Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dear David Wojnarowicz

(This is a piece I'm working on for an anthology called Second Person Queer, edited by Richard Labonte and Lawrence Schimel)

Dear David --

I found you in an obituary. Or it wasn’t quite an obituary, but an article that appeared right after you died and Memories That Smell Like Gasoline came out and I read that article and thought: oh. Then I picked up the book and saw your drawings of sex so alienated and intimate, infinite and lost, I wasn't prepared for what I recognized: "When I was 9 or 10 some guy picked me up in Central Park + took me home. He made a polaroid of me sitting in a chair. It didn't show my face so I let him keep it."

So right then I read Close to the Knives instead: it was the first time I found my sense of rage in print, and simultaneously a feeling of maybe a little bit of hope in a world of loss. I recognized so much in your words and images and their textures, I held that book so close to my heart I couldn't hold you I held your rage. I held your desperation and it helped me to feel. Everything.

You wrote about a "disease in the American landscape," the literal disease of AIDS but a crisis caused because the people in power decided who was expendable, and queers and drug addicts and poor people and people of color were left to die. You're so intent on exposing the layers of oppression between government and God and family and the "one tribe nation" of "walking swastikas." One minute you're driving through the landscape of light and dark, shadow and memory and space so much space and all of a sudden: "I feel that I'm caught in the invisible arms of government in a country slowly dying beyond our grasp."

You write from downtown New York in the ‘80s but here in San Francisco in the early ‘90s right after you died we felt that too. The people I met, we knew it was the beginning of the end, but still it was the beginning. Most of us had recently escaped monstrous families of origin, we were scarred and broken and brutalized but determined to create something else, something we could live with, something we could call home or healing or even just help, I need help here, can you help? We were incest survivors, whores, outcast kids, vegans, anarchists, runaways, and addicts trying not to disappear. We knew that the world wanted us dead, but we were ready for something else -- we didn't always know what it was, but we were ready -- if we weren't ready, then we were getting ready.

This was the early ‘90s in San Francisco, so everywhere people were dying of AIDS and drug addiction and suicide and some of the dead were among us, just like us, just trying to survive. Others were more in the distance, elders like you who we barely got to know except through their loss. We went crazy and cried a lot, or went crazy and stopped crying, or just went crazy.

I carried Close to the Knives around like a litmus test, when I met someone new I’d hand it off -- some would turn to me and say oh, this is too much I can't handle it. Others would look me in the eyes with anguish and recognition and those were the ones. You helped me learn to embrace rage, a shift in the texture of breathing, a way to further opportunities for connection rather than just isolation we knew that so well, you and I and others like us struggling to survive.

Of course you were already dead, I knew that -- even when you conjured this world of bathrooms and parks and alleys and rotting piers and other public opportunities for sexual splendor, I was "gasping from a sense of loss and desire." All of this I knew so well, but you helped me learn to embrace it like a "blood-filled egg," "freeing me from the silences of the interior life." Sure, "I was afraid the intensity of my fantasies would become strangely audible," but I knew that this public engagement with the sexual could infuse all moments of hope and horror, escape and claustrophobia, landscape and longing, connection and isolation, death and remembrance.

This was the Mission in the early ‘90s and we were queer freaks and artists and activists and sluts creating defiant and desperate ways to love and lust for and take care of one another in crowded, crumbling apartments painted in garish hues and decorated with other people's trash. We paraded down the streets in bold and ragged clothes too big or too small, we shared thriftstore treasures and recipes and strategies for getting day-glow hair dye to last. We exchanged manifestos and ‘zines and fliers and gossip, got in dramatic fights over politics, over the weather, over clothing, over who was sleeping with whom, we held each other, we painted each other's nails and broke down, honey we broke down.

You were among the heroes whose books we exchanged at lightning speed -- Dorothy Allison and Cherrie Moraga, Leslie Feinberg and Sapphire. David, I carried you around in my bag for years and sometimes when anything or everything was too much I would just hold you, I was learning and living and giving the potential of embracing outsider status in order to create safety, love, community, desire, home on our own terms, building our own systems for understanding and challenging the world and making decisions based on our own sense of morality. You knew that: "Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head." Queerness became "a wedge that I might successfully drive between me and a world that was rapidly becoming more and more insane."

We were huddled and dreaming outside of the status quo, but still we were gentrifiers -- we knew that. Some of us had grown up rich and more of us poor, but we could see the way that queer freaks and artists and activists made the Mission a safer place for the yuppies we despised. We brought the trendy restaurants and boutiques that we gazed at with anguish and disgust, the partying suburbanites we scorned. We were the beginning of the end and we didn't know what to do because we'd just found the beginning.

David, reading Close to the Knives again after all these years I'm struck by your sense of a shared destiny between all people with AIDS or all queers or all marginal artists -- this community of desperation, and I'm struck by how this feeling of commonality is now almost entirely lost. I can't help wondering if it was ever there, if your work built such potential for delirious accountability yet also participated in a glamorization of the downtown fringe, preventing a more nuanced examination of gentrification. Or maybe things have just changed so dramatically in 15 years that there is no longer an “us.” In San Francisco, 15 years of gentrification, homogenization and suburbanization, and the overwhelming assimilation and apathy of most gay people and queers, means a certain death of the urban imagination, something you invoke with urgency yet always potential. The public sex you helped me to claim has almost disappeared from communal possibility, even though I keep searching for those moments when everything becomes lighter or brighter or easier to imagine, the gestures of loneliness pressed against one another that somehow create an expression so dense it becomes splendid: hold me. Now.

You write, "I won't grow old and maybe I want to." And ask: "If we all die off what will happen to those we leave behind who are just this moment being born?” That's something I'm also wondering.

4 comments:

mairead said...

Hi -- I just read this, and wanted to say thanks for writing it. This bit kind of hit me in the gut: . . . it was the first time I found my sense of rage in print, and simultaneously a feeling of maybe a little bit of hope in a world of loss . . . I held that book so close to my heart I couldn't hold you I held your rage. That's huge and wise, to recognize something in someone else's words, to separate the thing from the person who wrote it, and then to thank that person. So I thank you too.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Mairead, what beautiful, methodical insight and analysis, now I'm touched by your words too -- thank you thank you thank you!

Love --
mattilda

Scott LaForce said...

I'm just coming across this entry now and I have goosebumps. So eloquent. You've put into words the exact sentiment I feel, being one of the "newly born" to discover the remnants of a generation of potential mentors, fathers, sisters, lovers... For me it's the writing and the imagery. I wish there were more people less afraid to explore the loss. Thanks for writing this.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Scott, thank you for your beautiful note -- a different version of this piece will appear in the anthology Second Person Queer, by the way...

Love --
mattilda