Stories from The Conservation of Mass by Ronaldo V. Wilson

BOMB 144 Summer 2018
144 Cover


Under a boat are a pod of Orcas, but before they are under a boat they are breaching some distance away from The White Boys in their small rowboat. The water around The White Boys is an unsuspecting green, flat enough for them to go crabbing in, and their crabbing, at least in terms of their joy, in Virgil’s estimation, serves as an even disruption between both Orca and Race.

Thus, The White Boys are far from civilization, yet close enough to the viewer to register their giddy fear, but they are not afraid enough to stop shooting video, which begins with their laughter, of the event from their vantage point and into a site in a salt-water bay that no one, then everyone, is able to see. It is innocent. It is humble. They row away with the innocence of a row of white boys who tumble, or those who kick.

The comments section is where the surprise is blown. The reader knows what is coming, whereas the viewer does not—unless the viewer seeks to be the reader first. In a sense, what Virgil wants is to find a way to think through his own feeling of despair, a sadness he feels in the grey time. It is sad, Virgil thinks, to work in black and white for a while, and to be alone. But this is what it means to work in the body of prose. It is not poetry. It is not collage, and it is certainly not performance.

A time when what is robbed is the feeling of the mark—that is, to be marked by race, by website, by job, or to be in the emergence of the mark, the pocks bubble up in the night, awoke from being bitten, or the wish that this were only the case—Virgil thinks of the television series “V,” and its penultimate news conference, announcing the Aliens’ takeover: the zipping off of a regular, white face to reveal the watermelon head, the monster inside the entire time. So much of performance Virgil wants to theorize around is bound by the feeling of this constant gesture, the weight of it hovering around his own release into sense, perhaps, more than voice.

Thus, Virgil consents to writing through sorrow, and in sadness, a pull he must learn to deal with, one thing becoming another, or else his life will always be ancillary to another, whomever this may be. So Virgil goes on, the feeling in his heart, the things he carries along the way, never jettisoned, always reduced to his own and hard-won selfish movement.

Virgil and Butch, by chance, make it to the two last seats in the final back row of Notes from the Field, they—or at least Virgil—does not anticipate the start of the play to begin with the screams of Freddie Gray, after the snap of his spine—that precise pain, the scream cast as breaking and starting point, the new body worn into the old groove of the unknown. Yes, he is dead. And yes, Virgil got tickets to see how this is worked out, by playwright and actress alike.

The White Pods and Orcas in the middle of the lake are a fissure of the imagined, the mark of some impending altitude, the high measuring up into how the event is transposed, and simultaneously reached by pointing to and revealing what Virgil takes in and what he considers.

The open court, not the pass through the tire. How easily the press is satisfied by the weird jokes and the cover up of antics, how we have seen him in his topcoat, the OrangeBLOWHOLE, the press secretary says, tosses a football through a tire and shoots the basketball in the hole from the foul line, and then, too, can make a three-foot putt.

An equation overtakes Virgil, his heart open and raging—and he feels more or less broken, not by consequence, but by the staggering feeling of something approaching, loss of Stream, sure, letting that go too, and him, the dependence on anyone. In the draft, it is never clear. In the podium is the lecture’s anticipatory call to normalcy, so that time in the lecture becomes the track marked by expectation, Virgil’s heart remains so heavy.

Go on and play, Stream, because Virgil is sad behind the eyes, and heat, too, grows in his heart, but this is not new, and in the end what matters is what keeps Virgil moving forward, trudging, and ultimately alone.

Did I leave the kettle on?

Is the glass in my door smashed in?

This is the role of the art, the reality of what might happen and what does, however in the head, however across activities, of mammal and flat green expanse, the pull from the city street onto the now of the AC quiet, the future of what might be, a future where Virgil finally sees what he has been making for so long, the need to make shapes beyond anything else, and to feel fluid in doing so.

“You are from Sacramento,” is what the Sardine&Cracker says to Virgil, and it feels as though he’s snatched up, but there is a collective opening, one that spreads from being from nowhere. The body, too, goes unnamed, but still Virgil feels the pull of the peaked and scratched skin: the dot-heat on the wrist—in the grey time—to address the fictive is to be in the moment of what has been, to be in the moment of redress in what’s precise and enough, or how hard the start of its notice.


AO smiles at Virgil across the Green Summer House for EXBPs, from one room to another. The EXBPs don’t know each other well yet, and it’s late, and the light at that moment is not natural, but still. The smile between them reveals curiosity, even some concern. On Virgil’s part, he realizes that his poetry has taken him to that location, in the room across from AO, because he is indeed a floater, wandering after the ruptures into the knot of what connects them, their bodies of work, and their bodies.

In the SBucks on Nesconset Highway the prints on the walls differ from those on Broadway or Florin Road. In the earlier, white people are making and buying, and in the latter, black hands are laboring and still—but this Virgil documented in a different time. For now, in the Radical Sabbatical, Virgil enacts in a constitutive mode through which he is able to reconstruct his life in a world, primarily, of Letters.

In the large lecture hall of a Lit course—when Virgil was nineteen or twenty—he thought he would appear on a book jacket, his picture small but handsome, tucked away inside the front cover’s sleeve. Virgil figured that what would haunt him were the questions the Professor posed around reading Sethe’s back, tree limb scar, a shape self-serving for Virgil, who also thought in another class that the PhilosophyNubile teaching cross-legged on the table is how Virgil would sit one day, if he were the instructor.

Someday is an illusion, for some, but Virgil never had a doubt and did not even think about the few dots of brown in the sea of white that forces the University’s life into a coma. Yes, the captors say: We will release your Auto. But we will send him back, his stiff, vibrating eyes will be a reminder that a white dinner jacket can cloak even the tallest of whites, tortured citizen switched from son to father, the dead to the living.

Virgil now has time he’s never had. He fills it with an anxiousness that radiates through him, the acupuncturist’s needles directing the flow. One needle hurts. Others don’t and open the path from his neck to the backsides of his knees. Obamacare, the OrangeBLOWHOLE tweets, …IS DEAD. Angel Face asks how we feel about Auto, and Virgil spews disdain, like Auto deserved it.

Fair is not fair, ever, and the white brigade uses their sense of impending death so often, like a prop—the threat in understanding that Blue Lives do matter on the sticker on the back of a pickup. Virgil’s blue Xs cover the eyes of the WINNER in the photograph in the NY Times, The Victorious in a red dress pointing, her hands, nor a thumb up, but her index—I have lived here all of my life.

When Virgil wanted change, he grabbed a box cutter and slashed the paper through the eyes, rage and packing tape, then taped over her face, the winner, bold blue Xs Sharpied over her eyes. This is the only way he can read the news, by defacing it: 5–0 as it were, says President BLOWHOLE, Orangina, a Mouth.

In the movie The Town, the two old boss mobsters in the flower shop front must be lovers, one cutting thorns off a rose, threatening to chop the nuts off Ben Affleck. Before this, to protect his WGF from the projects, he says—“Come with me, we’re going to hurt some people…You can’t ask any questions.”

Bust the door down to wire-rod-break the bones after slamming the fatso onto the floor of his own apartment, and before this, shoot him in the knees. Say oh yeah to this, but how calm the sistah recounting the ID asked for, then another, four bullets in another Black Castle, this one finding the heart.

Bully-to-death is the mode of the white brigade, despite the brown body’s appearance, and Bully is the shrinking belly that’s ever-cinched to remind the viewer of the importance of his weight loss, to request us to look at his disappearing body with compassion, and for him to say, “‘Your work should not be so much about you’ is really saying, ‘It should be about me!’”

Virgil hears, Me so horny at the sight of white laziness, a belly, a plaid shirt, the ease of the self in public space, split bulges barely notice. Clean, the former President and CEO of a luxury paper line—“My wife is on a cruise.”

“Oh yeah? Where?”

“Ah, Bermuda.”

In the Green Summer House for EXBPs the artists are aware of time and circumstance in producing work while in the presence of one another’s constructed leisure. ERed once kept talking about art, or space, or maybe befuddlement, while asleep. The black mind cannot stop. This, is a theory. Sometimes, meditations on freedom must include the time it takes to retreat, as well as to ponder.

“Why do you feel you have to create so much,” asks the Tracker Jacker? Have you seen Lost in Space or not? The body and mind that’s small and brown, precise and mean, for a while just doesn’t exist, and the sites of evaluation will shift to debase you in the end. Unmoved by the permanent site of whiteness, one taps a straw sticking out of a Dooney & Bourke—

One is pulled over and another has to drive. One figures out a way to buy a bottle at a restaurant, another figures out how to fly, running up a hill near the Green Summer House for EXBPs. Several sleep in the former ski lodge’s lowest floor and another does not recall where or how the other slept, or, when they did fall asleep, to get up and write again.

Shy is Virgil at times, but he looks into the Berkshires sky in anticipation of what he’ll make to add to his file. Could even be text outlined in a leather watchband, refuse, deteriorated ostrich could spark the collage, whatever possible angle to note, to aggregate, to fill one pool, because the others will be drained.

When he was young, and even more disoriented, Virgil’s host at Squaw Valley thought he could be embarrassed for not cutting his own tomatoes, that he was dependent on the other scholarship poet, GermanTopless, who cut the tomatoes for him and even sketched Virgil. But he’d not eaten a Caprese Salad before, and eaten with such whites before that moment, his knife, maybe dull all the same, as was his forgetting how Daddy Joliet did teach him, many times, to eat in The Continental Style.

The competition might be scored in multiple ways. One way is in Virgil’s need to draw comparisons between then and now. More images—the Sbucks print shots he keeps in his iPhoto caché show the usual plans and blacks, shadows and labor. One black body rakes the beans in a Zen garden, the other is a silhouette, and may as well be the leaf or a lip’s pout, or the color of azure and black skin that belies the broken tooth of the rake in the picture, and this must be how coffee beans dry.

Virgil don’ know nuffin’ ‘bout no labor, but he did. His feet stunk from Rice Bowl, where he would mop the floor and once cleaned the parking lot overflowed with sewage. The floor inside was greyed in the tile, the color of dried clay, and the sea cucumbers sat in vats in buckets.

Black Lives Matter more than ever because the resiliency of these bodies in the Green Summer House for EXBPs leads to light, Butter Lettuce and saffron, to fuel the art. Bodies to be logged. Black and brown bodies toil away and are suspended in the stream, whether a field or on a farm; but there in the city the white hands hold the instruments, beans—they roast, wait in lines, and belong.

Before AO died, Virgil gave her a casual warning from the couch beneath soft, artificial light. “I read that you should not check your work email before bed because it can shorten your life.” AO, like several others before and after her, was discovered dead in her apartment, yet she has also visited him in this dream and is laughing.

Even though Virgil did not know AO well, in life, she, like many of his mentors, is dead, and he carries her in his psyche. In the dream where they most recently met, he has a feeling that he wants to wear his glasses because they keep his eyes “cool and relaxed.”

All Virgil wants to do is make sense of the pictures he carries in his phone, some downloaded into his other machines in various timelines, but mostly they are left in one that he only now has time to sort. Two of the photos he sees are with Virgil and Butch on a boat that took them from Venice to the island of Murano. The sun coats Virgil’s body and his grey suit coat looks great, his stomach relatively flat in the jacket, one he does not wear seriously, even if it says micro-fit, the slim cut of the suit not thin enough for the pant that reads as too broad down to the wide cuff.

The boat leads to the vase Butch will buy. However many Euro, the glass looks dusted matte, almost, but still lets in the light, tangerine and orange swirls against a Mallorcan blue sea. The piece is a small, thick heart, now the center of the Red House backlit through the night, sometimes its eye. When Virgil receives the text with the cartoon of a red monster in the basement it’s getting a haircut, but clearly this is a scene of torture. No scissors, Narcissist: dynamite is planted into its scalp, like six sticks, and the fuses are lit. The explosion bows to expose the scalp.

Of this, he is certain: Virgil, too, will lose more hair. It is his hope that he eats enough fruit and drinks enough water to keep the bones visible beneath his face and in doing so his content will be noted as a form of erasure—not to vanish from not eating, but to render Virgil’s particular expectations.

But like his beautiful hair, he realizes his sight is going too. For sure, Virgil will have to feel his way to the shore, live in natural causes as he hopes to die of them. DSecond, one of the living, white but not part of the white brigade, gives him advice. “I am never everyone’s first choice, but I am always everyone’s second.”

When Teacher M wrote to Virgil in his yearbook, that he “would excel not in terms of money or status, but in terms of compassion,” it drove him into a place that, by default, continued to elevate him toward first class. Virgil was in fact quite jelly, looking up at the seats beyond his. The Most Musician, up there, was in first, while Virgil remained several seats behind, making Virgil think: “It is about Fame.”

Against a cold wall in Asia/Pacific/Coffees, Virgil, in leisure, ponders temperature. At a performance in California in a black box, The Vision told Virgil and the rest of his MUTUALGANG that they needed firstly to understand their lineage, particularly other performance artists and secondly, “How did your bodies feel during the show? Were you hot? Were you cold?”

Of course, The Vision was not asking whether or not MUTUALGANG was hot or cold, but something else. It had to do with how she felt she could direct their bodies toward whomever they needed to become one day, and who they were at that very moment. The force of the question returned them to their bodies and, some might say, to earth.

This is why the performance in the basement in the City with the Metal Sky was much easier than the one under the California sun in the black box. Virgil was aware then of his body, and though his crew was away, doing them, he had some homies in that room, back that shaped the turn of his ear into a flattening sound whenever Wite-Out tried to reason out of what seemed all, to him, a come up.

Did The Vision ever meet AO? The Forcer understands the longer history implicit in the retreat in the Green Summer House for EXPBs—how to mark the lineages of who is celebrated and who needs to be, all the same. History is not archival. The Vision is very clear in her accounting of the fact that, in addition to lineage and temperature, she felt MUTUALGANG’s work took “Risks.” This compliment still fuels Virgil. He sits with it forever because he admires it in her poetry and prose, The Vision’s ability to hold anger so deftly in the space of critique, and then, on a whim, to unwind it through the failures of institutions and triumphs of questionable literary stars.

Virgil knows this to be, crucially, being-on-offense, informing his attack on the transparent lyric: Why-not-kill-me-now—just playin’. Clearly, Virgil understands “Risks” and maybe their swirling affinities to interruption too: weight gain, fat-phobia, pigging out at the pastry grabbed from a bag, and all the while Virgil does think: Should you be eating that?

Virgil is hungry. He wants to eat, but he eats only almonds after kale and blackberries, yogurt, cheese, and chips, drinks tea and San Pellegrino. In other words, competition is not completion because once captured the victim needs to adjust to the circumstances, to stay tight.

Virgil also likes to remember J20+andFLYTHEN&NOW in a crop top, or once at the front of the small seminar room, her students sitting in a circle to face her on the first day of The Reading and Writing of African American Poetry.

Airdale, Armani, Full: the end of it all, CAME IN FULL PROFESSOR and teaching the centrality of black dialect in the American Poetic tradition, its capacities, histories contained and dispersed.

J20+andFLYTHEN&NOW smoked Nat Shermans in front of a Grand Piano with all of her poetry students around her in the restaurant that looked like a mound of white clay inset from the road that led to the university where Virgil would one day lecture about temporality, abstraction, and violation.

At the buffet spread in one of the parties after a reading, J20+andFLY-THEN&NOW, making her plate, confesses to Virgil—“I haven’t slept for like three days. A PhD? Watch out, they’ll try to book you to death.”

In competition, there is no running and there is always a trap. The potential for the self’s unwinding into, say, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, or NEWSDAY, is that you are a mystery in the zone of belonging. It was a very good year when Virgil achieved tenure! But this was, Virgil felt, not much of an ending but an invitation to not go insane, and to not die.

But Virgil will produce, and the production that he attempts to mark has everything to do with the ropes and hooks he saw in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, over the roasted vegetable pasta he made, the hooks that latched into the sides of the rock face, hooks shot into a marbled black and white cliff face as the fighters soared, holding onto the ropes, feet racing across the impossible surface, kicking and sword slicing one another until the non-stars plummeted and the stars remained.

It’s clear, Virgil thinks—We write out of fear, or fear is the tramline that hovers above us, tugging us from one range of it to the next, but fear, at least to me, is not the same as sorrow. Sorrow is a Long Duk Dong song that plays through Virgil, who jumps at the smallest things: the garage door opener falling in his lap in the black truck, or four-eyed-curl-frames-in-royal-blue-polo who slips his arm around him to grab a ring charger from the community table.

He got this. She got that. She is suffering, poor. She is dead. He is on sabbatical, almost, but for now on FMLA. Ganstah. Virgil improvises. He is not in competition with the normal, or even the normalizing desire to be embraced, because Virgil does not have any particular hometown, so he often looks across the SF Bay from where the Mudflat sculptures once appeared, lost like the piers, ruins pointing to where?

Stardom? Virgil has it, maybe wants more, but in the end, all he is after is the quiet that provides him with this view:

I just wish they would stop acting like things are so stable,
and, arguably, that some domesticated “we” connects “us”
to the speaker’s designated events by proxy,
because in the end, all they want is to be heard.

Some artists and writers, and fewer critics, might argue that this is “making some way out of no way,” but Virgil understands the material consequences of being presented with things bent, torn, and already spent before it might be reconfigured into experiment.

One example was in the cardboard boxing of a Baby Wet & Care and wire hangers that Naldo and TheThenBuildingBlackDad fashioned into a catcher’s facemask, other toy-train-track boxes triple reinforced and stuffed with foam from somewhere, forming the body armor and headgear padding to absorb missed catches.

“Naldo,” what Virgil first called him, had some pitching arm, just like the sweet serve that whistled by Virgil’s ear in doubles. Naldo calls tennis a game of motion. Naldo pissed on Virgil in a bathtub. Naldo looks like Virgil and, for this, there are consequences.

But Virgil burned Naldo’s arm on purpose with the soldering iron as payback. Virgil broke the window. Virgil did not tighten the front wheel of the ten-speed. By this, Virgil means that he is engaged in the activity of performance, something Ralph Ellison calls “tinkering,” in the tradition of Edison. Virgil thinks he mentions it, but it’s something more, something that won’t bind Virgil into being absorbed into simply wanting to tell his story.

LivingToPlay and MommaSpine taught Virgil and CeSis everything they could for them to constitute their most original lives. The roaches scattered at the roadside hotel, or sleeping under the sky of a rest stop between Millington and Alameda—and to add, for six or seven months LivingToGive, another name for Virgil’s dad, was away at sea, but MommaSpine was there: “She raised you guys alone.”

In Alameda, Virgil remembers the windows were open early in the morning, voices, and the house was cold. Maybe one of Virgil’s uncles, The Twin or BAMA40, was in the house.

Maybe BAMA40 came to protect his brother’s wife. But it was no matter, Virgil, nine or ten, was unafraid of who it was that robbed their home. Dust the windows for prints, black dust left on the white sills. The fingerprints were only marks to Virgil. Not peril.

Naldo’s arm, which is his father’s, is related to Virgil’s—all of their arms, like their skin, is loose, especially at the joints. “They all play tennis the same,” the PI Tennis Prodigy says, their strokes swinging to make forcing shots, bodies taught to propel opponents into compromised positions.

The weight of the ball comes, too, from hard quads. target pitch comes rotation elbow pointing at where should go, like in tennis, serve, is always grounded, then body shifts for power.

This is not a white life.

This is: TheCurveButtDad is advising Lantern Shorts Yellow to NOT GO TO STANFORD, as if the same rules apply for her AZN AZZ, especially the one where his white son just graduated from a school in the city, so TheCurveButtDadd could save enough to buy an apartment in Queens. “If he decides to go to graduate school, we’ll think about how to pay for it then.”

In the park, where Virgil runs, chatting with stream against the wind, One WMD throws the ball in an arc and mimes a full pitching swing as he releases to his softball daughter, who throws the ball back in the same flow as her catch, reversed.

This, too, is social capital inheritance.

Virgil does not explore this directly, but he puts together route, meditation, and order. In doing so, he relishes beating them all.

Running the longest and outlasting them all, he will not be attacked in the park, but the fear that he feels as he runs around it is bound by the white children holding hands, two girls rolling their whole bodies down the side of a hill.

Randomly checked his wallet as Virgil glances, up. Predator?

A PudgyLIDA coaches his son to “juggle” through a small maze of pylons in the soccer field, the centerpiece of the park, and the canvas portable chairs dig in as the sitters watch their kids play. This is livin’ really livin’.

A large flappy catcher’s mitt opens in a garage.

And Sinewyanabrownedlegsand-armsANA thieves the Sweet N’ Low in the SBucks on Nesconset Highway, and the Splenda she saves for later, or to never use at all.

Ronaldo V. Wilson is the author of Lucy 72 (1913 Press, 2018), Farther Traveler, Poems of the Black Object, and Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man. With poets Dawn Lundy Martin and Duriel E. Harris, Wilson cofounded the performance-based Black Took Collective. He teaches creative writing and literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Originally published in

BOMB 144, Summer 2018

Featuring interviews with Chris Martin, Cy Gavin, Tauba Auerbach, Sam Hillmer, Amy Jenkins, Florian Meisenberg, John Akomfrah, Simone Forti, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Anna Moschovakis

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