In memoriam to identity, Kathy Acker


Years ago, one of my daughters thought she’d be a writer. In fact, like Miles Franklin, she’d been writing stories all through her school years and reading them to her friends – I still have one or two in my bottom drawer. So for her 18th or 19th birthday I gave her the hippest, most up to date writing I could think of, Kathy Acker’s Pussy King of the Pirates (1996). It horrified her, may even have put her off writing, ended up of course on my shelves and I have read and enjoyed it a couple of times since.

At her (my daughter’s) age I was up at Melbourne Uni and had been introduced to the Beats – Allen Ginsberg and other poets I no longer remember, though I still remember these lines from a Beat compilation, “Farewell for now the tadpole said/and wrapped his tadtail round his head”, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. That was a pretty weird time culturally, and no I didn’t do drugs, not anyway until I was years into truck driving.

Of course I loved/love Kerouac’s On the Road but Burroughs was my favourite: The Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys, Nova Express, Exterminator!, The Ticket that Exploded. I have more! And The Naked Lunch movie starring Judy Davis (I don’t know who the guys are). The Beats were a movement that grew up around Columbia University in New York City in the late 1950s, by which time Burroughs was in his 40s, writing semi-autobiographical fiction about his drug addiction and homosexuality. In the radical abstraction of his writing, he is second only to James Joyce in all of (English language) Literature. JG Ballard, in his Introduction to Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (2005), calls Burroughs “the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War”.

Kathy Acker (194? – 1997) cites Burroughs as her greatest influence – and later in her life (coincidentally, they died in the same year) did some work with him, interviews and a documentary – and this is readily apparent in her writing. Australian author, Justine Ettler, whom I interviewed recently (here), in turn cites Acker as an important influence on her The River Ophelia (1995). [In memoriam to identity contains the line “the stupid girl whose clothes make a lot of noise caught in the weeds at the bottom of the river (Ophelia, that part of me gone, mourned for, transformed… )”]. Ettler has been categorized as ‘Grunge’, Acker as ‘Punk’, Burroughs as ‘Beat’, but it’s all one continuum.

In memoriam to identity is a reimagining of the destructive relationship of two French poets, R and V – Rimbaud and Verlaine – and then it isn’t. Then it’s the story of a young woman student, Airplane, in Connecticut who loses her virginity to a rapist, who becomes her pimp. Then it’s …

I have zero knowledge of French poetry so when the France of R and V is invaded by Germans I think Second World War. But in fact, we’re really talking 1871, Paris Commune, Franco Prussian war.

Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891) was a French poet who is known for his influence on modern literature and arts, which prefigured surrealism. Born in Charleville-Mézières, he started writing at a very young age and was a prodigious student, but abandoned his formal education in his teenage years to run away from home. During his late adolescence and early adulthood he began the bulk of his literary output, but completely stopped writing at the age of 21, after assembling one of his major works, Illuminations.

Paul-Marie Verlaine (1844 – 1896) was a French poet associated with the Decadent movement. He married 16 year old Mathilde in 1870 and was employed in the civil service. Wikipedia (herehere)

R comes up to Paris from his home town Charleville when the Germans invade and destroy Mézières (on the other side of the River Meuse), escaping on a Moto-Guzzi motorcycle – I didn’t say it makes sense – meets V, goes home with him to meet Mathilde’s aristocratic parents, gets thrown out.

Several days after V had thrown him out, V found R in a pile of dog shit. R was picking his nose without seemingly being disgusted. R spat at V and told V V was too disgusting, bourgeois, married for R to touch him.

V is torn between his love for R and his responsibilities as a husband, father and civil servant.

R and V again met, traveled to London, again split. This time because they were accused by close friends of being homosexual. They reunited in Brussels where V shot R in the wrist…

The judges of the Sixth Court of Summary Jurisdiction sentenced V to jail for two years.

We switch to Airplane. Airplane is at college, goes to a party out of town, the boy who takes her gets hopelessly drunk, Airplane wanders off, ends up in a farmhouse with some men, is raped.

After he had raped her, the tall thin man carried the girl out of the barn, into some sort of car, that moved by an engine, and she didn’t fight him. She even seemed to cling to him.

She was clinging to him because she had decided to survive. Somewhere in her sexuality was her strength. Later on, everyone would hate her for this…

“The next thing I thought to myself is that I could no longer live without the rapist.”

Throughout, the writing switches constantly between first and third person. First person is enclosed in quotes, but you have to look back to see the transition.

The rapist delivers her to a sex club, Fun City, where she works as a stripper, living with and handing over all her pay to her rapist/pimp. R now stands for ‘rapist’. In the club she performs in a ‘play’ where she begs Santa for sex. Santa is a doctor who manipulates her. They simulate sex. She says to herself that she enjoys it. Orgasms. “Obviously the fake fucking was getting good. At least for her. You can never tell what the other feels.”

At home she finds that she is free, “the rapist was at his job (he was now an editor in a book firm)”, but it’s months before she leaves him.

Lots of swearing: Capitol fucks all the boys in town, including her brother, maybe especially her brother, she fucks them because she hates them, or hates them, or loves them, because she fucks them. Her father drinks. Her mother suicides by pills.

Rimbaud, who may be her brother, argues with her father. Rimbaud gave up poetry and became a businessman. This made Acker angry (or so I read).  She writes Rimbaud, Capitol’s brother, as controlling, wanting to prostitute her.

If I had been another person, I would have mashed his face into red. Like some girls want to become ballerinas or have babies, I hoped that one day I’d have the ability to be totally independent and then I’d never again have to be nice to anyone or see anyone. Not someone who’s a creep.

Airplane takes a married man back to her New York apartment. The sex is rough. For the first time she sleeps with a man, takes him as a lover. William Faulkner whom I’ve never read makes an appearance [Suglia, below has an explanation]. Capitol is in New York too. Hooks up with a guy.

Both of them began making money out of their work. Not enough to pay, much less afford, the gigantic electric and gas bills of the city … But enough for real necessities: restaurants movies a thrift store clothing item and books.

So, the sex morphs into relationships and back into sex again. The back cover blurb says “a startling montage of history and literature, pornography and poetry.” I guess that’s what I think too.


Kathy Acker, In memoriam to identity, Pandora, London, 1990 (my edition – not the one pictured – Flamingo, 1993)

In researching this post – I didn’t want to be completely wrong in the connections I saw! – I came across this much more erudite review (here) by Dr Joseph Suglia.

30 thoughts on “In memoriam to identity, Kathy Acker

  1. Did you see that there is a new biography about Kathy Acker? A writer I know and have met a couple of times is desperately in love with Acker and her writing. She was going to lead this project, but as more people got involved, she decided she did not want to be (which makes me sad; it almost sounds like the writer got chased off). Anyway, I’ve never been a lover of Kathy Acker just because I can’t follow any of her narratives. If I complete a book and can tell you nothing about it, I feel like that’s bad. Here is a link to the new biography:

    I did read an excerpt of the biography. It was all about how she tried to cure her cancer by eating well and living “clean,” but of course the cancer just got worse while she was denying it. Very sad. She ended up in a treatment center in Mexico.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Melanie, I’ll follow up that biography (I saw about her cancer and ‘clean’ diet. I often think about what I’d do – pretend it wasn’t happening probably). I think I read punk/beat books like poetry. Let the words wash over me and try and make sense of it later.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read a few of Acker’s books when I was in my twenties and quite liked them. In some ways I preferred her work over Burroughs. I find this sort of work interesting enough but rarely satisfying.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think of these writers in the same way I think about other abstract artists – they are trying to say something about the process as well as tell a story (or paint a picture). It’s hard work for the reader, but interesting too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree but it does mean that the work can be a bit hit or miss sometimes. I disliked Burroughs when he was heavily into his cut-up method but found his Red Night series of books excellent. He was always interesting though. Once the reader gets over the shock of there not being a story, as such, then they can enjoy the imagery and style.


      • I’m not home, but I think I might have Cities of the Red Night, and Western Lands (1 and 3), I’ll have to find the middle one and read them straight through. Meanwhile, I hope you have or are planning to read Justine Ettler.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’d like to re-read the trilogy – they’re the only books by Burroughs that I’ve kept hold of. I hadn’t heard of Ettler before; I’ll have to add it to my list.


  3. Haha, Bill, 20-yeaqr-old reader me was all about Austen and the Classics – oh and some early twentieth writers. The most daring I probably got was Camus! (Sorry about the delay in reading this – I’ve been up to my neck in exhibition launches and AGMs the last week and they’ve taken their toll on reading, posting and reading posts.)

    I understand your final point, ” I didn’t want to be completely wrong in the connections I saw!”. Sometimes, after drafting my post, I do some research before publishing if I fear I’ve gone out on a limb. It doesn’t usually result in my changing my post if I don’t find “my” connections but it helps to know the landscape.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Many of my classics were for school and uni, but I did read some by personal choice too, particularly Austen!! And Patrick while, I read him by choice too in my late teens. But, I must say that I didn’t do a lot of recreational reading until after University because the reading lists were so long, and the ones you chose to study you had to reread.


      • My one year of Arts was very easy, 9 formal hours, but my reading then and for many years was mostly sf and politics. I’m still not very well read in US or C19th English classics. When I finally start downloading audio books instead of borrowing them that’s what I’ll be after.


  4. I have been recently introduced to the world of experimental writing, courtesy my creative writing class, so far I think I am doing pretty well…hoping to contribute more in terms of writing in future

    Liked by 1 person

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