A review of Dodie Bellamy’s 'Cunt Norton'
For a while I kept a copy of Harold Bloom’s Genius (subtitled A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds) in my bathroom, with the idea that I would read about one genius each time I shit. But ultimately it was too slowgoing. I slogged through pronouncements such as, “It is difficult to keep up with Whitman; perpetually he passes and surpasses us. Walt Whitman is the poem [sic?] of our climate, the genius of the shores of North America,”  and I was confounded by Bloom’s Kabbalah-inspired, baroquely elaborated, and ultimately senseless arrangement of the writers. Tired of the 814-page tome collecting dust in my small bathroom, I eventually relegated it to the darkest corners of my IKEA bookshelf.
Reading Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Norton, I unexpectedly found myself thinking back to Bloom’s Genius. Had an experimental poetry press like Les Figues, rather than Warner Books, published Bloom’s Genius, and had it not been packaged as a-genius-explains-other-geniuses-to-us-non-geniuses, it might have had a head start on Conceptual Writing. The book’s arrangement is far more interesting as poetic procedure than as systematic taxonomy, and Bloom gathers a bunch of writers we already know and does his own little jiggy with them. I can be on board for this. The real problem is that even as poetry — even as the most exaggerated form of “unreadable” Conceptual Writing — Bloom’s text makes no serious effort at engagement with its reader. The procedural framework, the gimmick, and the brand names are not enough to make me do much more with this book than buy it and stash it away. And maybe that’s the end goal. But for me to care about a book and to want to keep it in sight, let alone actually read it, the writing within must be either instructive or entertaining, hopefully both. Genius I won’t even read while shitting.
Bellamy’s Cunt Norton does precisely what Bloom’s Genius couldn’t. It rises above the gimmick, above the poetry brand names, and teaches us quite a bit about the poetics of Edmund Spenser, Alexander Pope, and Emily Dickinson amidst the ravenous wet pussies, Fuck Slugs, and cocks spurting coffee and cream. Is Cunt Norton great poetry, approaching the orbit of its anthologized subjects? Sentimental, I still believe in great poetry, and I have to say no. It would be inane, discrediting even, to claim, “Bellamy makes Shakespeare more interesting!” Nonetheless, Cunt Norton is certainly worth reading, worth keeping in sight. It is surprisingly instructive, and it is wildly entertaining. It is poetry in pursuit of real pleasure. It is radical writing as more engaging and readable than mass-market nonfiction. And it is — I mean this as sincere praise — a godsend of a potty book.
The book includes thirty-two “cunt-ups” of authors from the Norton Anthology of Poetry (the 1975 edition), with each cunt-up titled “Cunt Spenser,” “Cunt Shakespeare,” “Cunt Whitman,” etc., and consisting of two short-but-sweet facing pages. This layout is ideal for brief, gratifying bursts of reading and just enough for Bellamy to make her point and for the cunts to begin spreading throughout the poetic tradition and to adorn its readers with sex-colored glasses. Despite the book’s slimness and minimal, Gallimard-inspired design, you inevitably begin (if you haven’t been doing so already) to see the potential for cunts. Bellamy developed her cunt-ups from the cut-ups popularized by William Burroughs, in which an existing text is cut up and rearranged as a new composition. As Burroughs explains in “The Cut Up Method:”
Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 … one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different —(cutting up political speeches is an interesting exercise) —in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite. 
Bellamy applied Burroughs’s procedure to porno-erotic source texts to produce her 2001 book Cunt-Ups,  which had the effect — on this reader — of saying much the same thing intended by the source texts but with actual force. In Cunt-Ups, Bellamy transforms what could be an anesthetically functional, and thereby alienating, kind of language into something far more erotic and consuming. The text moves in unexpected, incongruous directions, becoming tangled in a web of unclaimed body parts, a perspective that is intimately mine and evasively other, and the insistent demand, repeated through every word, to be right here and write now. Pay attention, be immersed, keep up, let go, come back, forget poetry or porn because this is pleasure.
And here, pleasure is political. Bellamy writes, “Each instance of cunting is a new encounter, not a reinscription. Each person who cunts will impart her DNA. (All persons who cunt are female, regardless of the gender they present in ordinary reality).”  The unapologetic proliferation of “cunt” in her work is not what defines Bellamy’s feminist intervention, but rather the forceful assertion of a female pleasure, of having to acknowledge that our sex lies within our simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from imposed structures of desire. For Bellamy, “cunt” is not a just colorful noun; it is an action, an imperative. If our language thus far has instructed us on the world viewed through the lens of male desire — and if that’s getting pretty old — Bellamy suggests, for males, females, and whomever else alike, a way to write our sex out of this hole.
Écriture féminine-inspired ground-laying aside, I want to emphasize the point that Bellamy’s twenty-first-century cunt-ups really aren’t about cunt for cunt’s sake. Just using the words cunt, cock, fuck, or even discharge isn’t enough to grab a 2014 reader’s attention. We like to pretend that this is still radical, but let me offer a gentle rejoinder: even I — emerging gray hairs, two children and all — grew up in a time when it was possible to watch “Two Girls One Cup” on my laptop, with the Bible-thin pages of various Norton anthologies open around it, just before I dragged myself to the Berkeley Film Archive to watch Salò, Or the 120 Days of Sodom. And then I was less disturbed by the bared genitals and feces-eating than the lines from Ezra Pound’s Cantos illuminated by graphic execution scenes at the end. Fascism is still shocking. Artistic genius so fully committed to bad politics is still shocking. Pedophilia, rape, and torture will always be shocking. But cunts, cocks, fucking, and discharges — qua cunts, cocks, fucking, and discharges — make up ninety percent of our daily Internet surfing. Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups and Cunt Norton, however, are worth more than the interest-value of seeing “cunt,” and it would be wrong to reduce the work her poetry does to just that.
In “These Lips Which Are Not One,” the writer’s statement accompanying Cunt Norton, Bellamy describes the book as “the big budget sequel to the indie Cunt-Ups”  and explains that here she combines the pornographic source material of her original cunt-ups with the 1975 Norton Anthology of Poetry she read as a young poet. That particular edition, the second, is remarkable for its “proud tokenism,” as Bellamy puts it, with the preface boasting of doubling the number of women (Anne Bradstreet and Elizabeth Barrett Browning being among those progressive additions) and including several non-white writers: “Four new black poets amplify the presentation of that tradition.”[vi] Referring to this patronizing objectification, Bellamy cunts not only the usual dead white men, such as John Milton and William Wordsworth, but a token female poet, Emily Dickinson, and black poet, Langston Hughes.
Bellamy’s tokenism is noteworthy in that her cunting of different poets produces quite different effects, and these differences don’t actually run along gendered or racial lines. You can’t say that Bellamy’s cunting of Dickinson dramatically empowers the shrinking violet poet and gives her ownership of her sexuality, whereas it uniformly subverts or deflates the machismo of Lord Byron and Robert Lowell. Granted, we do get delightful genderfuck moments, such as “Cunt Dickinson” declaring, “Slobber all over my cock until Eternity,”  and “Cunt Ashbery” observing, “The inside of my cunt is a bit sore, as I sit here between sea and building” (68). But whatever your impression of Dickinson-as-person, the Dickinson-as-text can be a kinky beast even pre-cunting. She doesn’t need empowering; she is always, resolutely, the true “Master.” Consider Bellamy’s cunt-up lines, “a Resonance of Hands are tied together and flare up into Blossoms on your Bush” (39). Isn’t this plausible as an actual Dickinson quote, even if the particular context Magic-Markers the innuendos?
And in the case of Hughes, the felicitous ambiguity of “Cunt Hughes” for either Langston or Ted made me waver for several lines on which one I was encountering first (Cunt Ted appears at the book’s end). How delicious here that, in being cunt-up, each writer more effectively stands on the fresh, complex, varying ground of their own writing rather than their conventional classifications. “Cut ups are for everyone,” Burroughs writes. “Poetry is for everyone.”  For Bellamy’s cunt-ups, this universalism also means that “Cunt Pound” can go from saying, “I clench my legs for there’s a landslide along my clit and tiller,” to noting, now seamlessly, in the next sentence, “I’m rubbing my cock against your shadows o’er all the ocean” (48). The “I” of “Cunt Pound” claims both clit and cock, but within a twisted figurative language that persuasively abstracts clit and cock away from biological givens. The speaking subject here is neither male nor female, neither straight nor gay, neither white nor black, but everything and nothing and always with such pleasure. In poetry, embedded even in the language of our dead white male geniuses, is this permeability, Bellamy shows us. To own our sex, to write into existence a pleasure our defined bodies can’t always perform, is possible through poetry — and, sometimes, even plausible. “Cunt Pound” waxes on, “fuck me with the glitter of sun-rays, stars stretching my cunt” (48).
For some poets, such as Geoffrey Chaucer or John Donne, Bellamy’s cunting doesn’t so much introduce graphic or absurd sexual language into their writing — which is already filled to the brim with such — than either provide some wickedly good new lines or veer into kitschy literary role-playing, what we might imagine of the MLA Convention’s key-swapping golden age: “To thee I renne,” declares “Cunt Chaucer,” “my clit so sensitive I doe nat like any oothers, and after wol I telle this aventure: whan it’s changing thy cock turneth to oon side” (8).
Even as pastiche, however, Bellamy’s cunt-ups have a lot to teach us about the original sources, with the Pumpkin Fucks and piles of flesh laundry acting as a foil to goad certain writers’ most distinctive mannerisms. Spenser’s lush metaphors and idyllic imagery are unavoidable in Bellamy’s rendition, such as when “Cunt Spenser” proclaims: “Behold thy many gazers — mine eyen and my cock on thee do stare. Soft, my cock lyke a sleeping river mussel doth look, but when thou darest lift up thy countenance so bold, my cock doth now blush” (10). And “Cunt Donne” offers us this insight on metaphysical poetry: “When thou drawest or eatest, that is a kind of fucking, right?” (14).
In creating her cunt-ups, Bellamy chose to forego certain formal elements, the most significant being line breaks and typographical variances. Each cunt-up is a solid, two-page block of prose, and thus we also find that some writers, such as Alexander Pope and William Carlos Williams, evaporate when given extraneous content and are no longer armed with perfectly crafted, lineated lines. Even familiar with his oeuvre, if you don’t recognize the specific allusions, I am not sure you would guess that, “Fucking you, my reason embraces emptiness (despair whines until I’m done),” comes from “Cunt Williams” (46). Whereas a distinctive Shakespearian vigor still resonates through, “O, no! it is thy tits swaying in rhythm, shaken to the stars. Thy tits are every large cow and they feed me sacredly with thoughts of heights to be taken” (12).
Through poets like Pope and Williams, however, Bellamy has more space to produce a poetic voice that feels different and original. The results are not quite as raucously fun as “Cunt Shakespeare,” but they also avoid devolving into pastiche. Pope aside, I am struck by how the twentieth-century writers, the poets writing after free verse, are the ones who most lose their distinctive flavor through Bellamy’s reshaping. The twentieth century is also when the fierce, insistent exaltation of the earlier cunt-ups begins to show some strain. “I hear spirits sob in each blood-on — everything’s throbbing so much I imagine myself in hell with nobody else here,” laments “Cunt Lowell” (63). And then exceptionally, surprisingly, “Cunt Creeley” remains resolutely male. The cunts are “yours,” while the King Kong cocks are only on “me.” This makes the conclusion of “Cunt Creeley” a little gag-worthy, a little sad, and not really deserved: “No woman ever was wiser than you, so my cock hangs above your face and what you take in your hand grows” (65). While Bellamy’s reasoning for cunting a token woman poet and a token black poet is clear, I found myself wondering what the cunt-up twentieth century would have looked like — possibly more vigorous and more powerfully, uncouthly, bizarrely sexual — if Bellamy had expanded to more recent Nortons and included “Cunt Moore,” “Cunt Plath,” “Cunt Lorde,” or “Cunt Carson.”
But perhaps this is just part of the cunt-ups’ strength — they have their ups and their downs, but still they give us new dreams, leave us wanting more. “Cunt Norton will last as long as there are quadrants of desiring text,” Bellamy promises. “When those are spent, the book ends. Until then it will keep fusing with poem after poem, desperate and insatiable.”  Cunt-ups are for everyone. So go ahead and read Cunt Norton in your bathroom. Read it in your gender theory class. Read it in your experimental poetry class to enliven your students again after you made them read Finnegan's Wake. Read it to your lover on Valentine’s Day. Read it in an MLA Convention hotel room, because it’s better than going to a panel. Read it and remember that poetry doesn’t need to exalt your soul nor stifle it. Sometimes it just turns you on.
2. William Burroughs, “The Cut Up Method,” in The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, ed. Leroi Jones (New York: Corinth Books, 1963).
8. Burroughs, “The Cut Up Method.”