October 7, 2021

A reading of Dodie Bellamy’s Bee Reaved


In the spring of 2010, I helped organize the sixtieth birthday party for my friend Scott Watson. Held at Vancouver’s Western Front, a historically important artist-run center, the evening featured arias and art songs by Lee Plested, a performance by Rebecca Belmore, and literary blessings from George Stanley, Dodie Bellamy, and Kevin Killian. I no longer recall the order in which these events took place, but I remember George’s introduction of Dodie and Kevin, in which he referred to them first as “travelers.”

George’s introduction bothered me, but I understood it as typical of his proprietary sense of self-as-place. Dodie and Kevin were the evening’s only non-local participants, having traveled from San Francisco, where they had lived together since the 1980s. San Francisco is also the birthplace of George, who, despite having lived in British Columbia (Vancouver and Terrace) since the early 1970s, continues to identify as a San Franciscan, and specifically the figurative afterthought sibling of San Francisco Renaissance poets Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser, all of whom appeared in Donald Allen’s generation-defining The New American Poetry, 1945–1960 (1960) and are lionized in Lewis Ellingham and Kevin’s Poet Be Like God (1998).

Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian Poet Be Like God (1998)

Dislocations like these are endemic to any cultural scene, from the Dadaists refusing membership to Kurt Schwitters (for his Expressionist beginnings) to the current run of cancellations playing out on social media. Indeed, questions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s the real deal and who’s a poser, are as present as the weather when reading the writings (fictions, essays, interviews, etc.) of Dodie, Kevin, and their boomer contemporaries, writings that register less as name-dropping gossip than as ethnographic entries on our overlapping psychospheres. (Remember when Eileen Myles accused Chris Kraus of “wanting to be Kathy [Acker]”? Remember the ease with which Kraus deflected the comment, without disparaging Myles?) In her latest book, Bee Reaved (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2021), Dodie casually mentions her relatively recent “cancellation” as if it were common knowledge, and if you don’t recall the infraction or the resultant vituperations, don’t for one minute think you’re missing anything, Dodie implies, because there are other things worth noting—all of it related.

Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian Writers Who Love Too Much (2017)

There is a lot that is noteworthy in Bee Reaved. Lazily described by its publisher as a “collection of essays,” Bee Reaved offers a range of writing genres that would be considered variations on the expository essay if the “parallel text” was not already recognizable to readers of exhibition catalogues, or if the more expedient “curatorial dialogue” à la Hans Ulrich Obrist hadn’t superseded the exhibition catalogue’s traditional monological essay. In addition to parallel texts and dialogues (coauthored with Kevin), Bee Reaved includes exhibition reviews (of works by artists Aimee Goguen in “The Pink Place” and Mary Beth Edelson in “The Endangered Unruly”), an artwork (Stuff My Stalker Has Ordered for Me Online [2018], in “The Violence of the Image”), an incomplete artwork (“Kevin and Dodie [with Kevin Killian]”), and, in its totality, a spatial division that has this chronologically sequenced book divided into two sections: “Here” and “Where.”

“Here” is comprised of eleven previously published works that correspond to the aforementioned tendencies, while “Where” starts out as such but shifts after its third entry—“Kevin and Dodie (with Kevin Killian)”—to feature two short pieces where the writing began after Kevin’s death. The remaining three works in “Where” begin with “Bee Reaved,” in which we are introduced to the book’s titular character (a text commissioned for Christina Ramberg’s 2019 The Making of Husbands exhibition at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art); followed by “Plague Widow,” a tour de force of scatological grammatology structured by Bee’s incontinent cat (for diaphanes’s October 2021 “Punk Philology” issue); and, finally, “Chase Scene,” a previously unpublished fifty-two-page epistle to the bereaved Bee Reaved’s “other one” (Kevin).

Kevin and Dodie

That “Bee Reaved,” “Plague Widow,” and “Chase Scene” were written after Kevin’s death and amount to over half the book’s page count suggests a more obvious division, perhaps the start of a new book. However, the decision to include these works in the second “half” of “Where” suggests something else at play, a situational “there” where the reader is invited to consider an arrangement that remains faithful to the order in which these events took place, while at the same time a compilation of individual or discrete works that, in their interior fragmentation (what Dodie refers to as “gut chronology” in “Chase Scene”), are indifferent to objective temporal fidelities (in contrast, see Annie Ernaux’s linear narrative Les années [2008]). For this reader, the autonomy and epic scope of each of the book’s preceding works authored by Dodie (and sometimes Kevin) provides a whorl or molten ground toward a cumulative understanding of Dodie’s Midwestern working-class upbringing, her marriages, her television viewing habits (Grey’s Anatomy), her driving habits (the Yaris), her Mission District neighborhood, her remarkable insights into social media and the injuries that plague her, but also a preface to her protective construction: the suit of a(r)mor she calls Bee Reaved.

Readers familiar with Dodie’s critical, fictive, criti-fictive, ficto-critical, auto-fictive, and conceptual writings will recognize and appreciate the wit and wisdom she brings to her subjects, but also her entangled responses to them. What sets Bee Reaved apart from her past writing is concision, a departure from an earlier tendency to overwrite—or, if overwriting remains present, how it is there authentically, aesthetically, an operative protraction in service of the confession as opposed to a mawkish enslavement to it. Another difference can be found in the book’s profusion of quotable if not aphoristic sentences, which abound in the epistolary “Chase Scene” and are too numerous to mention (my reading copy of Bee Reaved is a diary of exponential underlining).

Dodie Bellamy is on our mind (2020)

Authenticity is a hallmark of the New Narrative writing that Dodie’s and Kevin’s writings participate in, and though the presence of authenticity is sometimes difficult to apprehend, it registers through difference. At one point in Bee Reaved Dodie makes a passing mention of Joan Didion’s best-selling, award-winning grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). I would be lying if I said I wasn’t waiting for this. But like Kraus responding to Myles, Dodie brings it up matter-of-factly, without evaluation. Her “response” to Didion’s book is to acknowledge that it exists, and it is for us readers, if we wish, to compare the two. But to what end? A San Franciscan is no less a San Franciscan if he lives in Vancouver or in San Francisco, just as a writer is no less bereaved if she writes from uptown Manhattan or a traditional working-class neighborhood like San Francisco’s Mission District. Any traveler will tell you that. But Dodie does so first as a person. A person who writes. A writer.

Michael Turner is a poet, a writer of fiction, often criticism, and sometimes song who every now and then curates.

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