Brian Blanchfield, Nonfiction


Whiting Awards 2016

Photo: Samuel Ace

Brian Blanchfield, a poet and essayist, is the author of three books, including two collections of poetry: Not Even Then (2004) and A Several World (2014), which received the 2014 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and was long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry. His third book, Proxies, is a collection of essays forthcoming in April. He is the recipient of a 2015–2016 George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation fellowship. His recent work has appeared in Harper’s, The Nation, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, The Paris Review, Brick, GuernicaLana Turner, and other publications. Since 2010, Blanchfield has been a poetry editor of Fence, and he currently serves as a guest editor of the PEN Poetry Series. He is originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and lives in Tucson, Arizona. 



The quiet but searing vulnerability in Brian Blanchfield’s writing is as wide and trembling as the wingspan of his otherness. He writes with a beguiling sagaciousness that made me bow my head so many times that I lost count. These are essays about honesty and the revelation of self in which shame and guilt are dissected and anything extraneous scrubbed away. Each sentence is a live wire. Diverse, maybe mismatched styles, genres and topics accrue to great and moving effect, a profound whole made from an unlikely assemblage of parts. He appears to be forging a new genre before your very eyes.


From “On Containment, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source”

proxiesA few things became clear in the moments and months after I was attacked by a dog at age nine. Within months, it was clear that my consequent fear of dogs had engaged a far greater fear. Within moments, it was clear that the dog, our dog, Sam, was my father’s dog, loyal to him foremost. Sam, a mature blue-black purebred Chow, rushed to the door one evening just as I did, to meet my father who had been away awhile. My mother was in the kitchen. We had just moved back to Charlotte, from Paris, Tennessee, undoing the relocation we all had made when he left Roadway to work for Transcon nine months earlier. He was sort of at large, still, out on days-long interstate truck runs and still stationed in Tennessee, without us, orchestrating the sale of the life that never quite took. The tractor trailer he parked outside shook the Charlotte house a bit. At the back door, his dog and his son had both come to welcome him; and when he appeared there, Sam turned to his rival in the tight space of the mud room and in a single motion, prefaced by a low growl, seized and ripped the flesh off the right side my face, cheek to jawbone—so that in the stunned minutes thereafter, both of my parents would later say they could see my clenched back teeth when my mouth was closed.

Sam was banished instantly to the back lot, or retreated there ashamed, confused; and swiftly we made preparations to ride to the emergency room. Despite spilling blood and saliva where my face had been, I was numb to the pain, doing as I was instructed, completely mobile, cooperative with the towels, functioning in shock. On my father’s lap—so rarely availed to me—in the passenger seat, as my mother drove, I was prevented from flipping the visor down to see the damage in the mirror but repeated often that one desire, to see for myself what was clearly disturbing my parents, neither of them even thirty years old, it now occurs to me, the year they divorced. What was the damage, was the question, yes, but also, what does it look like inside me? I could hardly contain myself.

A plastic surgeon was airlifted in, and that night I had reconstructive surgery, and came away sewn up with many stitches inside and outside my mouth. A phenomenal operation, everyone said. It was 1982, and with insurance then, I suppose, a secretary and a truck driver could afford it. I was swollen and in bandages for weeks, a pathetic, dopey monster at school for a while; and then the wound became scar and for the next eight years tightened and traveled from my cheek to my chin as I grew into the face I have. There are a lot of nerve endings gathered in it, and it drives me a little crazy, distributes a sort of unsettling, illocable energy within, when a lover plays with that part of my face. I feel the same about my navel.

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 greater circumambient fear—a terror—that one will be insufficiently able to hold that fear.

Read more work from the 2016 Whiting Award Winners here.