[Wendy’s Subway; 2021]

[Nightboat Books; 2022]

If “Lineage is different/ from rhetorical sequence,” as Ronaldo Wilson claims in Carmelina: Figures, then one issue raised by this assertion is the relationship between these two phenomena, between genetic and narrative grammars and syntaxes, especially when narration takes up bloodlines in an attempt to “describe the impossible.” Impossibility is, here, the rubric for a body and a history resistant to the usual social, cultural, and political processes of normalization. Moreover, as the ascent of crip, trash, and other para-aesthetic movements suggest, resistance, coupled with widespread access to technological innovations like desktop publishing, renders the whole success/failure debate moot. Though Carmelina is essentially an artbook, an agrammatical autobiography of his mother (an impossibility within a normative genre) in texts, drawings, sketches, and photographs of theatre props, natural landscapes, bird-masks, childhood family scenes, etc., the book gestures toward a non-genre form between figuration and scrawling, between rhetoric and paralogy, it can never achieve. Impossibility also subtends the collection of “stories” (actually, vignettes) titled Virgil Kills, an autobiography of Wilson’s middle name. Here, impossibility is, within a network of racial, sexual, and social determinants, another word for failure, which Virgil, if not Wilson, defiantly, studiously, embraces since certain kinds of success would be tantamount to his/their erasure. In short, the premise of both books is precisely the price of failure and success, what is possible and impossible in the most stereotypical senses, and so the artwork and prose, figures and stories embody, broadly speaking, the contradictions and contraries that beset the person, the body, severed from the author painting and, like young Stephen Daedalus, paring his fingernails: “The secret to Virgil’s narrative ability, however, is that Virgil’s voice is severed, leaving no direct connection to the self.”1

In pairing these two books by one author (and the author functions as a rubric for several persons), I mean to suggest that these publications inform one another in important ways, that the narrative prose of one may be understood as a call and response to the elliptical poetry, drawings, and photographs of the other. The gulf between them, already implied by a need to call, to respond, is not merely material (two books published months apart). Nor is it chronological (it doesn’t matter which of these works was written “first,” or if they were written simultaneously). This gulf, an abyss, cleaves each work; it divides and rends each as the impossibility of genre, in general, to cohere in and of itself. Wilson thematizes these incoherences, imposing a formal rigor on what may “pass” as merely inchoate. For adhering to traditional literary and art forms (e.g., story, poetry, drawing, painting) can be, for Virgil, if not Ronaldo Wilson, a kind of passing.

Virgil Kills is organized into five sections, following the classical models of European drama and music. Each section has stories or vignettes of varying number (four to thirteen) and length (one to several pages). The overall “plot,” such as it is, traces Virgil’s sexual adventures and “literary” travels between the West and East coasts during a sabbatical and/or artist residency. The closures implied by these formal traditions and academic privileges are, however, lures, red herrings. Wilson’s attitude toward them is, in part, that of the bricoleur, the authorial complement to the picaresque. Thus, one might mistake the narrative thread as merely another version of, gesture toward, the picaresque novel, but such a reading remains incomplete if it passes over the constant threat of castration and death central to one of Virgil’s major themes: an unrepentant2 sexual desire for white male partners: “The dick, itself, is not remarkable—that it is there is what actually matters.” Fellatio or anal intercourse is, here, conditioned by Virgil’s versioning of standard autopsy reports on male genitalia, “not remarkable.”3 Later in the book, Wilson delineates Virgil’s obsession with the fictional television character Peter Brady, from the sitcom The Brady Bunch. This memory/fantasy is connected to Virgil’s identification with middle- and upper-class white males, real and fictional, though the sight of similarly privileged white residents in Harlem makes Virgil “feel both sickened and safe.” The writer and author Wilson can depict, but not reconcile, Virgil’s array of desires and emotions within whiteness, a shorthand term for the fixtures dubbed American culture. Virgil’s multiethnic persons, many of whom exist in tension, if not outright conflict, with one another in the body dubbed Ronaldo Wilson, are, in every encounter with whites and nonwhites (e.g., the Korean man who identifies American with whiteness), systematically deleted and restored to the “top”4 we call “identity” as a strategy of survival.

That this superficial “screen” remains saturated with a brutally efficient and ongoing history is not lost on Virgil, a name which might simply be a synonym for lack, a bottom whose depths remain immeasurable: “But why does he feel that he needs to get so close to one body after the next, bodies that repeat his wanting to be so close to realizations his absence in relation to their abundance?” It might appear that what Virgil lacks is nonessential inasmuch as “. . . he is not getting what he wants, though he does have everything he needs.” Whiteness would be one word for this superfluity, and Virgil certainly imagines himself as an investigator and “specialist of whiteness, so that the contested space between the raced body, and his interrogated one is all the same.” This indifferent space is the “same” one his object of cathexis, Peter Brady, occupies so that, in the best of cases “. . . Virgil . . . is looking for an unknown, looking to explore the question of surprise, the body as its mark, the spirit as the impulse, so says another of its modes, chance.” But this possibility is largely reserved for Virgil, Wilson’s shorthanded avatar. For Wilson, however, situated in the social—rather than aesthetic—world, “Blackness is stuck to him . . . his own Blackness . . . is found not in the opacity of its realizations, but in . . . a series of notes that find themselves captured in his disdain for stable fictions.” Against this racialized fatalism, Virgil multiplies the meanings of blackness beyond its received denotations that stereotype the body whose proper name is Ronaldo V. Wilson, a maneuver which, however, only serves to prop up sociocultural branding (e.g., “equity” imagined as an upgrade of “diversity”).

Given these sociocultural contexts in which Virgil—shortened to V.—travels incognito between the given name Ronaldo and surname Wilson, it is hardly surprising that blackness and brownness serve as the limits of this/their social body. That “o” at the end of Ronald, index of his Filipino lineage, might just as well be a cipher, deleted within the imaginary of the general American public. Since one’s sense of self can always be hacked by a history against which one has no defenses, Virgil has to ask:

is the relationship between as target and at rest the same as Virgil’s bowing down in contrition? He hates black people who feel the need to fit into the boxes that bind their faces, but he too is a black person bound by the same desires, and boxes, as a Flip, but the Flip, proven to emit keeps him moving, his eyes not on the prize, but to shift and bob.

Yes, to flip the script is to reinscribe the Flip, but this strategy has its limits, which are not only external. Virgil finds himself fantasizing about black-on-black killing, leaping into the fray, even as he recognizes the indefinite resources of the black body per se: “the value between the black body’s worth and its livelihood is fraught with its ability to serve as cleanup, catcher, but ain’t nobody got time for dat!” No time, indeed. Here, Virgil seems to forget what Ronaldo knows too well: Time has never been kind to black or brown (or red or yellow or. . .) people. At this juncture, then, identity, connection, appears to be possible only far above or far below, and thus far removed from, blood and skin:

Mixed is not like being a mix, like a mutt . . . it’s like struggling, or hanging on, or splitting yourself from the core of who you think you are and attempting to mine the vocabulary of the self, as in a café where I am marked as Brazilian, or when I say I am Filipino, marked, actually, as Black, which is, what I am, too. All this is surface. Loss links, and so too, does violation, and of course, so does escape, and its cousin, exile.

It goes without saying that Wilson is all too aware of these risks he exposes Virgil to, however multiple the houses of mirrors into which the former enters as the latter, and the latter, as a scene within an act: “The sensation of his self is often split in these filled and half-filled bags, Virgil broken into realizations of scenes he carries around.” Virgil’s travels, which we might be tempted to interpret as mere gallivanting about, but which are, in truth, portals of access to the bodies of men, appear to compulsively repeat the original scene of expulsion when he was (they were?) cast out of “Western Mass” and resettled in California. The trauma of rejection cannot, however, be compensated for by a peripatetic “lifestyle.” One sign of this impasse, Virgil’s inability to find an elsewhere and afterward, is his preoccupation with his body image which, appropriately enough, emerges in dreams. There, in the virtual world of un- and sub- consciousness, he oscillates between body pride and body shame, identifying, for example, with a pair of denim jeans that no longer fit and so must remain unworn: “Virgil is cuffed. Virgil is folded.” However, on his bicycle, “wearing only a towel around his waist,” he imagines that “he is super-fit.” The question of Virgil’s pride and shame in regard to the body can only be addressed by accepting that his body is, in the end, another site of impossibility and abjection vis-a-vis possible (that is, “fit”) bodies. Thus “keyboard typing” becomes, for Wilson, the site where the body is “fixed against the current of sorrow.” That is, the movement of words across the page or screen from left to right margins replicate the rhythms between pride and shame, abundance and abjection, West Coast and East Coast, and so forth, an algorithm empty of all affect other than motion itself.5 Thus, despite another dream of abjection, one in which he sports a “ratchet do,” “there is a way back into sense-making, a gesture captured in the drift away from the body . . .” The contradiction between the body as anchor against “the current of sorrow” and obstacle which must be jettisoned in order to “drift” is only reconciled in the aesthetic realm, in the writing itself. Writing, then, aspires toward a form, and perhaps toward a fantasy, of mastery over trauma, replicating the dissemination of a ruptured self into selves.6

But why write prose rather than poetry? This is not my question; it’s Virgil’s, though perhaps, really Wilson’s. While his recent books might be described as hybrid works of poetry and prose, the question of genre apparently dogs Wilson, and since he cannot respond adequately to it as Wilson, Virgil does. This concern, this need to justify to himself writing prose instead of poetry (Virgil Kills is Wilson’s first book of all narrative prose), suggests a possible longing for a genre (poetry) associated with his first modes of writing, the childhood, so to speak, of his literary career. That is, Wilson ponders the question of his attraction to, perhaps need for, prose to render Virgil qua Virgil, not only in relation to poetry but also in relation to “collage,” all of which might suggest a certain delimited possibility embedded in the formal procedures in, and in the structure of, not only a book like Poems of the Black Object but also a hybrid text like Carmelina: “To work in prose, for Virgil, is not like working in collage, or in poetry. it is closer to being free. The freedom to pursue a line remains the source of the possible, to remain nimble in order to engage in the present, so any one encounter is only a set of coordinates as artificial relations between the subject and the scene.”

Were one uncharitable, one might read this passage as betraying some rather conventional concepts of poetry and collage. Perhaps Virgil only means that the relative novelty of working solely in prose, unburdened by any sense of having mastered the genre, opens up more possibilities than those available to him working in genres (poetry, collage) that showcase his expertise. Conversely, he might mean that it is precisely because anything is possible in poetry, that experimentation and innovation in verse are, today, givens, the relative norms of prose offer more resistance to, and so, demand more “nimble” maneuvers around, the merely “new.” Virgil Kills is thus not a radically new mode of narrative prose, but it is challenging insofar as it violates so many cultural, social, and political norms and expectations.

For this reason, the title of section three of Virgil Kills, “Vestibule,” might be taken as representative of the entire book in its reference to the liminal space of welcome-but-wait in any master’s house. Here the question of “craft” (expertise) is recognized as another impasse, an “end . . . that traps the maker by race, gender, and class.” How, then, to “remain the fiction,” in the “dance between lived experience and the truth, the walls of performance bound by his characters . . . how he improvises, ducking into form, coming out, rendering”? Pouring “bad” prose into normative genres can seem like parody only if the gesture is blunted, defanged as a joke. Taken seriously, however, “bad” prose can be analogous to, and an effect of, the “bad” behavior of the brown boy who loves the bodies of white men while being misrecognized as a Black self-hater. And while Virgil realizes “that all he wanted was to be under the chests of men,” this original desire masks, and thus abuts, “a much longer memory under the broad, inevitable cover of white bodies cupped in a field of green and sound.” Like the Korean boy who associated Americanness with whiteness, Virgil remains vulnerable to meshing the otherworldly genre of romance (and its attendant myth of innocence) with white bodies. Hence, he is always on guard against the seductions of the very genres even as he gives in to them. Thus, while the acclaimed gay film Moonlight is undeniably “gorgeous,” it is, for Virgil, all too “familiar.” On the other hand, the parodic and heteronormative “Django Unchained” is compelling because its “mixed-up amplifications” insist that “blackness is violently embedded across time and space, an impossible corrective.”7

The same desire for the violence of the unfamiliar is, paradoxically, one with Virgil’s desire to escape his own power in the “cruise,” signifying on Samuel Delaney’s rightly celebrated valorization of strange (in every sense), Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Thus, the rejection of stereotypical masculinity, Virgil’s preference for the bottom, offers a link to the performance artbook, Carmelina: Figures, a book which tells the story of Wilson and his mother by shuttling back and forth between realistic and abstract drawings and photographs, blurring the line between mother and son. This book’s most provocative theme is that, in a certain way, the son is the mother of his child, Carmelina qua Carmelina.

In order to accomplish this Wordsworth-like reversal of genetic succession (“The Child is father of the Man”) and transformation, Wilson must deconstruct the concept of transvestitism since it depends upon the male/female binary. Thus, the book features a few realistic photographs in which Wilson’s mother (and other people) are clearly identifiable, but most of the photographs are blurry enough to render facial (and body) recognition impossible; it is impossible to identify mother or son (or anyone else). Consequently, the informal term cross-dressing is actually more accurate as a description of Wilson in various photographs (though the absence of facial features in these photographs—he’s wearing a mask—make such guesses hazardous at best) if, and only if, we understand that what is being “crossed” is not a sex or gender borderline but rather a degendered/desexualized zone of the body. Once free of these sociobiological determinants, the body can, theoretically, become anything, as session three, with its series of bird-head masks, suggests. And as the bird is a traditional symbol of freedom, of flight, paired with photographs of cars, the American stereotype for freedom and flight, Wilson refuses to privilege either nature or culture as offering a way out of sex and gender binaries.

A similar refusal animates the figures and non-figures in the book. General enough to refer to every visual element, however realistic or abstract, the figure is nonetheless complemented by the non-figural: black pages stamped with blocks of texts which we might read as captions or descriptions like those that often accompany paintings and sculptures in museums. Like the figure/non-figural dynamic, these texts are sometimes representational, sometimes self-reflexive. The three “sessions” that constitute Carmelina are organized in such a way that the border between biography (Wilson’s story of his siblings and mother) and autobiography (Wilson’s childhood and adulthood) is blurred. The term for this indeterminacy might well be lineage insofar as that index of genetic interrelationships qualifies any concept of “selfhood” (never mind an ideologically loaded concept like individuality). Given these limits on the strict partition between self and other that biography depends upon, it is not unreasonable to wonder if whatever Wilson inherited from his mother is as much the “author” of this putative story of Carmelina, as whatever the mixture of genes in Wilson’s body makes Wilson “Wilson.” This is not a question of Wilson’s “life story” cannibalizing his mother’s “life story” or the reverse. Rather, this book interrogates the foundation of any supposed “life story,’ suggesting that it is, in every sense, life stories, as intertwined as a DNA helix.8 Neither doubles nor doppelgangers of one another, Wilson and Carmelina, son and mother, make us rethink the question of lineage in new and unpredictable ways. Like Virgil Kills: Stories, Carmelina: Figures flies in the face of some of the most entrenched assumptions about genetics, gender, sex, race, and family.

[1] That this cleavage resembles the structure of trauma is not coincidental. Within English and American literary history, this structure manifests as the double or doppelganger—Dr. Frankenstein and the creature, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—and, later, with the advent of psychology, the repressed— e.g., Janie Crawford’s “inside self” in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

[2] As the controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, installed as part of the 2015 Whitney Biennial, revealed, black death belongs to the church of blackness as much as black life does—or should.

[3] The phrase, rendered in its more official lingo, “unremarkable,” was used by Kenneth Goldsmith during his infamous Brown University reading in front of a large portrait of Michael Brown, the young black man killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri. The phrase also appears in Rob Halpern’s Music for Porn.

[4] Though the reference here is nominally sexual (top/bottom) the generation of technological protheses we call desktops and laptops trace the migration of cis positionalities into multiple gendered and cyborg identities.

[5] Freud identified this mode of pleasure, based on his observation of the fort/da game of his grandson, as a form of, an attempt at, mastery of trauma.

[6] The “voluntary” divide between Wilson and Virgil allows the former to seize control of the multiple selves that cohere as Virgil, though this coherence is merely aesthetic.

[7] This passage underlines another dialectical conundrum in the book: the mutually exclusive loyalties of sexual orientation and racial consciousness. Virgil does not, of course, see these as incompatible, but he must deal with their social and cultural positioning as incompatibilities.

[8] In Virgil Kills, there are several references to “mommaspine,” a neologism that suggests how critical Wilson’s mother has been to his development.

Tyrone Williams is the author of several books of poetry, most recently stilettos in a rifle range (2022).

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