I have this memory of what I believe was the first letter you wrote to me. Technically, I think it was to me and Steve. It was after we had sent you the Dictionary of Received Ideas (December 1997) the last issue of our short-lived Impercipient Lecture Series. Our entry on “KILLIAN, KEVIN” read as follows: “Nervously wonder if he really does all the things he writes about. Married to Dodie Bellamy, ‘but wait…’”
In response to this, you directed us to turn to our entry on “ALCOHOL”: “Blame your sexual adventures and moments of candor on it.” You also appeared in the entry on “soda”: “Have a Coke with O’Hara, a Pepsi with Berrigan, a Fresca with Schuyler and a Tab with Kevin Killian.” I wonder what compelled us to make an entry for soda? It seems rather odd now. But, the thing is, I can’t find your letter. The first letter in my bulging KK files is dated “January 29, 1999.” About a year after the Dictionary came out.
You’ve been dead for a week now, and I’ve been seized by a kind of mania in trying to track down that original letter. Like that scene in the movie Holding the Man when Timothy Conigrave can’t remember where his lover John sat at the first dinner they shared together. A desperate need for a detail. This happens after the person who could corroborate that detail is gone. You are that person now, Kevin. You’re dead, and I’m a wreck.
I know I have no right to be. What Dodie is going through is unimaginable. Though I’ve tried to imagine it. My worst fear. Losing the one person you can confide in, without judgement or worry about being rejected. Someone with whom you can be your flawed and complex self. Steve is my “one person.” I cannot contemplate his loss calmly. Nor what Dodie must be going through. I imagine you’re the one person who could comfort her for your loss. That’s the paradox.
But you were my beloved literary correspondent for twenty years. I shared with you, and you alone, a very particular facet of my aesthetic make-up, a part that Steve was indulgent of (and even charmed by?) but perhaps didn’t feel as connected to as you did. Doris Day, Noël Coward, John Cowper Powys . . . I’m crying. And yes, I’ll admit it, I’m alone in my Maine bungalow drinking wine in the afternoon and feeling very self-indulgent. As Amy says, in the Winona Ryder version of Little Women, “I’m a selfish girl.” Just as “Kevin Killian’s Jennifer Moxley” was a unique creature (how will she live now?), so too was Jennifer Moxley’s Kevin Killian. What I’m trying to say is that everyone seems to have had their own special version of you. And you were so capacious, like Whitman, you contained multitudes! I never knew, for example, artworld Kevin. Or the Kevin you must have been when alone with other men. Or the multifarious and complex version of you that only Dodie knew. I narrowed you to what I could see.
It has been a little over a month since Doris Day died, and now you. “First Doris, then this . . .” I thought. But of course there’s no comparison. I loved Doris as an icon, I loved you as a flesh and blood person, with singular vision and a unique intellect. In one of your letters you called Doris “chipmunk face”—or something like that. I love that you loved her, but were also critical. This is what I keep returning to when I think about you. All the tributes (there are hundreds!) on social media stress your kindness and generosity, especially to young and up-and coming-writers. I agree, I agree! But what I keep thinking about is your critical acumen and sharp wit. You had the capacity to be critical, and yet allowed people their foibles and limits. Times are such that it seems the options are to be 1) overly positive and fake 2) completely censoring for the smallest slip up. Or both! A strange time.
As I mentioned, a lot of people on Facebook have been paying tribute to you. They tell the story of how they first met you, and then, inevitably, how you supported and encouraged them and most of all believed in them. They post pictures of you with your arm around them. Star shots. You made everyone feel special, it seems. I know you did that for me, especially in letters. Here’s where I perform a little Doris-Day-mad-at-Rock-Hudson “harrumph” and blow my bangs up (though I don’t have bangs because Steve is 100% opposed to them!). The source of my exasperation? While I loved seeing your life on social media, I am convinced that these “platforms” destroyed our correspondence. We went great gang busters until around 2007, then we slowed down to a once-a-year crawl . . . Can you give your Facebook posts to an archive? Did Yale download them? Or does Mark Zuckerberg take a cut?
I miss your letters. I’ve been rereading them, alternately laughing and sobbing. When you sent me Eric Braun’s Day bio you wrote: “He’s like this chatty British queen who knows everything and is whispering it into your ear . . . . But what you will especially enjoy is Braun’s canny use of French. My favorite bits are when she was a girl and she was on crutches and she used to listen to the radio and so ‘With time on her hands, faute de mieux, Doris became a radio aficionado.’ It’s not easy getting English, French and Spanish all into one sentence, but there you go.”
Next to your trenchant cultural observations, charming poetry-world gossip, and near-constant support of my endeavors, however, you risked sharing with me some darker confidences: Frustration over never having a stable publisher (you called me a Flood “house” author, and gently pined over how nice that would be), worries about retirement money (especially after 2008), the stress of the myriad projects you were inevitably juggling. This, from 2009, felled me: “I’m writing a blog for 4 month for San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, they offered me a fee of $1,000 and I told them I would spend 1,000 in a minute, and I would prefer if they could instead give me (and Dodie) a lifetime membership! I guess that’s betting I will live a long time.” Oh Kevin. Dodie just announced on FB that your memorial will be in August at, you guessed it, SF MOMA.
Even though I felt so close to you in letters, did you know that, in person, I still sometimes feared your judgment? Is that ridiculous? Our friendship mattered to me and I didn’t want to fuck it up. Also, there was that particular way you held your tongue in perfect check right up until the moment you’d crack a smile and say something astonishing. Sometimes when you and Dodie were staying with us, I’d wonder if you were perturbed, or if your mind had wandered. But then you’d suddenly chime in, giving evidence to the fact that you’d been listening all along. Very astutely. I loved your voice. The way you could shade a judgement through intonation to be both devastating and forgiving. And your laughter. It was always at the ready, as if you were just longing for any excuse to be amused. As you often were.
Some memories: you, sitting in a particularly uncomfortable chair in our living room, telling us that when you were younger a kind woman explained to you that if you washed just the crown of your head with shampoo, your hair would get clean. “It was so nice of her to teach me that,” you said. Did she notice that your hair was greasy and that you needed guidance? Did you struggle with this basic skill? It struck me.
The first time I heard you read. 1987? With Dodie. She read from the Letters of Mina Harker, which was still in draft form then, and which I instantly loved. You read a piece which had the image of a man putting a bloody maxi-pad into another man’s anus in a public restroom. I was both riveted and scandalized by this image (see our Dictionary entry on you above). It suggested a reality beyond my imagination. Remember, this was the 1980s and one couldn’t Google outlandish things and then—god help us—see them. Your work continued to do this. I remember getting to the end of “White Rose,” and seeing “after Flannery O’Connor,” and thinking, “whoah.”
The writing of both you and Dodie lodged itself in my psyche that day. As did your coupledom. I sometimes wondered what would have become of Dodie’s genius if you hadn’t agreed to work the “straight job.” I admired your support of her (later, I would come to appreciate how much she supported you as well). I believed myself a sophisticate, I learned I was a naif. It wasn’t too long after that I bought your novel Shy at Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle. In Shy you use pop songs to underscore the characters’ emotions. A move Dodie would perfect in her story “Can You Hear Me Major Tom.” I blushed at the gilding scene. I remember feeling a little thrill seeing it there on the bookshelf in a real bookstore: “I know this author,” I thought. Though really, I didn’t.
The gifts: a framed copy of John Cowper Powys autograph with the Welsh motto “All our fate’s in our head.” “A Welsh motto that fits every occasion, don’t you think?” you wrote, and then: “How strange and weird are the Welsh, anyway!” A boxed set of Noël Coward dramas; a hardcopy of his “Pretty Polly and Other Stories”; a DVD of Caprice; Elaine Stritch’s At Liberty . . . and so on.
But I loved your letters most. You were an epistolary genius. Here’s an excerpt from a 2006 letter, a candid, honest moment about being in a long marriage:
“I actually don’t know what I would do if I were suddenly single, and I expect you feel the same for the truth is, we’ve been married so long, you and I, that the single part of our lives is way at the very beginning of the rainbow. I suppose all marriages call for constant negotiation of boundaries, and issues of dependence and independence, but wouldn’t you hate to be alone?”
The answer is yes!
Another excerpt. You were gently poking fun at my fits of enthusiasm about The Ring Cycle (why would I have thought you’d be interested? You were never an opera queen):
“I don’t know how I feel about Wagner. Sometime when I consider all the time I’ve spent trying to get into him—fully—the way Wayne Koestenbaum does—I wonder if I couldn’t have done something extraordinary in that time, like building a shack.”
A sudden rain storm has come up. Odette runs, tail low, to the back bedroom, the room that Steve and I have called, ever since the 90s conference, “Kevin and Dodie’s room.” You two were the first to stay in it, after we refurbished it as a guest room. I remember one afternoon during that June (2017) when you were both lying in bed, resting. I came in for some reason and you said: “It’s so comfortable!”
In Paris, at the Duncan Centennial conference, I met a nice young man named Eric who is writing a dissertation on the New Narrative. He told me that he had helped you and Dodie prepare your papers for the archive at Yale. He said he’d read some of my letters to you (or was it just one?). He gave me a full-face wink, as if my letter had been very juicy. Did I blush? I did have a moment of trepidation. Good god, I thought. What might I have said? I always wanted to amuse and please you in our correspondence. There was another young man there, a Buffalo graduate student, who presented on Dante, Duncan, and your Argento Series. You came off best of the three! Though it is not typically part of my modus operandi, I took a picture of him afterward, all the while thinking: “I’m channeling my inner Kevin Killian!” Several of the gay male scholars seemed conflicted or unhappy about Duncan’s 1944 essay, “The Homosexual in Society.” They thought it might be homophobic (or self-hating?). They were uncomfortable with Duncan’s critique of the so-called “cult” of homosexuality. I couldn’t help wondering, would they have had the courage to write that essay? When Steve and I discussed it, he taught me about Frantz Fanon’s idea of the “good enough ancestor” (which is like Winnicott’s idea of the “good enough mother”). Must we put our forebears on trial in order to forgive ourselves? Will the future find us “good enough”?
I remember during one of the first Orono conferences you and Dodie came to (it was in the 1990s, before I lived here) when Stephen King was the guest of honor at the lobster dinner. All the too-cool-for-school academics acted above it all, but you marched right up and got his autograph. I was impressed. I remember how brilliant you were at memorializing the dead. Which conference was it that we ran out to Aubuchon Hardware to buy boxes and boxes of emergency candles? Then, in a room with disco music and mirrors (it must have been the 70s conference!) everyone lit candles for Carl Rakosi. People had lost track of Rakosi at that moment—some didn’t even know who he was—but you knew what counted.
It was in Paris that I learned you were about to die. I was in an almost empty stuffy lecture hall with Steve and Norma Cole and the archivist from Buffalo, Jim Maynard (who has an amazing radio voice, btw). Norma wanted to learn the name of the graduate student who would be presenting on your work, so she could let him know you were on life support. I just happened to be there when she said those words: “life support.” I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I excused myself and went to the restrooms (which are mixed gender at the Sorbonne). There were no towels (only air dryers). I had to go into a stall and get some toilet paper. I regretted my mascara.
Later that afternoon I found the Caring Bridge site and posted something stupidly generic like “sending love.” The language of grief is so codified. I understand why, but it still makes me feel like all my years of poetic apprenticeship have come to naught. Dodie saw my post and emailed me. I was so grateful that she took the time (at your sickbed) to let me know what was going on. You were under sedation. She was positive and kind. It sounded like she was dealing with a lot of conflicting messages from the doctors. It reminded me of something you once said in a letter: “nurses are awful people.” Was it after your heart attack? I remember being shocked by that statement. “Nurses are awful people.” I’m paraphrasing from memory. Then I thought: he’s speaking from experience. From the AIDS 80s, when nurses wouldn’t touch or treat men with AIDS.
Kevin, this letter is getting long and ponderous, for which I apologize. I just got up to pee and saw, in the bathroom literature, the cover of the New Yorker with a black silhouette of Notre Dame cathedral. It was the issue that came out after that old lady forgot to put out her cigarette and caught her bed on fire. She had been drinking sherry and reading old love letters from Quasimodo. I thought: I want to see a New Yorker cover with a Victorian-style silhouette of Kevin Killian. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Or perhaps the New Yorker is the last place you’d want to be (even though poets who’ve been “alternative” their whole lives get all mushy and proud when they end up in the New Yorker. I can’t honestly say I’d be “above” it!).
But really, Kevin, what I really want is what none of us can have. I want you to still be alive. I want another envelope to arrive in my Maine mailbox and to see, in the upper left-hand corner, in your unique hand: “Minna Street, San Francisco.” I would not rip into it. I would set the envelope aside until such time as I could sit down and savor the contents. I would read slowly, sharing the choice bits with Steve, as I know you shared my letters with Dodie. I would feel so happy. But you’re gone and, I fear, a big part of what I understood to be the world has gone with you.