May 29, 2024, 5:42

A Fearless Experimentalist’s Stealth Reputation

A Fearless Experimentalist’s Stealth Reputation

When Dodie Bellamy was a little girl, she used to ask, “Why doesn’t anybody go to the bathroom in the movies?” In Bellamy’s work, people definitely go to the bathroom. Cats go to the bathroom. Metaphors go to the bathroom. “I imagine existence as a boundless expanse of dirt and I’m a worm burrowing through it, gorging on it on one end, shitting it out on the other,” she writes. In Bellamy’s essays, we see her bending down to pick up cat turds, scanning the streets of her not yet fully gentrified San Francisco neighborhood for human excrement, writing at her desk next to a litter box: “One of the cats will sit in the box beside me, doing their business, and I feel like such an animal. They don’t understand most of what I do, but this they get. . . . Throughout all my writing the shadow of dejecta looms.” Thrusting shit in our faces is part of Bellamy’s commitment to visceral honesty, wry abjection, and all forms of too-much-ness. It’s a way of answering her own childhood question by insisting that art can go to the bathroom, which is really a way of saying that art can represent the parts of ourselves we feel most ashamed of. One of her characters wonders if it’s true “that you can never trust anyone with a neat bedroom,” and Bellamy’s œuvre is the literary equivalent of a messy apartment: full of hard-ons, affairs, cat piss, genital infections, and vibrators drying on the dish rack.

For decades, Bellamy has burrowed a path through literary culture which has been simultaneously hugely influential and largely invisible. Now seventy years old, she occupies the cult-icon sweet spot: worshipped in certain literary circles and virtually unknown beyond them. She is part of a lineage of frankly personal, formally experimental, and unapologetically sexual artists—mostly female, some queer—which includes the writers Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, Kathy Acker, and Maggie Nelson and the visual artists Sarah Lucas, Ellen Cantor, and Jay DeFeo. Kraus—whose press, Semiotext(e), has just published “Bee Reaved,” a collection of Bellamy’s essays, many of which were written after the death of her husband, the poet Kevin Killian, in 2019—called Bellamy “one of the most important living American writers,” in a profile of Bellamy by Megan Milks. In the same essay, Nelson called her “an inspiration, a provocation, a legend, a treasure, and a call to arms.”

A call to arms against what, exactly? Against minimalism in the vein of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and the generations of writers who have idolized them, and against the ethos of restraint often preached in M.F.A. programs. During my own M.F.A. days, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the program’s venerated director, Frank Conroy, used to tell us that, whenever someone read one of our stories, it was as if that reader were climbing a mountain. Every detail we included was another object we were asking that reader to put in her backpack; it would piss off the reader to make her carry weight she didn’t ultimately need. Years later, when I encountered Bellamy’s work, I found myself thinking frequently of Conroy’s rule, because Bellamy violates it with such flamboyance, as if telling her reader: Put all this stuff in your backpack—I don’t care how heavy it is. She embraces gratuitousness—the electricity of transgressed boundaries—to create a certain invasive intimacy between reader and writer. In her work, she strives toward “a highly-crafted mystique of the unmediated that seduces the reader into profound discomfort.” Bellamy uses confession the way Lucio Fontana used knife slashes on canvases—as a gesture of both form and content, a way of creating a texture of radical and unexpected openings. In one poem, riffing on Emily Dickinson, she writes, “Tell all the truth but tell it like the Earth hatching.” This is what it feels like to hear Bellamy tell the truth—like a queer, disruptive form of birth.

Born in 1951, Bellamy spent her early years in Hammond, Indiana. Her father was a union carpenter and her mother worked in a school cafeteria; her brother ended up with a job in the steel factory near their childhood home. In one essay, Bellamy imagines him working in the “small windowed box” of a crane above the steaming vats of steel: “I can’t eradicate this image of my brother hovering precariously above a raging Inferno.” She goes on to recall her yearning to leave the world of her childhood:

I lived in notebooks, lying on my bed writing feverishly along their cool blue lines, while in the living room my father the carpenter smokes and cusses. . . . In my notebooks I dreamed I knew Latin and I lived in the Alps, where I hovered above the world craneless, educated and beautiful, with a mind lofty and brilliant enough to defy.

She writes, “It was the lie of art I wanted more than anything else as a child.” Ultimately, though, her writing has been an art not so much of lies but of steelwork: turning the hard metal of autobiography into something molten, a substance that sparks and hisses and flows. Although Bellamy’s writing resists traditional linear forms of autobiography—by jumping around in place and time and genre, veering between criticism and confession, and complicating her first-person perspective with various fictive alter egos—it is rarely far from her own experience. Taken as a whole, her books assume the shape of an exuberant, jagged mosaic of anecdotes, asides, riffs, and gossip, collectively telling the story of what Bellamy has called the “project of leading The Most Decadent Life Ever Lived By a Girl From Indiana.”

Bellamy’s working-class background has also sharpened her voice. “Both the elegance and shockingness of Dodie’s work seem to be about her class relation,” Eileen Myles, another blue-collar child, has said. “Part of the thing of feeling like you don’t belong in a room is that you’re kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, you think I don’t belong here, well, I’ll show you I don’t belong here.” Bellamy’s autobiographical narrators—often grumpy, resentful, self-pitying—are gleefully confrontational. A therapist tells her that she has “reverse charisma,” and one of her fictive alter egos calls an unsuspecting wife to say, “I just wanted you to know that Quincey and I have been having sex several times a week.”

After Bellamy left home to attend college, at Indiana University, she became involved in the spiritual group Eckankar, which she now considers a cult. She was in her first significant romantic relationship, which had begun when she was just eleven, with a girl whom she first met in kindergarten. They were together for fifteen years, and both of them became deeply involved in Eckankar. Bellamy, who left after ten years, now sees that she was drawn to the group by her deep hunger for connection. “I was dysfunctionally shy, a borderline agoraphobic, afraid to talk to salesladies in department stores,” she has written. “As Eckankar filled my life, I felt like I was entering Shangri-la; a new glistening world of love, of possibility opened before me.” Fascinating traces of these cult years linger in her aesthetic. The experience provided early exposure to the sublimity of the ordinary—sex, the physical world, the body—and offered glimpses of self-acceptance. For most of her childhood, Bellamy writes, “I would have dumped this lump called Dodie in a minute. When I joined the cult I no longer needed a dream world, no longer needed a glamorous avatar, for I was Soul and Soul is the most beautiful.”

Bellamy ultimately found an enduring sense of community in the New Narrative movement that emerged from the San Francisco poetry scene in the late seventies, especially in the workshops that the poet Robert Glück hosted in the bookstore Small Press Traffic. The writers in this group—many of them queer and making work that was often sexy and transgressive—embraced what Glück called the “found material” of autobiography and “the pleasures and politics of story, gossip, fable, and case history.” Bellamy took workshops at San Francisco State University and ran a reading series at Small Press Traffic, eventually becoming its director, in 1995. In 1998, when she was forty-seven, after a decade or so of writing in workshops and publishing with small indie presses, she published her début novel, “The Letters of Mina Harker.” The book, which Semiotext(e) has just reissued, is an epistolary novel written from the perspective of the heroine of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”: once a “plain-Jane secretarial adjunct to the great European vampire killer, Dr. Van Helsing,” but now a sort of vampiric spirit inhabiting the body of an AIDS-era San Francisco writer named Dodie. This hybrid perspective allows for a wry form of autobiography: we get Dodie’s largely happy open marriage to a character named KK (Kevin Killian), and her volatile affairs with a handful of men, told from the perspective of a spirit ravenous for sex and for emotional intensity. The device of being inhabited by Mina is a way of creating distance between the first-person “I” of the text and the identity of the writer: it’s a way for “Dodie” to stand outside herself, with Mina as the spectral distillation of her id. Bellamy writes, “There are so many Others camping out in Dodie’s body,” and this sense of crowdedness applies both to the body of the narrator, possessed by a vampiric spirit and constantly seeking the bodies of her husband and lovers, and also to the body of the text, which borrows prose from other writers. This chorus of Others is yet another way in which Bellamy insists on excess: she understands the self as a jostling horde of influences and intimacies, rather than as a coherent or singular entity.

If Bellamy is a patron saint of contemporary literary excess, it’s worth asking what makes this excess feel artful rather than merely, well, excessive. It’s partly a matter of observational acuity. Her avalanches of prose are studded with sharp moments of specificity, and her descriptions, though heated by curiosity, affection, or lust, are always cooled by wit. In “Mina Harker,” she describes one of her lovers as “a blind noun fumbling about for a seeing-eye verb,” and another as a man with “armpits reeking of musk and meanness [who] decorated his apartment in a style that I could only call ‘boys dorm’ [and] cooked jambalaya with a prepackaged seasoning mix—but when he lay down on my back I felt so hollow, his arms looming on either side . . . his colossal heart pounding my rib cage like a drum.” It’s a character sketch with a distinct emotional arc: the razor-sharp dismissiveness about the lover’s taste ultimately punctured by the desperate satisfaction of their bodies moving together, the raw sentiment of his pounding heart against her rib cage. Her desire wrestles with her frantic cognitive machinery; the mind appraising and rejecting, the body still craving.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Bellamy’s excessive prose, however, is her masterly deployment of brevity. Her snowballing associational riffs often stop short at a brief, blunt declarative sentence. An essay about her cluttered apartment meanders into a meditation on the “communities of symbiotic bacteria and viruses and fungi that live on and inside my body,” before arriving at a moment of aphoristic elegance: “My physical being is a hoard.” When Bellamy condenses sentiment in this way, it’s as if she had just taken an entire messy bedroom and stowed it in a fanny pack. (This, Frank Conroy could tolerate.)

“While the duck appears to be calmly working from home, under the surface it is frantically checking social media.”

Cartoon by Will Santino

In her fifties and sixties, Bellamy continued to calibrate her distinctive blend of excess and precision. She has written the kind of candidly sexual material that older female authors don’t often attempt, publishing two volumes of cut-up poetry—titled “Cunt Ups” (2001) and “Cunt Norton” (2013)—and a genre-bending collection of personal writings, “Pink Steam” (2005), which inspired a Sonic Youth song of the same name. In 2011, she published a memoir made up of blog entries, “The Buddhist,” recounting a self-destructive affair with a third-rate self-help guru. Her 2014 book, “The TV Sutras,” incorporates material that draws heavily from her own experience in Eckankar. In one scene, the narrator articulates a sense of stinging disappointment at hearing her spiritual master’s terrible jazz record: “How could an enlightened being produce music this bad and not even realize it?” Rather than simply disavowing or ridiculing cult belief, however, Bellamy tenderly explores this longing for meaning and community, asking, “Dare I reclaim what’s considered vulgar in spirituality?” Reclaiming vulgarity has always been at the core of Bellamy’s project: reclaiming the vulgarity of the body, in all its discomforts and desires, and reclaiming the vulgarity of unregulated emotions—needy desire, obsessive fixation, corrosive heartbreak, and, now, in “Bee Reaved,” the repetitive, all-consuming grief of widowhood, as the great scribe of excess turns her gaze toward its dark twin: loss.

At the end of “Mina Harker,” a character based on Bellamy’s husband crouches above Dodie and tells her, “I’m your house. . . . This is what you always wanted, isn’t it, a house that talks.” It’s a funny, sharp, sweet articulation of marriage: domesticity as gothic and playful and generative. In Kevin Killian, Bellamy found not only her life partner but also her greatest subject. For all the bad behavior and sensationalism that defines her writing, the most fascinating emotional plotline running through her œuvre turns out to be the story of her thirty-three-year marriage.

Bellamy met Killian during her early days in San Francisco, just before the onset of the AIDS crisis; she was queer and he was gay, a recent transplant from Long Island, but their friendship ultimately turned into a lifelong romance. “On the surface, you sounded like a horrible choice,” she writes. “An alcoholic homosexual who’d never had a mature relationship. But we could talk and I felt like I could tell you anything.” Their marriage was open, and in Bellamy’s autobiographical texts she and Killian often discuss the emotional dynamics of her affairs. The queerness of their union was liberating for her. “I sometimes think of heterosexuality as a form that never felt natural to me,” she has written. “Kevin came to me as a gift to create this in-between state; I see our marriage as a poem rather than an overburdened project proposal.” The fluidity that Bellamy sought in her creative life, living ecstatically between and across genres, found an echo in the fluidity of her emotional life, and of her marriage. In “My Mixed Marriage,” an essay published in the Village Voice in 2000, Bellamy writes, “Sometimes our lovemaking felt like lesbian sex, sometimes like gay sex, but it never felt like straight sex. . . . With straight guys I felt like I was alone in the dark, being acted upon. With Kevin, it felt like we were two people in mutual need and at equal risk.”

“Bee Reaved” explores many of Bellamy’s long-standing obsessions—abjection, shame, community, intimacy—but the vantage point of grief brings something new. The frenetic, gossipy relaying of events in earlier writing gives way to a pandemic landscape of dulled quietude. “Now she has things she always wanted—an office of her own, enough closet space,” Bellamy writes, of herself. “She mocks up excitement for her newfound expanses, then clenches with guilt, then she doesn’t give a damn.” Mourning alone during lockdown, she writes, “Widowhood is an anti-space.” But, in Bellamy’s rendering, grief isn’t so much the opposite of excess as its extreme: an emotion so large it has no edges. Bellamy “thinks back to a line she read in a Jungian book in the 1980’s, about women whose lives fell apart: the contained has lost its container.” She seeks out homes in form: the Bee Reaved of the book’s title is the tongue-in-cheek name of an alter ego she creates to inhabit her grief. Narrative becomes another “house that talks”—expressing experience by containing, bounding, and organizing it.

Reading “Bee Reaved,” I was struck by the sense that the outsized emotions in Bellamy’s previous works—heartbreak, familial distance, even the death of her mother—were a kind of training for mourning this great love on the page. In a 2015 essay about her mother’s death, Bellamy writes, “I have the urge to write down everything, to embalm the trivial against the onrush of death.” “Bee Reaved” asks us to recognize that the form of her work—frenzied association, heaping accumulation, sensual abundance—has always been driven by an awareness of mortality. There’s been a skull lurking in every cluttered still-life. Her style has been about death the whole time.

But now all her chaotic energy, once smeared across whole vistas, feels more contained. In these grieving essays, she digs deeper into the thorny dynamics of intimacy than she did in her more sensational early work. (As the husband character in “Mina Harker” remarks, “Not another sex scene!”) The emotional terrain of mourning is so inexhaustible, and so exhausting, that Bellamy keeps circling around it to peer at it from numerous angles: she does close readings of the movie car chases that Kevin loved; she explores a YouTube mogul’s grief for his dog, finding herself “ravenous for media images that resonate with my unendurable”; she summons the spectral, multifaceted figure of Kevin himself, “the mess of a popcorn-eating chainsmoking Stephen King fan I fell in love with.” Bellamy describes three decades of marriage as “a study in redundancy and variation, and so much love there is no need to fixate on any particular moment of it.” But these pages radiate an aching hunger to do justice to every particular moment. At one point, Bellamy addresses Killian directly: “How dare you leave without having resolved every narrative thread of our relationship. I’d weigh instances where you seemed to demonstrate love against that one time in the movie theater when you didn’t hold my hand.”

When Bellamy writes that grief makes her mind “a sticky thing that bits stuck to, random bits,” the image recalls the “heap of garbage” she would dwell in to resurrect her “other one,” as if creating a mound of memories and associations could bring him back. In the last essay in “Bee Reaved,” framed as a long letter to Killian, Bellamy writes, “I was eager to take on your dying, to totally devote myself to your sickness. It’s as if this hidden cave in my psyche opened and out flew a swarm of bats wearing little nurse’s caps.” It’s an unexpectedly and delightfully cartoonish image that summons a conflicted truth about pain: how it makes available parts of ourselves that we might not otherwise have known. Ultimately, however, its glee has the aftertaste of death—one of the most wrenching elements of “Bee Reaved” is how its artistry always gestures back to the cave of grief from which it emerged. As Bellamy puts it, “Anything I do to survive you is a betrayal.”

Throughout the collection, Bellamy’s use of the second person reveals a recognizable yearning: to resurrect the dead by staying in conversation with them. Relating Killian’s final hospital stay, she tells him about moments he wasn’t conscious for: “You would have loved the nurse. She had tattoos down her arms and was very performancy, dramatically announcing her every move.” In telling Killian the story of his own death, Bellamy hungers to bring him close to her again—to make even this experience something they can share.

The impulse to make writing a form of dialogue only intensifies something that has always been true of Bellamy’s work: it seeks the intimate texture of conversation. Reading her often feels like sitting at a bar with a friend who makes the world vibrate with wit, humor, tenderness, dynamic detail. Sometimes her perfectly distilled sentences make me wonder if her work would be stronger if it consisted only of these whittled moments, like pristine scrimshaw. But her writing feels more proximate and tender in its cultivated messiness, as if we were accompanying Bellamy through the undomesticated landscape of feeling in all its lush wilderness. How bloodless and transactional it would be to have friendships or marriages in which we offered one another only our best lines, rather than all the fumbling between them. It’s consoling, even consolidating, to be witnessed in our uncertainty, our banality, our clutter. Ultimately, the genre that Bellamy’s work tends toward is not the essay or the novel but partnership itself, and the promise of totality that it carries: the fantasy of a relationship that can hold everything. ♦

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