Language squelches in this text, pants, struggles, gets bored, comes more than once. The poems in this collection are love letters, or if they are not they are phone sex scripts, monologues by an impressively pan-gendered speaker who can swap genitals on a whim while spouting dirty talk in Middle English. — Natalie Helberg
Dodie Bellamy, with a foreword by Adriana Reines
Les Figues Press
75 pages, $15.00
Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Norton is wide open, a bliss text, pulsating. It is as open as a text can be, maximally excited, welling into hot, rank, sticky meanings. Alarming meanings. Tender meanings. Its lovers fuck, staining the page with Medusian laughter—Cixous, that French gorgon’s—such that even eroticized aggression—that cultural cage, that check on our sexual imaginaries—becomes risible, linguistic (so not less erotic). Language squelches in this text, pants, struggles, gets bored, comes more than once. The poems in this collection are love letters, or if they are not they are phone sex scripts, monologues by an impressively pan-gendered speaker who can swap genitals on a whim while spouting dirty talk in Middle English.
Cunt Norton is a conceptual project: It is the sequel to Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups (2001) and, like Cunt-Ups, the fruit of a feminist deployment (and salubrious denaturing) of the Dadaistic ‘cut-up’ technique William Burroughs was busy plugging in the 1950s and 60s. For Cunt-Norton, Bellamy used canonical sources—poems from the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry—fusing them, smearing Chaucer through Hughes, with her own pornographic text. Like ‘cut-ups,’ the pieces in Bellamy’s “anthology” are the quickened, crystalline remains of a ludic encounter between language and itself. (‘You lie gently down and cut through my skin; you shower me with mica on the side of small rivers…’)
Like cut-ups, they speak to the idea that the speaking voice, and all writing, is an amalgamation, a patchwork of texts, a conflation of ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ of ‘mine’ and ‘yours,’ ‘me’ and ‘you,’ ‘culture’ and ‘self.’Even Bellamy’s original pornographic material belongs to another, in this case, another poet: its lines are transplants, carry-overs from an e-mail collaboration. This source text, moreover, is active as a partial base in both Cunt Norton and Cunt-Ups, and so lines from one re-erupt in the other, seeming only slightly altered. Taken together, these books are reminiscent of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which locks the same re-contextualizing tactic between two covers; as a pair, they are Marco Polo, radically echoic, co-constitutive, incorporated into one another.
Irigaray, then, is particularly apt when she turns up in Cunt Norton’s epigraph: ‘Between us, the movement from inside to outside, from outside to inside, knows no limits.’ In this vein, the text, too, begins, appropriately but never properly—there is nothing ‘proper’ about it—with a kiss: ‘So I take the tape off your mouth, no dance, and there is only the dance, and we tongue huge gobs of spit.’
The work’s fluid, gender-shifting speaker is the effect of this dance, or is made up of multiple voices which emerge and recede. There is no need to read a unified subject across Cunt Norton’s pages, and there is no need not to: disjunction and consistency exist there simultaneously. ‘The speaker’ is thus (rather magically) able to inscribe its own lover as a presence (Bellamy herself thinks of the text not in terms of a unified speaker, but in terms of two lovers): One “letter” reads ‘Love’s not while I jerked off, thinking of thee covertly…I slide between thy lips red: if snow be white, why then walls. I stick thy cock stone inside my cunt for at least fifteen minutes.’
Most of Bellamy’s work ruptures membranes, gushing through kinds of language, polluting, if not gender, consistently, then genre. The Letters of Mina Harker, for example, incorporates found poetic language into “original” prose, appropriates fiction and TV text (e.g., Stephen King’s Carrie; I Love Lucy), merges fiction and autobiography (read: becomes meta-textual ascension), and of course lodges itself loosely in the narrative framework that constitutes Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which it warps lovingly and re-hammers. As Kathy Acker, one of Bellamy’s aesthetic touchstones, speaking of one of her own pieces, claimed: “I placed the second text on top of the first text, crudely. You do what you have to…”
Even as a writer with narrative impulses, Bellamy’s interests lie less in narrative itself than in linguistic play and formal innovation, less in representation than in language that reminds us it is language, that orchestrates, as she puts this in an interview, ‘a romance’ with the reader. To borrow a phrase from Cunt Norton, it seems that for Bellamy ‘all is permitted, as long as we come.’ Pleasure and a fast-paced, libidinal sort of energy guide her writing, which often wreaks the loveliest havoc on conventional grammar as it shoots along impulsively and associatively, subsisting as pure, all-encompassing flow.
Bellamy, like Cunt Norton’s ambiguous, ever-shifting addressee, ‘wets everything’ she touches; she blasts the normalizing strictures that fuel Creative Writing (the institution) and desiccate it in practice, writing about these with a hatred that is as flagrant as it is delectably subdued.Cunt Norton, by virtue of its title, section titles (‘Cunt Whitman,’ ‘Cunt Lowell,’ etc.) and esteemed source texts, exists as a critique of these strictures in a way that Cunt-Ups cannot:
It exists as an extension of the culture wars Bill Readings locates in the 1990s, when the corollary of the rise of interdisciplinary studies seemed to be canonical erosion: All of culture, too much to anthologize, was suddenly too legitimate to leave out (ambassadors from the margins were railing at the doors; the guardians of Culture, guarding their own authority, wrote some of them up). Cunt Norton, then, pays homage—facetiously, of course—to the form of denigrating tokenism that often buttressed and continues to buttress the English canon’s—perhaps any canon’s—claim to political correctness and inclusivity: Emulating Norton minimalism, it includes one woman writer and one black writer (‘Cunt Dickinson’ and ‘Cunt (Langston) Hughes’).
More than this, though, and as others have noted, it engages with the philosophical question of whether those existing on the fringe or beyond the borders of a hegemonic system can speak through and within it. This is the question Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak poses in her famous essay on ‘the subaltern.’ Spivak answers in the negative. Audre Lorde was answering a similar question (answering it similarly) when she wrote ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ The Language poets thought differently, suggesting that language itself—read: ‘the master’s house’—can render itself strange to itself. Rendered strange—rearranged, syntactically fractured—language, the suggestion ran, could reveal and transform the oppressive logics of the day, which it otherwise consolidated.
Bellamy, in Cunt-Norton, is in some ways embracing a Language strategy, is choosing to dwell in the master’s house, is pissing in it, using its materials while soiling them with others while leaching through the walls. This is why the text’s language is often so cunningly beautiful: ‘I hear spirits sob in each blood-on,’ the stone made stony (made strange, though not unrecognizable), the dead text (‘the graveyard under my tongue’) renewed. And yet Cunt Norton has no master, or rejects various masters, or defaces various homes:
Bellamy has her own version of the subaltern: the feraltern, a mythic, unruly, improper, ravenously expansive form of energy, a figure that represents her own negotiations with what she describes as a brutal, vulgar, working-class childhood, and with different forms of aesthetic pressure she encountered in the late 70s and early 80s. In 1978, Bellamy moved to San Francisco, where she of course found herself at the confluence of various hot writing scenes: feminist writing groups rejected her impulse to write about sex and violence (queer writing communities embraced it); the Language movement’s cachet and ubiquity made it difficult to pursue narrative as poetry (she had to pursue it as ‘New Narrative’). The feraltern is in part a response to that matrix: it is both powerful and vulnerable; it is every gesture that flies in the face of naysaying forces, that both yearns to shit and shits on censorship.
Cunt Norton, like Cunt-Ups, is an attempt to explore, source and ultimately spew forth feraltern energies. It is too feral, then, too dirty, for a master—again, whatever master: It borrows what it can from whatever dominant movements (‘Language poetry’; ‘conceptual writing’), while exceeding their bounds. It is too close to being syntactically and narratively coherent to be conventional Language poetry. This is slightly less true of Cunt-Ups, which, as a ride that is a rhythm, is, compared to Cunt Norton—whose secretions sound seamless and seem effortless—bumpy, more jarring, littered with halts:
You’re my third victim and we’re standing up fucking kept the skulls kept the skulls slowly like a wave at Ocean City. I wiggle around and shiver…It’s such a thrill to have something you actually touched, I stuck the tape between my legs and tried to hump it, a diffuse feeling over-came me like my cunt had expanded and you’re floating. (Cunt-Ups)
That thing which everybody feels, when their ravenous ghosts stream out disturbing meals or love, saying fuck me, thy cunt is so huge—we all know that—yet here thou art, begging for “security” from my body, my glassy brooks, thinking unutterable things. (Cunt Norton)
Even Cunt Norton’s conceptualism—since Bellamy has edited, has sculpted these cunt-ups—is baroque (impure). It also wears its idea:
Vanessa Place writes ‘I have come to consider conceptualism, qua conceptualism, that is, as writing that does not self interpret, is not self-reflexive, at least not on the page.’ Against this, the oral/aural sex motif that runs through Cunt Norton codes the feral subaltern’s predicament: The cock in the mouth (the cock/tongue in the ear) is language itself, is the master’s house, ramming its violence, rendering speech impossible, or enabling its colonized forms. (‘I would die if thou put thy tongue in mine ear, thy salamander, thy divine child in mine oven’; ‘the Tongue is not made for Speech as I bang my Cock against the back of thy throat.’) The mouth, conversely, which risks violence, figures the idea that the tongue brutal words, brutal logics and institutions sit on might offer them back metamorphosed: ‘Slobber all over my Cock until Eternity. Tell all the Truth but tell it like the Earth hatching.’
But if Cunt Norton is, like the heathen poetics it enacts, an ‘upheaval born of our hangover from imbibing too much Western Civ.,’and if it explicitly inscribes this idea, blowing blow jobs like molten glass into a theme for its pages, it is nevertheless not reducible to this idea. It truly barfs. In her Barf Manifesto, Bellamy explains that The Barf—which, arguably, names an approach to writing, an aesthetic, as well as writing with certain qualities—‘says so much…says too much’; its meaning is ‘so surplus it decimates form,’ its form ‘so vicious it beats the fucking pony[-piñata] of content to bits.’
Cunt Norton, then, is a fickle renegade, forever changing its mind as to whether language is stymieing or generous, as to whether the master’s house is or is not the master’s house. It is a plexus of affective complexity. If it fucks, fucks up and fucks over its linguistic forebears, it loves them and lapses into them too (‘Each time I open my mouth—though assaulted and battered by the wind—when I close my lips around you, I enjoy it’). Cunt Norton speaks; it is spoken. It thinks, and its thinking is perverse. And beautiful. It is as beautiful as the word pulchritude is ugly. It is immaculate filth.
Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.
- In “The Rejection of Closure,” Lyn Hejinian writes ‘We can say that a ‘closed text’ is one in which all elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity. In the ‘open text,’ meanwhile, all the elements of the work are maximally excited…’↵
- ‘All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard.’ (William Burroughs in “The Cut Up Method”)↵
- See, for example, her chapbook-length Barf Manifesto as well as her essays collected as Academonia.↵
- ‘Adding on to and/or editing the source material is more a strategy of post-conceptualism [baroque, or impure conceptualism]; so is reneging on the faithful execution of the initial concept…Do these broken promises point to a failure in a conceptual writing text?… Failure is the goal of conceptual writing.’ (From Notes on Conceptualisms by Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place)↵
- This line is from Barf Manifesto.↵