By Jameson Fitzpatrick
Poet and author of Morrisroe: Erasures
To have sex with a man of a certain age in 2016 is to fuck into a continuum of gay male experience that transcends your own. It’s not time travel—the century doesn’t unturn itself—but the act of sex does put you in touch, literally, with a history that is both yours and not yours as a young gay man.
I say “yours” and “not yours” (meaning “mine” and “not mine”) because being gay can be a communal identity but not strictly a generational one. The concept of a queer family is necessarily metaphorical, wherein the points and modes of connection challenge the rule of biology. Queerness, meaningfully, is not a birthright—but nor does it exist in a vacuum, outside of time.
The history into which one enters upon claiming a queer identity today is not only the history of HIV, but it is a history that has been profoundly shaped by AIDS in the last thirty-five years. In the fourteen since I came out in 2002—seven years after the introduction of the highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) credited with containing the epidemic in the United States—I have often had the feeling of showing up to a party at the exact moment after something awful has happened, the festivities awkwardly resuming following a heavy silence.
Sex is one way, maybe, to try to understand what happened. When you have sex with a man of a certain age, you are, quite likely, having sex with a man who has had sex with people who died of AIDS, and who, even more likely, has mourned friends who died of AIDS, some of whom he maybe slept with. More than that, you are connecting to him in precisely the same way that, very likely, the friends and lovers he might have lost contracted the virus in the first place. I’m not a very mystical person, but there must be some meaning to this, I think: a historical re-enactment of sorts, but with better technology and the advantage of hindsight.
I hadn’t thought much about this until I fell in love with a man of a certain age, an experience I have already written about ad nauseum. Here’s a day about which I haven’t:
We’re at the Brooklyn Museum to see the exhibition HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. It’s Sunday, February 12, 2012 (which I only know because it is the day the exhibition closes, which is a Google-able detail in the future). It’s a historic show—the one in which David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” caused such a ruckus when it debuted at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery—so we couldn’t miss it. My boyfriend—a Man of a Certain Age—and I have been together for six months, though we have only been “official” for not-quite-three. I’m newly 22, a senior in college at the Large Private Downtown University where I will also begin grad school in the fall and later teach. I think this is the day I meet the poet Stephen Boyer for the first time, whom my boyfriend knows from Occupy and whom we run into leaving the elevator as we’re getting on. I like the exhibition, though it is more crowded than I’d prefer, being the day it closes and all, and also more white and more male in its representation than seems right. Towards the end of the exhibition, my boyfriend points to one of the works and says, “That’s Jerome!” He’s pointing to “Charles Devouring Himself,” Jerome Caja’s riff on Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son,” which Caja painted on an aluminum tray in 1991 using a mixture of resin, nail polish, and the ashes of his friend and fellow artist Charles Sexton. Caja died four years later, in 1995, the year HAART was developed, when I was five and probably hadn’t yet heard of HIV. He and my boyfriend had been friends in San Francisco, he tells me, in the queercore days—and so begins our first real conversation about his experience living through the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s and early 90s. While reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in grad school, he became convinced that if he finished it he’d die. To this day, he never has. After we make our way through the rest of the show, we go to the cafe for something to eat, where he tells me about other people he knew who died. The cafe is very cold and I grip my paper cup of coffee so tightly it is the detail of the day I will remember best.
After this, I started thinking about it a lot: men who lived through a certain age, men who didn’t and the art they made. Their work, like sex with older men, struck me as another way into this continuum of contemporary queerness. Can it be a coincidence that what would become some of my favorite art was made by people who died of AIDS-related illnesses—poets like Tim Dlugos and Melvin Dixon and Tory Dent, artists like Paul Thek and Mark Morrisroe?
I don’t know if I can answer that question. Maybe it’s just a historical accident of timing, or maybe this work is precious to me because it is finite, fixed. It will be what it will be. And I feel a sense of responsibility not to forget these people, my forebearers—people I might have known if I were thirty years older. And, since I’m a writer, to keep their voices in the room.
It was after going to HIDE/SEEK—the second time I’d seen Mark Morrisroe’s work—that I returned to the publication printed in conjunction with the retrospective of his work at Artists Space in 2011, photo-copied the image of ephemeral text printed on its last page, and began making erasures of it, moving around strips of white paper and obscuring different phrases to make visible the various possibilities still within the vocabulary Morrisroe determined at some unknown point in the past. (The work is untitled and undated.) My materials were cheap: printer paper and glue-stick; and my handiwork admittedly amateurish: gummy and grubby with inky fingerprints. Unsure what to do with them, I kept them in a shoebox until I returned to the project in 2014 to make a chapbook of 24 erasures—this time, the text retyped in Morrisroe’s original lay-out and then whited-out in the document.
The resulting poems, like the original text itself, are about sex and time, anonymity, pleasure, and the tug of pleasure’s eventual end—these phenomena that persist today more or less the same as when Morrisroe wrote of them.
History continues, of course. HIV is not only a historical event—it is a virus that continues to affect the lives of many people in this country, and many more around the world, even as it is no longer a proverbial death sentence for people who have access to treatment (a big caveat both in the United States and worldwide). In the two years since the chapbook was published, PrEP has entered the mainstream and at least one of my erasures—”Bare / back // goodbye / to / that”—is already outdated.
Time makes all of us mortal, regardless of HIV status. But we get to pretend otherwise sometimes—the length of a lay, or, standing before a painting.
The images below are manuscripts of three of the erasures for Fitzpatrick’s chapbook, Morrisroe: Erasures (89plus and LUMA Foundation, 2011).
Jameson Fitzpatrick is the author of the chapbook Morrisroe: Erasures (89plus and LUMA Foundation, 2011),, which comprises 24 versions of a single text by the artist Mark Morrisroe, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Awl, BuzzFeed Reader, The Offing, Poetry, Prelude and elsewhere. He lives in New York, where he teaches writing at NYU.