As a 23 year old queer man, I’ve never known what it’s like to have sex without the threat of the AIDS. But having fucked bareback on more than one occasion, I also seem to live in world were the threat of this viral invasion is somehow reduced, at least intellectually or psychically. Though it’s true that AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was for men like David Wojnarowicz, one has to be delusional to think that living with AIDS is free of physical, psychological, or social challenges. Tens of thousands continue not to have access to life-saving medications, support groups, and have been rejected by family, friends, and even romantic partners.
With the continued stigmatization of people with HIV/AIDS, looking at how David Wojnarowicz creates a poetics—what I define as the specific ways in which an individual uses language to fully realize a particular individual, object or moment in time— of viral invasion, we gain a better vocabulary for not only talking about the continued negative effects of HIV/AIDS but also how we can remember the early days of the epidemic to inform how we talk about queer sexualities.
When discussing the poetics of viral invasion, we need to look no further than the title of David Wojnarowicz’s work—Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. In particular, I want to focus on the second part of the title, A Memoir of Disintegration, because HIV/AIDS works on a cellular level to break down the normal and regulated functioning of the body. Without any cure and, at that time, any effective treatments, the acquisition of AIDS meant slow decline or sudden bodily death.
As such, when capturing the poetics of viral invasion, the structure of Wojnarowicz’s work reveals this decline, not only in terms of his own body as he recounts both his own treatments and experiences taking friends, but also how his own anger and uncertainty of a lack of response from federal and local governments led to his experiences with AIDS being marginalized, silenced, or forcibly erased from public record. The disintegration of the poetics thus functions to show an actual disintegration, but also to show how bodily, emotional, and social/political states of marginalization become indistinct through the arrival and invasion of the virus.
Structurally, Close to the Knives is a loosely-related series of essayistic associations that take many forms. The earlier half of the text, including “Self-Portrait in Twenty-Three Rounds” and “Losing the Form in Darkness,” are rich with past memories, especially from his earliest years, and are the most vague, undefined moments in the text. Given this lack of specificity and early positioning in Wojnarowicz’s life, these pieces function as documentation “before the invasion,” referring to the fact that these distant moments have somehow materialized to remind him, and us, that he was always a marginalized kid on the streets, into drugs and prostitution, before he got AIDS.
Since he writes in a stream-of-consciousness style, it’s easy to call these moments flashes of memory, but his intention, if we’re are taking about a poetics of invasion, is much more specific. As he says on page 13, “I can barely remember the senses I had when viewing these streets for the first time.” If we are to understand AIDS as a total bodily invasion, we must also understand as a total psychic invasion. For Wojnarowicz and his poetics, there is no life before AIDS. At the writing of Close to the Knives, there were only distance touches and tastes of Manhattan, and the bodies of other men when AIDS was not a worry.
These memories continue to be threaded throughout the rest of the text. One particular memory recounts a trip out West shortly after being diagnosed, where he meets a man outside of the Grand Canyon and hooks up with him in his car on wide open desert road, but the essential quality of abandon that was in these earliest pages disappears rather abruptly. It’s easy to call this poor stylistics. Transitions are supposed to be gradual, after all. They invite the reader to acclimate to the characters’ states of mind, but the poetics of invasion is different; it is supposed to be sudden and unexpected. The moment one received a diagnosis of AIDS, particularly in the late 80s and early 90s, just before combination drug therapies, you abruptly went from feeling lively to recognizing you would likely die.
I suspect that when Close to the Knives was assembled in 1991, Wojnarowicz was acutely aware of his own death and recognized, at the same time, how so many others could not comprehend this death. Thus the abrupt shifts and disruptions of the narrative function to embody not only the virus itself and also how others’ perceptions of those People With AIDS was so confounded by its arrival.
The poetics of invasion is not about destination, but about transition and flux, about the embodiment of moving through decline. As he says on page 62, “I’m getting closer to the coast and realize how much I hate arriving at a destination. Transition is always a relief. Destination means death to me.” In this particular situation, Wojnarowicz is referring to his return from his trip out West, but learning later that this trip happened shortly after being diagnosed, it’s clear that transition is a way in which he can appropriately stave off the slow decline and eventual death he would face from AIDS.
This ability to stave off death is important to the poetics because while transition is unsteady, unpredictable, and scary, specifically when we’re talking about what AIDS can do to the body and mind, if we think of Close to the Knives as a narrative of transition and not a narrative of death, we appropriately recognize Wojnarowicz at his most alive. In using a poetics of invasion to demonstrate his resilience, the narrative takes on an empowering and inspirational tone rather than depressing or hopeless. AIDS was a death sentence, but an even worse death sentence was letting it silence the movement and life that you continued to possess as you transitioned from one state to another.
This transition of states through a poetics of invasion happens to bring about the development of what he refers to as an “interior world” (108). It here that, in the face of bodily decline and political erasure, “movement was comfortable” and “boundaries were stretched or obliterated: no walls, no borders, language or fear” (108). While it’s hard to see how the movement through Close to the Knives is comfortable, as the virus progressed, any sort of preconceptions or filters that had previously blocked the narrative seem to dissolve.
As an example, in “The Seven Deadly Sins Fact Sheet,” Wojnarowicz obliterates how high-ranking public officials like Former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, were celebrated at the time when so many people with AIDS were dying without recognition. Even if the record he is creating won’t noticeably shift the overall public conversation, or reach those outside of the queer community, the courage of the poetics of invasion to obliterate boundaries entirely is one of its most notable features. Reading this work more than 20 years after it was first published still elicits an intensely visceral reaction at the courage it must have taken to construct the text at the time. In this transfer of courage, we have one of the productive effects of the virus— to engender change well after the writer has died.
It might seem like something of a paradox that the virus, the thing leading to one’s decline, is also the thing that frees preconceptions. But the poetics of invasion, in this process of creating Wojnarowicz’s interior life, also works to create an interior life for the reader. The virus not only impacted individuals, but family, friends, lovers, society at large, and left a ripple in the way we understand how queer individuals lived before and after the virus. In forcing us, as readers, to imagine what it means to lose everything, the poetics of invasion forces us to confront discontinuities in psychic states. One minute you go from being well and without worry to suddenly being burdened. As Wojnarowicz recounts examples of friends who choose to resign themselves to the notion of death, he broke down boundaries and directed his voice outwardly to create a record that would be impactful well beyond his own passing.
The last, and most essential, quality of the poetics of invasion is the ability of the narrative to live on indefinitely. Though one’s body suffers blindness, weight loss, cancer, pneumonia and other ailments preceding death, forgetting these symptoms and remaining silent means embracing the false ideal of a “one-tribe nation” (153). Bottom line, according to Wojnarowicz and his poetics of invasion, is that the experiences with this virus and its marginalization are unique. Because of this experience, queer life is inexorably different and unlike the life in the non-queer communities where the virus never took hold. A failure to speak of these experiences is a disservice to the community and nation that was altered by the virus. More importantly, since the virus works so efficiently to disintegrate bodies, the failure to speak immediately and loudly means “ideas and feelings get lost.” And if these ideas and feelings get lost enough, “they never return” (153).
David Wojnarowicz isn’t coming back. On July 22nd, 1992 in New York City, he died from AIDS-related complications. He died from the viral invasion, but through the linguistic replication of viral structures and effects he was able to refashion experiences with AIDS to outlast his body and change the way we view the history of the virus. Even if relatively few people want (or the have ability) to access Close to the Knives, it only takes two bodies, even if one is imagined, to continue this replication. Though the process of recreating this viral invasion may be difficult, to forget is to think that queer sexuality has no consequences, that fucking bareback with some random stranger recalls no history, no deaths, no violence and no erasure.
But every fuck in 2013 is, as he says, “a calculated fuck” (3). Each fuck or writing on desire means confronting the equivalent moment when desire was denied or can no longer be possible. The poetics of invasion does not intend to overwhelm desire completely, but it ends doing because everything before and after AIDS is not equal. In this replication, these traces of David Wojnarowicz’s grief, anger and disintegration are with us.