San Diego Before we get to the memorial held for writer Kathy Acker at the Spruce Street Forum in Hillcrest on Sunday, February 1, we need to go to Palestine or certain things won't make sense. Between 1933 and 1935, it was still possible for Jews to leave Germany with their money and possessions, and the British were less finicky about who they would let into Palestine, which they then controlled. Many German Jews came to the country and settled into specific neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They brought with them their language, their considerable learning -- and their habits, some of which struck other Jews in Palestine as odd. Perhaps oddest was their insistence on dressing as if they were still in Northern Europe. German Jewish men marched around in jacket and tie under the blazing Middle Eastern sun. People started calling them yekkes, from the German jacke, meaning jacket. Jews had always felt that their German co-religionists were a group apart, and now they had a name for that otherness -- yekke. The name stuck.
Yekke was a definite Jewish type, a known quantity, found in Palestine (later Israel) and Manhattan. Yekkes were brilliant, worldly, and uptight. While they had an incredible facility for science, for philosophy, for highly sophisticated, theoretical disciplines, they were uncomfortable with plain emotion. Yekkes regarded the noisy abandon, the lush enthusiasm of Eastern European and North African Jews with horrified disgust. Emotion was messy and it was irrational, and yekkes were, if anything rational, and they couldn't abide mess. Yekkes, other Jews said, didn't have heart.
It's necessary to understand what a yekke is -- the stuffiness, the sort of compulsive tidiness the name implies -- to get a feel for Kathy Acker and her work. Born into a well-off yekke family ("German," she wrote, "was my parents' language"), she was raised in an apartment on Manhattan's Sutton Place. She attended the city's finest private schools, where she studied Greek and Latin. Because of and not despite these things, it becomes clearer why Acker, at age 53, would squat on the sand outside the motorhome taking her to a Tijuana cancer clinic, and while urinating, remark to the Buddhist nurse hired to care for her that the "sun feels so good on my cunt!"
Acker devoted her life to being an anti-yekke. From the very start of her writing career, which began here in San Diego in the late 1960s and early '70s while she was studying at UCSD, Acker's work was riddled with "improper" language, lurid fantasies, sexual obsessions, and, beneath the surface, a frank, insistent craving to be loved as feverishly as she could love. She was ahead of her time. Thirty years before it was chic for brainy women to moonlight as lap dancers, Acker bumped and grinded at strip joints in San Diego and San Francisco and later performed simulated sex in the peep-show houses around Times Square. Through it all, her friends attested, she remained a disciplined writer. As her career progressed, she married and divorced twice, fell in love with many men and women, collected innumerable tattoos and piercings, and finally in the 1980s earned an international reputation as something of a leather-clad, motorcycle-riding literary wild woman. Her image as glamorous outlaw tended to eclipse the seriousness she brought to her work.
In April 1996, however, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. Living in San Francisco at the time, she refused chemotherapy and opted instead for alternative medical treatments: she consulted nutritionists, past-life regressionists, and psychic healers. Late last year she was rushed to a San Francisco emergency room where she and friends were later informed that the cancer had invaded her liver, pancreas, spleen, lungs, and bones. Mattias Viegener, a close friend who taught with her at California Institute of the Arts and who was with her throughout her illness until her death, says that Acker denied the seriousness of what was happening to her, denied, in fact, that she was dying.
"This was just the way Kathy was going to deal with it," he says. "And while it was disturbing for me and her other friends, we finally had to accept that this was how Kathy was going to deal with it. I would have to accept her version of what's happening."
Acker's version of what was happening led her and Viegener to American Biologics, a cancer treatment center in Las Playas, west of Tijuana, where Acker was fed vegetable juices and was titrated with various vitamin and mineral solutions. She died there five weeks after her arrival.
During those long five weeks, Acker was visited by her old San Diego friends, many of whom attended her memorial at the Spruce Street Forum. Given Acker's flamboyance, the gallery felt claustrophobic with its spare interior, its cool white walls, the brooding Philip Glass score thrumming through its stereo. Before the memorial began, men and women dressed in stylish black stood in the foyer and murmured.
"I think she came out here in '67 or '68."
"It must have been '68."
"Was she with Bob Acker then?"
"Yes. He was a graduate student in philosophy who'd become disillusioned with philosophy."
"I used to play poker with Bob Acker."
"Whatever became of him?"
"He's an attorney. Practices corporate law up in the Bay Area. San Francisco."
"Yes. I think she reconciled herself later in her life to having known him."
Famous poet Jerome Rothenberg was there. As well as David and Eleanor Antin, the famous fixtures of the local art and literary communities who organized the memorial. Novelist Melvin Freilicher, who teaches at SDSU and UCSD, was there. Writer Raymond Federman and editor Susan Orlovksy were there, as well as actor Marsha Goodman, Eleanor Antin's sister. All in all, about 50 people showed up for the memorial and many of them shared their thoughts about Acker. It would be fair to say that at least some of what was said was more self-serving, even self-promotional, than elegiac. The Antins and Goodman, however, read from Acker's books, starting with The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, a work Acker composed and self-published while a student at UCSD.
During the readings, as a kind of game, I kept a list of the dirty words I heard:
"Fuck ... fuck ... shit ... clit ... fart ... bitch ... cunt hairs ... sperm ... shit ... shitty ... asshole ... fuck ... bitch ... cock ... cock ... cock ... cock ... cock ... fuck ... whore ... whores ... dog shit ... fuck ... shit ... son of a bitch ... dick ... asshole ... shit hole ... cunt ... cock ... shitting ... pissing ... asshole ... shits ... shit..."
I wondered about the impact of this language now, when gangster rap is considered old hat and the morning's headlines speak blithely about blue dresses with unusual stains and soggy Kleenexes found in presidential wastepaper baskets. Popular culture has, depending on your point of view, either ascended or descended to the level of Acker's literary devices.
She may have hoped her words would ruffle feathers, but in the spare, cool Spruce Street Forum, they sounded sad. The mouthy, vibrant woman who wrote them was gone. Freilicher, who had known her longest among those present, was the most heartfelt speaker. He talked about meeting her at Brandeis, where he was awed by her prettiness, her elegant private-school education that taught her Latin and Greek.
"She was," he remembered, "this amazing, dynamic presence. Androgynous. She dated all the hippest guys in her class. People watched her. They tried to imitate her. Once when she tried to slash her wrists, two other girls in her dorm tried slashing their wrists. The dorm mother, who later left Brandeis and joined the Weather Underground, went to Kathy and said, 'Look, you've gotta stop this, otherwise every girl in this dorm is gonna have slashed wrists.' "
He remembered when she lived in San Diego down on Front Street with Bob Acker and made all her own clothes and baked bread and hitchhiked to class at UCSD. He also remembered that "she absolutely could not stand the pretentious atmosphere of academia."
When the speeches and readings were over, Viegener showed a video that Acker had done for Australian television. In it, Acker recited, actually performed, a piece she had written -- a dialog between the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine. Acker assumed Rimbaud's voice and, addressing the camera, spoke in rich, elaborate metaphor of what he, Rimbaud, felt for Verlaine. The piece was very much unlike her other work. It wasn't rife with dirty words or violence or fear. Acker spoke fluidly, intently. Her beautiful face, her large eyes filled the television screen. She paused.
"But I," she said, with great tenderness and sweetness, bringing her hand to her heart, "love Verlaine."
Viegener said her last words before her death were a command -- "Up! Up! Up!" -- telling him to raise her hospital bed.
Freilicher said that the last book she asked him to bring her at the cancer clinic was Kabbalah, a well-known study of Jewish mysticism written by Gershom Scholem, the brilliant Jewish historian who was born and raised in Berlin.