Reading Academonia, Dodie Bellamy’s 2006 essay collection, I was reassured to learn that she, too, had loved books she later wanted to disown so as not to seem like a fool. “I wanted to be smart, I wanted to be cool, so I abandoned 70s feminism,” she writes.
Madwoman in the Attic, my bible of a year earlier, was considered the epitome of stupid in my women’s experimental poetry scene, possibly because Sandra Gilbert lived in the area. A devil with a face. How could I have liked such a dopey book, I agonized, how could I have been so low.
I imagine many people have had similar experiences. If asked why we read and write the way we do, though, we might not be as willing to explain our choices in terms of our desire for acceptance.
So one thing that stands out in Bellamy’s work is her tendency to describe her intellectual life and artistic production in terms of her social life. Here, for example, is how she depicts New Narrative, a literary movement that developed within the Language Poetry-dominated experimental writing scene of 1970s and 80s San Francisco: “Narrative, let alone sex, was seen as reactionary, highly suspect — but if we could gussy it up with enough theory and fragmentation, we too might get invited to read at those thrillingly exclusive literary events.”
This bent toward exclusivity might help explain the form of the epistolary vampire novel Bellamy published in 1998. “In the original version of my book The Letters of Mina Harker, all the letters were written to writers I knew — and sent,” she recalls in The Buddhist (2011). “When I finished the book and was faced with refocusing to non-epistolary writing, I felt like I was standing on the brink of the void, how could I possibly write to a vague unknown audience, I visualized such an audience as this misty blobby thing.”
Recently, while reading The Letters of Mina Harker, I wondered if my blobbiness—my apartness from the audience the book addresses — was the reason I struggled to finish it, forcing myself to the end of every page. Because I have enjoyed reading the work that reads to me like Bellamy released it more generally into the mist, work like Cunt-Ups (2001), her book of anatomical poetry; The Buddhist, which began as a series of blog posts about a former lover; and The TV Sutras (2014), a book that is half long essay, half selection of aphorisms taken from television.
Like these books, Bellamy’s new collection of prose pieces doesn’t read, for the most part, as though it is addressed to an exclusive audience. And the social relationships that appear in its pages represent an expansion of her range. When the Sick Rule the World touches, as usual, on affinities rooted in sex, writing, and New Age spirituality. But it focuses most intently on the ways that aging, illness, and shared struggle can affect social life. The book’s cover copy presents this project as redemptive. “Those defined by society as sick,” the last line reads, “may, in fact, be its saviors.” What’s most compelling about the collection, though, is Bellamy’s ambivalence about whether this kind of salvation is possible or even desirable.
Bellamy has written before about community found in sickness: One of my favorite essays in Academonia recounts how group therapy helped her overcome decades of bulimia.
In WTSRTW’s title piece, she attends a meeting of the sick that is less salubrious. “The sick,” in this case, are people who (believe they) are made ill by toxins that suffuse the world. So Bellamy dutifully invests in fragrance-free toiletries — all others are prohibited — only to be told that she has nonetheless given another woman “brain fog.” A presenter at the meeting reports on the dangers of cell phone towers. The audience is filled with people who go to great lengths to protect themselves: Sick Bonnie moves from house to house but can’t tolerate any of them. Sick Tom sleeps on the back of his truck. Sick Elizabeth keeps an organic rope in a baggie under her bed. “With an organic rope,” Bellamy quips, “hanging is totally non-toxic.”
She is not unsympathetic to the sick, who aren’t wrong to suspect that industrial toxins cause people harm. But with this line she suggests that these sick are blinkered, focusing on the menace of non-organic rope while ignoring the more deadly risk of suicide.
She begins to predict what the world would look like if ruled by people with such narrow, inadequate solutions to the inevitable problems of sickness and death (a description that could, not incidentally, apply to almost anyone):
When the sick rule the world Calvin Klein will design aluminum foil window dressings and our porcelain walls will be decorated by Limoges. . . .
When the sick rule the world the well will be servants, and all the well will try to become sick so they too can have servants. Pretending to be sick will be a capital offense. . . .
When the sick rule the world, all writing will be short and succinct, no paragraphs will be longer than two sentences so we can comprehend them through the brain fog the well bring to us daily.
Bellamy deploys the first person plural to render herself sick, too. But she is also as well as anyone else — a writer of long paragraphs, a purveyor of brain fog. Her dual role implies that the sick have it half right. They are vulnerable, but not uniquely so; the pure world they want is impossible to avoid wanting, but also impossible. We will never be able to keep impurities at bay, this allegory suggests. So our only option is to find ways of living with our inevitable contamination.
“Whistle While You Dixie,” the book’s opening essay, constitutes just such an effort. A reflection on, among other things, the social contaminants of poverty and racism, the piece begins with a meditation on two whistling-related songs. About one of them — Billy Currington’s “dangerously seductive” version of the country song “You Ain’t Just Whistling Dixie” — Bellamy says that “it’s about a guy who’s left the South and is recalling it through the misty lens of nostalgia. Men go fishing, get drunk, long for the glory days of the Confederacy.” But “Currington’s breathy voice is so sultry and he’s so hip and sexy,” she continues, that “it’s hard not to get sucked into the fantasy of the song . . . Despite my resistance I feel a pervy twinge of wanting the wrong thing.”
She implicitly links this twinge to the family history she discusses in the subsequent paragraph, of the Kentucky relatives her mother called “trash,” people who lived on welfare and included Grandpa Bellamy, a “proud member of the KKK.” She goes on to recall a Greyhound bus trip she took from Indiana to Florida, during which “four thuggy white men” assault a black child for no apparent reason. “Grandpa Bellamy would have eagerly joined them,” she writes. “I turn my face to the open window, take in a deep breath of diesel and jasmine.”
Her escape from the racist environment of her youth (she does not act as her grandfather would have done) is also her escape from her class background (she is in graduate school, not poor like her grandfather, no longer even quite as working class as her mother). And while grad student Bellamy does not join in the assault, she also turns away from it to aestheticize the situation. The path today’s Bellamy traces through her past is thus contaminated on every level, disdain for racism and brutality mingled with disdain for poverty, the development of better politics mingled with social climbing and self-exculpation. Of course, the strength of the essay is that it is not self-exculpatory at all. By showing readers the grisliest parts of her attempts at meaning-making, Bellamy points to what lurks within our own.
In “Phone Home,” one of the best essays in the book, Bellamy considers her family under softer lights. The piece recounts Bellamy’s trips between California and her hometown, Hammond, Indiana, in the last months of her mother’s life. On one of these visits, she feels as if for the first time her mother’s “primal love . . . a love that would rip apart predators with its bare teeth — and it becomes clear to me that nothing could stop the violence of this love, that it was always there, every second of my life it was there, even when she acted like she didn’t like me.” Relating to her mother on this primal level allows her to take a certain kind of politics out of the personal — to love her mother not despite their differences but without regard to them, as though the love and the differences existed on different planes.
As the title “Phone Home” might suggest, E.T. is one of the essay’s organizing motifs, a movie that seems to show up in Bellamy’s life with alarming frequency. “I can’t quit thinking about E.T.,” she writes. “The coincidence of it being on TV right before my grandmother died — and then when my mother takes a turn for the worst it reappears . . . In my journal I write, ‘E.T. is the angel of death.’”
Many of the book’s other essays feature similar structuring motifs, which generally take the form of overlapping frames that Bellamy applies to a given object or situation. A passage from “Barf Manifesto” — a reflection on Eileen Myles’s “Everyday Barf” that attempts to inaugurate the Barf as a genre — explains the technique:
Now I’ve dived into “Everyday Barf” yet another time, and my perception of it keeps changing. With each iteration I could write another frame recontextualizing Elieen’s and my Barfs, and the piece could reflect and expand ad infinitum, like one of those drawings where a person is looking at a reflection of a reflection of themselves in a mirror or holding a box of cereal and on the box of cereal is a picture of themselves holding a box of cereal . . . and on and on.
While this image of intricately layered and infinitely reflexive reframing does not, to my mind, resemble a barf — that unidirectional rush usually flushed away before another one comes — it does aptly characterize the structure of much of Bellamy’s work. “In the Shadow of Twitter Towers,” for example, applies several overlapping frames — Twitter’s arrival in Bellamy’s neighborhood; her reading of the Daphne Gottlieb chapbook Bess; her antagonistic relationship with a local homeowner; the history of San Francisco’s single resident occupancy hotels — to the city’s gentrification.
Like probably everyone else who has read “In the Shadow of Twitter Towers,” the longest piece in the book, I share Bellamy’s dismay about the situation she describes: office towers and boxy condos taking over San Francisco, pushing the unmoneyed ever farther out of the way. And Bellamy adds sharp details to her version of this common lament. She has funny fights with the cartoonish homeowner. She offers her writing-teacher services to Twitter. She starts researching horrifying statistics on homelessness: “I read that hate crimes against the homeless jumped 24 percent in 2013 and that more hate crimes are committed against the homeless than all other hate crimes in the U.S. combined.” She also remains generally aware of her position in this story, careful to note that she is “outside both ends of the socio-economic ladder, for now.”
But like a dangerously seductive country song, her nostalgia for a grittier San Francisco sometimes obscures the problems she’s trying to describe. “Sometimes when I exit my car,” she writes of the gentrifying city, “I’ll covertly drop a crumple of paper and feel a little thrill.” The larger point — that gentrification whitewashes neighborhoods — is inarguable, but the way she makes it here seems off. Cleanliness in this case might signify a dirty process, but is it really the problem? Doesn’t dropping garbage in the streets do the greatest harm to the people who have to live in them?
Those who have other options, Bellamy writes, are leaving: “Ousted from rent-controlled apartments, writers flee to Oakland to Brooklyn to back home with Mom and Dad, artists flee to Los Angeles. Places like Detroit are sounding better and better. But even Cincinnati, a friend tells me, has caught the gentrification bug.” Even Cincinnati, huh? I can’t fully imagine what it would feel like to be ousted from a city where I’d lived for decades, a city where I had made my art, made my friends, found my community. But I can imagine enough to understand that it would feel gut-wrenching, tragic, potentially life-ending. That said, it’s not easy to sympathize with this real problem when it’s inadvertently cast as a tragedy of losing status — of being forced to live in a less-rich city with less cultural prestige.
I say inadvertently because I doubt Bellamy meant it the way I read it, so consistently critical is she of the roles that social class and status play in writing and artmaking. Her recent work in particular raises an eyebrow at the status-seeking that accompanied certain periods of her development as a writer. When the Sick Rule the World includes, for example, a reconsideration of the 1970s feminism Bellamy fled. “Whenever I’ve written about my late 70s involvement with the Bay Area chapter, I’ve presented the group as rather dopey,” she writes in “The Feminist Writers’ Guild.” Today, though, she can once again see its value. “In those wood-laden living rooms in Berkeley and Marin, behind the bay windows in Gloria Anzaldúa’s San Francisco commune, Bloomsbury reawakened,” Bellamy says:
How did it all end? I got involved with some students from the San Francisco Art Institute, I started taking workshops with more experimental writers. I was voracious for experience and sophistication—the artists and avant gardists seemed hipper, more exciting, and they did encourage me to write—but never again would I receive such uncomplicated acceptance from a community; never again would my vacant stares, weirdness, social dysfunction be held with such tenderness; never again would I experience an arts community whose mandate was inclusivity.
When the Sick Rule the World does not, in the end, offer any cures. But if Bellamy were to prescribe a therapy for what ails us, I think it would be: hold dysfunction with tenderness.
Megan Marz is a writer and editor living in Chicago.