"Rave On" is the Page Turner series that asks feminist writers, artists, musicians, activists, leaders, and scholars to talk about a book that completely rocked their world. Today we feature writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on the memoir Close to the Knives, by David Wojnarowicz.
In the early '90s, everyone was dying—that's how it felt, it felt like everyone was dying. We were the first generation of queers to grow up knowing that desire meant AIDS meant death, and so it made sense that when we got away from the other death—the one that meant marriage, house in the suburbs, a lifetime of brutality, both interior and exterior, and call this success or keep trying, keep trying for more brutality—it made sense that everyone was dying, because we had only known death.
Queer heroes were dykes, or they were dying—some of the dykes were dying too, but not as fast, unless it was suicide or a cancer they hadn't mentioned, cancer like childhood sometimes you can't say it. So when I found David Wojnarowicz, he was already dead; I didn't find him, I found his words.
Close to the Knives: This was the first time I'd ever read something and thought: me. That rage I felt at the world, the world that left nothing but words. Words and these gestures of desire and longing and searching crazed madness. I was finally learning to say help, help me, I need help here, can you help? And there was Close to the Knives.
David Wojnarowicz 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. Close to the Knives is 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."
We were queer freaks and incest survivors and anarchists, feminists and whores and vegans and sluts and activists taking all these words into our ears our arms our mouths. We exchanged manifestos and zines, books, and fliers and gossip, organized direct actions and art projects, 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.
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 recognition, and those were the ones. Close to the Knives helped me to embrace my rage like a "blood-filled egg," a shift in the texture of breathing, a way to further opportunities for connection rather than just the isolation we knew so well.
Close to the Knives conjured this world of bathrooms and parks and alleys and rotting piers and other public opportunities for sexual splendor, and I, like David, was "gasping from a sense of loss and desire." 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, death and remembrance.
I carried Close to the Knives around in my bag for years and sometimes when anything or everything was too much, I would reach for the familial texture of these words: I was learning and living and giving the potential of embracing outsider status in order to create safety, love, community, desire, home on my own terms. David Wojnarowicz reinforced this drive to build my own systems for understanding and challenging the world, my own sense of morality. He 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." A wedge I still hold on to.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author, most recently, of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, and the editor of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity and an expanded second edition of That's Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. She recently finished a new anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform. Mattilda is now making her public art project, Lostmissing, about the friend who will always be there, no matter what, and what happens when you lose that relationship, into some type of book. She's currently in the throes of writing a new memoir-type-thing called The End of San Francisco, and wouldn't mind an agent.
Image of David Wojnarowicz copyright Peter Hujar Archive.