The Poetry Project

Review of Dodie Bellamy’s Bee Reaved

Cam Scott

In the first pages of Bee Reaved, author Dodie Bellamy establishes an instructive comparison between the tell-all profligacy of her writing—“spewing all sorts of shit few would dare reveal”—and the retentive intensity of hoarding, on the occasion of donating her archive to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. But surely there is some connection here, between the casting off of recollection and the abject accumulation of stuff-as-experience. Perhaps this is a problem that writers and artists are especially equipped to understand—hoarders in public, of a sort.

In a Barthesian moment of semantic clarity, however, Bellamy reminds us that hoarding and collecting are far from interchangeable terms. Hoarding is never about display, she says. Collecting presupposes both interpretation and reception, one might add; hoarding, contra Walter Benjamin, never means to be unpacked. Hoarding obliterates the social record of a thing, too intimate a preservative for any inventory. Thus Bellamy’s suggestion of “hoarding as écriture” offers a suggestive frame for an essay collection about holding and letting go, in front of everyone: maintaining the privacy of loss amid the publicity of a communal eulogy.

The subject of this eulogy, and of many of the essays in Bee Reaved, is Bellamy’s late husband, the writer Kevin Killian, whose passing in June 2019 desolated friends and acquaintances—a relation that Killian ennobled with unflagging interest. Bellamy writes unsparingly of his availability to all and its potentially mortal toll—“I thought that the very poets who gave me cancer were the ones who loved me most,” Killian says—and many of their admirers will surely struggle with this knowledge. In many of Bee Reaved’s most difficult passages, Bellamy guards her husband posthumously and in unknowable posterity—as an ethical, even aesthetic, tension between retention and display appears in its more painful guises.

We’ve all been collectors of Kevin Killian, one realizes, the irreplaceable, and of Dodie Bellamy too—and part of our mourning is learning how to share space, how to give room, and how not to hoard what should be common, nor to circulate what should be still. As a work of mourning, Bee Reaved is affectively dense: thick with resentment and tenderness in shifting proportion, and all the other stuff of life that swells up to distract us and sustain us and remind us of each other at all times, especially when utterly beside what seems to be the point of another person.

Throughout these essays, surfaces appear for inscription and projection, and disappear as quickly. Facebook walls, splattered with spats; the Berlin Wall, now fragmentary and collectible; gallery walls, for all manner of artistic speculation; and claustrophobic domestic interiors: “my face turned to the wall, / like a dead woman’s mirror,” Bellamy writes of a narrow scrape with artistic death, in a morsel of Sexton-esque juvenilia. As with all of Bellamy’s writing, there are riches of digression and divulgence here, throughout plethoric essays on video artist Aimee Goguen; the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker and her recent excavation by Marie Darrieussecq; and the monomythic feminist art of Mary Beth Edelson, who Bellamy defends among a generation of artistic forebears, against a presentism that would abandon its artistic predecessors rather than interpret them anew. Bellamy is one of the great essayists to have emerged from the weird ferment of New Narrative, and the occasional reviews gathered here—secularly numinous, avowedly working class, unflinching in their assessments of art and writing, politics and culture, yet skillfully evading anything so morbid as a thesis—fully affirm as much. Contrasting the outsized place of the novel within New Narrative, the open essay that Bellamy has developed over several plentiful collections feels innovative in itself: pre- rather than post-structuralist in its dedication to the non-form of “nonfiction,” a paragenre that in many ways anticipates New Narrative in its underspecified permissiveness.

In context of this collection, however, these separately remarkable pieces feel like a quiet prelude to disaster. A series of conversations with Kevin Killian, about Ugo Rondinone and Mike Kelley respectively, culminates in a long dialogue in which Dodie and Kevin tell the story of their stalling attempts to collaborate on a book together. This chapter, then, is that abbreviated book, transpiring in weekly installments between April 2019 and the week of Kevin’s death on June 15 2019, by which time Kevin is an absent presence in the text—a reassuring heartbeat and a site of visitation.

This dialogue is a remarkable centerpiece of a dedicated collection—sparring, unsparing, caring, a confident transcription of that once-in-a-lifetime repartee that some of us were lucky enough to witness on a handful of occasions. Dodie’s voice predominates, encouraging the collaboration without minimizing the gulf between their points of view; but hallmarks of Kevin’s style abound, as a conversation about mortality mingles obituaries for the likes of Peggy Lipton with the ghosts of friends and peers, equally fêted and celebritized. Kevin’s own diagnosis looms large over the conversation: “Let’s wait a few weeks and see what happens. And, oh, Dodie, I have so much to say still about Peggy Lipton and Doris Day.” More than any other sentence, this one stops me in my tracks; to think that this conversancy should be cut so abruptly short.

“Both of us have a sense of ending and that’s one of our strengths as writers and thinkers,” Kevin offers: “How long did it take me to imagine the end of Spreadeagle? Twenty-three years? How long did it take you to finish The Letters of Mina Harker? Fifteen years? Sam D’Allesandro had to die.” Whatever immortality the signifier affords Sam D’Allesandro, a muse and motivator of both Kevin and Dodie’s work, it seems in this account as though the living counterpart of this literary reputation had to die, to liberate the name.

In Killian’s novel Spreadeagle, however, D’Allesandro appears as a murder victim—that sacrificial factor upon whom the plot turns. In so depicting his missing friend, Kevin makes a conspiratorial caper out of the AIDS epidemic, otherwise a tragedy without a subject. It’s an exercise in mourning by way of genre, and Kevin’s “sense of ending” is impeccable—tidy and redemptive. Dodie’s D’Allesandro—whom you can get to know in a forthcoming reissue of The Letters of Mina Harker from Semiotext(e)—is far more lifelike, an addressee in an epistolary exchange. Hence the Gothic conventions that Mina Harker adapts tend to a different kind of immortality: that of the correspondent, whose receipt is formally assured.

Likewise, conversation abjures endings, it forestalls goodbyes, it hates a tidy finish and nobody can accept the last word of another. “I know you sent me this love tonight, you sparked my heart so I wouldn’t feel afraid,” Dodie writes on the second-to-last day of her interview with Kevin. “I will miss you so much, but I know you’ll never leave me.” This immortality of lovers, a plausible cause of literature, underwrites the collection’s astonishing finish, insofar as this is possible—an open letter to the missing and beloved, blurring dream and theory, TV annotations and religious trivia, with painstaking reminiscence. Writing as Bee Reaved (“archaic: to carry or tear away”)—a name commemorating a survivor’s alteration of the self as well as the constant ferocity of loss—Dodie catches Kevin up, and in so doing catches up with Kevin: “The fact that I can gather these memories means you’re living again in me. No longer are you a blank absence who withdrew its love.”

For all its fatal difficulty, I have no doubt that this letter finds its destination, in an adoring readership charged with the future and the past, and in the public legend of a love so strong we thought that it was ours.

#266 — Fall 2021