On Kathy Acker: A Desk, A Disease, An Accounting

"I find Kathy’s stuff and have that feeling I sometimes get of not being alone."

Even now, it is strange to me.
I have no idea why I am telling it.

*

In May 2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I have a history of breast calcifications, and had undergone, three years before, a needle biopsy on the same spot that later held malignant cells. Left breast, over my heart. But no, the diagnosis wasn’t initially clear, it was pre-cancer, stage zero, a point so small, the doctor wanted to do an excisional biopsy (also called a lumpectomy) to confirm the disease and maybe get it out. And yes, the cancer was real and still there, so I underwent a second surgery a week later. This time, they cleared the margins, which meant I would not have mastectomy and I could go to theory camp that summer which is what I was calling the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University, where I had a fellowship to study madness. I don’t remember where I was heading on the day the doctor called and said I could keep my breast. That’s not how she phrased it. That’s what I wrote in a text to a professor on my dissertation committee. I was sitting on a bus in Denver. I don’t remember if I was going somewhere or returning to a temporary home.

*

Protection from the mojo hand: Here is Kathy Acker’s zippo lighter in the shape of mountain lion’s head. Or maybe a panther, a pussy for sure. Silver pewter, it feels smoothly cool in my hand, fine lines covering its head, neck, and chest. Cubic zirconia set as small eyes, muzzle whisker-lined and spotted with follicles. The animal’s mouth is open. Two lines of sharp teeth guard her grotto-like throat. Press back on the ears, lesser-known erogenous zone, and a flame fills and exceeds the mouthy orifice. On the bottom, a small sticker reads “Modern Japan.”

Unlike most medical stories, all the horror in this one occurs in its beginning.
Gradually there will come an end to the fear. 

At the time of the first biopsy, I was writing an essay on Kathy Acker and her Don Quixote, which opens beautifully, paradoxically with an abortion and a conception: an aborted fetus, a conceived idea. The death that composts life. Kathy’s narrator, Kathy-catheter, is on a mission “to right every manner of political, social, and individual wrong.” To do this, she must become a knight, a “female-male or night-knight,” and this requires the abortion (say night-night as in bye-bye), which will turn the hospital gown of “pale or puke green paper” into a book or armor that protects, deflects, guards.

So much of Acker’s writing is about reading and what she was reading, and this is also how her work, aside from its appropriation, is like Cervantes’ Don Quixote; both books (and Acker’s literary corpus, which is to say her life) are what happens when you, as Kathy says in an interview, “use fiction as a way in [your] life and in [your] writing.” There is a superstition among writers that what you write will also happen to you, which is why one writer I know wrote a story in which she got everything she wanted, though it turned out she didn’t want very much. To meet her lover but not to fuck him. To meet her lover while refusing to be touched, penetrated, changed by the encounter. Kathy writes and fucks her lover, no gentle aversion but saying yes to that swirling void of mental + corporeal, metaphoric + literal, thinking + feeling. To stand, like God’s Job, before an extreme fissure. To listen to the voice emerging from chaos and not turn away.

* 

Protection from bicycle mishap: Citibank A’Advantage statement. Closing date: 10/12/94. Kathy’s charges trace a route from San Francisco through Dunsmuir, CA, into Bend, OR, White Salmon WA, Moscow, ID, where she stays for several days. She buys stuff: Bookpeople of Moscow, Palouse Country Sports, Ken’s Stationary. She stays at the Best Western University Inn. On a different statement, closing date: 9/12/94, still in San Francisco, she visited Comic Relief, The Booksmith, Backseat Betty for lingerie. Miles accumulated one billing period: 942. Miles accumulated the billing period before: 325. Amount taken as a cash advance: $500. Fee for cash advance: $10. 

I find Kathy’s stuff and have that feeling I sometimes get of not being alone. I spread the items across my bed and look at them. I lay with them.

After the surgeries and back in Los Angeles, I began transforming my stepdaughter’s teenage bedroom into a writing office. This required sanding and painting the walls (I hired guys) and painting the ceiling (I did that myself). In the basement, I took apart Kathy Acker’s writing desk so I could move it into my new office. I was home alone and two weeks into a six-week course of radiation therapy. I was tired, but not too tired to carry the desk upstairs, as long as I carried it in pieces. The desk had been in my basement for more than 10 years as part of the Les Figues Press office; Matias Viegener, Kathy’s friend and literary executor, offered it when Vanessa Place and I moved our family and Les Figues into the house. I took apart Kathy’s desk like I’d done many times. I looked at her photo of Jean Genet, taped to the desktop. I took out the drawers, their familiar marks of L or R, but this time I saw something new: materials that had fallen into the back of the desk, behind one of the lower drawers. Papers, mostly, but also a few items. A lighter. A pen and an ink cartridge. I put the cartridge into the pen and began to write. 

When I walked out of that surgeon’s office, I thought that I might be about to die, to die without any idea of why. / My death, and so my life, would be meaningless.

Protection from courting in tall grass: This is my favorite found item—a list in Kathy’s loopy handwriting, entitled “PACKING LIST,” except the “I” is also an “O,” or an “O” with an “I” drawn through it. “PACKING LOST.” 1) INMEMORIAM I– MY CORRECTIONS – II. 2) JOURNALISTIC PIECES – 3) GIRL GANGS TAKE OVER THE WORLD – early version of 4) DON QUIXOTE – MY CORRECTIONS – 5) GREAT EXPECTATIONS – MY CORRECTIONS – 6) JUVENALIA – INCLUDING RIP-OFF RED& SEVERAL LONG SHORT STORIES, UNPUBLISHED 7) EARLY TRILOGY – HOW I SENT THEM OUT 8) VARIETY – WITH MY CORRECTIONS 9) ORIGINAL ART – FOR IN MEMORIAM– COMIC STRIP FOR DENNIS COOPER BLOOD AND GUTS EMPIRE OF THE SENSELESS 10) SMALL TEXTS WITH CORRECTIONS

Anna Joy Springer says that Kathy makes visitations, like a saint, I add, or the Virgin Mother Goddess. The objects I find, my new small personal archive of Acker items, sat undetected for nearly 20 years. Before it was in our basement, Kathy’s desk was I don’t know where, at CalArts for some period of time. Certainly, it was taken apart and put back together repeatedly and by several different people. I don’t know what Kathy wants me to discover in this mix of items. Anything, object or experience, can become a means for divination. Candle wax, flame, or smoke. Coffee grounds or tea leaves, shoes or walking. Birds, dust, needles, clouds, roosters. Blood stains on a menstrual pad. Yoni yoni. Divination: “The action or practice of divining; the foretelling of future events or discovery of what is hidden or obscure by supernatural or magical means; soothsaying, augury, prophecy.” Does the supernatural hide the sought nugget or reveal it?

I find Kathy’s stuff and have that feeling I sometimes get of not being alone. I spread the items across my bed and look at them. I lay with them. I google “Kathy Acker cancer” on my phone. I begin reading her essay “The Gift of Disease,” republished on Outward from Nothingness, in a special section edited and curated by Gabriela Torres Olivares, who also translated Kathy’s essay into Spanish. After the two lumpectomies, while at theory camp studying madness and sweating and slowly healing, I was also editing and designing Enfermario, a story collection by Gabriela Torres Olivares, translated by Jennifer Donovan, published by Les Figues. In one of the stories: “Once upon a time there was a cancer and, although there had often been many and there will continue to be many and many more will follow, it is necessary to mention that this one was special. In addition to teeth, hair, and fingernails, it had a hollow center. A space where it stored molecules of remembrance. We are, in fact, discussing a cancer with memory.”

I had already learned one thing, though I didn’t at the time know it:
that I live as I believe, that belief is equal to the body.

*

Protection from stagnation: I imagine him as one of Kathy’s relations, a nephew or cousin, with a nose like hers and a similar closed-mouthed smile. This is his school photo. On the back, in blue ink, someone wrote “12 yrs.” On the front: poufy dark brown hair and thick eyebrows. Lighter brown eyes, steady gaze, pale skin with medium tone. His green izod shirt has an orange alligator. There’s a spot of ink on his cheek.

I did not come to Kathy’s writing willingly. But everyone kept talking about her, and by everyone, I mean people in and around the experimental art and writing scene in Los Angeles, circa 2005-06, people who were becoming my friends. Maybe that’s why I had a Kathy Acker book in the car when Vanessa and I stopped for gasoline on Beverly Blvd. We were in the white Volvo station wagon, heading downtown for the Last Sunday of the Month reading series at The Smell, which I curated with the boys (that’s another story). Vanessa was pumping the gas, so I opened and read a brief passage, from the beginning of “Florida,” I think. It made me angry. Why, I ranted, was this considered such a big deal. In those days, I was often angry and only later, when I could be more curious about and less driven by my emotions, could I sense beneath this anger to the jealousy and resentment of a dispossessed self. I wanted and did not want to say cunt if I wanted to, like I wanted and did not want to be a fucking cunt. A people-pleasing cunt, can I be that, please.

Make me feel worthless, poor, invalid, shameful or hateful and I’ll know you love me. Keep me in sight. Make me go to war.

But everyone kept talking about Kathy’s work, so I brought Literal Madness: Three Novels to the Warhammer 40K Convention in Anaheim, CA—at that point, that’s the only one of her books we had. It was my stepson’s 10th birthday, and this was his outing, along with his best friend, Nik. All day, I followed the boys around the terrains and battlefields, plus the periodic non-warring activity like painting or gluing together newly-imagined units or lords. My job was to keep the boys in view and thus safe from sexual predators. And while the boys battled, I sat on the floor reading Kathy Goes to Haiti. I was one of maybe 20 women in a room of nearly 1000 males. I didn’t know what to make of Kathy Goes to Haiti, but sometimes I was very turned on. A year or two later, in preparation for a writing workshop with Lance Olsen, I read Blood and Guts in High School and that’s when, true to my proselyting childhood, I wanted to proclaim the good news: DEAR GOD, EVERYONE! YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK BY KATHY ACKER AND RIGHT NOW! Because guess what everyone? We generally date versions of our parents, and the abused and neglected and wounded among us seek lovers who will evoke the feeling of pain that, neurobiologically, we’ve patterned and named loved.

Make me feel worthless, poor, invalid, shameful or hateful and I’ll know you love me. Keep me in sight. Make me go to war. In Blood and Guts, Kathy collapses individual and political violence by literalizing Janey’s sexual relationship with her father who is also her “boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement, and father.” This, along with the serious humor of her profound exaggerations and hyperbolism, triggered such sweet relief—to find the words that will make you get my emotional point. That’s the fantasy, anyway. “My wound is inside me. It is the wound of lack of love. Since you can’t see it, you say it isn’t there. But I’ve been hurt in my feelings. My feelings’re my brains.”

Bodies are part of the challenge to learn about compassion.
We learn from diseases: they are gifts

Divination is another form of reading, as obviously indicated in terms like palm reading or tarot reading. The diviner—who we could also call a prophet or fortune teller, card-reader or witch—is really just someone who has honed their intuitive and mental capacities toward certain ways of knowing so they can better tend to the mix of images and language presented in the objects being read. These objects—tarot cards, bones, crystal balls, novels, literature—reflect energetic or psychical aspect of the querent, primarily, but also of the reader. The good reader discerns her energy from the querent’s, thus more accurately reading the situation. Or as Kathy describes a tarot reading in the beginning of Great Expectations: “not so much a fortune—whatever that means—but a fairly, it seems to me, precise psychic map of the present, therefore: the future.”

Months maybe even a year before my cancer diagnosis, I began thinking about Saint Agatha, whose name came into my thoughts one day while mediating. I looked her up. She’s the patron saint of breast cancer patients—plus Sicily, bellfounders, Palermo, rape victims, and wet nurses—and is generally portrayed with a plate that holds her two severed yet remarkably unbloody breasts. Other times, she’s constrained by one or two men while another man touches her breast with a pair of pliers, the moment before the cut. Or she may hold the breast removal tool herself; women are experts in the art of self-mutilation. In the stories, she is described as pure of heart and full of love for God and God alone. When Quintanus, a powerful man, a governor or high-ranking diplomat, wanted to marry her, she refused. So he sent her to a brothel as her first torment, then to prison where she was physically tortured, and when she still refused him, he ordered her breasts cut off. She was miraculously healed and this further enraged him. Because he wanted dominate her and she wouldn’t submit. To him, anyway, for in the myth or story, she’s focused on God, that bigger dom. So the man ordered St. Agatha “stripped naked and rolled […] over hot coals which were mixed with sharp shards,” thus literally subjecting her body to the feelings he couldn’t wouldn’t express: humiliation, vulnerability, weakness, pain.

Teresa Rose Carmody
Teresa Rose Carmody
Teresa Carmody is the author of Maison Femme: a fiction (2015) and Requiem (2005). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Two Serious Ladies, St. Petersburg Review, Faultline, Entropy, and more. Carmody is co-founding editor of Les Figues Press, an imprint of LARB Books in Los Angeles, and director of Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas.





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