The "Ambient" Violence, Race and Erotics of Ronaldo Wilson

by on Oct.06, 2010

(Or Atrocity Kitsch in America!)

I’d like to follow Lara’s post about the gurlesque, expanding the discussion of artifice an the grotesque by analyzing the way these tropes figure into two of my favorite poetry books of the past few years: Ronaldo Wilson’s “Narrative of the Life of Brown Boy and the White Man” and “Poems of the Black Object.”

I’ve been meaning to write an essay about these, but I’ve let my ideas mount, so that I now am struggling to contain them. I’m also reading Fred Moten’s book “In the Break” which really gives an interesting take on these books. So before Moten gives me even more ideas about these books, I thought I would write down a few thoughts. It seems to me that Wilson is very much participating in the same discussions as Lara’s gurlesque theory: the relationship between the grotesque and decadence, the body and artifice.

The two books are full of assaulted bodies, maybe even “lynched” bodies. They are also akin to the body of Fredrick Douglas’s aunt screaming as she’s getting punished in what Moten terms the “primal scene” of Blackness, the reminder of the constant threat of violence against the black body. But the important part about Wilson’s poetry is that it constantly displaces, deforms this violence as by some kind of Freudian dream logic.

For example, the books are full of erotic fantasies in which white men are subjected to the lynching violence. Here’s a fantasy about Kevin Bacon and Brad Pitt:

“… his white man calls and breaks the groans of Kevin Bacon, naked and writhing in pain on a hard and wet black street. Bacon has been beaten by broken bottles and has had his chest smashed in with a large flaming couch section. A mob of whites poured gasoline all over his chiseled stomach and then lit him afire. Brad Pitt lay next to him, his stomach breathless and glistening in the flame’s light.”

Here the black body has been displaced into the “wet black street” and been replaced by handsome celebrity stand-ins, stand-ins (or “stunt doubles” in some profound sense) who in their artifice – the celebritiness, their “chiseled” bodies” – seem to resist the violence even as they are subjected to it. They are both grotesque and artificial at the same time.

What makes it extra interesting is the way Pitt and Bacon are eroticized with “chiseled stomach” etc. A nightmare is turned into sexual fantasy. This is fascinating to me. I am interested in the way violence/sexuality seem to be generated on the racial border. My mind goes to James Baldwin’s famous short story “Going to Meet the Man,” where witnessing the castration and lynching of a naked black man both gives rise to homosexual feelings and constitutes heterosexual worship of pure white women (his mother), in the protagonist. My mind also goes to Ice-Cube singing “Easy E will be hanging from a tree, without gasoline, just a little bit of vaseline” in that put-down song from the early 90s, where both lynching and homosexuality is used to describe Easy-E selling out to the White Business establishment. But my mind also goes to Amiri Baraka’s “Black Arts,” where we get a similar image of selling out: a black politician giving a white politician head (can’t remember the exact quote).

However, there are plenty of grotesque bodies that do not hold up as well as Bacon and Pitt. Both books are full of white father-figures who seem to have been subjected to this kind of violence, bleeding and broken bodies. This is in alternative to the main white father figure (he of the title of the first book) who seems extremely healthy, practices yoga etc. In difference to him, there are heaps of these white old guys who are almost dead. For example, in Black Object:

“You had no idea he was bleeding. If you knew, you would not have allowed him to take you to this hotel that you can barely remember. You think about saturation, and the way you lifted up the back of his dress shirt. The blood you recall is a thick lacquer on the back of his boxers, a slick, red soak, as though someone stabbed him up the ass. He did what anybody would do after such an attack. He bled.” (Black Object, 14)

In this piece, another important feature becomes clear: the emphasis on clothes. Many of these encounters bring together the grotesque and the artifice. It seems that Wilson’s poems make up a queer movement in which violence, race and sexuality are “ambient” (I got this from Joyelle who said that the person who recently wrote a review of my book calling me “misogynist” didn’t understand that the violence in my book is “ambient” it moves around and attaches itself virulently). Subjectivity and subjectedness (the gender performance that Lara often invokes in discussions of the gurlesque) is short-circuited.

I think this movement has something to do with what Moten, via Derrida, calls “invagination” in his book (sorry, have only started it!). This is Moten talking about Douglas’s recreation of the scream of the “primal scene”:

“In his critical deployment of such music and speech, Douglas discovers a hermeneutic that is simultaneously broken and expanded by an operation akin to what Jacques Derrida refers to as “invagination.” This cut and augmented hermeneutic circle is structured by a double movement. The first element is the transference of a radical exterior aurality that disrupts and resists certain formations of identity and interpretation by challenging the reducibility of phonic matter to verbal meaning or conventional musical form… This assertion marks an egagement with a more attenuated, more internally determined, exteriority and a courtship with an always already unavailable and substitutive origin.” (6)

This brings to my mind Baudrillard writing about JG Ballard’s Crash (also in terms of invagination) (I should also say that this too I stole from something Joyelle is working on):

“Every gash, every mark, every… scar left on the body is an artificaion invagination… and the few natural orifices that we are accustomed to associating with sex are nothing compared to all these wounds. to all these openings, through which the body turns itself inside-out, like certain topographies, no longer possesses an outside or an inside.”

In some way I think WIlson is a great inheritor of Ballard’s Crash. Both are interested in violence and sexuality and, most importantly, the fantasies of mass culture. In Crash, the main guy wants to come while killing Elizabeth Taylor; Wilson’s narrator fantasizes about Brad Pitt getting attacked on the street. Yes, I realize there is a difference in power there; the white guy attacking the woman (whose fame makes her the face of power?), the black man displacing racial violence onto white dudes, but there’s also a connection, and I think the “invagination” is that connection and I think the “ambient” violence and erotics is part of it.

This is not to say that black men are never violated in Wilson’s book. The figure of the black father appears frequently and pretty much always he’s abject, pissing and drunk. But it seems here that he is always already assaulted, before any violence is done to him; he’s a kind of “real” in the sense of Lacan; he cannot be incorporated in the Symbolic Order. At one point, for example, the narrator explicitly tries to get his drunk and abject father to look into a mirror, as if to bring the father into the symbolic order.

Another comparison that comes to my mind is Cornelius Eady’s “Brutal Imagination,” about Susan Smith, the woman in South Carolina who killed her kids and blamed it on an imaginary black man, who then everybody started seeing all over the country. Although Eady’s book is spoken from this imaginary man’s point of view (as well as from the points of view of several mass culture fantasies about blackness: little rascals, Aunt Jemima etc, I seem to remember Blake’s “Little Black Boy” but I may have made that up), the take of that book is pretty much completely condemnatory of these fantasies about blackness. Mass culture is kitsch, which is a lie about blackness.

Wilson’s writing (especially the first book) evokes Eady’s book quite a bit formally (the matter of fact testimonial poems) (and also that in both invoke Aunt Jemima), but Wilson seems much less condemning of fantasies, of mass culture, of kitsch. He suggests that there is no true story behind the fantasies, that reality can’t be divorced from our fantasies. And it is in these fantasies that violence and sexuality goes “ambient” – not only in the sense that Susan Smith made her crime “ambient” but also that allows Wilson’s narrator to manipulate the violence and sexuality in radical ways.


There is also a whole motif of film and photography. Wilson’s grotesque body is largely a cinematic body. Not only does he constantly invoke film stars and porn stars etc, but things appear as if in photographs, or filmed throughout. One of my favorite sections of Black Objects is called “Chronophotographe.” Here’s the beginning of the third “image”:

“When I said how easy I could strangle him, right then, he believed I would. A naked principal should not be uncut and weak as pinkie clay. his cigar should flip back into the sunset. For head, I in excess, find an orgy box: in a mirror, three white rhinos fuck like Venus Hottentots…”

(It’s a little bit like Zach Schomberg’s Abe Lincoln photograph series in his “Man Suit”.)


Finally, my favorite poem of all might be Wilson’s ode/elegy to the German porn star “Herman the German” – it’s hilarious and sad and weird and erotic:

“Herman the German lives in a ranch house that I visit.
Herman the German, he wears a jump suit with nothing underneath.

Herman the German is Aunt Jemima’s unconscious twin.”

Like I always say, “the immigrant is kitsch.” But of course so is Aunt Jemima.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss


    btw, I have a poem in Raft for/after you, and one too for/after With Deer

    I hope all’s well!

  2. Lucas

    The intergenerational gesturing in Wilson, as in Bolano’s story, is really interesting. Very refreshing as a weird nightmare/dream of queer community, like when the speaker (or whoever he’s addressing) wants to sprinkle “vitamin-bright urine” on the older guy with the bloody ass.

    This might be obvious but it seems to me that ambient violence is a way to recover the history of bodies, get it into the book, instead of engaging in what might look like solipsistic writing. Again, I could turn to Bolano (2666).

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