Unpolished Friendship: Dodie Bellamy as Novelist and Kathy Acker’s Enduring Influence
Unpolished Friendship: Dodie Bellamy as Novelist and Kathy Acker’s Enduring Influence
by Matthew Pincus
Dodie Bellamy, in a recent interview with David Buuck, said of Kathy Acker, “Her stuff can be boring as hell, but when it comes together, it is so intense. It’s like your mouth is gaping open by her weird manipulations. No one is trying to make this believable, but we are still moved by it—that’s awesome.” Acker’s writing allows one to enter repressed sexual, social and political spaces of American culture to expose a new form of experience, or rather story-telling. Judith Butler in Gender Trouble says, “Indeed, repression may be understood to produce the object that it comes to deny” (93). Hence, transgressive language fabricated in Bellamy and Acker’s work frees one from repressive spaces of American culture by remaking a present narrative through uses of appropriation.1 “New Narrative” is ironically contradictory for both writer’s texts are old ideas, revised, remade and reinvented to create language inherently calling attention to the denial and oppression of AIDS in the late 80s, patriarchy and sex/sexuality, while at the same freeing, or liberating one from a lobotomy of genre, plot, style, and literary devices.
Acker and Bellamy were both fellow friends and writers in the 1980s as participants and performers during workshops and reading at Small Press Traffic. Acker, during her graduate studies at UCSD in the early seventies taught under David Antin, a talk poet closely connected with Black Mountain poets. Both poets however, are directly and indirectly indebted to Antin’s use of bibliomancy, being drawn to a book in a library or bookstore by spirit or divinatory fate, taking one line, then another, and composing a text.2 Bibliomancy would help to form the foundation of their narrative style, but led to further compositions using appropriations of transgressive language to expand beyond conventional boundaries of repressed social issues and cultural taboos.3
Bellamy’s speakers, through poetical bounds, free one of patriarchal discourse by layering sexual violence over popular culture while inherently pluralizing cultural and political symbols. Bellamy says in her essay Shiver, “I think a more honest and interesting approach to pop culture is to delight in its tackiness but at the same time admit you’re profoundly moved by it” (2004, 234). Her letter to Sam D’Allesandro in The Letters to Mina Harker is about a writer and friend of Bellamy’s who died of AIDS in 1988. Bellamy’s language exists, as Gaston Bachelard (an important French philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century) says, “The being-here is maintained by a being from elsewhere. Space, vast space, is the friend of being” (208).4 A sex scene with death occurs, alluding to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The narrator writes, “seal up the seven openings to the soul and a being could live forever” (1998, 184), in reference to the chess scene with death at the beginning of the film. Bellamy’s use of sexual violence layered over pop culture creates an explosion of symbol. Harker’s sensory language produces the murder of a real body, then instills metaphors to reincarnate an imaginary one: “starting at the back of my neck he works his way down biting so hard I feel I fear he will chew me alive the skin on my hands and feet falls away . . . and then the nails . . . but beneath them new nails appear along with a fresh and vivid skin” (1998, 182). The scene is masochistic as death binds the narrator’s wrist, chokes them with, “the biggest cock I’ve ever seen,” comparing it to a muskrat. Also, the text earlier compared her body in a metaphor to, “a length of twine in a Cub Scout knotting class” (1998, 182). The text liberates by allowing metaphors of pop culture to pluralize and create,
…A masochistically effected embodiment that the non-infected, non-abjected subject can begin to ally herself (without conflating her voluntary position with the non-voluntary position of the person with AIDS) with those who are infected and indeed abjected by AIDS. (20)
The symbolic (AIDS, Death) is necessary for the context of the narrative, but masochistic metaphors of the imaginary fantasy let “all categories explode” (1998, 183).
An Acker text also layering sexual violence over pop culture is her short story, Florida. Hardly every spoken of, the text from 1978 appropriates the film Key Largo, done in first person flipping between the “I” of Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) and the “I” of Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall). The movie lauds the protagonist, McCloud as a man of bravery, who saves Temple from her husband and mob boss Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). The movie is accentuated through Film Noir cinematography of both set, lighting, and the plot of Rocco, exiled to Cuba, but hiding out at a hotel waiting on accomplices traveling from Miami to close a final deal while, with gang members, taking other guests hostage. A viewer moves from the bar to the dock back to the hotel to the hallways to the rooms during a severe tropical storm. Throughout the film Temple is beaten and threatened by Rocco, but also beaten by McCloud. The hard-nosed courageous, brave man of the citizens’ defeats the mob boss, and thus she falls for him at the end. Bogart’s quintessential ‘hero’ role overshadows his physical and emotional abuse toward Temple.
Acker rewrites both characters, showing McCloud as an abusive, estranged man only slightly more valiant than Rocco. McCloud almost aspires at times to be Rocco, but treats Temple as a fetishized object, extension of his personality and manhood who attends at his will to bodily and emotional fulfillment. Temple is a woman in distress, who must pick the better poison among the misogynists. Her father-in-law, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) is another menacing and ominous male figure. Her life is trapped, or stuck among a generational patriarchy she cannot escape, and thus is surrounded by a political and social power, which cages her into a life of emotional, physical abuse. Kathryn Hume writes of Acker,
Whereas English Romantics looked for a “higher” truth and transcendence, Acker’s focal figures look for a kind of “lower” bedrock truth, not in aesthetics but in the body and physical pain, and some of them hope for some kind of breakthrough in consciousness through pain. (507)
The text investigates patriarchal discourse, and through multiple first person narrators liberates the reader from stereotypical Noir power structures such as “tough guy” detective or hero, “mob boss,” and “damsel in distress.” Acker’s writing, like Bellamy’s allows for the reader to find a truth in the swamp-like repression of what is oppressed by American culture and society.
Cunt-Ups, published in 2001 three years after the publication of The Letters of Mina Harker is a text she says directly based on the cut-up method of both Kathy Acker and William Burroughs. Bellamy says, “Sex is a trap, a labyrinth, a matrix that engulfs you” (2004, 232). The twenty-one sections of text are a matrix of “netsex, psychic oozings, alien invasion, and serial murder” (2001, 67). Bachelard, in Poetics of Space describes Baudelaire’s intimate notion of a house in winter: “Behind dark curtains, snow seems to be whiter. Indeed, everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate” (39). Contradictions of place, sexual body parts, corporeal adjectives, context force the reader to think about narrative outside its traditional lens of character arc. One is left with an autonomous gender, asking what could be man or woman, pornographic or romantic, intimate or forceful. The cut-up forces one to question the boundary of subversive (many of Bellamy’s scenes involve a sort of sado-masochistic tendency) sexual acts. It is Butler’s Gender Trouble in praxis:
If the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and if a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies, then it seem that genders can be neither true nor false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity. (136)
Bellamy’s work, according to Butler, is a more “stable identity” for gender. The cut-up provides a place for sexuality to float, like a viscous fluid, through the surreal nature of the language.
Sexual body parts in Cunt-Ups are constantly used as metaphors for other social, cultural and political constructs in the text. Section three starts, “In the sky I thought I might come, the head of your cock is smooth as butter and susceptibility, a flat limbo glowing, a sharp pointed cock coming in green neon” (2001, 17). A scene of lucid orgasm becomes a city wanderer, looking at the sky next to a green neon sign. The fourth section does something similar with the bodily feeling of taking sleeping pills. The eighth and ninth section both appropriate sexual scenarios with Jesus Christ and Osiris. Other war scenarios, and lines such as, “Like a big stalk of seaweed bobbing about my pussy against the computer screen” (2001, 40). There is dismemberment, surreal functioning to de-attach bodily ‘content’ and reconfigure such language in a sentient, or re-constructed fiction freshly formed to give the reader a ‘new’ experiential encounter with emotions, ethos, and logos of a text.
Towards the end of section thirteen, one sees a similar encounter where a relationship is described as, “I’ll give you all the strength hot pink when I come, leave your polka-tongues back there because that’s what I understand. My nipples are erect, tell me I’m a good girl” (2001, 43). The former sentence breaks down to the visceral with adjectives like, “pink” and an image such as “polka tongues.” One could even question if the narrator is a hermaphrodite pleasuring their-self; however, the latter sentence imposes the narrator as submissive, desiring to be aroused again when they are about to orgasm, or already have. The next lines conflate heat and cold, light and dark, soft and hard with, “It’s cold but its barely darker, I’ve broke to black softness with my darker pink” (2001, 44). The text once again creates a sexual scenario, expounds it with adjectives, and reverses back to more abstract symbols, which seem to provide an intimacy, or the “sensual amnesia,” Bellamy says happens during/after intercourse.
Section thirteen also uses sexual metaphor to revise political patriarchy, similar to Acker’s revision of Key Largo in Florida. The narrator says, “I needed to help direct you. I’m feeling a little worn out but I feel like a Rex fucking you.” The narrative denotes one needs to help an inexperienced sexual being, but the next line creates a contradiction, where the speaker is metaphorically ‘tired’ of intercourse. The following simile, “Rex” meaning ‘king’ in Latin, referencing Roman emperors implicates a political patriarch in a sexually transgressive relationship. The next couple of lines complicate further with children watching them, “fingers sticky,” until police enter the setting, implicating voyeurists watching exhibitionism, subverting their traditional role as agents of moral law and ethics. The next line says, “I’m going to fuck you abstractly,” as if to bring the scenario back into an ethereal séance of intercourse (2001, 42). The text continually creates a sexual scenario, uses metaphor or adjective to expound, and then nullifies by abstracting, or rather pluralizing the traditional symbol in which it was found. Bellamy (as referenced above) writes in her note at the end, “I’ve spent up to four hours on each cunt-up, afterwards I cannot recognize them—just like in sex, intense focus, and then sensual amnesia” (2001, 67).
Kathy Acker is an author, who questions the “I,” and allows her speakers to rearrange, shift biographical facts and details into an autobiographical fiction. In Bellamy’s sequel to Cunt-Ups, Cunt Norton, she tends to do a similar reshaping of the fictional “I” for the authors used, reshaping the speaker’s sexual experience into that same autobiographical fiction. The writing, which comes out of process of cut-up, bibliomancy or scholarship, and appropriation of culturally conscious text allows a writer to see an innovative narration than genre convention as basis, or constraint for style, plot, rhythm, language. Acker once said in Small Press Traffic panel, “Whenever we talk about narration, narrative structure, we’re talking about political power” (2004, 18). Literature may seem of little cultural relevance today, but it is the ancestor of historical and mythological underpinnings for modern culture and society. If one does not refashion text, their civilization grows old swiftly.
1. “Present narrative” is a term used by David Antin in his essay “Beggar and the King” in juxtaposition to the linear narrative of Oedipus the King. A bildungsroman would be classified with the later, whereas a noveau roman or “new narrative” novel would be similar to “present narrative.”
2. In an interview with Bellamy done by Matias Vegener in The Los Angeles Review of Books earlier this year, she says, “I learned a lot from writer Kathy Acker about appropriating vulgar language and using it for my own ends. If it weren’t for Kathy, for instance, I’d never toss around the word “cunt” with the ease of something like ‘ruby flower.’ Ruby flower … I’m thinking that perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the florid for subverting the pornographic/clinical divide.” Also, although bibliomancy, and the process of the cut-up technique originated from Burroughs, Acker probably had a considerable influence on Bellamy pursuing such devices in her poetics and narratives early in her career.
3. David Antin’s talk in 2002 at a conference dedicated to her work hosted by NYU goes into greater detail about Acker’s relationship with him as artist, poet and student. Also, Acker, in her interview with Larry McCaffery notes Antin’s influence, and his introduction of the Black Mountain Poets.
4. Gaston Bachelard was not known for his poetics, but his application of phenomenology to an architectural, or poetic space is integral it seems to many Black Mountain and Language Poets of the last half of the twentieth century. Focus on form, and Olson’s essay, “Projective Verse” comes to mind. This is important to note because of the influence Black Mountain poets, and Antin would have on Acker’s work, which subsequently influences Bellamy’s poetics. Although the connection might seem distant, concerns of transgression through poetic space as a device to recreate, or reinvent narrative is crucial for understanding The Letters of Mina Harker or Cunt-Ups.
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Key Largo. Dir. John Huston. Perf. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G.
Robinson, Lionel Barrymore. Warner Bros, 1948. Film.
The Seventh Seal. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Perf. Max Van Sydow, Bibi Anderson.
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Matt Pincus was born and raised in San Diego, CA. He is an MFA candidate at the Jack Kerouac School in Boulder, CO, has an essay forthcoming from Manor House Quarterly on Shirley Jackson, and has written book reviews for Bookslut, Pank, Raintaxi, and Necessary Fiction.