatable experiment" and its parameters are much of the book's appeal. Blanchfield, for an unacknowledged reason, gave himself the task of writing about various subjects off the top of his head--"analytic, but non-academic"--and to the point of personal discomfort. He is clearly an academic, the writing's tone and referential content is intellectual (I sometimes felt humbled and overwhelmed by his smarts and word choices), until it gets to the personal. To the latter, he writes a ...more
Michael Mingo
Aug 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
A great study in how a writer can give themselves permission to write about a topic. To take just my favorite example, Blanchfield uses the concept of peripersonal space ("the entire volume of space within a person's reach, or within a single conceivable momentary extension of his person") as a means of approaching his deteriorating relationship with his mother. Some of the essays early in the project have difficulty balancing the detached and the personal, but by the time it gets to the 1-2-3 p ...more
Lily Blackburn
Nov 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book took me awhile. The essays are short and sometimes felt less accessible to a girl who's been out of theory class a minute. There's also a lot of mundanity. However! I appreciated the challenge. Each essay is, in a Montaigne tradition "on" something. Like "On Understory" or "On Bre'r Rabbit." I appreciated how Blanchfield was able to tie the subject to something personal. It was a journey, building up to a composite of meanings for each of the subjects. I was very inspired by this book ...more
Eric Mueller
Oct 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Blanchfield writes with a strong control of language, structure, and the source material, which, in mosts cases, is his own life. While I consider this creative nonficiton, Blanchfield writes with the certainty of an omniscient narrator, usually seen in fiction. His essays take unexpected twists and turns yet by the end of each I felt that I was right where I needed to be. Subjects appear and reappear, complimenting each other. There's a lot of digest, and I definitely need to read it again to a ...more
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Brian Blanchfield is a poet and essayist whose most recent book is Proxies: Essays Near Knowing—a collection equal parts cultural studies and dicey autobiography, published by Nightboat Books and winner of a 2016 Whiting Award in Nonfiction. His first two books, both poetry, are Not Even Then (University of California Press) and A Several World (Nightboat), which received the 2014 James Laughlin A ...more

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