Digging Through Kathy Acker’s Stuff
Dodie Bellamy on the Intimacy of Wearing Acker's Clothes and Words
“Fashion is a dream haunted by dresses.”
All I wanted was a piece of her jewelry. Kathy’s executor, Matias Viegener, promised it to me a couple of years ago, so when I found myself staying in his Los Angeles home for four days in February, 2006, all I could think about was getting that jewelry. Matias’ living room is an airy trapezoid sparsely furnished with a modernist sofa, chairs and coffee table. Russel Wright vases and pitchers crowd the mantelpiece. Across from the seating area a wall, lined with art, juts into the room at a dramatic angle. There’s a mixed media piece by Steven Hall, a stark white canvas with candy-colored plastic flower heads stuck on it in even rows. A couple flowers are missing, their impressions remaining in the white background. Ghosts of flowers. I keep meaning to ask Matias if that’s part of the piece, or if some of the flowers just fell off, but I never do. The living room opens onto a kitchen and dining area which open on to a garden overgrown with shiny green leaves. The garden is cool and shady, and as I move toward it, I feel I’m tunneling into the dark gnarly roots of nature. Matias is working at the dining room table. “Hey, Matias, remember when you promised me a piece of Kathy’s jewelry.” He calls me “honey.” “Of course honey, you can have one.”
Matias tells me I can hook up my iBook to the DSL in his ex-boyfriend’s office. I search through the upstairs office, but can’t find an ethernet cable anywhere. The room is overflowing with books, discarded electronics, boxes. There’s an open door along the back wall, I climb over stuff and peek my head into a bathroom that has been ripped apart, with dusty Home Depot materials littering the floor. Forsaken. Since I’m up there, I snoop around in the rest of the rooms. I go into the master bedroom and lie down on the bed and stare at its sharply angled ceiling, imagining what my piece of Kathy jewelry will look like, ornate amethyst-studded silver like the piece I saw on the table at her memorial ceremony. I wanted it so bad, I almost snatched it. To the left of the bed I notice a door. I get up and open it to find an irregularly shaped, and teeny, concrete patio scattered with photo lamps wrapped with aluminum foil, cheap flaring lamps bigger than human heads, the kind the AV Department lent out when I was in college. The aluminum wrapping is comically low-tech, like props from an Ed Wood movie. “We from planet Zeron come to you in peace.” I cross the hall to the guest room, I’ve slept in this room before, and even though the desk obscures them, I know there are steps at the back which lead to a dressing room. I check it out, the dressing room’s still crammed with men’s clothing. At the back of the dressing room is a door, but I don’t open it. Shooting off of every room is another room, as if the house were continuously spouting new limbs. But where’s the fucking ethernet cable—I flash back to my last visit, get a vague image of Andy waving out of a tiny office, startling me as I climbed some stairs. I go down to the landing by the front entrance. The room’s no larger than a closet, but with a high ceiling, books and shelves and boxes, even the electric radiator, loom precariously above my head. The room is so vertical that when I sit at the desk I feel like I’m at the bottom of a well. No windows, odd slanty angles. I check my email quickly because the room is so cold, so Cabinet of Dr. Caligari off kilter.
I have a recurring dream where I discover a hidden room in my apartment. Sometimes the room is welcoming, sometimes the room leads to an elaborate basement maze full of dusty, decaying uninhabitable rooms I’m desperately trying to inhabit. Matias’ house resonates with both these dreams. I feel grounded and comfortable there, but amidst its Gothic angles and secret rooms, my unconscious bubbles, and I slip into a state of mystery and suspicion. When Matias informs me he’s moved into the guest room, so I’ll be sleeping in his bedroom, I’m taken aback. I stayed in the guest room on my last visit, its double bed that gave me a backache. Why is he putting me in the master bedroom with its comfy king-sized bed? And then it comes to me, the room must be haunted. Like what is with that closet? Its sliding mirrored doors have been flipped backwards, so the mirrors face the clothing, and panels painted flat white face outwards. The paint is fragmented in an elaborated stratified design. Matias says the paint has cracked on its own, is still cracking. What other renovations is the house making on its own, I wonder. I think of the cobweb in the bathroom with the big ass spider crawling around it, the rats in the attic Matias complains he has to get rid of—I’m convinced the house is alive, that it has a mind of its own. I feel fortunate that the house seems to like me. I putz around its kitchen in my bathrobe as if I owned it. Matias fixes breakfast while working the phone, we shout back and forth between the kitchen and dining room, between the living room and the dining room, sometimes I sit with him at the table, or we stand together in the kitchen sloppily eating mangoes and oro blancos. We sit in the living room on his boxy green sofa and he tells me that even though Kathy slept with many women she really wasn’t a lesbian, and even though she was into SM that wasn’t her thing, not really, what really mattered to Kathy was to be fucked really well. I say, “Don’t forget about that jewelry.” “No, honey, I won’t.”
In 1992 New Langton Arts invited me to present a talk for an evening on “Eros and Writing.” As I stood up to give my talk, a gushing tribute to the erotic charge I get from reading David Wojnarowicz and Kathy Acker, I surveyed the audience and noticed that Kathy herself was sitting dead center in front of me. “Oh shit,” I said to myself. How embarrassing, what if she hated it, what if she thought I was like this total idiot. It was hard to concentrate on what I was reading, I was trying so hard not to look at Kathy. When my gaze did stumble across her, she seemed to be smiling, which was good, as I’d seen her at another panel scowl dramatically when she didn’t like what Earl Jackson Jr. was saying about her. I finished my paper to moderate applause, determined to slip out of there without confronting Kathy, but Barrett Watten blocked my escape. He said something like, “I really liked that,” and kissed my cheek. I practically raced across the room to gossip about Barrett’s unexpected salute. I interrupted a conversation, pointed to my cheek, and said dramatically, “Barrett kissed me here. I’m never washing my face again.” And then I walked up to another friend, pointed to my cheek, and said dramatically, “Barrett kissed me here. I’m never washing my face again.” I was looking around for someone else to do my cheek routine for when I saw Kathy approaching. “Oh shit.” But she was very sweet. She brought up the long passage I’d quoted from Empire of the Senseless, where the narrator has sex with a toy dinosaur. Here’s a snippet:
Stray sprays of sperm streamed down the stuffed animal’s left leg. Our fucking had made her less fearful for the moment. She actually touched my arm and left her paw there. Then this paw pulled my arm to her monstrous body, lifted it and placed it on her swollen belly. Then she stuck the hand in and squeezed it between her two hot wide thighs. I thought that my hand was going to break.
“I love that passage,” Kathy said, “Juan Goytisolo wrote it. He’s great, isn’t he.” She said it so nonchalantly, with no sense of discomfort about owning or not owning the passage. I could have used some of Kathy’s entitled complacency three years later when my novel The Letters of Mina Harker finally came out. Inspired by Kathy, in it I stole from anything and everything that crossed my path. When The Bay Guardian reviewed Mina I was thrilled—until I realized the passage Traci Vogel quoted to illustrate my genius was lifted straight out of Gail Scott’s novel Heroine. To make matters worse, Gail happened to be in town that weekend. Gail was amused, but I was appalled. “The Guardian just thinks I have good taste in picking out Gail,” I moaned. “Big deal. I feel more like a shopper than a writer.” As I wallowed in self pity and despair, I forgot all about the tantalizing intimacy of wearing Gail’s text, how it was a tribute to her.
My sophomore year at college, I had a Liberian roommate named Sarah, who was always railing against our foolish American ways. One time Sarah went up to a woman at a party and said, “I like your blouse,” and the woman said, “Oh, this blouse, it belongs to Suzy. I just borrowed it.” “It belongs to Suzy,” Sarah snarled. “Who cares who it belongs to, it’s a nice blouse. These Americans!” Her anger was incomprehensible to me. Even then I sensed that an appropriated blouse is not just any blouse, it leaves traces of its original owner. It’s like watching 3-D without your 3-D glasses, those wobbly lines of energy bleeding from objects. I wonder how things would have gone down if it had been Kathy who was wearing Suzy’s blouse. Would she have attributed it or not? Would it even matter? Kathy had such élan, everything she touched was somehow made grander. Everything she touched she owned. Kevin Killian: She could be convincing, bending her body from the waist right into your face, turning those enormous eyes on you, making you feel—not listened to, exactly—but talked at in a most extraordinarily personal way, as though by being her audience of one you were fulfilling an important destiny you hadn’t even, until this moment, known was yours.
Possession is nine tenths of the wardrobe.
Sunday morning, we’re sitting on Matias’ stark orange sofa. Kathy ate tons of soymilk and tofu, Matias tells me, and that’s what gave her breast cancer. “Kathy was a victim of soy.” He says that after Kathy’s death he could feel her clinging to life. “I’d say to her, ‘Kathy, let go.’” But now he no longer feels her. “She’s gone.” I’ve know Matias since the 80s. He’s someone I’ve always felt rather shy and formal around, but this visit my heart opens to him. Disliking the same people helps. I tell him about running across an email I received shortly after the 2002 NYU Acker conference: Matias was very odd. He seemed to have no self. He was like the fag valet of the great diva who only lives for her. It was so old fashioned. I don’t have the email with me, so I paraphrase, “It said it was like you had no ego—as if that were a bad thing.” He says, that’s right, he didn’t want to have an ego at the Kathy conference. “There were so many EGOS walking around that weekend, they didn’t need mine added to the mix.” I chuckle heartily. Kathy wreaked havoc—wherever she went she left a trail of victims behind her. Since her death they’ve come back with a vengeance, plotting conferences, group readings, exhibitions, anthologies. Our conversation turns to certain people’s attempts to control and police Kathy’s image—and the silliness of anyone trying to own Kathy. “She was an anarchist!” Matias exclaims. Kathy, like her writing, was full of trapdoors—as soon as you think I’m getting this the floor drops out from beneath your feet. Hers is a world of basements within basements within sub-basements like Dario Argento’s film Inferno—or Matias’ house. Rumor has it that when Chris Kraus was working on Kathy’s biography, she was asking too many questions about Kathy’s sex life, and people were told not to talk to her. Which is hilarious, because Kathy would tell anybody who would listen about her sex life. “He didn’t want to use my toys, he wanted to use his own toys,” she shouted at me in a restaurant. “He is the worst top I’ve ever met.” Matias tells me it doesn’t matter whether or not he agrees with what somebody writes about Kathy. The important thing is to keep Kathy’s name alive—and to keep her books in print. “Matias, you’re so right, but I have to leave for the airport in like three hours and I still don’t have that jewelry.” “Okay, honey, we’ll look for it.”
He goes upstairs to the abandoned office and several minutes later returns with a cosmetic bag. “The jewelry’s not up there, but here’s her keys, would you like a key?” I look in the bag and there’s a dozen or more key rings loaded with keys. “Why’d she have so many keys?” “Most of them are motorcycle keys,” Matias says, as if that were an explanation. In the bag I spy a small silver ring shaped like a pharaoh’s head, with two naked women on either side, kneeling in supplication, and a silver charm of a spider on a web, holding a human skull in its rear legs. I remove the pharaoh ring from Kathy’s key ring and on slip it on mine. The spider charm’s kind of gruesome, but I pocket it along with the keys it’s attached to. I also take a set of keys with a red plastic tag that reads “Golden Gate Cycles of San Francisco.” Matias says, “The only other place the jewelry might be is in with her clothes.” So we go down to the garage and—surprise—behind the back wall of the garage there’s a storage room I didn’t know about.
On a shelf above our heads are stacked four large packing boxes. The bottom one is labeled in black marker “Acker’s Clothes” in Kathy’s own handwriting. The boxes were packed by professional movers on the eve of her return from London in fall 1997. When she arrived in San Francisco she checked into the Travelodge near me. Friends found her lying on the floor, buckled over in pain, so thin and weak she couldn’t make it to the toilet. Matias says a couple of boxes are missing, that originally there were twelve, but he “edited them down” to six. “Andy must have put the rest of them in his storage locker.” Once we get the boxes on the floor, we start to rummage through them. Matias pulls out a black mass of fabric. “This one’s my favorite—I’ll never get rid of it—because nobody has been able to figure out how you’re supposed to wear it.” It’s a dress, but it only has one sleeve and a sort of diagonal band stretching from where the missing armpit would be. I pull out another black wad and jostle it and hold it in various directions until we agree it’s a little pouffe skirt. Lots of flaps of fabric held together with buckles and straps. We examine piece after piece and ponder what part of the body it was meant to cover. “No, no, it’s not a dress, look at the way it wraps around here, I’m sure it’s a pair of pants.” Matias says Kathy didn’t take good care of her clothes, there’s food stains on them, for instance. Lots of Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Comme des Garcons, with a spattering of Betsey Johnson and Yohji Yamamoto. Matias holds up a Ralph Lauren bathrobe. “This can’t be Kathy’s,” he says, “Kathy would never wear Ralph Lauren.” I pull out a black Gaultier dress with some sort of velvety text embossed on the back. “Can I have this one?” “Sure.”
Memory: Kathy entering a room in a silver bodysuit that looked like a prop from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour, a tiny spacesuit that would fit a doll’s body. Everyone around her looking normal, in this diminished washed out way. Stuffed haphazardly in packing boxes, Kathy’s clothes feel devoid of will, abandoned, subverting sentimentality by their strangeness, their creepiness. Deconstructed 80s and 90s glitz. Since no regular person would wear them, could one say these clothes ever were in fashion? Memory: Kathy holding court in a femmy short plaid dress, empire style, tight around her bust then flaring out. Some kind of frou frou at the shoulders. She looked like a clown, but a totally confident, powerful clown. Thurston Moore: I knew Kathy A a little bit through the years, was attracted by her wildness but was always a bit conflicted by what I saw as maybe corny. Not corny like “painting in the 80s” or “madonna” but close, a true vibe of recklessness tempered the corn, not unlike Basquiat’s vibe. In retrospect, much like Basquiat, I see her, and her work, as wonderful. The gap between our intentions and the effects we create is what Diane Arbus ruthlessly brought into her photographs—a gap, that whenever I recognize it, opens a pang of love in me. Kathy managed to create exactly the effect she intended, but her clownishness, her bald construction of a persona also opened that gap. Aggressive trendiness slips into masochistic vulnerability. Again I think of 3-D glasses—whenever I watched Kathy it was like the red and blues didn’t quite line up. She moved through space, not singular, but a chord of being.
Acker: I was wild because I was protected—I could do anything—who was going to touch me—really touch me like those others, like those poor people in the world—are touched?
I dream I’m teaching a class at an art school and it’s going terribly, I’m unprepared and the students are listless, so I decide to give them a midterm—due in two weeks. I grab a piece of chalk and write, but nothing appears because the chalk is the same khaki green as the blackboard. Art historian Pamela Lee on camouflage: The will to blend into one’s surroundings, to be absorbed into space by reversing one’s distinction from it. The students complain they can’t read their assignment, so I find a white piece of chalk. It’s still difficult to write, but I finally manage to scratch out: “Write about a box—or build a box—that represents the otherness of death.” Acker: Let one of art criticism’s languages be silence so that we can hear the sounds of the body: winds and voices from far-off shores, the sounds of the unknown. Pamela Lee: The subject loses its borders—its figure—in succumbing to “the lure of space.” Acker: Over and over again, in our false acts of absolute judgment and criticism, we deny the realm of death.
Memory: Kathy’s ashes sit on a low table in the middle of Bob Glück’s living room, sealed in a gold colored box. Matias Viegener: In San Francisco we transferred her ashes from the anodized tin to a nineteenth-century French brass urn, something between Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts in style. Several of her friends gathered together to acknowledge her death, and then we spooned them from one receptacle to the other with a silver serving spoon. Everyone was crying. I didn’t touch the ashes. I didn’t want to, and I knew she wouldn’t have wanted me to. It’s not that Kathy wasn’t nice to me. She was. She gave me writerly advice, such as when you go out of town for a reading, if they put you up in a hotel find out where the hotel is or you might end up in a seedy neighborhood in a dump. But ours was a distanced relationship—we both knew that if we came too close it would have been Godzilla meets Mothra, screeches and roars, scales and feathers flying. As everybody else is scooping, Matias and Connie Samaras, who were with Kathy when she died, tell how they removed Kathy’s piercings before she was sent to the crematorium. “The one in her labia was Kathy’s favorite piercing.” These intimacies are revealed with a tone of reverence and a disarming matter-of-factness. Matias and Connie poking around in a dead woman’s genitals with no acknowledgement of the strangeness of the image—this is so Kathy.
Acker: One of my students had a piercing through her labia. And she told me about how when you ride on a motorcycle, the little bead on the ring acts like a vibrator. Her story turned me on so I did it. I got two. It was very cool.
Back to LA: I open the bathroom door and glimpse Matias in the guest room, perched on one foot, pulling on his jeans. The sweetness of his love for Kathy. When I get back home he emails that I’m easy to live with, except I take too long in the bathroom. I write back that everything that deals with my body takes a long time, but I pee really quickly. Another email is from Kathy’s French publisher who says she’s interested in looking at The Letters of Mina Harker. Then I get food poisoning and vomit my guts out. I’m reminded of the section in Mina where I get sick after licking a drop of blood from Kevin’s finger, how newly-turned vampires hang over the toilet once the transformation starts kicking in. Then my car gets broken into and my dry cleaning is stolen from the trunk. It’s been in there for three weeks, and never made it to the cleaners. What kind of pervert would steal a mess of funky clothes. Flashes of weird masturbatory rituals, like the guy who broke into Maureen’s house and jerked off over some of her underwear. Don’t be such a drama queen I tell myself, you’ll probably see them on 16th Street, on the sidewalk next to mildewed books and mismatched dinnerware, the tops all in a row, folded neatly as Kathy’s Gaultier dress that now sits atop my dresser. A tiny stretchy dress that must have pulled tightly across her body, a body sloughing skin, oozing perspiration. Her body. Will Kathy’s stuff change me, will it work some spell on my life? I walk through my days vigilant for evidence.
Other things start to go missing. My travel mug, the front of my car’s CD player, my reading glasses, my fountain pen, my kitten Sylvia’s toy, a 36-inch plastic rod with two six-inch neon yellow feathers. Then I remember that even before I left LA, I lost the back of my diamond earring. It fell into the gray carpet to the right of my bed. I saw where it landed, but it’s like it vaporized. For the rest of the weekend Kevin and I kept getting down on our hands and knees and inching across the floor, but we never found it. The earrings were a gift from my mother. She hit a royal flush on the poker machine, bought herself a pair of new, bigger diamonds. I got the old pair, one third carat total. They’re the only earrings I wear, not because I like diamonds, but because they belonged to her.
I find my glasses in my bathrobe pocket, go to the car and the front of my CD player is in the side pocket of the door (where I looked before) and my fountain pen is lying dead center in the middle of the driver’s seat, perfectly parallel with the seat back, as if placed ritualistically. I drive to the post office to mail a copy of Mina to the French publisher. The line is long, so as I wait I fill out the customs declaration form, it takes like a minute, but this British guy standing behind me says, “Excuse me, but the way it works is that you fill out your form before you get in line. That’s what I did—it’s common courtesy.” With his close cropped head and erect posture, he looks like the singer from Simple Minds, but with better teeth. I roll my eyes and say everybody fills out their forms in line, and then he drops another disdainful “common courtesy,” and we bicker some more, and then I point to the guy in front of me who is messily wrapping a package, and I say, “What about him, why aren’t you complaining about him, or is it only women you harass in line,” and the Brit spits back “common courtesy” and I find myself screaming, “Stop talking to me—you’re a looney tunes!” I can’t believe I used that expression—looney tunes—before this snooty Brit I’ve become this wailing mass of American vulgarity. Acker: I am a child of the forests and the wilds; I am all that is American. When I get home, missing: my cherished Kate Spade sunglasses, I paid $50 for them at Nordstrom Rack. I find a similar pair on eBay and order them.
I’m distracted and forgetful and can’t seem to get anything done; I feel stuck, as if my life were a web and I’ve blindly gotten myself all bumbled up in it. Missing: my wedding band and the iolite ring Lissa Wolsak made me. The next day Kevin finds them at the bottom of the wastepaper basket in the living room.
When I show the pharaoh ring to Amanda Davidson, she recoils, says that Kathy’s writing so destabilizes her, she couldn’t imagine taking on that energy. Amanda’s been watching a lot of Buffy lately, she knows how energy clings to things. I’ve been reading about voodoo—it all started with my fingernail that was hanging by a thread, it was so painful, snagging on a blanket or piece of clothing, sharp jabs melting to raw and tender, so I gave it a yank and threw it in the trash. And then I got to thinking how a voodoo practitioner would never be so sloppy, how the piece has the same energy as the whole, how somebody could steal that nail and do some real harm. On the internet I find that to inflict pain on Dodie, all you need is:
2 black candles
A voodoo doll
Nail clippings or hair follicles or any item belonging to Dodie
Pins or another sharp object
Light the two black candles on the altar, take the voodoo doll and visualize with intensity it is Dodie before you, if you have a photo of Dodie put her face on the doll along with her nail clippings and hair follicles or the small item belonging to Dodie, this will make the connection more powerful. Once you have worked up the negative energy needed and your anger drawn near its boiling point slam the doll onto the altar and stab at it once in the place where you wish to afflict pain, take more pins and stab the doll again, each time you do this visualize the doll being Dodie. Dodie could be thousands of miles away, it doesn’t matter.
I remember the bottle I found on the same shelving as Kathy’s clothes. It was a small rectangular bottle filled with brightly colored liquid, green or blue. I picked it up and moved it closer to my glasses. Floating in it were herbs, tiny Christmas lights, plastic toys, other unrecognizable stringy things. I decided it must be some kind of mojo bottle, it had to be, and a pang of dread and revulsion shot through me, similar to when peeling back the husk of organic corn I find a furry green worm writhing. I dropped the bottle onto the shelf. “That was Kathy’s,” said Matias. But I already knew that that—all the psychic healers and witch doctors she went to those last couple of years. “Would you like it?” asks Matias. Shaking my hand to remove contamination, I said, “No way.” Acker: To walk away from conventional medicine is to walk away from normal society. Mojo for luck: one piece of Sampson Snake Root and a piece of Devil’s Shoe Strings wrapped in a piece of Black Cloth folded always toward the maker and sewed with White Thread and then incased in a Red Flannel Bag, thoroughly wet with Whiskey or camphorated oil. Acker: When I walked out of the surgeon’s office and didn’t know where to go, I asked myself what I could know. Mojo for the return of an estranged lover: a black cat bone wrapped in cotton wool, fixed in a red flannel bag and dressed with Follow Me Boy Oil or Reconciliation Oil. Acker: I am a person who wants to live, I live to want to live, I sing with it, I am a creature meant for wildness transformed into joy. I got my black cat bone, all pure and dry/ I got a four-leaf clover, all hangin’ high./ Got my hoodoo ashes all around your bed/ Got my black snake roots underneath your head. Acker: My body has gone crazy. Shit lies over everything, the counterspace, the windowsill. Dripping down. Mojo to remove a jinx: a broken length of chain, a broken ring, a rat bone or toy plastic rat, a catseye shell, a miniature metal skull, a pinch of five finger grass, and a miniature dagger, fixed in a red flannel bag and dressed with Stop Evil Condition Oil, Jinx Removing Oil, or Uncrossing Oil. Acker: Inside my house, I started to scream. I couldn’t stop. Mucus poured out of my nose and mouth. I had been coughing convulsively for days. My body is a scream. I got a gypsy woman givin’ me advice/ I got some red hot tips I got to keep on ice./ I got a rabbit foot, I know it’s workin’ right/ I got a strand of hair I’m keepin’ day and night. Acker: Our father who beginneth all things I will not collude with you I will not die. Mojo for a wish to come true: seven wishing beans, a rabbit foot, and a piece of parchment upon which the wish has been written in Dragon’s Blood ink, fixed in a red flannel bag and anointed with Van Van Oil. Acker: I want to live, I really really want to live and more than that I want to be in wonder to dwell there I have tasted delight and once you’ve tasted delight you never want anything else.
On a closed-circuit television, the nurses in the Tijuana hospital watched Kathy die. Connie Samaras watched with them. As Matias holds Kathy in his arms, their arrangement reminds Connie of a Renaissance painting, her head tilting back over his shoulder. A painting on a black and white TV monitor, as Kathy dissolves to image she is so lovely she glows in the dark. Connie Samaras: Gently, I begin to touch you everywhere. I start by kissing your hand, letting my hair drift across your cunt. I look up. Delicately, I see you kissing the air. I ask Bob Glück if he thinks Kathy had a transformation at the end. “What I believe,” he says, his voice tense with held back emotion, “was that she was living in a magical world.”
Acker: The only religions are scatology and intensity.
When I return to LA the following June I visit Kaucyila Brooke’s studio in Koreatown. Kaucyila has photographed over 150 of Kathy’s oufits—a project that has been well received in Europe, but has never been shown in the States. As we look through stacks of work prints that cover a large table, our imaginations are sparked by Kathy’s weird designer garb. “That one looks like a gas mask,” I say. “And that one looks like a straitjacket.” Kaucyila holds up a print of an amorphous black blob, “At first I thought this one looked like a Rorschach blot, but now I think it’s a ballet slipper.” She points to the U-shape at the bottom, and I’m all, “You’re right, it’s totally a ballet slipper!” I’ve just met Kaucyila, so I’m nervous about wanting her to think I’m smart, that I can toss about art babble with the best of them, but fantasizing about the pictures is like playing with dolls, and I soon find myself relaxing. Kaucyila says Kathy had a bit of Liberace about her. Imitating Liberace, Kaucyila twirls around and exclaims, “How do you like my outfit?” Once when Kaucyila saw Kathy read, she twirled as well. Kaucyila twirls with her and says, “How do you like my tattoos?” Kaucyila and I agree to a trade—an artist’s proof of one of the photos in exchange for a catalogue essay to be written when needed. I choose # 9, Kaucyila’s favorite, a simple stretchy black dress that she stuffed so it’s awkward and misshapen. Kaucyila says it reminds her of her attempts as a child to draw a dress. I find the photo sweet and a bit pathetic. Perfect. When I take it in to be framed, Kelly, the framing girl tells me she went to the San Francisco Art Institute when Kathy taught there. Kelly, who’s wearing layers of retro-punk black, thick black eyeliner with shadow so dark she looks like she’s been punched in the eye, extravagant deep magenta lips lined with black, says, “She sure had some crazy outfits.”
With her big red lips, her short blonde hair cut in spirals like a crop circle, her gym-taut body, tattoos, tight little dresses, eyes as round and bright as a spaniel’s, Kathy exuded a potent femaleness. Matias said she was a shopaholic; if she found something she liked, she’d buy one in every color. When Bob Glück went sofa shopping with Kathy, she spotted a sofa with winged armrests, pointed at it from across the room, and shouted, “I want that one.” In the 80s she spent $100 a month on face care products she mail-ordered from Canada. Kathy was always commending her hairdresser, her masseuse, her trainer, her psychic, her mechanic. I imagined a line of support staff trailing after her, their arms draped with steaming white towels. Despite her virulent consumerism, she critiqued capitalism—often and grandly. Everything Kathy did was grand, was instantly transformed to myth. In the early 90s, before the internet was ubiquitous, when it still had a William Gibsonesque radical hip cachet, Kathy announced in that deathly serious way of hers, “I spend four hours—each day—online.” The clothes are superfluous to Kathy’s writing, her real legacy—or are they? Could there have been a Kathy Acker without the clothes? Kathy understood image, its fluidity, its hypnotic power. A smokescreen, a puff of smoke—and out steps Kathy, a Gaultier-clad Houdini amazing the crowd.
I go to Sephora to try on NARS Orgasm, the most popular of all blush colors. On the sidewalk outside the cosmetic superstore a teenaged girl with short spiky blonde hair sits begging. She’s holding a cream colored Teddy bear in her lap. Her smile says aren’t I cute and vulnerable and young and aren’t you just dying to take care of me—as if the sidewalk were her bedroom of suburban dreams. I think of Kathy’s habit of chaining a stuffed animal to her exercise bike at Gold’s Gym—as if to announce, I’m hardening my body, but I have a soft corny heart. Inside Sephora women in all directions stand in front of round mirrors smearing on makeup. I find the NARS Orgasm and get a wedge of foam. As I swipe the foam of across the blush I think I’m dipping into a pot of female contagion. I rub it on, but the light’s terrible and it’s hard to see what I’m doing. I also try the matching Orgasm lip gloss. It’s sticky and unbearable, like having your lips smeared with cum that will never dry, never wash off. I leave the store with dark peachy clownish cheeks, a streak of mascara smeared across my left cheek and ear. White rapper a block up Powell Street: cracking up, cracking up, the world in bits and pieces.
As I reach into my bag Kathy’s pharaoh slips himself around my pinkie. Kathy’s keys unlock the pharaoh’s tomb/a foot-thick door made out of desert concrete swings open/stale air rushes out/the angry dead spirit has been waiting 3,000 years for an unwitting fool like me to spill a drop of blood on her sarcophagus. When I got back to San Francisco I ran over to Bed and Bath and bought the same electric sharpener that Matias has. WARNING reads the instruction manual KNIVES WILL BE SHARPER THAN YOU EXPECT. I core an apple and slice into the pad of my right thumb, dead center across my fingerprint. The bleeding is extravagant, bright red—drip, drip.
A copy of Kathy’s Hannibal Lecter, My Father appears on my bedroom floor. A note tucked inside reminds me the book was a farewell gift from Laurie, a student who graduated a couple of years ago. Kathy would tell her students at the Art Institute, “Don’t let anybody tell you how to write”—a warning I gave to Laurie as well, to no avail. Kathy apparently didn’t criticize student work, she just gave them permission. A typical Kathy assignment: write a piece in which you have sex with the most disgusting person in your family. Lynn Breedlove told me Kathy advised them to write while masturbating. Acker: One thing I do is stick a vibrator up my cunt and start writing—writing from the point of orgasm and losing control of the language and seeing what that’s like. Vanity Scare. The Art Institute was too sterile for her methods, so she held her classes at a bar—the appropriately gothic Edinburgh Castle. Bob Glück theorizes that students didn’t learn from Kathy, they absorbed her. Kathy’s ghoulish white face looms out at me from the back of Hannibal Lecter. All other details are obscured except a half-zipped leather jacket. The jacket splits open with the curvaceous grace of a calla lily, Kathy’s head is its pistil, her right ear dripping with gewgaws, a studded choker about her neck, her short bangs dipping into a V, her puffy lips hinting at a pout. Beside her head, a quote from her “Diaries of Laure”: This writing is all fake (copied from other writing) so you should go away and not read any of it. She looks like Billy Idol in his “White Wedding” video. Hey little sister, shot gun. Inside the book on the title page in the top right corner, written in black ballpoint: Love, Acker. Kathy’s round childlike printing is unmistakable. I write in my journal: Kathy’s leaving me breadcrumbs—she’s the witch at the end of the trail, stoking the fires of her big cunt oven. I crack open the open Hannibal Lecter at random and read: The desperate needs I feel are now burning.
Kathy’s unwashed Gaultier dress sits on my dresser, exuding flakes of energy. I keep trying to figure out a way to talk about it. I compare the dress to a doll, I sexualize it, I have sex and think about it. I write: Kathy’s Gaultier dress sits on my dresser, me on my bed writhing and grunting. It’s as if the dress has consciousness, is waiting for something, as I come I hear something coming from the dresser, something faint, a rustle, a breath. I write: Kathy’s dress sits atop my dresser, a dress that would fit a really small woman or a really big doll, we all want to turn the dead into dolls who do our bidding. I write: Kathy’s dress sits atop my dresser and I want to turn this dress into a doll, it would resonate with voodoo, would resonate with Kathy’s stolen doll fucking passage, but the dress refuses to budge in that direction—the dress has presence, an aura, it sits there haughty as a popular girl who refuses to talk to me—stubbornly inanimate. Then I find my notes from Alicia Cohen’s talk on orphic poetry at Small Press Traffic. My journal is dated March 24, in green ink. Beneath that is written: Levinas—the philosopher never attempts to reveal/penetrate/grasp otherness. Then more fragments about how orphic poetry implies an openness to listening, to what speaks through you. The point is to greet rather than capture and contain the self. I write in the margin in black: This sounds so Kathy. At this point everything’s starting to sound like Kathy. How stupid of me to try to push Kathy’s dress into some clever “meaning” rather than allowing it to speak on its own terms. To enter the dream beneath the seeming concreteness of reality, one must be vigilant. It’s like watching digital TV and waiting for those places where the image suddenly pixilates, disrupting the predictable narrative flow. You never know when it will happen.
I remove Kathy’s dress from my dresser, determined to listen to it. The dress has a wool skirt and high neck, the sleeves and back are sheer black mesh. Embossed on the back is a round shield made of black flock, a consecration cross with 69 in the center, a leaf pattern is wedged between the blades of the cross, and two lightning bolts snake down from either side. Arching above the cross are words in a stylized Goth font that are all but unreadable. In LA, Kevin, Matias and I spent half an hour trying to make sense of them. Kevin came up with “Too Fab To,” but then we gave up. I get a couple sheets of typing paper and slip them inside the dress, so that the Goth text now lies on a white background. It is only then that I realize there are words arching beneath the cross as well. Too fab to—too fab to what? Looking closely, there’s an extra letter, so it can’t be fab—it’s too fast to—but the final word remains indecipherable, it begins with what looks like a down arrow followed by an arrow with points at both ends. I turn to the bottom, and within minutes I’ve come up with TOO YOUNG TO DIE, which fills me with the creepiness of messages that came through my high school Ouija board. The top I finally figure out, reads TOO FAST TO LIVE. Too fast to live, too young to die—a punk anthem, a line from that horrible James Dean song by the Eagles, the name of Vivienne Westwood’s boutique before she changed it to Sex.
Digging through my nightstand for my glasses or my fountain pen, I find the Buddhist book on ghosts I brought back from San Diego last summer. When I saw A Discussion of Ghosts lying beside my bed in Eileen Myles’ guest room, I was tempted to steal it. Instead I hinted for it, and when that didn’t work, I whined, “Can I have this Eileen. Please.” Eileen said she’d bought it for someone else, but she’d “lend” it to me. Of course I hope to never give it back to her. I open it, ravenous with possession. Here’s what Venerable Master Hsing Yun has to tell me. Ghosts are more afraid of people than we are of them, ghosts move about in the dead of the night to avoid dangerous humans. If you hold a red rose out to a ghost then drop it, the ghost will ravenously jump on it and the rose will turn into the bone of a corpse. Happy ghosts live pleasant lives full of good food and beautiful clothes. They have vehicles to take them wherever they want to go. Many ghosts feel shame and embarrassment and envy. It is common for them to be confused, to ask, “How did I get this way?” Acker: I want to live, I really really want to live. There are ghosts who know wealth and prominence, there are ugly ghosts with runny noses and sores all over their bodies, greedy lustful cheating ghosts, ghosts who have a lot of fun, dirt poor ghosts, beautiful ghosts, temple ghosts, city ghosts and country ghosts. There are ghosts with long disheveled hair who wander about homeless, ghosts with dignity, ghosts without it, regal ghosts who live in fine castles, ghosts who are seven miles tall with skinny little necks, ghosts as small as newborns—but all ghosts, no matter what they look like or what they own, are hungry. If you care for your ghosts you leave them offerings of food. This essay is food for Kathy. Acker: Pain exists because it means; the world is meaning. When you scream, it is love. Cry, darling; the earth has been parched for a long time. You will be cooled down. Things come/ things return/ things open up their attributes. The dead are uncontainable, all we can do is greet them, allow them their otherness. Hello, Kathy, I humble myself before your otherness, an otherness I will never comprehend. I promise I won’t even try.
I didn’t like Kathy. I did at first, but then she set her sights on this guy I was having an affair with. She’d seen Ron around for ages, but the week I started sleeping with him, she looked at him across the room and said to Bob Glück, “I feel hunger,” and started barraging Ron with “Let’s have coffee,” “Let’s get together some time and talk.” She was relentless. “I don’t know why Dodie’s so cold to me,” she said to Kevin, all innocent. My boyfriend wasn’t the only boyfriend Kathy, who never stopped subverting bourgeois notions of ownership, tried to sleep with. Thus I wrote in “Delinquent,” my essay about Kathy:
Feminism failed because women are thieves. Never having owned anything, not even their selves, they filch texts … souls … dreams … space. The text has no power over its own violation, thus its name is WOMAN.
In an earlier version I had “boyfriends” included in the list of things women filch, but Kevin convinced me to remove it. I didn’t scoop up Kathy’s ashes because I didn’t want to violate her. I imagine the fury of Sylvia Plath’s spirit when home-wrecker Assia Gutman rummaged through her papers and declared that someday she might be Plath’s biographer.
My fingernail grows back gnarled as a mutant claw that thrusts out of the shadows to scare children and rape beautiful dark-tressed women. Even I can’t love it. It reminds me of stillborns in the teratology journal I looked at while temping at the UCSF med school, specimens so scrambled my brain stuttered trying to make sense out of them. Do the jumbled clothes of a cult writer nine years after her death, stacked in storage boxes in a room at the back of a garage mean anything? The clothes shift and twist—no logic in their contortions beyond the dumb fact of their being uninhabited. Sometimes I get all left brain and I tell myself to stop being so superstitious, so woo woo mystical about all of this. “These effects of Kathy’s,” my left brain says to me, “these trinkets of wool and silver, are just objects, mere dumb objects.” But no matter how I try to rationalize them, they will not stop pointing beyond their thingness listen to me listen to me. Acker: To live was to stay alive and not be reduced to materiality. So here’s how I read them:
Gaultier dress = brevity of human existence
Spider charm = NO BULLSHIT when the death spider’s legs forcep themselves about your skull
Pharaoh ring = eternal life/the afterlife
Kevin wants to watch The Skeleton Key. “What’s it about?” “It’s scary and it stars Kate Hudson.” “Okay.” Kate is a caretaker for the dying. To an old black man who’s lying in a hospital bed, she reads a passage from Treasure Island that’s been edited to the edge of incomprehensibility:
I lost no time, of course, in telling my mother all that I knew, and we saw ourselves at once in a difficult and dangerous position. Something must speedily be resolved upon, and it occurred to us at last to go forth together and seek help in the neighbouring hamlet. No sooner said than done. Bare-headed as we were, we ran out at once in the gathering evening and the frosty fog. The hamlet lay not many hundred yards away, though out of view, on the other side of the next cove; and what greatly encouraged me, it was in an opposite direction from that whence the blind man had made his appearance. [Close-up to the old man’s glazed-over eyes.] And I shall never forget how much I was cheered to see the yellow shine in doors and windows; but that, as it proved, was the best of the help we were likely to get in that quarter. For—you would have thought men would have been ashamed of themselves—no soul would consent to return with us to the . . .
When the old man’s eyes stare off into nothingness and close, Kate takes his pulse and says, “Sorry, Mr. Talcott’s gone.” Kate’s supervisor tells her to throw away Mr. Talcott’s stuff, but inside the dumpster are several file boxes full of other dead people’s stuff, so Kate opens Mr. Talcott’s box and takes a key ring shaped like a guitar that reads LIVE FAST DIE YOUNG. She puts her keys on it then drives to her new job as a private nurse in the New Orleans swamps. The swamps are dreamlike and frightening, and in the attic of her new house, Kate unlocks a hoodoo room full of bottles with all sorts of squirmy herbs and organs floating inside them. Kate’s new employer Gena Rowlands is secretly an ancient hoodoo mistress. Gena steals a lock of Kate’s hair in order to perform a soul switching ceremony so she can appropriate Kate’s young dewy body as her own. We know Kate is really Gena when she lights up one of Gena’s long brown cigarettes. New text, old soul. After viewing the movie, the abridged version of Treasure Island, vague as a fortune teller’s warning, perfectly foreshadows Kate’s plight. We turn off The Skeleton Key and land on Bride of Chucky. Jennifer Tilly, trashier than ever, stitches the smashed killer doll back together, places him in the center of a yellow pentagram that’s positioned in the center of a circle, and reads out loud from Voodoo for Dummies. With her deep Kewpie doll voice and with her big breasts about to tumble out of her corset, Jennifer invokes Chucky back to life. Then Chucky sticks Jennifer’s soul into a bride doll and the rest of the film involves Jennifer and Chucky’s attempts to perform a soul switching ceremony so they can appropriate the young dewy bodies of a pair of high school lovers as their own. Two hoodoo soul-switching plots back to back, what are the odds? I’m tired and it’s late and it frightens me how Bride of Chucky rhymes with The Skeleton Key which rhymes with so much about my experience with Kathy—Kathy’s rewriting of Treasure Island in Pussy King of the Pirates, hoodoo bottles, digging through boxes of a dead person’s stuff, taking a charm. How LIVE FAST DIE YOUNG on Mr. Talcott’s guitar eerily echoes TOO FAST TO LIVE, TOO YOUNG TO DIE on Kathy’s Gaultier dress.
Burroughs said that cut-ups predict the future. But it’s not just cut-ups. Intense writing creates a vortex and the world opens to be read. It’s not about meaning, it’s about accident, pattern, connection. That night I dream of Kathy’s writing. When I wake up all that remains is “words are like flames” and I think of the room full of candles in both hoodoo conjurings. Also in my head is, “words are like sand,” and I think of the brick dust Kate Hudson sprinkles along a doorway to keep out those who would harm her.
Acker: Are your books in any way methods for altering perception?
William Burroughs: As far as they can be.
Acker: How far do you think literature can work in that area?
Burroughs: Any pain and consequence, you can read. In other words, there’s a story in it—not a message. Not a message, but a story.
More of the dream comes back to me. Kevin and I are at our 20th anniversary party and we’re running through a parking lot dressed as a bride and groom. I got my dress at the Goodwill for $20—or at least I think I did for in the dream I can’t quite remember—and there’s a car in the parking lot full of the band who was just playing elsewhere in the restaurant and they’re going to their next gig, at a tacky chain restaurant and they’re rationalizing it’s a quality chain, but I know it’s Chucky Cheese. Acker: Come and make love to me. One kiss from your lips and all the animals will again appear. I Google “Kathy Acker flames sand,” and the first hit is an article I wrote for the NYFA Quarterly—the section where we’re transferring Kathy’s ashes. Bellamy: FLAMES crackled in the fireplace, throwing shadows across the walls and ceiling, and across the tense faces of the 17 of us present. Bellamy: Afterwards, I kept thinking about Kathy’s ashes, their gritty materiality, the way they fell out of our hands and into the urn, how ashes both fill up and conform to the surround. I connected this with Acker’s writing. Having no center, her writing could infiltrate other avatars, other texts—from Charlotte Brontë to Rimbaud to George Bush Senior to scenes from the soaps she sometimes watched while working on her novels. Like SANDs through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives. My thumb slips on the keyboard and iTunes begins playing “Frederick.” Patti Smith: all of the power that burns in the flame. In her essay “Painful Bodies: Kathy Acker’s Last Texts,” Nicole Cooley describes a reading Kathy gave in March 1997, just six months before she died: Her performance was nothing short of riveting. On stage, in the dark, dressed in white, Acker read from “Eurydice in the Underworld.” Her voice was low, her body completely still, the audience enthralled. As so often, Kathy’s outfit seems intrinsic to the experience. A slash of white in the darkness, she becomes an angel, Eurydice the death angel, her completely still body bleached in the darkness like a marble figure perched atop a tomb. When we transferred her ashes to the urn, ashy dust poofed into the air. All of us must have breathed it in. Video clip of Kathy from the 80s. She’s sitting in a chair, swimming in an oversized black leather jacket with thick white stripes on the biceps. A black leather bandana is wrapped about her head, and her cropped hair has been dyed the same reddish brown as her leopard spotted pants. She plays with a huge rectangular earring as she says: We have to be allowed to talk about things. We have to talk about things as they are. If I wrapped a swatch of the dress, the pharaoh ring, the spider charm in bag of red flannel and dressed it with virgin olive oil, what would my mojo bring to me? From what would it protect me?
From WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD. Used with permission of Semiotext(e). Copyright © 2015 by Dodie Bellamy.