Kathy Goes to Mexico (1998)

Pander 5 (Spring 1998)

Kathy Goes to Mexico:
In Memoriam Kathy Acker, d. 30/11/97.

Kathy Acker (1943-1997)

He who loves the white ones with red lips
must also kiss their feet
– Ahmad ibn Huseyn al-Muftī.

An American girl told me of a friend of hers who was writing a thesis on the English Civil War. One day some of his colleagues got into his files, and replaced the words Roundheads and Cavaliers with “shitheads” and “cocksuckers.” Next day he logged on to learn that “the cocksuckers were convinced of the divine right of kings,” and “the shitheads under Cromwell routed the cocksuckers at Naseby.” The damage was easy enough to reverse, but that momentary sense of shock, of dislocation must have been profound. That story has always reminded me, somehow, of Kathy Acker.

It was (I’m almost sure) November 1987, and I was snouting through the shelves of a little second-hand bookshop called Till’s, in Edinburgh. Seeing the title Blood and Guts in High School on the back of a big white Picador book, I took it down and began to leaf idly through. On page 30 there is a large, crude line-drawing of a cock, with the caption (in typed caps): TURN MY EYES INSANE. On page 46 the dream-maps begin, followed by Persian language-lessons, translations from Propertius and César Vallejo, ranting poems, Mallarméan prose texts … I was amazed, exhilarated – cagey. What was all this about? Was there anything of substance here, or just the thrill of unbridled experimentation? Page 110 read:
sex is sweet

I wanted it to be true, I wanted this to be good – but I wasn’t convinced. One thing was certain: the possibility was worth two pounds.

You see (I hope), the connection with the cocksucker story. Was Kathy Acker simply scrawling obscenities over the spaces in other people’s texts (not that there’s anything wrong with that), or was there something more? Could she be that hoped-for visionary – that prophet of the scribbled palimpsest of our bodies we’d been waiting for so long? The one who could find words for the madness in our screwed-up heads?
The society in which I’m living is totally fucked-up. I don’t know what to do. I’m just one person and I’m not very good at anything. I don’t want to live in hell my whole life. If I knew how this society got so fucked-up, if we all knew, maybe we’d have a way of destroying hell. (Blood, 66)

I still don’t know the answer to these questions, but I have learned one thing. Kathy was a very serious writer. There was nothing frivolous or arbitrary in the excesses of her texts, “novels” or “essays” as might be. She was wild about not being free, and her indignation was her art.

When I speak of the aspiration towards the beautiful … I am not for a moment suggesting that art should shun the ‘dirt’ of the world. On the contrary! The artistic image is always a metonym, where one thing is substituted for another, the smaller for the greater. To tell of what is living, the artist uses something dead; to speak of the infinite, he shows the finite.
– Andrey Tarkovsky

I’m very staid compared with my students … No one ever told me you could walk around with a strap-on, having orgasms.
– Kathy Acker. (Sirius interview)

Who would have thought one could postulate a connection between Tarkovsky, cinematic sculptor in time, and Acker, wildest of the wild girls? Yet they seem very close to me. They’re both interested in joy, in the good life, in pleasure – they both express this through a preoccupation with pain. Kathy dedicated Empire of the Senseless to her tattooist; Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Andrey Rublyov contains scenes of torture and blinding so graphic they made its first audiences vomit and faint.

You know, everyone’s always talking about trauma and pain and how this society isn’t working, that we shouldn’t have racism and sexism, but we never talk in positive terms – like what joy would be, what it would be like to have a totally great existence. (Sirius interview)

RUS: I’m writing a piece … called “A User’s Guide to Trendy French Intellectuals” that thoroughly trashes all those people.
KA: You’re so dumb, man. They’re cool.
(Sirius interview)

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. When one reads her interviews Kathy sounds like the sole literate person in a generation of dunces. Patiently, calmly she reminds her interlocutors of the existence of the French language, of Catullus, of the Black Mountain poets. They interrupt with a pitiful babble of computer jargon and self-advertisement. Dumb.

I think that’s one of the things I loved about her most. She was so literary. She was an egghead like the rest of us, and yet: “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” (Sirius interview). She was cool. She was our Lawrence of Arabia – with one hand translating Latin, with the other masturbating endlessly, mindlessly, in the watches of the night.

The one thing I’m determined not to do is wax literary critical about her “method,” her theories of composition. One of the other Academic cocksuckers can do that. “I do what I do,” said Kathy. “I don’t think about strategies. … I think it’s best to be as open as possible, and just do what you do, and let people make of it what they want.” (X interview). There are ironies in that, but that’s not what I want to talk about. It’s her ends that interest me.

There are, however, three names which simply must be mentioned. It wouldn’t be fair not to: Georges Bataille, William Burroughs, Jean Genet. Genet – the “Janey” of Blood and Guts – helped define the masochistic sex-victims of her novels (perhaps, had she lived, she might have provided us with an analogue to his last book, the beautiful Prisoner of Love). Burroughs (along with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets), bequeathed her the cut-ups and extreme textual discontinuities. Bataille, in her own words, “looked for models for people to have totally great existences” (Sirius interview). They shared a Messianic vision of a less deformed world. Oh, and there’s one more name: Antonin Artaud. I scarcely dare say anything at all about that divine madman. Kathy ended her essay on le récit by asking:
Do you want more? Many roads lead out of these texts. (“Suggested Reading List,” 1994)

But those are roads you’ve got to travel alone.

The trip to Mexico was surreal. We rented a big van and hired a nurse … The first time Kathy wanted to pee Judith suggested she pee outside, on the ground ... K loved this (of course). After she peed she wanted to sit in the sun, where she was squatting with just her shirt pulled up over her waist. Then dream-like she said, “the sun feels so good on my cunt!” And the nurse, still rather midwestern and proper, smiled and said “oooo girl!”
– Matias Viegener.

I am a sentimentalist, I admit that. I’m easily swayed by the cheapest of devices in fiction or up on the big screen. But something in her lover’s long account of Kathy’s lonely death in that mad Mexican cancer clinic, her veins pumped full of carrot juice, seems to go beyond literature into what’s real. Why the fuck did she have to die? “The sun feels so good on my cunt.” It wasn’t her time to go. It meant a lot to know that she was there, somewhere, ranting away: “we left the pirate girls to do what pirate girls do.” Pussy, King of the Pirates, her last book. As Richard Kadrey put it in his obituary: “all the critics who hated it can kiss my ass.”
Somebody told me nobody reads anymore, but I think nobody is anymore. Time has and is being reduced because the plants must spring up. I can see them now, tremendous white and red roses, or my cunt, and I want to do more than just see.

There’s a lot that’s moving in Eurydice in the Underworld, the novel she was working on when she died. And that is what we’re left with now: twelve novels, two books of essays, innumerable reviews, texts, interviews:
I always think of role playing as being something you’re not. I don’t role play like that probably ‘cos … I basically have no sense of who I am.

I was never ever interested in shocking people. People got shocked, but that was their business.

Sex to me is like hunger, and I am damn hungry most of the time.

These are good things to say, but other people could have said them. The Rosie X. interview I’m quoting from ends with something really obscene and shocking, though:
RX: You must be making a lot of money.
KA: Fuck I am not! Why do you think I am working so hard!

It’s not just about art, and sex, and identity, it’s about money – and that is the bottom line.

Finally, though, I’ve got to come back to poetry, which is where I came in, to those sublime versions of Propertius in Blood and Guts. I know she said “If there are to be poets now, they cannot be romantics … Catharsis, that is poetry, takes place physically” (Eurydice), but they read as beautifully to me now as they did then, ten years ago, as they always will:
Just like Ariadne’s just dead on the empty shore
‘Cause Theseus has abandoned her,
Just like Andromeda who’s just gotten away from a horrible green sea-monster
Sleeps on the sharp spikes of rocks,
Just like from endless drinking, drugs, and sex
a Bacchante drops dead on soft sweet grass:
so I see lightly breathing
Slave Trader …

and outside the night, night becomes everything

Works Cited:
  • Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School. 1978. In Blood and Guts in High School, plus two. London: Picador, 1984. 5-165.
  • Acker, Kathy. Kathy Goes to Haiti. 1978. In Young Lust. London: Pandora, 1989. 5-170.
  • Acker, Kathy. Empire of the Senseless. London: Picador, 1988.
  • Acker, Kathy. “Suggested Reading List for le récit.” U of Idaho. Sep. 1994.
  • Acker, Kathy. Pussy, King of the Pirates. New York: Grove Press, 1996.
  • Acker, Kathy. Eurydice in the Underworld. London: Arcadia Books, 1997.
  • Ghanim, Mohammad ‘Abdah. “Yemeni Poetry from the Pre-Islamic Age to the Beginning of the Modern Era.” In Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilisation in Arabia Felix, ed. Werner Daum. Innsbruch: Pinguin / Frankfurt: Umschau, 1987.
  • Kadrey, Richard. “Black Tarantula: The Intense Life and Uncompromising Death of Renegade Writer Kathy Acker.” Salon, 3 Dec. 1997.
  • Sirius, R. U. “Kathy Acker: Where Does She Get Off? An Interview.” Wired. c.1994. []
  • Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair. 1986. London: Faber, 1989.
  • Viegener, Matias. “Matias Speaks.” 1997. []
  • X, Rosie. “Pussy and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance; or, How to be a Pirate on-line and channel your energies so as to remember your dreams … Kathy Acker interviewed.” Geekgirl. 1995. []


Pander 5 (1998): 26-27.

[1939 wds]

Pander 5 (1998)

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