Stranded in the Jungle--22

Kathy Acker

REQUIEM. Kathy Acker died on November 30, 1997. It's still hard for me to imagine her dead. She was the most alive person I have ever known. I was never able to keep up with her. She lived with an intensity that left her friends exhausted. She threw herself into everything she did, without reserve. Anything less would have been a betrayal of the real. Kathy's intelligence was wide-ranging and ferocious. It was matched by a deep thirst for experience, of all kinds. Whatever Kathy encountered, or was able to imagine, she insisted on exploring in her own flesh. This made her difficult to get along with, sometimes. She was never willing to compromise, or let go. She was obstinate, to the point of exasperation. No wonder our friendship was stormy, with frequent quarrels, and difficult reconciliations. But of course, I wouldn't have wished Kathy any other way. "Whenever I get something that I want," she wrote, "it isn't good enough. For to be female, to me, is to want everything." This is O. speaking, the heroine of Kathy's 1996 novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates. But it is also Kathy herself. Her novels were as much a part of her as her gorgeous tattoos. I love the sheer extravagance of Kathy's fiction. Pussy is a book bursting at the seams. It is full of poems and songs, dreams, jokes, stories within stories, porno sequences, myths and legends, political diatribes, translations from French and Latin, even drawings, diagrams, and maps. Most of all, Pussy pushes language to the breaking point. It is poised forever on the brink of orgasm, where words fail and all you can do is scream. What pulls the book together is its furious drive to imagine everything anew. "The world has to begin again," is its repeated cry. Kathy's writing was much like bodybuilding, something else she did with dedication and discipline. The bodybuilder must push her body to the limit, Kathy explained. For "muscles will grow only if they are... actually broken down." Language, too, must be broken down in order to be recreated. Writing can only cleave to the real by shattering it, and accepting the risk of being shattered in turn. Writing, no less than bodybuilding, "occurs in the face of the material, of the body's inexorable movement toward its final failure, toward death." Kathy worked out with words, just as she worked out with her muscles. It was her way of being true to the real. "What is, is," she once wrote. "No fantasy. Pain. Just the details... The only anguish comes from running away." The finest thing I can say about Kathy is that she never ran away. Not even from the cancer that finally killed her. She faced it head-on, with full awareness. She grew intimate with this alien life that had usurped her own. She tells the story in her essay "The Gift of Disease." To come to terms with her illness, she says, she "entered the school of the body." She learned to listen to her body's rhythms, its blockages and flows. Thanks to the "gift" of illness, she stepped into the unknown. Her disease allowed her to reinvent herself. It led her away from everything she knew. It gave her the courage "to walk away from conventional medicine... to walk away from normal society." In the course of this healing process, Kathy says, she conquered fear, and "felt only intellectual excitement and joy." Yet the fact remains that none of this made her well. The cancer stayed in her body, and she died. Part of me is angry with Kathy for letting this happen. I wish she had given conventional medicine more of a chance. Maybe it would have cured her; maybe not. We will never know. But I do not believe, as Kathy came to believe, that "all healing has to do with forgiveness." No, Kathy, I want to say, forgive all you want, but it will not make your tumor go away. You cannot heal yourself by will and faith alone. I should have said this to her, while she was still alive. But I never did. Now that it is too late, I can't forgive either her or myself. Yet I also know that Kathy couldn't have acted any differently. She approached death the same way she lived her life, the same way she wrote her novels. You can see this at the end of Pussy, King of the Pirates, when the pirate girls don't keep the treasure they have found. For if they become rich, instead of having nothing, "the reign of girl piracy will stop." Wanting everything means refusing to settle for less. It means being ready to throw it all away. If this is how you live, then what are illness and death? Disease, Kathy says, "is equivalent to life, for bodies are always changing, going through what we call disease... We say 'good' health and 'bad' health, but we're only making up what 'good' and 'bad' are."

Return to STRANDED IN THE JUNGLE Table of Contents

Go to my homepage

email me:


purchase Pussy, King of the Pirates from