David Wojnarowicz

Close to the Knives

“These days I see the edge of mortality. The edge of death and dying is around everything like a warm halo of light sometimes dim sometimes irradiated. I see myself seeing death.”

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. after his 1963 arrest in Alabama for civil disobedience. It takes a powerful character – perhaps one with nothing to lose-to put one’s voice and body in the very fires of civic and social emergencies.

Artist and activist David Wojnarowicz (September 14, 1954 – July 22, 1992) was and is exactly that person. His ashes are nourishing the White House lawn in plea for consciousness.

Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz
Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983-1984. Acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print. Learn more. Courtesy of Whitney Gallery of Art.

Wojnarowicz’ photography, writing and multi-media work took its energy from a stand against homophobic forces that governed America specifically (but certainly not exclusively) in the 1980s.

Close to the Knives, though raw, captivating, and tense, does not attempt to frame Wojnarowicz’ body of work. But it does offer an eternal voice of passion and pain that transcends spacetime even better than art.1

The tattooed man came through the sheets of rain, and swinging headlights from cars entering the riverside parking lot caught him among the fine slanting lines of wind and water. Late this evening, I was sitting by the docks edge, sitting in the rain and remembering old jersey showers as a kid and the quiet deliciousness of waking through coal-grey streets where trees leaned over and by the fields where nuns in the cool green summers would hitch up their long black skirts and toss a large white medicine ball to each other in a kind of memory slow motion.

From “Losing the Form in Darkness”

"Earth" by David Wojnarowicz, 1987.
“Earth” by David Wojnarowicz, 1987. Learn more. Courtesy of Agnes Gund.

You’d swear Close to the Knives was realist fiction except it is not fiction. Born in the 1950s into a childhood of abuse and poverty, Wojnarowicz worked as a street hustler in New York and finally became a recognized artist when he graffitied the East Village with flames.

I had become completely abstracted. At some point I think I woke up; I think it was minutes ago or maybe hours ago in this motel room. I never felt a sensation like this before but the heavy plasticized curtains covering the three windows of my room created what I imagined a flotation tank might feel like, or a dry rug-covered terrarium with the glass painted black and fitted with an airtight lid. When my eyes first opened it took some measure of time to realize I’d stepped away from myself among the veils of sleep and with that motion my eyes had disconnected from the nerves of the brain: that area where sight flows uninterrupted. The only vision from back there was a sub-vision: the magnified abstraction of a shiny black abdomen like a motorcycle gas tank or a mirrored black globe. Straining against the contours of the room and its furniture to reach back into that area and retrieve more of its form from the shadows, I could see or feel it for moments; the soundless click of its eight legs tapping the surfaces of the walls and ceiling of my sleep.

From “Self-Portrait in Twenty-three Rounds”

In his own confessions of self, Oliver Sacks wrote that “One can have disassociation in times of extremity” and indeed Wojnarowicz writes about being abstract. His writing is reminiscent of Joan Didion’s early essays on the failure of the American dream and the resounding howl of poet Allen Ginsberg. The normalization of the absurd and the falling falling apart.

Wojnarowicz claims abstraction but his writing is clear as spirit. He skips the misleading metaphor and sentiment, especially in the pages detailing his AIDS.

For three weeks in a row I went to the doctor, but the red blood cell count didn’t go up much. He told me that he really wanted me to have bone marrow biopsy. That frightened the shit out of me. They come at you with a needle that is quite long, quite sharp, and they put it in a spot that is quite painful. I’m getting really anxious – I’ve never been this scared. My parents came into the office while the procedure was being done. They shot the whole area up with Novocaine, which really burns, and while the whole thing was happening I knew what was going on – that the doctor was going into my body with a giant needle and taking out part of my bone. It wasn’t that painful. It was sore for a couple of days afterward – I couldn’t walk around that well. I haven’t heard back on the results yet and I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack over what that will be …

From “The Suicide of a Guy”

Before Wojnarowicz became sick, he carried – mentally, emotionally and physically – his mentor and lover, photographer Peter Hujar, to a crowded clinic in Long Island where a researcher was using excrement from sick patients to develop a cure. It was all they had. All the patients died including Hujar. Wojnarowicz became sick soon after.

"Wind (for Peter Hujar)" by David Wojnarowicz, 1987.
“Wind (for Peter Hujar)” by David Wojnarowicz, 1987. Learn more. Courtesy of Steven Johnson and Walter Sudol.

Wojnarowicz was an activist and artist for those suffering – we need a word beyond suffering, being annihilated by AIDS. Close to the knives he lived and wrote because it was there and he was there.

I can almost see my own breath, see my internal organs functioning pump pumping. These days I see the edge of mortality. The edge of death and dying is around everything like a warm halo of light sometimes dim sometimes irradiated. I see myself seeing death. It’s like a transparent celluloid image of myself is accompanying me everywhere I go. I see my friends and I see myself and I see breath coming from my lips and the plants are drinking it and I see breath coming from my chest and everything is fading, becoming a shadow that may disappear as the sun goes down.

From “Living Close to the Knives”

"Water" by David Wojnarowicz, 1987.
“Water” by David Wojnarowicz, 1987. Learn more. Courtesy of Steven Johnson and Walter Sudol.

A few pages into Self-Portrait in Twenty-Three Rounds I started to circle atmospheric words, the kind that fester in the ribs and mould your breath. Wojnarowicz supplied: dirt, scabs, red-eyed, mucus, rotten, fucked-up, blood, smoke, disability, deaf mute, dry, lacking clustered on a single page like rotten grapes.

"Fire" by David Wojnarowicz, 1987.
“Fire” by David Wojnarowicz, 1987. Learn more. Courtesy of the Agnes Gund and Barbara Jakobson Fund.

I’ve been patient too long.
My memory is dead,
All fears and all wrongs
To the heavens have fled.
Why all my veins burst
With a sickly thirst.

From Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell

Although known for his righteous screams and reverberating rage at governments who failed to act, there is also much love in Close to the Knives. Wojnarowicz’ love for Hujar, for the male body and person, and rebellious joy of this passage, (echoing Rimbaud’s lines in A Season in Hell “Boredom is no longer my love. Rages, debauchery madness, – I have known all their soarings and their disasters, my burden is laid down.”):

Some nights we’d walk seven or eight hundred blocks practically the whole island of Manhattan crisscrossing east and west north and south each on opposite sides of the streets picking up every wino bottle we found and throwing it ten feet into the air so it crash exploded a couple of inches away from the other’s feet on nights that called for it every pane of glass in every phone-booth from here to south street would dissolve in a shower of light. We slept good after a night of this in some abandoned car boiler room rooftop or lonely drag queen’s palace.

From “Self-Portrait in Twenty-Three Rounds”

Knives was published in 1991, Wojnarowicz died from AIDS in 1992. He was 37, the same age as Rimbaud, a poet he long-admired. I hope he sleeps good wherever he lies.

Accompany this crenellated written portrait with Francis Bacon’s portraiture of self in pain, Franz Kafka’s search for human consciousness, Rebecca Solnit’s study of compassion in the face of disaster and Patti Smith’s memoir of a New York similar to the one Wojnarowicz knew.