‘“The Otherwise Alien”: A Review of Dodie Bellamy’s “When the Sick Rule the World”’, By Fiona Wright


Chapter Four: Barf Manifesto

Dodie Bellamy is friends with Eileen Myles and gets to go to her birthday party. I am jealous. Like all female poets of a certain persuasion, I’m a little bit in love with Eileen Myles, and it’s only gotten more acute as I’ve grown older. Dodie Bellamy broke Eileen Myles’ toilet. I’ve broken toilets. Several toilets. Clogged up dodgy drainage at a friend’s parents’ holiday house, after a big communal meal had made me sick, or made me barf, as Bellamy and Myles would say. I like the word ‘barf’. It’s almost onomatopoeic. My brother uses the word ‘ralph’ to the same effect; one of my friends likes ‘calling moose on the porcelain telephone’; ‘chunder’ is pretty good as well. I guess I most often use ‘spew’, which is almost onomatopoeic too.

Dodie Bellamy writes about Eileen Myles, and her poem ‘Everyday Barf’, which opens with the lines, “I don’t mind today, but the everyday makes me barf … Puking would put something on the sidewalk of the everyday so it could begin to be now.” There’s a central tension in the poem, Bellamy argues, between the general, the essential, the ordinary, the predetermined form, and the specific, the uncontainable, the spew. It’s a tension encapsulated (at least, for most people) in in the poem’s very title. Barf is disruptive. It is messy, it is visceral, it is an aberration. It is not everyday. Except that it is, for me.

Barf is disruptive. It is not everyday. Except that it is, for me.

Which is to say, I’ve had to work very hard to make barf everyday, to make it ordinary, to shrug it off, when it happens (not every day, but at least, still, twice a week) as meaningless, unspectacular, to not consider it evidence of wrong-doing, over-indulgence, failure, hysteria, madness. To rinse out my mouth and come back to the table and smile.

In Myles’ poem, she takes her 83-year-old mother on a ferry that hits a storm, and as the commuters start vomiting violently around her, she writes/barfs her mother a poem, “The puking I do. This. Dear Mom. Blah,” vomiting up the primal, the repressed.

Dodie Bellamy argues that Barf is a literary form. “The Barf comes naturally to women because women like to throw up …” she writes, “[t]he Barf is an upheaval, born of our hangover from imbibing too much Western Civ … The Barf is not so much anti-logocentric, anti-dichotomy as outside the whole fucking system.” And I’m thrilled by this, I am, but my illness is not your fucking metaphor.

Chapter Two: When the Sick Rule the World

Dodie Bellamy joins a listserve for the sick, and goes to a meeting, having prepared herself bodily with perfume-free soap, shampoo, conditioner, hair gel, moisturiser, deodorant, washing powder; wrapped her hair, cleaned with olive oil, in two cotton scarves to stop it giving others headaches. Dodie Bellamy does this because she has been feeling vaguely, nebulously sick: “I’ve been tired and headachy, with a chronic ADD-esque lack of focus. I’ve been having allergic reactions to everything, and if I eat the wrong thing I’m up with … god-awful nausea for like seven hours.”

Dodie Bellamy has been to a naturopath, who told her to move house. I once went to a naturopath, exhausted by doing the rounds of baffled doctors; she mixed me a thick green liquid so bitter that it made me gag, as if this might cure my barfing. Dodie Bellamy says the sick are sympathetic, and she names them, Sick Bonnie, Sick Catherine, Sick Rhonda, Sick Nina, Sick Tom. The sick live in vans and trailers and tents and move around the country, trying to avoid pesticides and electromagnetic fields, exhaust fumes and burning wood.

When the sick rule the world, cars will no longer be perfumed into that new-car-smell, health insurance will actually cover specialists and procedures in their entirety.

“When the sick rule the world,” Dodie Bellamy writes, “roses, gardenias, freesias and other fragrant flowers will no longer be grown.” When the sick rule the world, cars will no longer be perfumed into that new-car-smell, health insurance will actually cover specialists and procedures in their entirety, “all writing will be short and succinct,” and “mortality will be sexy.” “The well,” Dodie Bellamy writes, “will no longer delete the email of the sick.” Restaurants will not exist, Bellamy writes, and I cheer inside. I think, when the sick rule the world it will be illegal for service stations and convenience stores and cafés to make people request a key to use their toilets, set banquet menus will be outlawed, the working day will be no longer than six hours, there will be free tissues at every bus stop and bar. Dodie Bellamy gets it, writes about the sick falling in love and finding solace in each other, but she also writes the following:

There is no such thing as a hypochondriac; there are only doctors who cannot figure out what is wrong with you.

I saw eight different specialists over eighteen months before someone could figure out what was wrong with me and it was real and it still is and it is not a fucking metaphor.

Chapter Eight: Phone Home

Dodie Bellamy watches E.T. with her dying mother, and remembers that she watched E.T. with her grandmother the last time she saw her alive. “You watch E.T. with someone you love, then E.T. harvests their soul and you never see them again,” Dodie Bellamy writes, and, “E.T. is the angel of death.” Dodie Bellamy is terrified for her husband’s safety when she watches the film at home, alone, one more time.

Dodie Bellamy’s mother is dying, slowly and awfully, her lungs filling with fluid, and she looks just like E.T, thin-limbed and gangly, grey-skinned and big-headed. It’s not until Dodie Bellamy’s mother is in hospital, dying across the night, that she realises this, watching her gasp and jerk, her mouth open wide and gulping at the air. It’s a terrible intimacy to bring us here, to seat us by the deathbed, let us witness the “scurrying tremors” of the last seconds of life. I imagine my own mother’s death. I can’t imagine my own mother’s death.

When Dodie Bellamy’s mother dies, she can no longer phone home, because home “no longer exists.”

Dodie Bellamy’s writing students tell her E.T. was scary, was creepy, gave them nightmares. I watched E.T. as a child on Christmas night—they always screen it on Christmas night—sitting on the creamy carpet of the living room at home, sobbing uncontrollably as E.T. moved towards the stars. The story has grown to family legend, how inconsolable I was, how wretched, how I almost choked on my own tears, gulping at the air, and everybody chuckles at the memory. “You’ve always been thin-skinned,” my mother always tells me when we tell this story, but all I think is I feel it I feel it I feel it I feel it I feel it.

Chapter Fourteen: In The Shadow of Twitter Towers

Dodie Bellamy lives in San Francisco, on streets named “in homage … to famous 19th Century madams”, just south of the New Market district, renamed NEMA by the tech workers who have moved in there and ENEMA by the older San Franciscans. Dodie Bellamy’s home city is rapidly changing, gentrifying, ugly word that that is, growing and pushing its poor more prominently to the streets.

Dodie Bellamy writes about these people, the wrack and refuse, and wants to give them dignity, wants to prefer them to the blank-faced, sexlessly-thin, designer-dogged tech-hipsters that are suddenly everywhere, carried to work in double-decked, wifi-ed ‘Google buses’, which “glide through the street like snakes—no, worms—no, slugs … giant white slugs of capitalism clogging traffic with their slime.” The foyer of Twitter HQ contains two 1870s cabins from Montana, which were disassembled, cleaned, shipped to San Francisco and rebuilt indoors to make a lounge space within the cafeteria. Dodie Bellamy watches a homeless woman bury trinkets in the jade plants near her building, a man take a shit on the street, does online battle with a condo-dwelling neighbour who shouts and hoses them down.

The café that sold ‘slutcake’ now sells cold-drip and quinoa salads.

“It’s not just the fear of losing housing and having nowhere to go, it’s this sense of having one’s habitat destroyed around you,” Dodie Bellamy writes, and I get this, I feel this, I do. I live in Newtown, and when I say that now, people almost sneer, but when I moved here, almost eight years ago, things were different. The pubs were still full of prune-faced, wiry old men, the shops selling corsetry and latex bodysuits were yet to disappear. The café that sold ‘slutcake’ now sells cold-drip and quinoa salads. The dreadlocks on men and buzz-cuts on women are now man-buns on everyone. My rent has increased by 230% and my income has never matched this. But I’ll also spend $18 on a cocktail, buy vintage dresses from petticoated women with French-rolled hair and bright-red lips, and the only reason I don’t eat quinoa is that it makes me barf. And I also know the people who lived here before me were already bemoaning, eight years ago, how much the place had changed. Dodie Bellamy drinks a $10 cup of tea and knows that cities change, inexorably and inevitably, and she too is not unimplicated.

Manifesto: When The Sick call the Twitter Towers Home

Leslie Miley, an ex-employee of Twitter, a black man, left the company because of the lack of diversity in its workforce. Leslie Miley argues that diversity is integral to design, because designers with different backgrounds, the different neural and mental pathways that different languages and cultural norms engender, make different associations, find different solutions to the same problems. I think of this because I have a new iPhone, a newer model than the one I had; it has a Health app, a pedometer, designed into its OS. I only just threw out my Fitbit, after finally admitting that it wasn’t helping me control my exercise, that the thought I’d had—that when it buzzed to tell me I had reached my daily limit I would stop walking and start catching buses—was not how things were panning out at all. After realising that, once again, I was losing weight that I didn’t have to spare. And now I have a pedometer built into my phone, which cannot be deleted, which upgrades my daily average of steps every half hour and has me thinking, constantly, oh, I can do better than that. If more women worked for Apple, more of the everyday barfers, the sick, the refused, the otherwise-alien, I don’t think that this would have happened.

Fiona Wright’s poetry collection, Knuckled, won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award, and her book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance was published by Giramondo in 2015. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University’s Writing and Society Research Centre.