I can’t tear my eyes away from traumatic childhoods, comme un lecteur, the memories of hunger and madness when we were eight will latch to my mind. I’ll read Dorothy Allison or Margarite Duras feeling that lovely jungle darkness of vipers and scarlet-lipped flowers. Alors, j’ai lu Widow Basquiat, une memoire de Suzanne Mallouk, being one who is endlessly fascinated by la vie bohème in New York City expecting the silvery drugs and purple draped clubs of the early ‘80s. What actually happened was more along the lines of watching a stoning of a raven, Suzanne the raven, Suzanne the high head and blue black hair and sharp mouth and deep all-seeing eyes. Despite the rain she glistens and flies.
Clement writes the memoir as if Suzanne had handed her a stack of photographs with “Madonna – 1964” “ Michel and Shenge – 1st and Madison” … so it could be a speedy experience, reading Widow Basquiat, if you wanted it to be. I mean to say that the book is not divided by chapters, by a space of time, by an event well enough completed to become another (chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3) rather it is divided by moments. Each moment, being a moment, doesn’t take up much space on the page at all. Yet I found myself slowing the rove of my read down to a mouthing aloud of the sounds she was making to the tracing of the shadows. I’d find myself unable to move on from one, reading “Only One Chromosome is Missing” forward and back again.
There is not much elucidation of Jean-Michel. Love often clouds, and as Suzanne observes, he acted differently around certains. Andy Warhol was a certain. Madonna was a certain. I was not familiar with him prior to reading Widow Basquait. He died four days after I was born due to complications of heroin abuse and AIDS. On August 12, 1988. His Wikipedia article reads, “Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist. He began as an obscure graffiti artist in New York City in the late 1970s and evolved into an acclaimed Neo-expressionist and Primitivist painter by the 1980s.”
He called her Venus and told her what to wear. He bought her pastries and cocaine, outlined her skeleton, “then filled in the organs, the liver, the spleen, the stomach […] I think he bought me pastries because he thought that’s something rich people did.”
The voice is intimate with a push-record cassette quality, with some entries supplemented with a more retrospective voice in italics by Suzanne herself. Malgré son péchance pour l’esprit libre, flou, émotional, sa voie est claire. Her memory is almost too exacting, reconstructing each look, each tone and each position just so that further attempts at explaining what she, at that moment, felt, would be redundant. And truly, imagine the futility of communicating the surrounding emotions: what the nerves belonging to her slight shaking arms were feeling watching Michel create and destroy and menace and caress … I see him licking cocaine from her breasts and her eyes soft and upward gazing settling in a cloud of heroin. I see him trying to catch her gaze when she’s focused on heaven. I see her cold, a raven short some feathers, watching him pace the blankness of his most recent canvas wishing that he’d hold her. I see them tracing an aria on the wooden floors of the Cosby Loft scalpel-fine Aaaaaaaaa…
You will see it all very well. They are true and beautiful, mais n’assumez pas connaître l’interior des choses.
And here’s the thing about drugging, and I’ll say it now before I forget: whether taken with intent to feel more or less, what is felt has drastically altered the composition of the central nervous system. A nervous system molded so exactly by the societal pretext… a pretext so fixedly holding reality that should something tie itself to the leg of the table and pull sharply, well … In evolving we sacrifice and being a writer thus biased, I’ll insist that literature alters, more than anything else, the future mind. (Stumbled upon this article positing Shakespeare’s pivotal role in enhancing the ethical consciousness thereafter. If you’re interested.) Literature is a concentrated effort to humanize symbols. The characters we create encourage emotional awareness. Often what needs to be said is something that our mouths can’t form. A fish might say it, a baby might say it, a dodo … a woman with blow. An opium doze (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately treasure dome decree). To wit, our culture enshrines the words or men and women of substances, merci bien pour nous préviennent, we must, of course, continue to discourage common consumption comfortable that there’s been enough lambs marked for sacrifice. Let them wander the desert lands. Let them lust for poison. Then let the lambs, those angels, sing the song to bring spring and we will dance in the rain.
The last third of the memoir describes Suzanne’s involvement with Michael Stewart, a student at Pratt and graffiti artist. In a particularly brutal example of police brutality, Stewart was delivered to the Bellevue hospital inches from death, internal hemorrhaging, showing signs of strangulation and suffocation, that there was nothing to be done but to let him pass ghostly through the hospital room and pray him free. Suzanne threw herself in bringing him justice. Clement gives us the police reports. They claim self-defense. Suzanne remembers slight, doe-esque Stewart sitting at her bar. She knows that those who didn’t know Stewart would read the report, read BLACK MALE, read SELF-DEFENSE and think, “That sounds reasonable.” The case closes with her succeeding in securing recompense for his family, but the police who’d killed him “are still walking the beat.”
This is what, when it comes to it, was the dynamic that Basquiat was all too aware of, noting frequently that black men weren’t in the museums. He painted to point to this dynamic, this social devil, not only within the subject matter of his art but in the success that his art gave him. Yet here he was conflicted, he was annoyed that Suzanne had taken Stewart’s case, fearing that attention being drawn to his blackness would undermine his goals of being a successful artist.
You cannot paint the revolutionary tract then shy from the street Basquiat.
He was man of magic with expensive tastes. He was young at night, a full-moon howl. Ambitious, so never satisfied. Suzanne loved him with an Nietzschean intensity, her heart always extended. Cette doulour, si riche en fin, me fait penser de quelqu’un autre. The dear Peter Pan holding my finger in sleeping, he expects me home, and I won’t mention the last thing he’s told me. I’ve forgiven his boyish cruelties. But it’s Suzanne and Jennifer Clement that I want to know more in the end. What wouldn’t I give to walk the Brooklyn bridge reciting Walt Whitman and watching her exhale paint fumes, coloring the breeze, laughing with her teeth.