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The Body in Grief: Dodie Bellamy’s “Bee Reaved” and “The Letters of Mina Harker”

The Body in Grief: Dodie Bellamy’s “Bee Reaved” and “The Letters of Mina Harker”

  • Our review of Dodie Bellamy's "Bee Reaved" and "The Letters of Mina Harker"

One of the most stunning poems written out of grief is Hilda Morley’s “For Stefan 26 Months Later.” There, the poet imagines the grand gestures of loss, but is left,

…wish[ing] only

to see you sitting with me

at a table & a red-and-white

tablecloth between us,

nothing more

Morley’s poem cuts to the heart, offering absence a presence at the table, an absence that is embodied in silence. How does one make that silence physical, embody it in ordinary time?

Dodie Bellamy is the preeminent writer and poet of the American body. The body, raw and broken and aroused and adrift, is laid open to the measure of Bellamy’s prose. Whether it’s a crush’s first sharp moments, or the feel of underwear elastic tugging along the back of the thigh, Bellamy reclaims physicality in its range of distraction and shudder. In her latest collection of essays, Bee Reaved, Bellamy explores grief’s impact on the body, alongside and within the loss of her husband, Kevin Killian, in August 2019.

Bellamy narrates his absence not through an empty space at table, but quite often another mundane space—in front of the TV, as she recalls watching movies with Kevin, particularly car chases, a favorite cinematic moment for him. In “Chase Scene,” the collection’s final essay, Bellamy tests grief’s velocities. She adopts a persona, “Bee Reaved,” for her writing on loss. From across the room, she contemplates the unmoving box filled with Kevin’s ashes in the living room closet. She tries to maintain a sense of stasis, an often desperate attempt to avoid feeling grief’s sharp itch within the body. She admits, “Once I started this letter, I couldn’t stop writing.” 

With the dynamics of a well-timed car chase, Bellamy weaves in and out of a jarring absence. “Your stuff is empty without you,” she writes, veering between recalled agonies and laughter, often revealed in their shared (dis)comforts of body. Throughout the essay, she also continues to relate her dreams to Kevin, writing, “In my dream […] I am given two wishes. My first is that you were still alive. The second is that the cats could talk.”

The reader is strapped in for the ride, witness to grief’s keen edge. Bellamy’s narration never shies from expressing the feeling that loss leaves just under the skin. But like in Morley’s poem, that feeling is as clear as a muscle car’s growl in a choreographed chase. How does one “chase” grief? Bellamy writes, “The chase chooses clarity over frenzy. No cheesy inserts or cutaways that take the viewer out of the scene. No maniacal editing. The chase remains coherent.” In these essays, Bellamy relentlessly pursues Kevin’s absence, propelled by a mix of curiosity, grief, and rage. She finds that “the only time I feel your presence is in your writing—your quirkiness, your sly intensity as you pull the rug from beneath the reader’s feet.” But even here, she feels his voice retreat.

So much of Bellamy’s life with Kevin is mediated through art. They have long been known as two of the more generous people in the wider community of writers. Bee Reaved includes a range of collaborations between Bellamy and Kevin on art and narrative. It also chronicles his condition and eventual collapse. As he physically declined, Kevin found it difficult to type accurately. As she puts her own memory to the keyboard, Bellamy struggles with how “unknowable” he is becoming with time. She expresses her doubts, “If I knew how deeply this letter would change my relationship to you and your death, I don’t know if I would have begun it.” Again, like a good chase scene, her subject moves both closer and more distant from frame to frame, at hand but always outside of her grasp. In the writing, grief is embodied for Bellamy. At one point, she reflects, “I feel very close to you right now. It’s fucking unbearable.”

See Also

Semiotext(e)’s publication of Bee Reaved is accompanied by a new edition of Bellamy’s 1998 novel, The Letters of Mina Harker. A vampire novel set in a city of infected blood, Mina Harker is a catalogue of bodily fluids in a moment of horror, San Francisco in the midst of AIDS’ personal and public impact. The novel is written as a series of letters, autobiography and personae invoked from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “A woman with a vampire’s heart” and inhabiting Bellamy’s own body, Mina feels the full weight of eros, its sudden thrill and more sudden disappearance. Bellamy writes, “Nobody knows where It comes from. Or why It leaves. Or why It returns.” 

The novel narrates and reflects on desire’s consuming transit. Bellamy’s prose is graphic, erotic, and dizzying. As those bodily fluids flow, Bellamy’s persona feels herself “moving between two worlds like Persephone […] I collapse inward anti-orgasm […] ” The spirit of Mina Harker moves across desire and time. At one point she is addressed directly by KK (Kevin’s persona in this novel): “You can never get away from me […] I’ll follow you everywhere like death follows life.” The boundaries of time and genre collapse in Mina Harker; what’s left is bodies. As Emily Gould writes in her introduction to this new edition of the novel, “[B]ody parts […] assert themselves vehemently […] Writing and sex are the same in this book.”

Within Bee Reaved, the writing, sexual, and grieving bodies become one and the same. Bellamy repeats a kind of credo early in the essays: “The best writing embarrasses the author—at least a teeny bit…” Page and body leave the writer vulnerable. Bellamy finds herself driven by a grief that dictates, “When you’ve seen the unseeable, there’s no easy return. Nothing else makes sense.” The details of this “story” rattle Bellamy, becoming just details. In the end, she returns to the body and Kevin’s abiding physical presence within their relationship’s complexities. She wrestles with his growing distance in time. “Now that you are not here,” she writes, “I’m here but I don’t know what here means without you.” She recollects their first intimacies. That “here” becomes his body hovering over her in bed. In these essays, that shared space echoes, stinging and enlivened by a very present absence.

Bee Reaved
by Dodie Bellamy
Published October 19th, 2021

The Letters of Mina Harker
by Dodie Bellamy
Published October 19th, 2021

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