‘When the sick rule the world’ by Dodi Bellamy (Semiotext(e), 2015)
Blurring the edges of poetry, fiction and memoir, Dodi Bellamy’s text, When the sick rule the world, is wild. By this I do not mean unrestrained, or untamed (Bellamy’s prose is superbly and strategically free) rather, it is biting, fierce, and deep. While, as the warning goes, one should never judge a book by its cover, Tariq Alvi’s confronting piece, the Bandaged lady, offers a good insight into the terrain within. Delving into the taboo and tackling the mundane, Bellamy’s collection of essays brings a rare and candid account of numerous themes, from vomit, the grieving process, and marginalized bodies and spaces, to Kathy Acker’s wardrobe.
Unfamiliar with work associated with the new narrative movement, I found Bellamy’s text challenging but accessible. Bellamy grapples with the question of textual form and meaning, wary of neutrality (‘perception is about framing; when it comes to dolling out opinions, I am the frame’ [p. 53]). Her work probes the epistemological dilemma, loosening the boundaries of objectivity and subjectivity: ‘To deny ones lens is corrupt,’ she writes, ‘Immoral even’ (p. 56). This is implicit within the fluidity of her narrative; sometimes disjointed, sometimes flowing, it changes structure and arrangement, pace. It is thinking writing. In ‘Barf manifesto’, Bellamy takes this question of form and meaning further. Discussing the embodied value of Eileen Myles’ ‘Everyday barf’, she writes ‘it says so much. It says too much. Meaning is so surplus it decimates form – or is it the other way around, its form is so vicious it beats the [f@&^ing] pony of content to bits’ (pp. 48-49).
Subjectivity, thus, is a concept explored throughout Bellamy’s collection, but perhaps most clearly so in her title piece, ‘When the sick rule the world’. Here, Bellamy offers an account of what life would be like if governed by those who suffer from environmental sickness. It would be a parody, a world turned on its head, where invisible suffering becomes vividly and tauntingly evident. Her task beckons some analogy to Susan Sontag’s renowned proclamation:
Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (1988: 3)
Yet for Bellamy, citizenship would only be for the weak, the consequences both subtle and striking, with no need to return to the bright of day, as ‘when the sick rule the world mortality will be sexy’.
Another motif that runs through Bellamy’s various prose also deals with affliction, but this time it tells of Bellamy herself, and her experience of her mother’s death. In ‘Phone home’, Bellamy describes this experience in moving detail, through the role the film E.T. has played in her life, namely as a premonition of death (both her grandmother’s and her mother’s death) and as a poignant realization of home. For Bellamy, E.T. acts as a means of explaining and understanding these occurrences, exemplified through the comparison of film to reality, such as when she sits with her mother in hospital:
Where did I see this before. It must have been a movie, but what movie. I observe her for maybe an hour when I realize it was E.T., the part where E.T. turns white and is dying – and all the kids are sobbing – E.T.’s round lipless mouth gasping for air – this is what my mother looks like, E.T. dying (p. 99).
E.T. acts as a strange manifestation of the energy that signifies the intimate and intricate relationship Bellamy had with her mother, and the grief she now feels with her passing. Home will forevermore be a yearning, never to be satisfied.
Grief takes a different turn in the chapter ‘In the shadow of Twitter towers’. The prose here is angry and activist, where Bellamy satirically laments the gentrification of San Francisco. She implores Twitter, whose headquarters are newly placed in her neighborhood, to appoint her to assist their employees to appreciate the person, to acknowledge subjectivity, and humanity. This essay is once more about the frame; it is about places and spaces, of what or who belongs within them, what is safe, and how boundaries might change, but it is appreciation of the margins that really counts. She is descriptive in this elucidation, juxtaposing the privacy of those who live in condominiums, with those who meet in alleyways for casual sex. Bellamy notes the changing situation for those who are homeless as a bystander, but one who is ultimately engaged (albeit reluctantly) with the process of transformation. She notes that ‘life is not a movie. I can stop and stare, but I cannot pause, cannot rewind’ (p. 220).
When the sick rule the world offers multiple ways to engage and question convention, in subject matter, writing style, and prose. This seems to be the main thread that pulls together this collection of eclectic essays, as though their assemblage is also to question what should be placed alongside, or packaged together, and presented as whole.
Reviewed by Dr Rebecca Oxley, a CMH Research Fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded ‘Life of Breath’ project. Her research will focus on ‘aware breathers’ and breathing techniques to contribute to a phenomenology of breath, breathing and breathlessness.
Correspondence to Dr Rebecca Oxley.
Alvi, Tariq. 2015. Two hankies: Pony, the bandaged lady. San Francisco: 2nd Floor Projects.
Sontag, Susan. 1988. Illness as metaphor. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux