David Wojnarowicz

Close to the Knives

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Close to the Knives Summary

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Close to the Knives is a 1991 memoir-in-essays by American artist and activist David Wojnarowicz. Written in stream-of-consciousness prose heavily influenced by the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, Close to the Knives tells Wojnarowicz’s life-story in fragmented scenes and episodes. More important than this narrative is the memoir’s visceral protest against “this killing machine called America,” a society that Wojnarowicz saw as murderously frightened of diversity.

After surviving an abusive childhood and a spell of homelessness in New York City, Wojnarowicz became known for politically charged paintings, photography, and films. He made headlines when his controversial use of Christian iconography inspired the ire of Senator Jesse Helms, and he reached a broader audience when the band U2 used his photograph “Untitled (Buffaloes)” for the cover of its album One. After the death of his former lover and mentor Peter Hujar during the AIDS epidemic, Wojnarowicz focused his activism on the U.S. government’s inadequate response to the crisis. He died at the age of thirty-seven of AIDS-related complications.

Close to the Knives opens with an essay entitled “Self-portrait in twenty-three rounds.” It narrates Wojnarowicz’s years of homelessness, drug abuse, and sex work. He remembers creeps, pedophiles, and fetishists who picked him up around Times Square, but the essay’s central memory is of a hot, hungover day on which Wojnarowicz began to hallucinate that the local rats were scurrying past with the limbs of dismembered children in their mouths. This essay, and others in the collection, glance at the story of Wojnarowicz’s childhood: how he and his siblings were abducted and beaten by their alcoholic father.

The volume’s second essay, “Losing the form in darkness,” is about cruising in ill-lit sections of the city and illegal gay venues: “So simple, the appearance of night in a room full of strangers, the maze of hallways wandered as in films, the fracturing of bodies from darkness into light, sounds of plane engines easing into the distance.”

This leads into a broader reflection on the political context and meaning of cruising in the essay “In the shadow of the American Dream: soon all this will be picturesque ruins.” Wojnarowicz remembers picking up a stranger in a restroom outside Meteor Crater, Arizona. Making out on a service road, both men keep one eye on the rearview mirror, knowing that the appearance of another car could lead to a violent beating, a prison sentence, or death.

Death is the fate Wojnarowicz explores in his next essay, “Being Queer in America: a journal of disintegration.” Here the author explores the horror and fear of the AIDS epidemic, “the people waking up with the diseases of small birds or mammals; the people whose faces are entirely black with cancer eating health salads in the lonely seats of restaurants.” Wojnarowicz loses friends, lovers, fellow artists, feeling that “piece by piece, the landscape is eroding and in its place I am building a monument made of feelings of love and hate, sadness and feelings of murder.”

The collection’s title essay, “Living close to the knives,” is also its centerpiece. Here Wojnarowicz narrates the illness and death of Peter Hujar, a photographer who was Wojnarowicz’s friend, one-time lover, mentor, and more: “My brother, my father, my emotional link to the world.” Hujar rages against his death sentence, refusing to believe that there can be no cure. Wojnarowicz and Hujar—by now emaciated—drive to Long Island to visit a doctor who claims typhoid shots have proven effective. He turns out not to be a doctor at all. Nevertheless, his waiting room is filled with emaciated men. As Hujar dies, Wojnarowicz stands over his body, to photograph “his amazing feet, his head, that open eye again,” before he breaks down.

The next two essays, “Postcards from America: X-rays from hell; The seven deadly sins fact sheet; Additional statistics and facts” and “Do not doubt the dangerousness of the 12-inch-tall politician” set out more explicitly Wojnarowicz’s vision of “this killing machine called America,” railing against religious leaders and politicians who responded to the AIDS crisis by recommending less sex education, or island quarantine for the victims.

The collection’s final essay is its longest: “The Suicide of a Guy Who Once Built an Elaborate Shrine Over a Mouse Hole.” Its ostensible subject is the suicide of a friend, which Wojnarowicz pursues by interviewing their mutual acquaintances. At the same time, it is a meditation on mortality and the value of art as a way of leaving something that can speak in the artist’s place. The essay builds to a graphic description of a bullfight in Mérida, Mexico. It comes to land on a conclusion rendered profound by the author’s struggle to reach it: “I am glad I am alive to witness these things; giving words to this life of sensations is a relief. Smell the flowers while you can.”