The first piece of writing I ever read by Dodie Bellamy was an essay in an issue of City Lights Review concerning her on-again, off-again fucked-up hotel room romance with the poet John Wieners. Sex, drugs, and his rather poetically peripatetic mental state were the main highlights. After some reflection, after hearing Bellamy read and speak in public and becoming more familiar with her work, I came to the realization that this essay was in fact more or less a fictional story, a literary homage.
Bellamy’s latest book, Cunt Norton, marks a return on her part to a previous method of composition by way of the cut-up, which in her pro-smut, feminist, anti-gender-classifying, hard-talking, sex-laced manner she previously coined her own new standard expression for with the collection Cunt-ups (Tender Buttons, 2001). Bellamy deliberately uses “cunt” here because it is nastiest of the nasty terms that refer to female genitalia. She ridicules and challenges the tradition of such expression being deemed un-ladylike, reclaiming vulgar discourse from masculine culture and declaring right of access to explicit sex talk for women as much as men. She also queers the queer and out-Bukowskis Bukowski, dishing out some seriously illicit and ludicrous, as well as literary, descriptions of sexual acts.
The gist of the project is fairly straightforward. Bellamy takes the Norton Anthology of Poetry (1975 edition) and composes (“cunts”) a series of prose writings in response to some of her favorite (?) or perhaps, to her mind, noteworthy poets, one writing response per poet. After an initial salutatory opening gambit offering entitled “Cunt Norton,” which it would seem “cunts” via wordplay both the project as a whole as well as Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” (there is no “Cunt Eliot”), the collection opens with “Cunt Chaucer” then continues chronologically by poet’s birthdate to close with “Cunt Hughes.”
Except for Dickinson, all the poets covered are male. Including Dickinson while leaving out any other women is interesting. Is it because she’s been so mauled over by men—the standardization of her work in printed form by editors such as Higginson, etc.—that she’s more or less one of the guys? Bellamy’s exclusion of any other women, whether they be Rossetti or any of the number of female Modernists, seems to argue the possibility.
In the foreword, the younger poet Ariana Reines makes a number of fairly high-blown declarations on Bellamy’s behalf. Among them, “this book is the greatest fuck poem” and “this could be the most joyful book on Earth.” There’s nothing wrong per se with the enthusiasm Reines expresses, but when this level of praise appears in the front of a book it is usually difficult, if not impossible, for the book itself to live up to it. Reines reports: “This book made me feel so good I laughed so hard I cried.” Which is totally great to hear, and is actually quite believable. The book will likely have the same effect on any readers who find they agree with Reines’s assessment that “it’s as though what Anglophone literature has really been saying all this time is what Dodie has finally made it say: ‘You are late in fucking me.’”
My own befuddlement revolves around concerns which I suppose might be deemed overly serious, or rather far too readerly (i.e. scholarly/traditional) of me. The primary one being why is Cunt Norton so slim when the Norton Anthology (even the “revised shorter edition”) is so damn thick? I’m a stickler for thoroughness I suppose. I would insist that Bellamy “cunt” every poet, not pick and choose her beaus as she does (how she’s able to pass on “cunting” Wyatt, Clare, Melville, Hopkins, Hardy, Jeffers, et al boggles the mind). This is awfully Anglophone of me, no doubt. I would also argue that little here is an actual cut-up. Bellamy rather simply scatters a handful of words and phrases associated with each particular poet throughout their own entry. As a result, the general tone remains quite constant, at times becoming near dull and given over to cheap shots against these men for being men. The cheap shots are usually well deserved, but I would prefer she fuck them harder with their own words, and their lives.
The odd nitpicking comment or two aside, Bellamy adds another rewarding commentary for readers of poetry, be they students, scholars, lovers, or just mere admirers. This is an entirely human book, which is an achievement that is not as easy as you’d think. She has picked up the reins of the Beats & Co., combining them with concerns of post-Language, New Narrative aesthetics. In 1981, in an unpublished transcript of a public discussion at New College in San Francisco, Beat poet Gregory Corso defended the justifiable grounds upon which Bellamy works:
Corso: Come on, wake up, the BALLGAME’S OVER. If you deny the asshole of human beings, you deny life.
Student: I think you’re shallow Gregory.
Corso: You think I’m shallow because I’m deep in the asshole. That’s not fair. You’re a delicate lady. That’s a great one to lay on me, “I think you’re shallow Gregory.” Let’s forget that you’re talking about me being shallow. I still love you, dumb ass. The banquet of knowledge begins.
Corso would assuredly welcome Cunt Norton to the banquet. He would just howl out “louder” and “more more more” throughout the reading. As do I.