Tuesday, March 19, 2013

David Wojnarowicz – Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

David Wojnarowicz’s book is a classic of LGBT literature and rightfully so. It is a scathing indictment of a society that alternates between happily sitting by while a generation dies of AIDS and gleefully acting to ensure further deaths. Pure hatred, desperation, and pain pour out sharply and beautifully from each page. Probably the most heartbreaking part for me was the recollection of the final days of the famous photographer Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s friend and lover. Wojnarowicz died soon after the book’s publication of AIDS-related complications. What he left behind him was a startling body of work in multiple mediums (notably photography) including “Close to the Knives.”
Wojnarowicz’s book captures a multi-faceted experience of what it was like to be a gay man surviving, fighting for change, and creating at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The book’s primary focus is, in my opinion, the genocide of LGBT people by mainstream America who continually slowed AIDS research and denied the resources and information necessary to combat the disease. Its subtitle “A Memoir of Disintegration” is painfully accurate. While reading the book it really does feel that everything is falling down around the author.
Yet make no mistake, there is more than just anger in this book. The book is also highly-erotic and full of sexually-charged and beautifully rendered scenes. Wojnarowicz also goes on adventures around the country, musing as he sees the seedier sides of Our Great Nation. Wherever the book takes you, it does it well. W.’s technical ability and the control of his writing cannot be overstated. Only a book this beautiful could tell a tale so ugly and cruel.
This was one of the first books I’ve read in a while that really emotionally affected me. In reading this book I was constantly rethinking about a moment in my 8th grade health class. My teacher made us watch a speech by a “sex educator” on television. I now realize that what she really told us was some body-shaming abstinence-only bullshit but at that age I lacked the ability to understand such things though I felt really put off by it. However, there was one part that I will never forget. The “educator” told the story of how a young high school student who had just found out she had HIV came up to this “educator” after a conference. She was obviously looking for comfort and advice from someone who supposedly had knowledge about HIV/AIDS. Instead the educator brushed her off, essentially saying “oh well, that’s what happens when you have premarital sex, you deserved it.” Even at 13 I knew this was an incredibly wrong way of thinking. I explained this to my health teacher, saying this young girl was going to die, had her whole life and dreams shattered at once and we should have empathy. My health teacher snickered, trying to tell me you get AIDS because you slut around or do drugs and therefore deserve it.
I was filled with such an incredibly amount of hurt and rage by this. That night I went home and cried in my bedroom because I couldn’t believe so many people around me felt like this. I feel that that attitude is still highly prevalent in our society and it has never stopped pissing me off. I wish that “Close to the Knives” was required reading in high schools so kids could get an actual healthy look at eroticism, sexuality, and AIDS. I wish everyone could see that AIDS is not something you get because you “deserve” punishment for your “amoral” behavior and it is that kind of attitude that causes the disease to spread. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Selected Poems – Marina Tsvetaeva (trans. Elaine Feinstein)

A madness rushes through the poems of Tsvetaeva, an uncontrollable and passionate energy that hurdled her through hundreds of pages and into an early grave when she committed suicide at 48 in 1941.
                Her life is legendary. She was good friends with Rainer Maria Wilke, Anna Akhmatova, and Boris Pasternak. She was married to the legendary Russian poet Sergei Efron. Their doomed love is a prominent theme in Tsvetaeva’s poetry. After some early halcyon days they struggled under the grind of Soviet life, facing years of separation, exile, and poverty. At one point Tsvetaeva was so poor she was forced to put her two daughters into state care, where one died of malnutrition. Sergei suffered from severe tuberculosis. He also worked as a spy and was executed only two months after Marina’s death.
Tsvetaeva poured the ashes of her tragic life into her poetry. Her jerky phrasing, rushing imagery, and deeply passionate impulses all make this clear. Her poems reach out from the page invite you into her world of tragedies, love affairs, and exile.
Feinstein’s translation is beautiful; the poems leap off the page with insistent passion. I am a big fan of Russian poetry and this volume was one of my favorites.  The darkness, the mingling of death and love and life all spoke to me. Tsvetaeva is not one to be unheard.
The poems in this book are arranged chronologically, and I must admit I am a bigger fan of her earlier short works than the long multi-part pieces that she produced later in life. However I tend to have a nasty little habit of being impatient with long poems anyway. Either way, Tsvetaeva is highly under-read and under-appreciated  I’d like to share with you just a few scattered lines of her poetry to illustrate the power she had:
“the storm of stars in the sky will turn quiet./And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we/who never let each other sleep above it.”
“but I do not long for your spirit./Your way is indestructible./And your hand is pale from holy/kisses, no nail of mine.”
And my personal favorite:
“like ivy       like a tick inhuman       godless to throw me away like a thing, when there is/no thing I ever prized in this empty world of things. /Say this is only a dream, night still and afterwards morning //an express       to Rome? Granada? I won't know myself as I push off the Himalayas of bedclothes.”