Review

Escape Velocity

David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook
7 Miles a Second
Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2012
Glenn Harcourt

The Story Up to This Point

During the decade of the 1970s, I spent a fair amount of time in New York City. And although some of that time was spent in respectable “high-art” venues—the Met, the Frick, MoMA, etc.—a lot of it was spent in other kinds of places: tiny ephemeral jazz clubs and loft performance spaces like Studio Rivbea on Bond Street in NOHO and Ali’s Alley further south in SOHO.1 And there was plenty of other excellent music as well, for example in the punk, new- and no-wave clubs of the East Village.2 In addition, alas, far too much of my time was spent underground, hanging out while passing through the Port Authority Bus Terminal; the transit hub at Grand Central Station; the PATH stations at 14th, 9th, and Christopher Streets; and riding the trashy, dangerous, and graffiti-laden pre-Keith Haring subways.

This was hardly the New York predicted by Hugh Ferriss and other “visionary” architects working earlier in the century, who strove first to imagine and then to realize a built Manhattan embodying the essence of the block grid established per the regulations of the 1916 Zoning Ordinance, the set of regulations that essentially set the ground rules under which the first great generation of skyscrapers came into existence.3 Under the same set of regulations, New York inexorably grew into the anti-vision it was to become.

"7 Miles a Second." © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

7 Miles a Second. © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

The actual 1970s, which we might say figuratively began on February 2, 1968, with the calling of the deeply divisive and politically incendiary garbage strike, were not kind to Gotham City.4 Although the World Trade Center opened to much fanfare on April 4, 1973, the city as often as not seemed to be spiraling out of control toward some urban apocalypse. From Harlem to the Lower East Side, the South Bronx to Bedford-Stuyvesant, huge tracts of the urban landscape remained in effect a war zone, perpetuating the memory of the race riots of the 1960s as a tangible topography of rubble. Crime, prostitution, and drug use were rampant. The entire MTA underground seemed a vermin-infested warren of dangerous tunnels encrusted with graffiti and smelling of urine and rotting garbage. And Times Square, iconic heart of tourist Manhattan, looked like Ground Zero of the porno industry and the red light district.5

The city reached the middle of the decade virtually bankrupt, prompting President Ford’s “no bail-out” speech, reported by the Daily News on October 30, 1975, under the infamous headline: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” Happy Halloween! Still to come, the long, hot Son-of-Sam summers of 1976 and 1977, the latter marked also by the power blackout and attendant looting of July 13.

"7 Miles a Second." © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

7 Miles a Second. © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

"7 Miles a Second." © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

7 Miles a Second. © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

And although no one was as yet aware of it, the AIDS crisis lay latent across the urban landscape like a black shadow destined to bring suffering and death, along with anger, division, denunciation, and recrimination of an intensity and depth imaginable only in the darkest nightmare. Over a decade later, as he faced the brutal fact his own mortality, the artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz summarized the sense of impending doom this way, rooting the contemporary acceleration toward oblivion in the deepest past of human civilization:

When they invented the wheel they invented the collision and the darkness of what time leads the willing body into. It’s seeing how slowly we shift position from room to room. It’s the moment of recognition of an entire civilization driving forward at a faster and faster rate of speed and we are asleep at the wheel and the impact is not so far ahead.6

A Strange State of Grace

“David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS on July 2, 1992, at the age of thirty-seven.”7 The graphic novel 7 Miles a Second was among his last works. The collaboration with James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook was in fact still unfinished at the time of his death.8 In the catalog for Wojnarowicz’s 1990 retrospective Tongues of Flame, it appears as a work in progress.9 It was finally and originally published in comic form under the DC Comics Vertigo imprint in 1996. The 2012 Fantagraphics hardcover reprint both restored pages missing from the original Vertigo edition and enhanced the color with reference to Van Cook’s original watercolors over Romberger’s line art.10 The book is divided into three parts. The first two deal with David’s teenage life as a hustler on the New York streets. The third deals with David’s then current life, a life lived under the sign of AIDS, a life spent sitting in his apartment with a long lanky body folded a bit awkwardly into a wooden chair, smoking a cigarette, staring out the window. “Sometimes I don’t think about this disease for hours. But each day’s dose of medicine, or the intermittent Pentamidine treatment, or the sexy stranger nodding to me on the street corner reminds me in a clearer than clear way that the virus’ activity is forever.”11

"7 Miles a Second." © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

7 Miles a Second. © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

Before the virus, however, there was the hustle. Hanging in Times Square, waiting for a pickup: a balding and bespectacled middle-aged guy who needs to keep his proclivities “for all those beautiful kids” carefully segregated from “an outstanding job and a wonderful family that I really love.”12 The sex, transacted in a sleazy by-the-hour hotel, is oral (with David the passive recipient) and typically sordid: “It was really the old guy’s trip that I watch” [through a chink in the wall giving access to the room next door] while “a prostitute that I recognized from in front of the Port Authority” provided sex to a customer so jaded that he seems unaware of the horrible wounds that slash across the hooker’s breasts and belly. It was “like he couldn’t conceive of pain attached to the body he was fucking.”13

David, on the other hand, lives in a world of perpetual pain, hunger, sleeplessness, hallucinatory violence, and degradation. Eventually, so strung out that “[he] couldn’t even hustle anymore,” he runs for a while with a buddy, “Willy,” someone he’d “met…in a halfway house for ex-convicts.” “In prison he’d spent eight years in the unit for the criminally insane because he’d tried to kill his foster parents with rat poison. This was after they locked him in the attic for a month while they went on holiday.”14

"7 Miles a Second." © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

7 Miles a Second. © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

Eventually, while he is drugged, trussed up, and brutalized by a sadistic trick, David experiences an ecstatic hallucination, a dream state that fuses pain and pleasure in a way uncannily and brutally reminiscent of a religious ecstasy of the sort described so vividly by Saint Teresa of Avila.15 In his own dream, his own ecstasy, David imagines himself in the subway. Standing on an empty platform, he sees a bum on the tracks, “a grimy figure…pacing back and forth his hair hanging like garlands from his skull.”16 As portrayed by the artists, he seems almost to be dancing. Miraculously, however, the “grimy” bum becomes a snarling, terrified black dog, shot down by three policemen. And then, the miracle redoubled, dog and David become one as a sacrificial ritual unfolds:

 One cop squats down carefully parting the sides of the wound with his fingers. A quivering organ is bared. The cop delicately cuts it open. A clear liquid pours forth.17 I can see the look of pain and terror in the dog’s eyes change into some kind of sensual pleasure,18 a strange state of grace. The life force in the living eye slowly extinguishing into the pale glaze of death.19

Later, in another visionary dream, visually cued for us by a reprised close-up of the ecstatically unconscious David, we are immersed in a similar experience, similar and yet transformed, transfigured: a bum’s ballet enacted, not this time in the dark and noisy crypt of the subway, but as if in the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles, in a world where architectural solidity is dissolved in light and enveloped in silence:

 I’m in a hallway lined with people sleeping. All of them look like they have no home or money. I walk to the end of the hall and I see this is a mansion. Outside the windows it’s winter, and there is the clearest light I’ve ever seen. I stand there unable to move, the light is so beautiful and where it falls across the marble floor there’s the grubbiest bum I’ve seen doing this slow and wonderful dance. Slowly turning round and round with side to side swaying motions, saying nothing at all.20

An apotheosis of life on the street, the bum has nowhere to fall but up, into a world of heavenly silence and light. But for all its overtones of saintly transfiguration, this is after all, as a part of Wojnarowicz’s own narrative, only a kid’s ecstatic vision. Drained of the insoluble entanglement of pleasure and pain that so complicated the earlier vision of sacramental [self-]sacrifice, it can at best provide a beautiful interlude, a sanctification of the world in pure winter sunlight before our inevitable return to the nightmare darkness of “this killing machine called America,” where “fags and dykes and junkies and the poor are expendable,” and where David Wojnarowicz must eventually live and die.21

The text of 7 Miles a Second derives entirely from Wojnarowicz. Much of it is quoted, excerpted, or otherwise recapitulated from already published work, including the collection of apparently recorded monologues that, after a number of changes in publication, is now known as The Waterfront Journals; Wojnarowicz’s “Memoir of Disintegration,” Close to the Knives; and essays and incidental writing re-published in the Tongues of Flame catalog.22 Because that writing taken in toto is so scintillant, raw, observant, self-reflective, so weirdly innocent, and wonderfully wise, 7 Miles a Second is a compelling introduction to a much wider body of extraordinary written work. Wojnarowicz’s writing can be painfully direct and graphic, then achingly and soaringly poetic (a characteristic often described as “surreal” or “psychedelic,” both of which seem too pat and hence demeaning). He is, I think, essentially a realist, at times down and dirty, at other times magical. Especially in Close to the Knives, his anger is pointed and palpable: a rage focused and directed toward action. He makes most of the Beats seem a little aestheticized, even a little self-serving. On the other hand, the 7 Miles a Second script can certainly stand on its own as a series of self-contained units without the need of any outside critical apparatus.23

"7 Miles a Second." © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

7 Miles a Second. © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

The art presents an entirely different set of issues. Although not explicitly spelled out by Carr, it seems likely that Wojnarowicz approached Romberger and Van Cook (apparently initially through the former) with his comics project because the couple had previously worked in that medium. Their own strip, Ground Zero (written by Van Cook with line art by Romberger), had appeared in a number of ephemeral East Village publications. Wojnarowicz’s project, however, was not simply to be an ironic look at the Ground Zero of life in the East Village, but rather a “story of his life” told in comic form “so that young gay people would realize that there was someone who’d survived the things they were going through.”24 His own art, although obviously influenced by the visual and stylistic language of comics, was in general nonnarrative, building up meanings through significant juxtapositions of an initially restricted vocabulary of signifiers, then later (as his work matured) through the addition of increasingly sophisticated overlays and interpenetrations, employing of an ever-wider repertoire of reusable images.25 Even his film work was structured in this resolutely experimental way.

Romberger and Van Cook brought the prose narrative to life. In the first story, “Thirst,” about life as a hustler on Times Square, the narrative structure is fairly straightforward, although even here there are some nice cinematic effects and clever visual inter-cutting between disparate narratives. As the work progresses, however, the structure becomes looser, less tied to the conventions of linear narrative, more magical, less gritty—except at those points where the brute fact of death renders magic null and voids all its effects. A beautiful example of this strategy occurs in the small panel on page 57, where David’s character is pulled back from a vision of “outrun[ning] my own existence [and] the terrible weight and responsibility of my own body,” by the simple suggestion, “David…look at Peter.” Peter, having just now breathed his last, lies dead, his ghastly face framed against a grey wall, a brilliant burst of orange flowers at the left of the panel mediating the passage back into the orange-yellow explosion of David’s shattered vision.

Although Peter Hujar died at home, while the novel’s previously unnamed character brutally wastes away in hospital, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this one drawn-out death—metonymically standing in for the death of a whole generation, a whole community, an entire world—must be that of the seminally important photographer Hujar, David’s closest male friend and mentor. The face of the corpse, as drawn by Romberger, and the visage of the dead Hujar, surreptitiously snapped by Wojnarowicz almost immediately after the passing of his friend, are uncannily similar.26 If nothing else, both Wojnarowicz’s photo of Hujar dead and Romberger and Van Cook’s “Peter” belie the notion that living eyes alone can function as “windows of the soul,” perhaps even the idea that the “soulless” dead are but empty vessels. Bereft of life, the eyes still articulate a particular and personal being, unless, as Wojnarowicz seems to suspect, they are eventually resolved as “broken window[s],” no more than “glass…disappearing in rain.”27

Moments Lost Like Tears

 All in all, Romberger and Van Cook have done a brilliant job translating Wojnarowicz’s prose into the medium of the graphic novel—and if I have stressed Romberger’s contribution, let me redress that balance now. Van Cook’s watercolor washes can be either wonderfully subtle, or in-your-face brutal. They are absolutely integral to the overall effect; they set the tone of the pieces with elegant precision right from the very first full-page panel of “Thirst” that opens the book; and in an important way they are what binds Romberger’s wonderful line art into a smoothly flowing or explosively disruptive whole. (It’s no wonder DC had trouble providing an adequate translation of her work with the comic printing technology available to them in the mid-1990s.)

 In collaborating with David Wojnarowicz, Romberger and Van Cook were working with an artist whose style was unmistakable and who produced any number of works that provide us with a searing archive of personalized images. These images relate both to his personal life and to the wider world of the first generation afflicted with AIDS and the nascent political and medical power of groups such as ACT UP, with which he became increasingly involved. Yet Romberger and Van Cook do not simply attempt to translate Wojnarowicz’s vision into a viable comic book structure (probably a fool’s errand in any case). Rather they recast his world, as embodied especially in the prose, in a way that fits perfectly into the commercial language of comics, even as it pushes the boundaries of that idiom.28 At the same time though, and this is the genius of their work, the world they evoke seems absolutely to be Wojnarowicz’s world. David is beautifully realized as a character: tall, thin, and horse-faced; full of false, or at least tenuously held, bravado and a kind of weird innocence as a kid; moody and self-reflective; potentially angry and violent; a committed smoker; a rebel “born into a preinvented existence within a tribal nation of zombies”;29 and a young man who confronts his own imminent death, if not without fear, then with a uniquely personal set of insights. These insights capture two radically distinct perspectives, yet they appear to be intrinsically linked aspects of Wojnarowicz’s complicated worldview.

"7 Miles a Second." © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

7 Miles a Second. © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

"7 Miles a Second." © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

7 Miles a Second. © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

The first of these perspectives articulated in the book is explicitly political and grounded in rage: not simply rage at the fact of a life cut tragically short, but also rage at the fact of a life reviled to its end, rage at the fact of a life whose tragic shortness entails the blindness, the complicity, the hatred, even the exultation of others.30 This rage is directed at politicians, at the (Catholic) Church in particular, at the government health care bureaucracy (both local and national), at the NIH and the FDA. It finds release in David’s increasingly intense involvement with radical groups like ACT UP, as well as in fantasies where the energy unleashed by rage is channeled into the power of personal and massively destructive revenge. These issues crop up again and again in the latter section of 7 Miles a Second; but for his most brilliantly excoriating text, accompanied by relentlessly powerful art, see the section that begins “I wake up with intense nausea…” and culminates with his “three hundred seventy foot tall eleven hundred thousand pound” avatar commencing the destruction of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, seat of the hated and unabashedly homophobic Cardinal O’Connor.31

For Wojnarowicz, however, rage at the fear that breeds violent and institutionalized repression, the utterly dehumanizing drive toward “silence and invisibility” (and death) is linked inexorably, as to its opposite, to a desire that culminates, finally, in love.32 Seen from that perspective, death represents a moment of final sundering, the cutting of ties to all those you have loved, taking “love” in all its varied and divergent meanings: from guys picked up for a quick but passionate blow job down on the rotting piers of the East River waterfront to a long-term partner (in David’s case, the East Village anomaly Paul Rauffenbart) with whom one shares one’s entire life: sexual, intellectual, emotional, spiritual. Despite his volatile personality (Carr’s biography is chock full of angry break-ups and tearful make-ups) and his natural reticence, David Wojnarowicz had lots of friends,33 and hence lots of ties to sunder.

"7 Miles a Second." © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

7 Miles a Second. © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

And it is in terms of one such relationship, and its inevitable end, that David produced one of his most intense and moving texts, which begins: “When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body, not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake but all the way beyond its ending.”34 In 7 Miles a Second, Romberger and Van Cook visualized that text primarily as an explosive, passive yet violently transgressive attempt at the melding of two bodies cast in ghastly blues, purples, and magenta around a fragmentary gleaming whiteness of bone.35 In that way, they follow out the history that Wojnarowicz describes:

 I feel the warmth and texture and simultaneously see the flesh unwrap from the layers of fat and disappear. I see the fat disappear from the muscle I see the muscle disappearing from around the organs and detaching itself from the bones I see the organs gradually fade into transparency leaving a gleaming skeleton gleaming like ivory that slowly revolves until it becomes dust. I am amazed at how perfectly your body fits into the curves of my hands. I am consumed in the sense of your weight, the way your flesh occupies momentary space, the fullness of it beneath my palms. If I could attach our blood vessels so we could become each other I would. If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time I would. If I could open up your body and slip inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours I would. It makes me weep to feel the history of you of your flesh beneath my hands at a time of so much loss. It makes me weep to feel the movement of your flesh beneath palms as you twist and turn over to one side to create a series of gestures to reach up around my neck to draw me nearer. All these moments will be lost like tears in the rain.36

"7 Miles a Second." © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

7 Miles a Second. © 2013 David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook.

 

Aside from two arms flung outward by the force of the interpenetration, the only object that retains its integrity is David’s head with its impassive expression, closed eyes, and presentation in strict profile—like an antique or Renaissance commemorative relief, announcing the presence of the already dead. But that dominant central image is glossed by the juxtaposition and superimposition of several smaller panels, which provide a resonant and elegiac context. Especially poignant to me is the juxtaposition of two hands in the upper left: one that of a dying patient, the other that of David. The latter is fleshy yet passive in life, the former gray and grasping in death. Into the wrist of the dying man slides a transfusion needle, and we see the blood, not David’s blood, but the blood of an anonymous other, flowing through a thin tube that effectively short-circuits the writer’s desire to anchor his lover by “attach[ing] our blood vessels so we could become each other.”37

David Wojnarowicz, "When I put my hands on your body," 1990. Silkscreen on silver print, 34 × 46 inches.

David Wojnarowicz, When I put my hands on your body, 1990. Silkscreen on silver print, 34 × 46 inches. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P·P·O·W Gallery, New York.

It’s hard (maybe impossible) to know whether this two-page spread was completed, or even roughed out, before Wojnarowicz’s death in 1992. However, we do know that the artist used the same text in a quite different photographic elegy dated 1990.38 In that work, we look down into an archaeological excavation at a group of skeletons laid out on various levels within an expansive pit. Some are complete, some fragmentary, some placed side by side, some alone or arranged chaotically.39 Rather than being a couple, they are a virtual community, brought together across time in death, their skeletons like gleaming ivory not yet revolved into dust. In the left foreground lies a couple close together. It seems that they must be the particular pair to whom the text overlaid in silk-screened red applies. And like, but so unlike, the exploding lovers in the Romberger/Van Cook version, they also testify to the impossibility of desire’s realization, at least that final desire for a transcendent union beyond or despite death. Instead, they lie side-by-side in the dust of time (calling up the echo of the “dry bones” evoked by Eliot and Ezekiel), a dust that will eventually absorb both the tears and the rain that fall together.40

 

Glenn Harcourt has a PhD in art history from the University of California, Berkeley. He lives and works in Pasadena.

Footnotes

  1. I’d like to thank my long-time friend Alan Ringel for refreshing my geographical memory here.
  2. This East Village music scene provided a sound track for David Wojnarowicz and his friends. Even Wojnarowicz was in a no-wave band: 3 Teens Kill 4 – No Motive (the name apparently derived from a front-page headline in the Daily News ostensibly appropriated at random). For those inclined to sample that soundtrack, try, for example, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ph-D9tJbVJI, their “signature” effort, “Bean Song,” which gives a good example of the sound from their 1981 eponymous album No Motive. The musicianship is at least adequate; the cumulative effect is hypnotic and enthralling.
  3. See, for example, Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (1978; rev. ed., New York: Monacelli Press, 1994), 110–31. For pertinent illustrations, see especially 111 (photograph of Hugh Ferriss in his studio working on one of the series, Vision of the Titan City—1975); 112; 122 and 124.
  4. On the garbage strike and its wider context, see Robert Sullivan, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), 86ff, especially 89–94.
  5. For a quick word-and-image overview, see this Selvedge Yard blog post featuring a brief commentary and some excellent pictures by the photographer Allan Tannenbaum: http://theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com/2010/04/15/hookers-hypodermics-new-york-in-the-70s/.
  6. David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook, 7 Miles a Second (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2012), 42. The text is hand printed in all capital letters and the punctuation is inconsistent. For readability, I have added periods where graphic elements, such as extended white spaces and separate text blocks, indicate sentence breaks in the book.
  7. ]Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), 593. This meticulous and brilliant study, at once scholarly and relentlessly brutal, and written by someone who experienced the East Village scene as both a participant and a reporter, is likely to remain the definitive biography of Wojnarowicz and a necessary starting point for the understanding both of his  art and of its wider social and cultural context. To supplement my reading of Carr’s text, I have regularly had recourse to Nan Goldin’s equally brilliant and equally heartrending photographic odyssey through her patch of the East Village scene during the first half of the 1980s: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (New York: Aperture, 1986, reprint, 2012). Goldin’s photographs were originally presented “live” as a slide show with taped soundtrack. The intensity, the desperation, the bohemian rejection and palpable longing (both physical and spiritual) displayed in Goldin’s portraits (themselves redolent of the self-consciously performative and ad hoc East Village aesthetic) strip this world utterly of any sense of residual romanticism that might be left over from a purely literary familiarity with a Beat life lived “On the Road.” Both Goldin’s subjects, and those brought to life by Carr, are at times angelic (if in a rather bedraggled way) but deeply desolate; their search for ecstasy (again, both physical and spiritual) is as often violent as it is tender, and frequently and profoundly self-destructive. All of this complexity is evident as well in Wojnarowicz’s best visual work and, to my mind especially, in his writing, which is so honest and vivid as to be at times literally painful to read. For a beautiful portrait of Wojnarowicz at home, taken by Goldin in 1990, see Carr, Fire in the Belly, 313.
  8. Wojnarowicz knew Romberger and Van Cook as the proprietors of the Ground Zero Gallery. In late 1985, Wojnarowicz  (and friends) constructed an installation in the gallery incorporating a short film, You Killed Me First, by Cinema of Transgression auteur Richard Kern. See Carr, Fire in the Belly, 300–302; 313–15; 317–18. Carr reproduces a sweetly insolent double nude portrait of Romberger and Van Cook by Karen Ogle on 317. For Kern, inveterate junkie and David’s portal “into that dark place reachable by [hard] drugs” (300), see Tony Coke’s portrait on 301.
  9. Barry Blinderman, David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame: Works 1979–1989 (Normal: University Galleries of Illinois State University, 1990), 110.
  10. Romberger and Van Cook, clearly survivors, are interesting folks in their own right. For their thoughts on working with Wojnarowicz, as well as reflections on their own East Village odyssey, see the following interview with Nicole Rudwick, published by The Comics Journal: http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-james-romberger-marguerite-van-cook/. See also Carr, Fire in the Belly, 361–62 (on the inception of the project in 1987/88); 528 (title page of the third section: “David’s life with AIDS”); and 549–50 (the problem of the “happy ending”: according to Romberger, “[David] wanted it to end with a happy day—him just happy to be alive, but there’s nothing like that in his writing. His life dictated the ending.”)
  11. Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, 43.
  12. Ibid., 9.
  13. Ibid., 13–15.
  14. Ibid., 23.
  15. This whole sequence is played out in Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, 28–32.
  16. Ibid., 30.
  17. Compare John 19:34 (Revised Standard Version): The testing of Christ’s death at the Crucifixion. “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.”
  18. Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, 32. What we see on the page is a close-up of David’s face, eyes closed as if at a moment of ecstatic climax. Although the actual cutting of the dying dog is underplayed visually, the image of David’s transfigured face immediately recalls that of Bernini’s Saint Teresa, as visualized in her Ecstasy (1647–52), executed for the Cornaro Chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria. And of course, it was Saint Teresa’s own report that described the almost unbearable commingling of pain and pleasure that marked her ecstatic communion with God. In the case of David Wojnarowicz, however, that ecstasy is resolved much more brutally as his “sacramental” death-in-life becomes the living hell of a body held against its will in sadistic bondage.
  19.  Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 36–37.
  21. Ibid., 47.
  22. David Wojnarowicz, The Waterfront Journals, ed. Amy Scholder (New York: Grove Press, 1996); David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage, 1991).
  23. Nevertheless, for those so inclined, Carr’s Fire in the Belly notes many of the cross-references, internal citations, and cross-fertilizations in Wojnarowicz’s written work (a strategy useful also in reference to his visual art), and an even moderately observant reader can catch others as well. In the present context, I will simply note this as a fact without enumerating individual cases.
  24. Carr, Fire in the Belly, 361. See also the Untitled (1990) photo and text piece in Blinderman, ed., 30, which was used by Carr as the endpapers for her biography.
  25. For Wojnarowicz’s non-narrative use of the comic format, see “Deconstructed Comic,” Carr, Fire in the Belly, color plate following 113. For a photo by Peter Hujar of the work, executed in 1983, at the Ward Line pier, see Tongues of Flame, 55.
  26. For one of Wojnarowicz’s photos of Hujar, see Carr, Fire in the Belly, 378. The image is heartrending. Compare the stencil of Hujar sleeping, used by Wojnarowicz in numerous (especially) early works, for example, Untitled (Green Head) (1982) and Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: St. Sebastian (1982), in Carr, Fire in the Belly, color plates after 113. Like Hujar’s lover and sometimes collaborator, Paul Thek (1933–1988), Hujar (1934–1987) was about 20 years older than Wojnarowicz (1954–1992)—a guide and guru from an elder generation. Hujar was a brilliant photographer and his black-and-white photos (especially those from his 1976 collection Portraits in Life and Death, now inexplicably out of print) often have a haunted and pitiless beauty. He was widely influential, and the introduction to Portraits was penned by his good friend, Susan Sontag. A too small selection of his work can be accessed through the website http://www.peterhujararchive.com/. Especially relevant in relation to Wojnarowicz’s life and cultural milieu are the “Images from the New York Piers.”
  27. Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, 64.
  28. Despite its overall content and several scenes of explicit sexual activity, 7 Miles a Second was always intended as a commercial venture, at least of sorts: it was, after all, eventually published as it were “undercover” by DC. Explicit as it may be, it is explicitly not an underground or alternative comic of the sort exemplified most famously by the work of R. Crumb
  29. Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, 40.
  30. Ibid., 47. “You won’t be here next year you’ll get AIDS and die ha ha,” quoting “the religious types outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral shouting to men and women in the gay parade.”
  31. See Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, 46–49. Most of the political text in 7 Miles a Second, whether extended reflections or throw-away anecdotes, is drawn from the various texts collected in Close to the Knives. For a briefer introduction to this aspect of Wojnarowicz’s thought, see the essay “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” in Blinderman, ed., 105–109, and “The Seven Deadly Sins Fact Sheet,” 110–11. Although he despised the institutional Catholic Church, and had a special animus for Cardinal O’Connor on account of his rigid positions on AIDS and [homo-]sexuality generally, Wojnarowicz’s attitude toward Christianity was by no means clear cut. Even his early Untitled (Genet) of 1979, with its inset of Christ as a junkie Man of Sorrows crowned with thorns and tying off for a hit (reproduced in Tongues of Flame, 104), is not, it seems to me, intrinsically negative in its connotation; but this issue is too broad and complex to be adequately vetted here.
  32. “All this [the operation of the entire ghastly mechanism of relentless oppression and violence] will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.” Text from Untitled (1990), reproduced in Blinderman, ed., 30.
  33. Perhaps his deepest relationship with a woman (certainly the longest lasting) was with the French artist and intellectual Marian Scemama (see the delicate and winsome portrait by Andreas Sterzing in Carr, Fire in the Belly, 254) to whom he dedicated the late and brilliant set of manipulated photographs, The Sex Series (1989). Two beautiful examples are reproduced in Carr, color plates between 312 and 313.
  34. Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, 60–61.
  35. It is easy to see this one-on-one personal encounter as a personal and inverted counterpart to the action of the gigantic exploding clockwork engine of self-destroying civilization “spewing language and motions and shit and entrails in its wake” that Romberger and Van Cook have splashed across the preceding two-page spread (ibid., 58–59).
  36. Ibid., 60–61.
  37. The small vertical panel at the right on page 61 evokes the image of a lush garden where we see standing against a stone parapet a broken concrete copy of an ancient statue; a bent reinforcing rod projects above the shoulders where the head has been snapped off, an equally poignant final “footnote” in essence replacing the sense of inevitable and utter loss captured in prose as Wojnarowicz’s “tears [that fall] in the rain” (Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, 61).
  38. Not included in the Tongues of Flame exhibition (which cuts off at 1989); see the color reproduction in Carr, Fire in the Belly, opposite 213.
  39. These are in fact Native American burials preserved in situ at the Dickson Mounds near Normal, Illinois. Barry Blinderman pointed them out to Wojnarowicz while the two were in Normal preparing Tongues of Flame. In Fire in the Belly (515, 518, 527, and 551), Carr summarizes the circumstances around the completion of the piece and Wojnarowicz’s plan to use it as part of a three image series, of which one other was completed using a silk-screened fragment of Wojnarowicz’s final text, which ends: “I am disappearing but not fast enough.” Aside from a very short “coda,” this text also closes the final section of 7 Miles a Second (Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, 67).
  40. For Ezekiel’s vision in the Valley of Dry Bones, see Ezekiel 37:1–14, especially 1–3 (RSV): “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me round among them; and behold, there were very many upon the valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered ‘O Lord God, thou knowest.’” For T.S. Eliot’s echo of Ezekiel, see “Ash Wednesday,” II:3–7: “And God said/Shall these bones live? shall these/Bones live?” (Here, the context makes it clear that the bones are those of the poet himself.) After an extended invocation of the Virgin Mary, the bones reappear, now  “scattered and shining,” and singing under a juniper tree; “[f]orgetting themselves and each other,” content simply to be “united/In the quiet of the desert.”
Further Reading