This essay was originally finished in December 2013 for MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College. I’ve returned to a year later because I think the questions explored: those of haunting and the desire to connect to the past of HIV/AIDS while trying to move forward resonate today. It is a long read, and uses some conventional academic language and citation, but it’s also unique in its creative and liberatory impulse throughout. Enjoy.
“Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.” – bell hooks
I have been told many times, even if indirectly, that I do not deserve to exist. The exploration begins here because, in the question of my presence, I recognize my own words as simultaneously representing today’s grief and the future of my body, as words, to survive in a haunting against these attempts to destroy me. As I look at Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife and Hervé Guibert’s Ghost Image, I do not intend to show that these works necessarily detail grief and haunting in the same way I see my own experiences. However, what I will show is that through narratives of grief, their bodies (or those of others) loom over me, as the reader. Through literature, particularly that which fuses together various forms, the traces of these narratives become embedded in my own. To this extent, in Prevallet and Guibert’s works I can use the ways they bring ghosts back to life to better understand the ghosts that haunt me personally, working beyond grief and anger to find pleasure in this reanimation. At the same time, I will ask exactly what can be reclaimed, and what it means to structure my own narrative writing with an understanding of incompleteness.
“Middle English, from Anglo-French hanter, probably from Old Norse heimta to lead home, pull, claim, from heimr home; First Known Use: 14th century”- from Merriam Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/haunt)
“Middle English gost, gast, from Old English gāst; akin to Old High German geist spirit, Sanskrit heḍa anger; First Known Use: before 12th century” – from Merriam Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ghost)
I begin here, talking about ghosts, because my great uncle is one, now. In March 2013 he died from pneumonia as an AIDS-related complication. I don’t remember the exact date, just the sadness in my grandmother’s voice as she spoke through the phone. It is months later but a simple online search of his name “James Garski” reveals a phantom image— a simple black and white photograph next to an obituary. There was always some distance between he and I. Having left Wisconsin just after coming out as gay and seeing the world for the first time, it was only thousands of miles away from him I began understanding our shared history. But every birthday and Christmas, I’d get a card mailed to whatever city I was in, filled with a 20-dollar bill and signed, in a looping cursive, “Love Uncle Jimmy.” It’s like he was looking out for me, like he was expecting to pass away, waiting for me to carry on his memory. I wish I would have gotten to know his queerer side more intimately, but since I never did, and never will, I’m left to fantasize our relationship, to fantasize what his ghost would say to me.
The thing that happens when dealing with ghosts, if you understand them how I do, as spirits claiming their home, is that this home is only made intelligible, and thus given a presence, by someone living. This someone happens to be me in 2013, in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, sitting at a Mac computer. The distance between his early experiences and history and mine are undeniable, but something about his past compels me into action and legibility. I bring up the persistence of his ghostly haunting because I think it indicates a larger question that might define the ambition of mixed-genre writing: To whom do we hold our allegiances as writers when we recognize this haunting? Is it to our story, or is it to the story of those ghosts and their own histories? What, ultimately, animates our utterances? I’m not really sure I can ever answer these questions as completely as I would like to, but taking Kristin Prevallet’s approach, this is about recognizing gaps in history and place that can never be fulfilled. But what can I do? I know if I try hard enough, I can let Uncle Jimmy breathe more freely, transforming grief-stricken remembrance into something more entirely, something queer and generative. Perhaps I can even find a way out of being bound to a specific time or geography. Perhaps I can find greater freedom of movement.
“I repeat, it is not the normal and old traditional organizations that have led to this examination.”- Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, p. 173
Being on the edge or margin of something (whether as a body, a writer, or a social activist) lends a different kind of consciousness. Almost an excess vision, a series of overlapping and seemingly conflicted points of view that must be reconciled in order to find some kind of space in the world. All of this is to say that it has taken a journey of seeing for me to arrive at Prevallet and Guibert’s works, to open Prevallet’s I, Afterlife and notice the following sentence staring back to me, “The whole story is gaping with holes. The ‘hole’ story is conflicted, abstract, difficult to explain” (2007, xviii). It took a struggle to recognize the play on words here, to realize that her father’s potential suicide she explores in the remaining pages doesn’t belong to me, but that belonging matters less than intersectionality in the case of haunting. This is to say in the holes I find in my own narrative, Prevallet’s own loss escapes. Thus my surprise, a few days later, when Guibert’s Ghost Image (1996) would arrive and I would open the cover to find a giant DISCARDED stamp on the title page. To see the stamp would turn a tiny pinprick into one gaping hole in which my past, his past, and her remembrance could intersect. “Photography is involved with silence,” Guibert says on page 116. But so is writing; in between letters and lines, something or someone else is calling out, even if saying, in a faint whisper, recognize me.
This form of recognizing whispers reveals “importance of cultural mapping…in the ongoing project of grasping history” that Hillary Chute describes in an essay on graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi (2008, 107; italics added for emphasis). I italicize the word grasping because every turn toward ghosts and haunting involves a struggle to reach out and bridge gaps that are between historical spaces. Prevallet grasps for history when she begins by methodically telling the “facts” of her father’s assumed suicide before breaking them down into her own personal observations and feelings. Toward the end of this preface, she writes, “When death (silence) is brought back to life (mythology)” (xviii). She uses this observation to detail a “sublimation,” to show that this ghostly narrative is messy, due to the movement between states of being that is unexpected. Unexpected because of the messiness of the individual emotions, because rather than granting her father his death (silence), she brings him back into life (mythology).
However, I would like to suggest that while I am writing help to bring Uncle Jimmy back to life, and also feel almost obsessively invested in the histories of artists who died from AIDS-related complications, the drive that Prevallet and I have is something even greater than wanting to bring silence into mythology. I want to suggest something of a paradox here: that so many individuals, particularly the writers and activists I’m interested in, were not able to say exactly what they needed to say in life and thus a number of truths were revealed only in their silence. Guibert offers a little bit of a challenge to this line of reasoning I must consider. He remarks, “They say every death brings about the destruction of a photographic reserve that reappears one last time in a corridor of consciousness” (133). The challenge lies in the fact that every individual who dies does so with certain memories that cannot be resurrected. However, we can move past this challenge if we envision writing and historiography as the series of (re)constructions on behalf of the living—no matter if these traces are future desires, in love letters, memories of bare flesh through outside records, or even through wholly imaginative means.
These traces can then be used to rewrite and revive the silenced body back into a mythology. For Prevallet, the aim is to examine the presence of her father and the endlessness of their shared grief. For Guibert, it seems he aims to capture his own life through absent and re-remembered photographs, so he does, in a sense, make himself the ghost. For me, it’s hard to say exactly what I’m trying to do. Do I try to bring my uncle back into mythology so he’s something other than an infected body? Do I try to imagine him before he contracted AIDS to block out the horror of his final days, wasting away from pneumonia in a tiny hospital room, painted the wrong shade of green? Do I imagine other visual artists and activists to imagine intimate moments with them? I’m starting to wonder: can the ghosts who haunt us and whisper recognize me give off magnetic heat? I realize this might be uncomfortable, but I have to go even further with this line of reasoning: can you have sex with a ghost?
To these last few questions, I would like to suggest that anything is possible when brushing up against ghosts and embracing haunting, even if the realization of these interactions are in some way different from our usual expectations. Elizabeth Freeman, in Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, fashions the kind of historiographic writing I have outlined above. She develops the idea of erotohistoriography to refer to a history that is guided by current embodiment, which uses the flesh to envision new sites of resistance. Like my own assertions, erotohistoriography does not write lost objects into the present like traditional historical practices do. Instead, it writes these experiences as “already present, by treating the present itself as hybrid” while it “uses the body as a tool to effect, figure and perform this encounter” (2010, 96). By performing an encounter with the ghostly body, I don’t merely treat it from a distance. Unlike a photograph, which Guibert explains “obliterate[s] all memory of the emotion [of the encounter being photographed]” (22), my writing is the encounter. It is it the act of giving emotion a more palpable, touchable form. It is about the imprint of contact, sweat, naked bodies coming together, and, yes, for me at least, even having sex with ghosts.
Erotohistoriography shouldn’t be thought of merely in a sexual context. It can also be conceived as an investment in understanding the conditions of living that the dead can no longer possess, as is the case with Kristin Prevallet. By opening up the preface with the exacting details of her father’s trip to the doctor, the manner in which he checked the “no” box for suicidal tendencies, the way the police found his boy, and so on, lend an a attachment to the physical body that cannot be denied in the context of these hauntings. Later, in [CRIME SCENE LOG 11.20.00] from pages 15-26, she even invites the reader to try and sketch the body of her dead father like she has. She does this by placing bits of the crime log’s exact text beneath a series of grey squares with various color variations. In describing the process, she remarks, “Open closure: a sketch of black and gray space, a field upon which any act of violence can happen” (15). When we let outside readers into our yearning for the dead around us, we also allow this intimacy to be violated by recognizing that ghosts can never really belong to us, even if we help them come alive.
On page 17, “Forced entry pronounced dead….at 15:54 Hours….” I notice the text first, reading it, 4 periods for the ellipses, the capitalization of the word “hours,” and then I hear the smashing glass as the police enter the vehicle where the father was found dead. What color is his skin? Pale white? How stiff are his limbs? Where is the blood spatter, if there is any? I would like to call this process “letting in” because the author lets me witness intimate unsolved acts of violence through the body of the ghost. This process of “letting in” also reveals what Gordon describes in the introduction to Ghostly Matters: Haunting the Sociological Imagination, as the ability of haunting to reveal “a repressed or unsolved social violence” (2008, xvi). Though Prevallet’s narrative resists any overt mentions of social conditions for her father’s suicide, by forcing me to ask questions, these gray squares let in my own point of view. In a sequence of questions and other points of contact, I began to focus on larger narratives of representation because of my own intimate experiences with homophobia. By looking at how this homophobia impacted me personally, I could focus my attention on social and cultural forms of haunting Gordon describes.
I rarely approach the block on 13th Street between 7th and Greenwich Aves because in the middle of that block, past a dry cleaners at the base of a wrought iron fence, my ghost lies where I had been assaulted. Back in March 2011, a young man came up to me and punched me in the face three times in less than 60 seconds. It was bright, sunny Friday afternoon that suddenly turned, as I was forced to the ground, the fall having torn through my pants. My hands were scraped, and a purple tote from my New Orleans days had fresh bloodstains on it. Yes, I’ve been back. I had to go back in the weeks after to convince myself it was still safe to walk the streets of New York City. But now, in 2013, I don’t need to go back to that block because I’ve recognized the person who existed before being assaulted is gone. Going back is trying to revive a ghostliness that can never be made present. I have titanium screws to connect broken bones in my face. Because the surgeons made incisions under my skin and there are no physically evident scars, I have to convince people of the trauma I went through. I have to relive being made a ghost so I don’t forget how powerful violence can be in altering and even erasing identity. I’ve even kept the tote, which I unfold every so often to create an abstract field in which I can feel these acts of violence again to be reminded of my presence both then and now. Those edges of old bloodstains and the sound of unknown footfalls behind on the nights I’d walk, even years later. Would I be split again? Who else would be next?
It turns out anyone could be next, as evidenced by the multiple hate crimes and even murders in New York City, 2013. I relive my own terror, but I also want to bring back the anger of earlier activists and artists because governments, even society at large, seem content to let queer erasure live on. But how do grief and anger connect? As Gordon would say, “Ghosts…are haunting remainders of lingering trouble” (xix). Because the grief for my own erasure and the larger social conditions that perpetuate violence against queer people remain unchanged, I am angry at a lack of progress. I’m angry that so many of queer peoples’ deepest yearnings are not able to vocalized or made public out of fear.
But the anger also comes from a more tangible source in a photograph of artist David Wojanorwicz I’ve posted to Tumblr. It’s taken in 1988 in an ACT UP rally, and while you don’t see his face, his jacket is says everything. “IF I DIE OF AIDS—” he says, “FORGET BURAL—JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE F.D.A.” In 4 years, Wojnarowicz would be dead from AIDS-related complications. 25 years later, my sentiment of disgust over funding cuts to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention remain alive. But I think my anger also comes from a more personal place—Wojnarwicz, specifically his Waterfront Journals, was the piece of literature I read five days before my assault under the sunshine of Fort Greene Park. In monologues that capture various individuals who roamed the marginal spaces of the American landscape, there is a call in one of the pieces to continue running. In some way, I owe my life to Wojnarowicz’s word. Thus imagining so many people suffering silently from AIDS brings profound sadness, but it also brings an incalculable rage. From this emotion, I want to print out the photographs I’ve taken of myself after my assault. I want to litter my discolored, puffy face on same block where I was assaulted. I want to be defiled to allow more queer people visibility, including Wojnarowicz.
There are now more than 1,700 likes and re-blogs on the Wojnarowicz photograph, which makes me think I’m not alone in my feelings. Here a quote by Prevallet emerges. “As a political position, I hold on to grief” (58). I hold on to these emotions because my body is grief-stricken, angry, and is inspired to be that way because of the grief of men who died on a ellipsis, not a period. To want to open my mouth along some derelict structure along the West Side Highway and have him—whoever he is, best I don’t know his name—come in my mouth as an ode to the waterfront spaces Wojnarowicz tried to claim for himself in New York City. Here, a reminder from Guibert that with a ghost “this body is open, possible, an ill-defined body” (95). Outside the reach of violence, naked with these ghosts, I can shift the narrative beyond possible violence, perhaps even beyond grief and anger. The “ill-defined” is precisely the space of liberatory possibility in my own writing.
“Randolph shook his head, and his sleepy sky-blue eyes, contemplating Joel, were sober, serious.
‘Have you never heard what the wise men say: all of the future exists in the past.’”
– Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1994), p 89.
On the question of liberatory possibility, is it strange to turn my vision even further back, before the raucous sexual culture of the 1970s, to Truman Capote, a man who lived outside of “visible” queerness, who drank himself to death, and was never really “politically” active? Yes, it is strange, but the erotic relationship between my own presence and the ghosts around me resists conventional logic. By following patterns of desire, association, and contact, I align myself more with the queer spaces that existed in the 70s and before that Samuel Delany explores in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. First published in 1999, these essays catalog how the destruction of porn theaters in the area around Times Square led to vanishing queer public spaces. The essays also catalog Delany’s personal mourning for the experiences he can no longer have in New York City in the present day.
I want to qualify mourning as a specific form of grief—feeling a particularly intense form of loss for the experience of pleasure that a person or object can provide. Thus I align myself with Delany because of his extensive depictions of the “contact” logic of these theaters and the streets of New York at the time because mourning originates from these points of contact, and play out in my own relationship to Delany (142). I found him only after I read Christopher Isherwood and Truman Capote. Only after I recognized how their own ghostly images might play in my navigation of a contemporary and queer New York City. And so, to return to Capote is to associate the depiction of Joel in Other Voices, Other Rooms, a small boy described as uncommonly soft, to find bits of myself and recognize, in the process, how the relationships with these ghosts have made me stronger and my writing more assured.
It’s wrong to assume assuredness comes from linearity. Both Prevallet and Guibert make these points in the movement of various pieces that are out of time and operate more on the principle of contact logic, which can be removed from a specific urban sexual subculture. In Prevallet’s work, she moves from the documentation of the crime log to the next section, [EULOGY] on pages 27-31, that recounts her father’s attachment to Buddhist literature. This relationship makes itself present in her own present day interactions at home, where his old books are kept. For Guibert, a series of vignettes—written snapshots, if you play off the photography metaphor—capture the attachments, advances and struggles of photographed images to accurately document his desires. Both individuals are situated in radically different periods of time, writing about different subjects in different ways, but they connect because they’re guided by contact, because they’re guided by recognition that the ghosts of story don’t follow conventional time binds.
I like to think of poetic prose writing of ghosts as the process of “letting in” to create ill-defined edges. To disrupt the notion that present follows from the past. Compared to conventional narrative writing that works under a cause and effect logic, ghostly writing features a push and pull between remembrance and legitimacy, between the contact of ghosts and grief, and my own hunger to fulfill my desires that have been left like gaping holes up until this point. But with these desires more clearly articulated, how do you prevent yourself from always getting stuck in want? How do you move beyond the continuous loop of attachments to ghosts who can give you history but never quite fulfill what it is you’re yearning for, at least in a tangible sense?
To do this, I must invest in not knowing. I must allow myself to feel incomplete and fractured. I must break from these steady lines that want to know Truth. I must let the images stick to my skin, like tattoos, as they change with me, anticipate. This is what Guibert describes in the following passage, when discussing the photograph he tried to produce of a friend who was dying from an illness:
When I finally undid the bandages and tape, I saw that the limp cardboard was empty, the image blank. But it hadn’t evaporated, it hadn’t dissolved in the acid of my perspiration [italics added for emphasis]. In a mirror, I verified that it had stuck to my skin, like a tattoo or a decal. Each of the paper’s chemical pigments had found its place in the pores of my skin. And the same image formed itself identically in reverse. The transfer had saved him from his illness (158).
The acid of perspiration—a physical mechanism designed to protect the body by regulating temperature—cannot leave out the images of ghosts, if I am to let them live on by letting them onto the surface of my flesh. If I am to imagine my relationship with them as an on-going process of negotiating presence, the aim is not to say, “Ghosts, give me what I want.” The aim is thus to say, “Ghosts, I am here to help you fulfill some of the things that you could never experience.”
This process involves recognizing the power and possibilities of presence. It’s a form of growth that Kathryn Bond Stockton formulates in The Queer Child: Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century as “growing sideways,” defined as “something that locates energy, pleasure, vitality and the (e)motion in the back-and-forth of connections and extensions that are not reproductive” (13). The ghost is not reproduced or made again in the process of reproduction. The grief I feel in the loss of a person or object, the way that a ghost reaches out to me and gets imprinted for a time on skin, generates new possibilities of embodiment from non-contact and ether, from emotions and desires that come from somewhere undefined. While this space of grief seems to have many origins, it is clear it feels differently, outside of traditional familial or reproductive relationships. To this extent, I would like to suggest that while society at large—the society that is defined in relationship to certain discourses of family, reproduction, temporality, geography, or nationhood—wants me to “figure out” grief and then move on, the suspension of this grief upon the skin is a critical refusal of the very discourses and institutions that deny emotions their power.
There is nothing wrong with attachment to lost objects, shifting forms, and bottomless reservoirs of feeling. These reservoirs of grief actually produce the most generative activist struggles. Though these queerer struggles have their own internal discord, they reproduce intersectional and shifting identities most peoples’ lives are defined by, rather than the static “gay white male from the Midwest who now resides in New York City” I could personally live with. The ghosts on my skin call into question my confined identity because they make me experience the world differently. They help me to realize that because my time in life (mythology) is so short, why would I want to be so invested in silencing other aspects of seeing and feeling that do not conform to traditional examinations of grief? This emotion helps me to be more passionate and fearless because I locate a place to reside that doesn’t conform to the rigid boundaries that define “home” for me. I am conditioned to be on the edge of unknowing after dealing with these ghosts because my desires want to be able to roam, even if this roaming is uncertain.
One of my earliest writing influences—creatively and theoretically—was Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I don’t want to comment much on the work itself except to say that the roaming mind Woolf captures and realizes in this work, despite her own battles with severe mental illness, remains astonishing, even after many reads. But I really wanted reanimate Woolf because on writing the word roaming, she was the first author that grabbed my hand and made me write her into presence. She was my point of contact, one of the ghosts to help continue this associative logic.
I want to apply something Guibert says, in describing artist Peter Handke, “[she] puts [her] daily life into writing as [she] lives it: the transcription is almost immediate, but it is also continuous” (74). Both Woolf and Handke concentrated on recording intimate personal observations on the page as the lines between fiction and reality were blurred. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf creates a fictional persona, but the narrative embodies her own experiences via Handke’s method. She plays out her immediate lived experiences in the mind, but also there is also continuous navigation of space and agency as she roams through the poetry of her female experience in a male-dominated world. However, as we know all too well, she waded into a river with stones one day to drown herself. She was only 59 years old, 3 years younger than my uncle. Thinking about her death always feels like she stopped roaming too soon.
What happens when roaming abruptly ends? How do I move past anger at the loss of those I feel have so much more to say? In a piece for my undergraduate thesis, I wrote a response, what I called a selvedge, which was a creative work that bound me to these ghosts using a direct address technique, almost like penning a letter. In my letter to Woolf, I used the metaphor of standing at a river holding my own stones, which were smooth, unblemished and cold in my hand. I was standing at the edge of a stream on campus in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. And I stood there, so deadly still, in my anger over wanting her to have said more and been a feminist advocate for longer, to not have gone off into the water to end her life.
But then I remembered the mental illness I’ve had to confront in my most immediate family. One night, in the weeks before 9/11 when I was only 12 years old, my mother lost it (and would be hospitalized soon after). This moment would bring up other events in the past, including long despondent periods of depression. I was admittedly angry at because I felt scared and abandoned, but I grew to understand, over time, that it wasn’t right to blame others for their absent desire to continue living. Social violence and personal demons must have compelled them to act in certain ways.
As a result of this realization, it’s important to stately plainly that ghosts should not be moralized for their departure or erasure. Instead, they should be remembered for how they might help us to roam, better. As soon as I realized this idea, I threw the stones into the water. Upon hitting the surface, the noise—a definitive plunk!—and the ripples of the water dissolved the image of anger. The anger I was feeling for Woolf’s abrupt departure, unlike the anger I feel for Wojnarowicz, had no productive value. Woolf is not remembered for her fiery address; she is remembered for her sensuous poetry. On this realization, I imagined myself wading into the stream naked. In this letter to Woolf, I said, “Undulating lithely, I make my own current. / At least for now, I only feel brilliance.” Here I began roaming, without really knowing where I was headed. In the imagined stream, it was likely the first moment I recognized what it meant to have a “queer” identity. It was also the first time I realized that the confines of critical writing and personal narrative were insufficient in discussing the relationships I experienced and had to explain to others.
It’s difficult to know what to call this writing, which is not necessarily a problem except when, as a writer, my objective is to articulate the world around in a way that people can attach to. But where is the attachment if, first and foremost, people don’t know type of writing you are doing?
I would tentatively call what I’m doing poetry, because as Prevalet describes, “the elegiac burden is the poem expressing, through the form it takes on the page, the broken minds which have shaped it…a state of both mind and landscape, and because it is not mappable, is capable of articulating a person’s spatial distance” (45). Writing about ghosts involves confronting broken minds—though I would extend this description to just say “broken forms,” as mind/body of the ghost seem fused together as one—because when you revive fragments of individuals shaped by social violence, the writing process attempts to mend the various rips, tears and ruptures that come when a body risked erasure from violence, no matter what form this violence took. At the same time, writing about ghosts negotiates and reflects on distance in time, geography, historical and personal frames of reference because notions of past, present and future are blurred together. But is it really appropriate to call Herve Guibert’s Ghost Image “poetry”? Is it appropriate to call the writing I’m doing here—these lines—poetry? How can I address my understanding that writing about ghosts seems to happen in forms others would never label as poetry?
If Guibert’s Ghost Image is not poetry, what is it? I cannot help but think of Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness and the Queer Moving Image (2009) by Roger Hallas. In this academic text, Hallas explores HIV/AIDS specific visual works, though mainly film, to talk about art that was created by people who were dying from AIDS. At the time of Ghost Image being published in 1982, Guibert was not dying from AIDS, though he would be dead by 1991. Nevertheless, as a man who had sex with other men, some of his closest friends—including Michel Foucault—would be dead in less than 2 years, so I always read Ghost Image, particularly the version published and translated in 1996 years after his death, as somehow recognizing or anticipating his own physical decline. But more than that Reframing Bodies seems to speak to the methods of assemblage that Guibert employs. Guibert uses literature as a medium to explore photography, and his text is about the ways in which we can reframe the images of our body. In his process of sequencing these short vignettes to examine different photographic components, he creates a looping set of images that remind me of watching a film. Since this is done entirely with text, Guibert challenges the boundaries of whether or not the “moving image” has to be defined in terms of conventional documentary film or television.
One of Hallas’s most compelling discussions is in Chapter 3 of Reframing Bodies when he explores autobiographical representations of those who died from AIDS and those who survived the initial crisis to bear witness to their experiences. Hallas exposes ways queer autobiography reflects collective struggles and, in the process, how it can disrupt linear notions of narrative while looking at the tensions and ambiguities. As I explained earlier, Guibert is not writing about AIDS. However, since I became sexually active after the initial onset of AIDS, now bare witness to his erasure, and define the liberatory objectives of the text in the present day culture, this point seems relevant when discussing Guibert’s method.
In Ghost Image, one of Guibert’s main discussions is how self-representations of photography define histories of family, friends, lovers, and even strangers. In the vignette, “A Family Photograph,” on pages 27 and 28, for instance, he reminds us, “Family photos are kept in shoeboxes.” These photographs then serve as the basis for revealing how older representations of the family are cordoned off and forgotten, in much the same way he has forgotten his earlier self-portraits. Hallas states explicitly that, “relationality…serves as a significant context for locating the production of subjectivity in AIDS autobiography” (2009 117). He goes on emphasizing the ways in which the relationships to significant others, family and friends create the “social world” of the autobiographical text (117).
But more important, in the context of ghosts and haunting, is the specific position of morality and death within these narratives. All narratives Hallas explores are “tinged with the real anxiety about how long they [the people living with HIV/AIDS] can remain medically effective” and the fact that “AIDS continues to be an ongoing medical crisis in which survivors living with AIDS are haunted…by the future threat of their own death, which marks the physical contingency of survival in the epidemic” (118). While Guibert was not dying, if we pay close attention to the text, there are repeated references to the “posthumous image” (62, specifically). It seems that photography, in particular, is about capturing some moment in time that becomes dead, while the writing Guibert does on this photography reanimates and reframes it in a state of perpetual presence rather than in the absence and flatness of the image. This relates to his description “passage of time across a photograph is like a mask of makeup; time bears the photograph along” (130).
So what motivates Guibert’s urgency? I have to wonder how the attempts by politicians, religious leaders, and other individuals to stifle attempts toward visibility and legitimacy during the too-slow naming of AIDS might have created a palpable sense of urgency for Guibert. To write about the moment of death, then, would be a necessary task to ensure that others around you—whoever they might be—would not misrepresent or write away the struggles you faced on a daily basis. I also have to wonder if Guibert somehow knew and understood others would take his work in and use it to bear further witness. Hallas also goes on to describe “further testimonial acts of witness by the listener or viewer” in which “the viewer has heard the witness, acknowledged his (or her) testimony, and reciprocated the act of bearing witness” (132). A photograph without much explanation cannot translate the kinds of witnessing as effectively as the images that get photographed onto the page through this text. I am the one that gets to witness them, rifle through them, and translate the continued urgency of this haunting through the DISCARDED stamp on the title page.
But how does this relate to the question of poetry that Prevallet brings up? I was initially hesitant to link these two works together because they seemed too different in content and form. Prevallet’s work mixes prose poem, standard verse form, pictorial representations, and more conventional paragraphs in a contemporary setting that seems detached from overtly political observations. Guibert, by contrast, uses the same style of vignette repeatedly, and, as a queer man growing up in France, the observational materials about the world around him growing up seem so removed from Prevallet’s experiences. Both writers are dense, packing in all kinds of details in relatively slim volumes. But the exact linkage is something I struggled with for some time, until I picked up I, Afterlife again and came across a startling sentence. “Epictetus: play around with the power of moving toward an object and retiring from it” (6). Let Prevallet and Guibert touch. Animate their own forms from the page, as ghosts, to see what it’s like when they meet. Interject my own body and experiences, even the weird fascination with death, and then I have connections that I couldn’t otherwise see.
Maybe I was too myopic before, but I feel confident saying poetry is not a formal structure. Instead of thinking of it as form of writing that follows basic conceptions of how language is organizing on the page, it can be better articulated as a method of projecting certain realizations about ghosts, haunting and death onto the page in a more propulsive manner than is possible in traditional narrative writing. I can say with 100% accuracy that what Prevallet, Guibert and I write cannot be classified simply as memoir because if memoir gets lived so much in fantasy, there would be no beauty in all of this. We would just write memoirs about our clinically described “obsessions” or other “mental disorders.” We’d never get to live past our own erasure. I would never get to watch a video of Keith Haring painting a mural in South Philadelphia and wish that we’d fuck. What I am trying to say is that, yes, maybe even Guibert’s Ghost Image is poetry, maybe even my work is poetry. I offer this observation in the recognition that our drive to fantasize about ghostly bodies makes our history telling propulsive and generative.
I would, however, like to separate the poetry of ghosts and haunting from other forms of poetry. Here I think about Charles Olson’s famous essay “Projective Verse” (1950) for a few reasons. In it, he spells out projective verse as “energy-discharge” and “FIELD COMPOSITION” that declares, for itself” (no page numbers). Given my discussions on the ability of ghosts to reach out to me to act, it makes sense I would align representations of ghosts as those that sublimate the energy of haunting and erasure into some productive possibility for the future. Despite Prevallet’s assertions that the poem “will not change the world” (45), it does project energy, as ghostly traces and residue, that might have an impact on someone. In this case, the impact was on my own writing and thinking. At the same time, both of these works have fields of possibility on which outside composition can occur. This is Prevallet’s insistence to leave holes in the narrative and Guibert’s refusal to let us ever see the photographs themselves. By doing this, both authors enable action to declare for itself where it will go, and how the poetry will effectively move beyond the page to invade others’ bodies.
The next point that aligns these works and my own is the assertion that “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” Prevallet’s various writing styles—full of holes, gaps and misfit edges—represent the gaps present in the narrative. Guibert’s own short vignettes, most no greater than a few pages, give Ghost Image the feel of an open shoebox he rifles through, looking at a series of long lost images. For my own writing, the multiple orientations of the text on the page represent my commitment to describing overlapping forms of identity—as sexually active queer person, as a social justice advocate, as US citizen who sometimes wants to find another country, as a young man connected to a worldwide network of friends, and the impactful memories we share. Even this essay, as it is being written, tries to capture a sense of touch and projection that comes from writing exploring the poetic dimensions of haunting.
The poetry of ghosts, which is invested in letting ghost bodies realize themselves as subjects, is also committed to what Olson describes as “acquisitions of [his] ear and the pressure of [his] breath.” In the move from the earlier faint whispers of recognize me to a fully fleshed out ghostly body, I have to be able to listen to the world around me while you feel its pressure on my rib cage and lungs. Despite Prevallet and Guibert writing in very different thematic contexts, they listen very acutely to their emotions at the same time that they show how superimposed images—layers of self and Other—intersect with that emotion. The more the two bristle together and create sparks, the more dynamic this narrative can become.
In the act of writing about queer embraces, I gather sights and sounds all around while I both feel my steps against the pavement and hear them in my head, in the moments I finally put pen to paper. When I finally write from the conflicts that I cannot help but embody.
Lastly, the poetry of ghosts—in all of our works—shares a fundamental aspect of projective verse, which Olson states is the tendency that “once the poem is well composed, to keep as those other objects do, their proper confusions.” I get to the end of I, Afterlife and Ghost Image maybe expecting to find neat resolutions, but really there are only more questions, larger complications, and far fewer answers. As Prevellat describes, “I’m filled with holes” (60). Holes. Gaps. Cracks. Dents. Dings. They manifest in a variety of different ways, but almost no surface of a ghostly poem is smooth because the contours of these ghostly forms are always shifting—in light of a new fact, a new fantasy, or a new person who is possessed by this form. Because the poetry of ghosts is necessarily relational, it has to be messy. Ghosts, though they are dead people, are still people that come into mythology again because we wish them alive, because we wish to see them gather and have power.
From this line of thinking, I arrive at an ending where all of the ghosts gather or at least intersect. Where I can stand recognizing how my own broken bones have been remolded with titanium screws and plates. Where I can stand placing my hands along my cheeks, the smile lines hiding the memories of disfigurement that never really go away. Yes, I have made progress in turning the memory of my own ghost into something productive. But past traces from Prevallet and Guibert remain in my consciousness, looming over me, like the heaviness of that DISCARDED stamp when I first picked up Ghost Image. Like the memory of the 13th Street block I do not wish to visit because I know I’ll relive my mind’s film reel, a grainy picture of my attacker running away, without consequence, from my broken body, flat against the asphalt. So I go elsewhere, into a different part of New York that was never mine but now feels like it can belong to me, after I’ve confronted ghosts from this past.
This scene: a lush basement lounge in 1950s, New York, where the Mattachine Society would have gathered in boisterous secrecy to avoid persecution. I’ve never been here before, so my eyes surveying the dim light can only make out vague forms, though soon enough I know I’ll be able to imagine every detail of the bodies around me, down to neatly rounded nails and the richness of a purple pocket square. I’m here because everything began from the point of struggling to exist. I’m here because a secret society with a queer agenda started fighting back against erasure, against being made ghosts in their own bodies, even if this resistance meant articulating “community” was a possibility.
There might be other people around me, but the empty chair next to me is filled with my uncle’s smiling image. He was not a tall man and was relatively skinny, and perhaps toward the end of his life the skin even taunt against his bones. “Did he ready himself for death?” is the thought that interjects, as I cannot help but think of Hallas again, who said of remembering the effects of HIV and AIDS: “Such testimony bristles with the immediacy and feel of the live, for it is produced out of a sense of the near future of death” (118). How many times did he ready himself for death before this final moment? How many years earlier had he expected to be gone? What did he think others would do with the memory of his illness once he passed away? Maybe I’m imagining too much of this—as if I’m inscribing meaning to something that was merely a survival method—but I cannot help but see him pulling me toward new ways of seeing myself, my desire, and recognizing a history that is my own.
As night begins to wind down, as this essay finds itself reaching a point of closure, the smile on his face turns more inquisitive when he asks the question, “So where are you going next?” I pause for a moment, realizing I could go anywhere in the world if I really wanted, so I finally muster up a response by saying, “Cape Town or Berlin.” A smile returns, and though he doesn’t say anything, he hands me a standard sized sealed envelope, and then vanishes, leaving a faint, indescribable smell on the surface of the paper.
Do I open it now? Do I let anyone else know what’s inside? Guibert interjects again, “It’s part of me, and I’ll treat it as I do all my secrets—I’ll get rid of it when the time comes. Then it will become someone else’s secret.” “You’re right. Secrets have to circulate…” (159). My relationships to ghosts are secret desires and attachments I choose to reveal when my presence demands it. The desires I hold dear to me upset conventional ways of living, contributing to a sense of alienation but ultimately allowing me to find longer lasting relationships—to ghosts and to authors like Kristin Prevallet and Hervé Guibert—who help remind me that I do deserve to exist in these queer ways.
I want to reveal the secret of that envelope now. I’m tired of letting his death go silently and secretly. The pulsing anticipation in my fingers as the adhesive breaks on one of the edges. The way I turn back the flap to peer inside. The contents? Another 20 dollar bill and a little scrap of paper I carefully take out. The paper is scribbled in that familiar handwriting, “Love Uncle Jimmy.”
Or as Prevallet would say, “We were both here, all along” (11).
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