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April 27, 2016

Book Notes - Brian Blanchfield "Proxies"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Brian Blanchfield's essay collection Proxies is a stunning work of creative nonfiction.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"The 25 essays in this collection from poet Blanchfield (A Several World) are small, highly polished jewels that together form an intricate mosaic. Giving himself the project of following a thought to its uncomfortable edges, in each entry Blanchfield picks a subject—foot washing, authorship, owls—and examines it from several angles until the connection between metaphysical principle and lived experience suddenly crystallizes, often producing an analogy as surprising as it is lovely."

In his own words, here is Brian Blanchfield's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection Proxies:

I've known Largehearted Boy since about 2006 when in my tiny studio sublet on a hillside in Los Angeles I downloaded I don't know how many songs that I discovered here and at Soul Sides and Captain's Crate and Cover Me and danced in my socks on the ballroom black linoleum flooring, peering out of the portal windows at the elegant families of skunks taking in the moonlight nightly; it was very much part of a feeling of new freedom, adjusting after a decade in New York to my west coast life. Because of that and because I myself have a radio show, Speedway and Swan, devoted to partnering music and literature (poetry), it's a complete pleasure to work up a playlist that would accompany or play beneath or between the essays in my new book. Proxies is a collection of twenty-four single-subject essays, part cultural studies and part dicey autobiography, and in subject matter it is a miscellany, ranging from Foot Washing (the sacrament) to Frottage to the Locus Amoenus (in the pastoral tradition) to the Leave (in billiards) to Confoundedness to Minutes (the clerical record) to Br'er Rabbit. Oddly these stations represent rather well the disparate coordinates of my own life. And the book's recurrent concerns are also mine, divisible more or less into quadrants: sex and sexuality; poetry and poetics; subject positions in American labor, not excluding academia; and my upbringing in working-class Primitive Baptist central-piedmont North Carolina. It's a go-for-broke experiment in candor.

The other thing to know about the project of this book is that it has an organizing constraint: a total suppression of recourse to outside authority; the essays draw entirely from what I know, estimate, remember or misremember about the subject at hand. In this kind of essaying I've kept the internet off, and I didn't review the books and films and other works that I consult in memory. On my own authority, then, I get a number of things wrong. It's for that reason the book concludes with a rolling endnote called Correction., twenty-one pages of facts that redress the errors I make.

"Both Sides Now" by Dolly Parton

So to begin the score for the book, playing under the prefatory note that lays out the method of this go-it-alone, improvisatory empiricism, I need a song that assesses the full sum of its own uncertainty and proceeds anyway, a song of experience. Timi Yuro's "I Apologize" is a contender ("if I told a lie, if I made you cry…") but it may be a bit more directly personal than necessary, and a lot more contrite. Dolly Parton's cover of Judy Collins's "Both Sides Now" is maybe the right note, earning in her very lived-in voice each plateau of the lyrics' ambivalence: "It's cloud's illusions I recall; / I really don't know clouds at all." Clouds become love becomes life in the formula of the chorus. The arrangement here with banjo and stand-up bass has sped up the meditation, and candied the high-concept sophistication. I can't think of a singer who has been part of my life longer than Dolly. I grew up country, and from Paris, Tennessee I wrote her a letter once when I was eight, in 1981 or 2. My mother was a secretary with a chauvinist boss then, just like Doralee Rhodes (I continue to think 9 to 5 is a great film, with an almost mathematical perfection) and I would have told you then I admired her more than anyone. On the telephone my mother was sometimes told she sounded just like Dolly. My favorite verse here, because at either end of the rhyme it includes both of Dolly's trademarks—a whispered Sprechstimme just this side of corny and a little shimmery whimsy at the top of her range, as if she's surprised herself to have climbed so high: "Tears and fears and feeling proud / To say I love you right out loud." Momentarily there you can hear her decades-earlier ragdoll melodrama "Eagle When She Flies" and her (lesbian?) anthem "Love Is Like a Butterfly."

"Courage," by Villagers

To choose this song is to project a bit onto the young Irish singer/songwriter Conor O'Brien, who was, at the time he and the rest of Villagers recorded it, about the same age, 20 or 21, as I am in the situation of my book's opening essay: on my first date, as such, with another boy. We went to the raptor center, outside my hometown, Charlotte, in 1995. "On Owls" is the title of the essay. To get to that raptor center with Greg from the circumstances in which we met a few weeks earlier—surreptitiously, at my stepfather's fiftieth birthday dinner (Greg had been the waiter)—meant a certain amount of daring and guile; though, instinct was way out ahead of tactic. The women who rehabilitated the birds understood quite what they had when they opened their doors to these two boys newly in love, though we were likely uncommon specimens there. We strolled very gingerly under the tracking gaze of the perched inhabitants of the cages. All that power. The quiet, pronounced way O'Brien sings "courage" and makes the word his own, bending it peculiarly, propelling the hesitant song forward with it each time it repeats, is deeply idiosyncratic but not self-conscious. It moves me, I suppose, that he is a full generation younger than me, openly gay, and surely a role model to many already. Really gifted. I should thank Joey Burns for turning me on to Villagers when he guest co-hosted my radio show a few weeks back.

"Ballad of the Spirits" by Tsegue-Maryam Guébrou

There is a fair amount of tragedy, I suppose, in the central family story of this book. And perhaps the first indicator of that dynamic is at the end of the short essay "On Foot Washing," where in a complicated intimacy within a cycle of abuse there is some foreboding of what is to come. I choose this song as something of a requiem. It feels careful and improvisatory at once, profoundly solitary, and also expansively mournful. Guébrou is an Ethiopian nun now in her nineties, a remarkable humanitarian, and a deeply expressive musician; and note by note this song, like all of the piano solos on this album on the Éthiopiques label, is captivatingly present and attentive to possibility, examining every phrase of the terrain to which it is confined.

"Take Me" by Karen Dalton

"Take me to your darkest room / close every window and lock every door; / The very first moment I heard your voice / I'd be in darkness no more."

An altogether different pianist sits down to this instrument, and likely much later at night, in dimmer lighting. It was at that dream hour, and in that lamplight, I remember first hearing this Karen Dalton song, in Los Angeles, when Semiotext(e) editor Hedi El Kholti dropped the needle on it on his record player. It was transporting. Imagine a honky tonk in Marfa, in Rotterdam. Dalton's voice falters so much that each phoneme, including the opening one, is drawn as an outline that backfills with the liquor-sour ink of her late-arriving warble. Take me is mostly ache me, for instance. I had just started dating someone who brought me to Hedi's, which is to say, took me to the den of his house, which the city's more nocturnal artists and writers and young men on the margins seemed to frequent and occupy in transitory encampments. In one room, mostly empty, on his own, Holy Shit singer Matt Fishbeck was lying on the carpet, coloring, as I recall. Could I lie down here and color a while? The mood very much suits the essay on Man Roulette, the streaming-video speed-dating site that was shut down a few years ago. There was a summer, when I was single and living in Missoula, when night after night I explored the rooms of this site, rooms all over the world—apartments in Milan, dorm rooms in Guayaquil, basements in Franklin, Massachusetts—in which young men muted their microphones and typed what they saw in me and saw what came back to them, how their coming across in the video feed was annotated or, sometimes, directed. The complex exchange between streaming image and text, between Partner and You—the players on a date practically defined by our variability with countless others—drives the thinking of this essay. As I write in the essay, if you cut and paste and read over the transcript of the date later, you could recreate sensation, recall a particular surrender or turn, a goodnight mouthed. The site is no longer operative, but it was a meaningful time in what I want to call the global social history of gay fantasy.

"Take me to your most barren desert / a thousand miles from the nearest sea; / The very first moment I saw your smile / it would be like heaven to me."

"Alex" by Girls

I love this song for capturing the wobbly logic of deep infatuation and the soreness of desire. Alex has blue eyes (so who cares…No I don't). Alex has a band (so who cares / about war….No you don't). Alex has black hair (and who cares…well I do). You've got a lovely smile (I could spend a while / with that smile). Alex has a boyfriend (oh well, I'm in hell). And so on. I find this song very sexy, tormenting itself into come-what-may abandon, already sort of recumbent in its mood. This one I choose to match the essay "On the Locus Amoenus," in which I unspool a bit about the ancient literary conventions of the pastoral, and particularly the enabling premise that a poem (an eclogue, an idyll) is sung or spoken by a shepherd. Whatever else the poems concern, the shepherd speaker in Theocritus or Virgil is always amative, competitive, fetching, curly-haired, torn up and plaintive about this or that absent girl or boy beloved, Amaryllis or Adonais, Phyllis or Alexis, in high rotation. It's Corydon, Cory, who can't get his mind off young Alex. Sometimes the shepherd himself appears as the beloved in another pastoral later in the series, and though the specificity of the beloved is always agonized, the cumulative effect suggests the fungibility of men as love partners. Which is kind of hot. If you like sleepy, pretty, dirty long-haired boys (No I don't).

"Wild Child," by Brett Dennen

This song is sort of unabashedly joyous and radio-ready, warm and comfortable in its expression of freedom, very barefoot in a yard. Usually I'm rather far from that mood (far from that yard), but I can access it pretty directly singing along. Something very simple in its twangy self-assertion. Over the jangly guitar the way Dennen sings I am, I am, I am, I am, he catches in the pulse of each glottal stop between the vowels, building and climbing to the song's signature. And I am a wild child, momma, is counterpart to the refrain's parallel line, (You can, You can, You can, You can) / You can hold me tight if you wanna. And though this is a song of adult independence, I can't help thinking foremost, this kid has been well parented. The sense I have is of an unusually healthy holding environment: a child testing in fort-da play that the bounds of his "wildest" reverie are fully acknowledged and validated. In the essay "On Containment" I speculate a bit on my fear of "losing it," the fear of being unable to contain fear, and think through what I know of psychologist Donald Winnicott's notion of holding environments and his special consideration (Adam Phillips suggests Winnicott is himself the perfect case study) of the child who grows up without a "good enough" holding environment and creates his own self-sanctity, often pathologically retentive of control later in life because of it. Is it Dennen's honey-voiced easy unconcern that makes me want to insert a flavor of disdain here? The song's downfall is its sort of cheer-squad conclusion, which twists the track to something more like a Drew-Carey-sitcom theme.

"One Man Guy" by Rufus Wainwright

To accompany the essay on house sitting, we're going to need another cover track. House sitting, like covering a well known song, is always (even always already) citational. Any activity the housesitter performs in the borrowed household—to "separate" the "twist ties," for instance, as part of garbage duty—feels like an activity wrapped in quotation marks (as Susan Sontag says of utterances and behaviors that are camp), appropriative however practical and ordinary. In this essay I propose that a rather comprehensive queer literary history could be told through the lens of house sitting, thinking through the experiences of Hart Crane, Jack Spicer, James Schuyler, Eileen Myles, and others, pressing hard on what it means when an LGBT person borrows the stance and position of cultural privilege when caretaking, "playing house," in a straight household. I like this cover song for the complexity of its queering the original, which was written and performed by Rufus's father, Loudon Wainwright. For the elder Wainwright it had been a kind of trademark, an anthem of independence, and an apologia for being a solo act, disinclined ever to perform with others (or to be centrally part of a family?): "People will know when they see this show / the kind of a guy I am /…One man guy, one man guy / only kind of guy to be / I'm a one man guy, I'm a one man guy / and the one man guy is me." As soon as Rufus's stirring, purple voice carries the opening line to its "am" the I is a gay man, a one man gay guy in the 21st century, and the lyrics have most to do with the consideration of monogamy, which is a theme and maybe even preoccupation, for Wainwright in later albums, in songs like "Out of the Game" and "Montauk," which conceives a fantasy of queer family. In "One Man Guy" it's a pleasure, a kind of vindicating pleasure, to hear the gay singer and the son of an absent father explore and expand and shape the song, elongating and trusting its lyrics more than his father did, finding room for his experience within it. Interestingly, the queerer Rufus cover is his duet with Sean Lennon of his father's song "This Boy" ("That boy took my love away / though he'll regret it one day / this boy wants you back again").

"I Was Young When I Left Home," by Bob Dylan

There's a point in the essay "On Confoundedness" when I get to account the primary components of the Primitive Baptist salvation narrative I grew up with: confoundedness and revelation, and waywardness and prodigal return. The first pair is for me "the poetry" of the faith—it's what my friend, the classicist Norman Austin, says makes Christianity a mystery religion. You cannot paraphrase what it is to "receive His Grace" or to be "washed in the blood of the lamb" or to "find your name written in the Book of Life" or to glimpse "the sunny margin of that distant shore." It is vexing to a child who wants to understand how to be saved but who remains in the dark. The other couple of components are much more accessible, narrative in nature: after the sermon every Sunday it was possible someone would approach the pulpit and give an account of wayward sinning and unworthiness ending with return to ask to be baptized, in the pond I knew well, in Monroe, NC. American folk traditionals are full of this homecoming narrative—usually the way home is heading South, destitute, often too late. And here I might choose either of my favorite versions of a song sometimes called Nine Hundred Miles or Train 45: Dylan's song, or else Ray Charles's "Goin' Down Slow" on his Country album Crying Time. Dylan's is recorded in a house in Minneapolis in 1961, when he was twenty. He sounds stoned at the start, picking out the tune and mumbling, "It must be good for somebody, this here song, I know it's good for somebody. If it ain't for me, it's good for somebody."

"That's Life" by Lou Rawls

Somehow I believe Lou Rawls more than Frank Sinatra when he sings the famous line: "I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king." And I'll confess it has been a karaoke go-to of mine, right about in my (narrow) range and suitable to my (humbled) attitude the last few years. The brass is a little slurry and the piano tinkly in a Las Vegas mood, and that hallmark anapestic line—"poet" right there in middle of it—is a sweet (bittersweet) little labor of a refrain, as if the variable subject positions are coming down the conveyor line to be stitched or stapled down in the beats of the rhythm. The essay "On Minutes" is partly about taking a job as a secretary in Tucson, after nine consecutive years as a professor, about "deleting the words Paris Review and The Nation and Harper's Magazine from my résumé and add[ing the words] PowerPoint and Excel" to be more attractive for support-level positions. A number of the essays in the book, including "On Tumbleweed" and "On Dossiers" and "On the Near Term," are rather candid about the slings and arrows and fortunes and comeuppances of a literary writer's life in academia and—when expelled by it—in office jobs catch as catch can. It is the case, after all, that I lost my piddling adjunct appointment three months after I was nominated for the National Book Award, in the summer before the school year started. What Would Lou Rawls Do? I hear in his decisions with the Sinatra material a funny interpretation unconvinced by capitalist imperatives. I mean, it's a shock to recall that the Sinatra version ends emphatically in uttered contemplation of suicide; but, Rawls won't lock in the rhyme at the end, won't say die, skittering away from that fatalism: "If there's nothing shaking come this here July / I'm gonna roll myself up in a great big ball and…I'm gonna disappear from here."

"It's All Gonna Break" by Broken Social Scene

I'm going to pretend that I didn't look up the actual lyrics to this song (to give you a sense of what I had mistaken, I thought the repeated intimate plaintive question at the end was "Why are you always fucking girls?" not "Why are you always fucking ghosts?" ahem); but it's really the emotional sweep of this long-play track that suits the mood of the essay "On Frottage." Over ten minutes the song cools to embers three times before the phoenix puffs up and revives its lusty adolescence and enflames again in a new incarnation; and each time it does you realize there are even more musicians playing: multiple drummers and guitars and a keyboardist and a brass section, thick with concerted effort but also whipping up a kind of dizzied confusion, all of which begins with the muzziest kind of solo protagonist at a walking pace, soon trotting along, in a kind of adrenaline-thrumming quandary: "Where was the kid that fucked me in the ass / then took my pencil and paper and our past. / You know I love this shit, this shit, it tastes so good, / I've got pastures waiting in the woods." (These are not the lyrics, but I'm not far off.) "On Frottage" is, like the other essays in this book, an uncensored structuralist analysis of its subject matter—what constitutes it, how it functions in the culture, how it has been historically constructed—and it's this latter point that sends the essay in a narrative direction, unpacking what it was like to arrive at age 22 in New York City in early 1996, before it was understood that AZT and the cocktail was a life-saving measure for some HIV+ people not yet too far fallen, before it was understood that the death rate had peaked in the city, and at a time when inter-generational queer tutelage (to borrow Eve Sedgwick's term) had broken down in the ongoing trauma of the epidemic. Queer people my age were not only psychosexually imprinted by AIDS, we were also spreading in the bodied logic of contagion a certain tenuous solidarity, wild and careful and new and determined all at once. There was a lot of love and a lot of exploration and we raised each other into something unforeseen, pairs and couples in private confidence at first and then—as you looked around—more and more people on stage sharing the feeling (still frequently accurate) that it was all gonna break.

"Can't Think of Nothin'" by J. Hines & the Boys

Any number of songs could accompany an essay that works out what it is about repetition and seriality that produces a feeling of ecstasy, a feeling of writing, of compositional agency, for the reader moving through waves of self-sameness. "On Reset" emerges out of one such ecstatic experience when I watched, by accident, an audition tape for the soap opera One Life to Live. As many as eleven consecutive iterations of a simple scene, with eleven candidate actresses oblivious to one another, running the same lines with the cast member: this was, ridiculously, my transformative moment, cueing something in me that I recognized as the very power of poetry. Muriel Rukeyser says about this way of making meaning by repetition and variation, which establishes its own temporality of anticipation and payoff and surprise, that it "puts mortality in its proper place." J. Hines & the Boys' rare, mellow jazz/funk instrumental, which I know is one of the many I downloaded from Oliver Wang's Soul Sides, resets and cycles through its five phrasings a second time, with the smallest detectable mutations. The title, "Can't Think of Nothin'," seems to refer to the fact of its lyric-free instrumentation. A verse never comes. This is true, too, of the situation I lay out alone in my friend's apartment playing this tape he said was blank, this bit part audition tape where I found poetry, but wrote none. It was, as writers from Wordsworth to Woolf have said about such moments, as though poetry was writing me. It's possible to be its instrument, across time.

"Homecoming" by Tom T. Hall

The essay I wrote on the understory, the ecological term, necessitates the most corrective entries in my book's endnote, and one of the facts that sets the record straight is that it was Roger Miller and not Tom T. Hall who sang and spoke the part of the just-folks narrator in the 1973 Disney animated version of Robin Hood. It seems to me a natural mistake since Tom T. Hall is about as sure a raconteur as there was in Country music then—my grandpa had his eight-tracks. In the understory of a forested place like the central piedmont where I grew up, saplings for the most part don't survive as their parent trees have the light canopied out most of the year; it's instead the place for moss and vines and ferns and short wide-leaved trees that capitalize on light early and late in the season. These were the forests that establish the ground floor of my imagination—it's where I played at my grandparents' house in Stuart, Virginia—and the tactics of getting what you need from your givens and flourishing despite what was happening in the master narrative is how I feel about growing up in (under) the sullen Jim Crow retrenchments of the areas that resented what politicians and civil rights hopefuls called The New South. I'm not unusual as a descendant of this place in one respect: half of my birth family is all preachers and Baptist brethren and the other half is mostly highwaymen and outlaws. It's a place made up of the bucking urge to get on down the road and the claims made firm by staying put. This, Hall's best song, stages a homecoming, that tireless Southern Christian trope again, of a peripatetic musician who comes back to the farm too late for his mother's funeral, though you don't know that until after plenty of verses of son talking to father on the front walk: "I saw your cattle coming in, / boy, they're looking mighty fat and slick; / I saw Fred at the service station, / told me that his wife was awful sick" and "I got this ring in Mexico and no / it didn't cost me quite a bunch." It's only then that something perhaps unforgivable is admitted. "I'm sorry that I couldn't be here / with you all when momma passed away / I was on the road and when they / came and told me it was just too late." But the prospect of prodigality is refused in the final twists of the song. "I knew you's gonna ask me who / the lady is that's sleeping in the car, / that's just a girl who works for me / and, man, she plays a pretty mean guitar." The incompatibility of the chosen life and the original givens has a momentum, an ongoingness that has tour dates and everything. The open road calls and the screen door closes.

"Shine" by Joni Mitchell

I sometimes say that the book's rolling endnote, "Correction.," is like an afterlife of facts, after the reckoning. The wiki-knowledge passes over where I was wrong and flips each card, the jacks and queens and aces of best guesses. Night has passed and we're in a strange new morning. Everything is loosely strewn—the material here is disparate, the correctives suggesting how many orders of errors there have been. This is the song I choose for the first moments of that next phase, the foray into that next light. This is late Joni Mitchell, whose husky voice the fleet, sophisticated singer of Blue could not have anticipated, in the long, slow, provident, lightly stepping trancework of a song that asks for blessings, blessings undeserved and blessings too late and blessings nonetheless. "Shine on Vegas and Wall Street (place your bets); shine on all the fisherman with nothing in their nets." She is very nearly Whitmanic in this survey, witness instead of messiah alighting on one corner of the world after another, shining the light on "mass destruction" and "fresh plowed sod" with fine, selective detail that suggests comprehensiveness. "Shine on world-wide traffic jams, honking day and night, / shine on another asshole, passing on the right, / Shine on all the red light runners, busy talking on their cellphones, / shine on the Catholic church and the prisons that it owns / shine on all the churches, they all love less and less; / shine on a hopeful girl in a dreamy dress. / Oh, let your little light shine." It is a hymn, a value-neutral hymn. We could have done better. Got some of this wrong. An acceptance song.

Brian Blanchfield and Proxies links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
excerpts from the book
excerpt from the book

Flavorwire review
Full Stop review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review

Bookworm interview with the author
St. Louis Public Radio interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)