Review by Claire Farley
Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Norton is one of those rare books that says something so relevant that its message is pure pleasure. But just to praise Bellamy’s book seems to injure the spirit of it somehow; this book is something to feel, to talk about, to act out, and to write from. Ariana Reines’s foreword says it best:
This book made me feel so good I laughed so hard I cried.
If there’s a future in writing and you’re part of that then do exactly what this book says:
“Tell all the Truth but tell it like the Earth hatching.”
Cunt Norton is a sequel to Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups (Tender Buttons, 2001) and is a collection of thirty-two “cunt-ups” from the Norton Anthology of Poetry (1975 edition, for all those who will feel inclined to cross-reference). In Cunt Norton, Bellamy is employing the approach she developed in Cunt-Ups and is “cunting” the classics. In her working note for Cunt-Ups, she explains her process in terms of William S. Burroughs’s cut up method: “I used a variety of texts written by myself and others. Per Burroughs’ rather vague instructions, I cut each page of this material into four squares. For each cunt-up I chose two or three from my own source text and one or two from the other sources. I taped the new Frankenstein page together, typed it into my computer and then reworked the material. My interest here was in creating a disembodied, shredded sexuality.” While conceptual poetry can often have a gimmicky quality, the poems in Cunt Norton not only stand on their own but have theoretical and political relevance beyond the conceptual root of the cunt-up. As one of the originators of the New Narrative movement, it is no surprise that Bellamy’s experimental writing is paired with embodying and actualizing central discussions taking place in critical theory. By “cunting” the names that have defined patriarchy in literature by rewriting classic works in a feminine voice, she reminds us that both literature and sex (and sex in literature) are not neutral and are ultimately manifestations of power. Even more importantly, Bellamy prompt us to consider that, despite the sacred quality of the English canon, these works did at one point belong to the very bodies of their authors. She re-associates the act of writing with a bodily act, a sensual act—having sex in writing about sex—and at the same time problematizes these works by resituating them as part of an ungendered sexual identity that is the cultural consciousness of their production and consumption (or, preferably, enjoyment).
The collection’s epigraph is a quotation from Luce Irigaray: “Two lips kiss two lips, and openness is ours again. Our ‘world.’ Between us, the movement from inside to outside, from outside to inside, knows no limits.” Irigaray theorizes a fundamental link between feminine language, parler femme, and feminine sexuality. In This Sex Which is Not One, Irigaray writes, “woman has sex organs just about everywhere… feminine language is more diffusive that its ‘masculine counterpart.’ That is undoubtedly the reason her language … goes off in all directions and … he is unable to discern the coherence.” Language has traditionally been the domain of men, and meaning has then been produced and articulated through the male pen and perspective. Bellamy engages with l`écriture feminine not just by writing in a distinctly feminine voice but by rewriting dans la feminine the canon through which we discover and study the English language. Significantly, Bellamy also manages to address some of the qualms with l`écriture feminine, namely its focus on difference, which has been said to essentialise a performance of heteronormative sexuality. Whether or not we agree that this essentialism in present in Irigaray’s writing, Bellamy resists any essentialist view of the body in this collection. The “cunt-up,” in its association with the “cut-up,” has implications of dismemberment, as Bellamy herself acknowledges in her reference to the “Frankenstein” text. These “body” parts, of the text and of the flesh, are “disembodied,” to be claimed by the speaker and the reader at will. The “I” of each “cunt-up” has been cunted or cocked, or frequently both. In “Cunt Dickinson,” for example, female and male anatomical parts are both ascribed. To reiterate the poetic potential that Bellamy is reaching for: “Tell all the Truth but tell it / like the Earth hatching” (“Cunt Dickinson”).
I don’t want to leave the impression that this collection is all theory, because it is an immensely hilarious and fun book to read. So I’ll close with two of my favourite excerpts:
Girl, let’s have fun. (Here, dab my tears that float
many bells down.) Spring on your hands and
knees—let’s pluck and dance as woman and man,
both fingered. Hey Pumpkin Fuck, what my eyes
sow isn’t what they reap.
A complex 4-color map would not be able to
separate me from your tree, my heron. I praise
your long grass as I drag my tongue across your
neck and ankle, my heron.
… You press yourself up against
me like escaped civil war and marauding soldiers.
Dodie Bellamy is San Francisco-based poet, novelist, journalist, and editor. She is well-known among America’s literary avant-garde and is one the originators of the New Narrative movement, along with Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker and Eileen Myles. Bellamy’s writing is concerned with feminist themes, as well as the place of sex in language broadly, and with experimentation in genre and form. Her books include Cunt-ups (2001), the Buddhist (2011), originally written on her blog, Academonia (2006), Barf Manifesto (2008), which was named by Time Out New York “Best Book Under 30 Pages” for 2009, and Pink Steam (2008).