Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Oh, no – it's this heartless nation's hideous birthday – maybe I can distract you with an essay I wrote on the new biography of David Wojnarowicz, in the new issue of Bookslut...

When I first read David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives in 1992 (or maybe 1993), it was like I had found my rage in print, a sense of maybe a little bit of hope in a world of loss. I was 19 (or maybe 20). I had recently moved to San Francisco, and was finally finding queers like myself: broken and betrayed, vicious and vibrant, filled with the possibility of no tomorrow. I had fled the elite East Coast university I’d spent my whole life working towards, in search of radical queer visions of lust and love, direct action and accountability, models for taking care of one another in a culture that wanted us dead. I was escaping a childhood of upwardly mobile suffocation for the possibilities of the imagination.

I had always reached for books to save me, had devoured them, had fled into their pages to illuminate the world around me, to illuminate me: but I hadn’t looked for myself in those pages, it had never entered my mind to think that would be possible. So when I read Close to the Knives I felt a shock of recognition both grounding and immediate. I knew that David Wojnarowicz had died soon after the publication of the book; in the early-‘90s, it seemed like whenever I discovered a new queer male artist he was either dying or on the verge. It felt like everyone was dying -- of AIDS or drug addiction or suicide, and this wasn’t shocking because I had only known death, internally or externally it felt like the same thing. Except that the internal death you could refuse, and that's what Close to the Knives meant to me.

I had already joined ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, where I found the tools for unlocking a critical analysis connecting the dots between systems of oppression united in their hatred of everything that might save me. Close to the Knives was part of this analysis, but it was also something more visceral: a gasp of connection in a landscape of brutality both literal and mythical, personal and communal. David Wojnarowicz gave me hope in my own history that I was only beginning to learn: when he wrote about the possibilities of connection in the sudden gestures of intimacy among strangers -- in bathrooms and parks and alleys and decomposing buildings, in known and unknown rooms -- I began to reimagine my own teenage history of daily sex in public bathrooms with men decades older, as a story not only of trying not to feel, trying to disappear, trying to beat my father.

In Close to the Knives, David’s father is the annihilation of the past that threatens to overwhelm the present: I can't remember if I discovered David Wojnarowicz soon before or soon after I remembered I was sexually abused, when everything stopped and then started to make sense, I just know that Close to the Knives was part of this starting-to-make-sense. For years I carried Close to the Knives everywhere I went. I would give copies to new friends as a litmus test: after they'd read the book, I searched in their eyes for confusion or familiarity, distance or possibility.

David was already dead when I discovered his words to hold me: I needed that embrace. David was part of a generation that publicly cast off shame in favor of naming and claiming sexual splendor outside the confines of propriety -- a generation that then witnessed its bold visions of lust and love surrounded by the mass deaths tacitly welcomed by the enforced silence of official structures of power. I was part of a different generation -- the first time I heard about actual gay people, they were closeted stars dying in headlines in the National Enquirer. I worried I could get AIDS from tasting my own come.

I have never believed in icons, but David Wojnarowicz became for me something like a model of resistance. I treasured his symbols, and they became my own -- though during his life he was known more for his visual art than his writing, I discovered it later. His stencil of a burning house represented everything I was getting away from. The image of two men making out, with a map of North America covering their bodies, emerging from a bundle of sticks, bathroom graffiti below reading “Fuck You Faggot Fucker” -- that was my history: past present future at once. The Sex Series of small round black-and-white photos in negative so the whites illuminate a desire for fucking and sucking and rimming juxtaposed against forest and ships and bridges, that series felt like the freedom and annihilation of my dreams. The Stegosaurus with Wojnarowicz spelled out on its spikes became a personal treasure. It was like we were friends, David and I, even though we could never be friends.

No comments: