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David Wojnarowicz: The American Rimbaud

08/20/2012 08:15 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2012

"What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music."
--Kierkegaard,
Either/Or

I've just finished reading an extraordinary book. It was hard to read the last pages because, as I had a half dozen times already, I was crying. I'm not alone in this reaction. Other people I know have wept repeatedly as they made their way through Cynthia Carr's Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz. Last month at the Fales Collection at NYU, which houses the Wojnarowicz archive, the author herself, who knew Wojnarowicz, wept while reading a passage describing his "Dickensian" childhood and had to stop for a moment.

That the abandoned, abused, beaten, and neglected boy, who sometimes hustled to survive, often lived on the streets in his teens, and barely finished high school, became the most significant artist/writer/filmmaker/performer/activist of the early years of the AIDS pandemic is miraculous. But genius is miraculous. Rimbaud said, "Genius is the recovery of childhood, at will." And Wojnarowicz was a genius. Not only did he view his harrowing childhood dispassionately enough to make art out of his pain, but he remained true to the profound vision it generated. Wojnarowicz called it "the preinvented world":

The world of the stoplight, the no-smoking signs, the rental world, the split-rail fencing shielding hundreds of miles of barren wilderness from the human step. A place where by virtue of having been born centuries late one is denied access to earth and space, choice or movement. The brought-up world; the owned world. The world of coded sounds: the world of language, the world of lies. The packaged world; the world of speed in metallic motion. The Other World where I've always felt like an alien. (David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, pp. 87-88)

In other words, the world we are educated into from birth and which, ironically, Wojnarowicz's lack of education allowed him to see clearly long after the rest of us have made our uneasy peace. (Gary Snyder wrote in Earth Household, "Three-fourths of philosophy and literature is the talk of people trying to convince themselves they really like the cage they were tricked into entering.") Wojnarowicz was a free man (they are rare in art and literature), and he remained uncaged his whole short, brilliant life. At the end, he viewed the approach of his own all-too-premature death as only a poet can:

Will my death be terrible and difficult? Will I let go easily as a body among the waves or the reeds of a pond? Will I sink below the surface of life like a swimmer whose feet become entangled in the undulating weeds? Will I be embraced by all those who have gone before me? Will I be loved before I go? Will I turn to stone like a grey dot in a field? Will I burrow into the dream of the earth, the humming of the motor works? Will I speak in numbers or symbols? Will I shock myself by dying when I feel it is time, not waiting a moment longer than necessary? (Undated journal entry quoted in Cynthia Carr's Fire in the Belly, p. 518)

One of the many miraculous things about Wojnarowicz's life is that the question "will I be loved before I go?" -- hiding in plain sight right in the middle of that passage -- was answered repeatedly in his lifetime. He was loved, and he loved, profoundly. Difficult as he could sometimes be, unable as he was to shield those around him from his understandable rages and frequent moody, withdrawn isolation (this was a man who earned in blood whatever measure of trust he had), friends and especially his partner, Tom Rauffenbart, were devoted to him. He never broke free from his demons, but none of his suffering went to waste. He made it into an offering, which he gave freely (his generosity was legendary, and well-documented by Carr) to those of us less brave and much less gifted than he was. If I were rich, I'd fund a catalogue raisonné of his work -- but then that's an impossible project. It would have to contain not just his paintings, photographs, prints, and collages, but also films, music, and performances. Carr's accounts of Wojnarowicz's personal appearances at readings make clear that they were electrifying. In lieu of such a catalogue, I'm grateful that we have Cynthia Carr's astonishing account of a creative life, the best such account I've ever read.

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