Art: "Murakami" by Anna Karakalou

Fiction: "KATHY ACKER'S BROKEN MIRROR" by Caroline McDonald

Since the world is on a delusional course, we must adopt a 

delusional standpoint toward the world

Better to die from the extremes than starting from the extremities 

– Jean Baudrillard


She divorced Richard, but she kept the name. Acker. She was nineteen, or maybe twenty-two, and she was just starting to steal words. She knew her parents had hated him; he didn’t have any money. Maybe that was why she married him. He didn’t know about the trust fund.

They had fights:

Why don’t we have sex anymore?

I had to work

Work can only be so much of your life

Okay Kathy. Get a fucking job.

I applied to grad school, you know.

And I work on eight and sixth with Martha for the camera man

And I actually have to get up early so I’d really love some

Fucking practice

How much money do you make being a whore?

         Figs are only pollinated by a specific kind of wasp. The small hole they use to climb into the fruit requires them to shed their wings, trapping them inside to dissolve in sugary glucose. Both Kathy and Richard thought of themselves as a wasp, held hostage by sweet fruit, dissolving them.

Why? Do you need more booze?

Just to get through life with you, Kathy

         She walks to the bodega down the street and pays for a bottle of brandy with her wedding ring. Kisses the cashier with her mother’s red lipstick.

The only remnants of a fig wasp are the wings, a sad talisman of freedom. Where on the human body is freedom located?

         And then they divorced. She kept the name, used it in her pornos out of spite. Acker. Kathy Acker, a name free from the trust fund, a name free from her mother’s suicide, from her absentee father. Like the name was a spell, casting a curse on that good jewish boy from every old man’s screen and every art house cinema. Like the fig, mummifying letters in the sugar of lust.

She spends the rest of the night aimlessly walking around Tompkins square, smoking cigarettes and gnawing at the inside of her cheeks.


There is a theory in which reincarnation refuses chronological order,and that at some point you will experience existence as every person on earth, past and present, you will be your parents, your friends, your teachers, you will experience life as the first human and the last. This was a great assurance to Kathy, who wished to experience everything, who was someone rather carved out of experiences rather than any particular upbringing or passion. Her passion was sensation.

This isn’t what got her into porn. There were other things to blame for that. But her acute awareness of sense-based-experiences made her a fantastic actor in this regard. she was less concerned with her personhood than she was at making sure she got a taste of everything: being a man, being a woman, being in-between, getting fucked, doing the fucking, doing the watching, and watching the watcher by making pointed glances toward the videographer and his equipment.

This is where she met Matias – the camera man’s boyfriend, too much hair that didn’t suit his overly large forehead. He sat pensively, watching the orgy in the way someone might watch an economics lecture, stopping to annotate his copy of State and Revolution in a way that felt condescending to the whole scene – as if the sex were merely a distraction. No one had asked him to be there. The cameraman seemed annoyed with him.

You like Russian History? Politics?

She’s getting eaten out by a man with a tattoo of a clock. Mat pays extra close attention to the clock, whose hour and minute hands are the same length. The camera is still running.

A bit

Do you know how Isadora Duncan died?

The Ballerina?


She was strangled to death with her own scarf.

It got caught under the wheels of her convertible, so

When she started driving, it got caught and snapped her neck.

I suppose that makes sense for the rest of her life


You know a lot about her?

Yeah, Russian History class in college


Was she really in Russia for that long?

The Russians like ballet, I guess.


I actually don’t know that much about her,

Except for how she died.


That’s depressing, antithetical to fame, I think.

I want to die like that. Or not, ‘like that’ but in a way that people remembered.

Will remember

You want to be remembered for your death?

I want it to be congruent with the rest of my life.

When the film crew nishes, Kathy steals her co-star’s coat and walks onto the street where Matias and Camera-boy are fighting. She taps him on the shoulder, offers him a cigarette. They start walking through time, noticing the ghosts of old businesses, replaced by expensive internet coffee shops and high-end clothing boutiques. They point out to each other the old Gaslight Cafe and where the ‘Good Deli’ used to be (the new ‘Good Deli’ is on eighteenth street, but it’s not as good as the old‘Good Deli’). It annoys him, the tendency of the present to subsume everything. He wants to grab every NYU student by the shoulders and yell Do you not understand there are things that existed before you that are better than they are now?


Kathy says:

It’s so fucked up how progress goes backwards.


Her publishing agent made weekly, screaming phone calls to her apartment landline so she threw it out the window, hoping the Puerto Rican family that lived below her might find it on their fire escape and harbor such a fugitive. She stayed in the East Village all those years after Richard left. Her block was a comfortable piece of anarchism, leftover from the sixties free-love movement; hookers without hot water lived in brick buildings on either side of her own, greeting her when she went outside, assuming she was one of their ranks.

She sits in her apartment, adorned with all the effects of the avant-garde that could possibly be sold. Softcore porn plays constantly on the TV in the corner, but she doesn’t turn the lights on unless she has to; she’ll say when asked:

Electricity is expensive, I can’t afford it

(Wrapped in a black fur coat, red lipstick bejeweled upon her lips)

Kathy has a trust fund account with over two-hundred and seventy- five thousand dollars, untaxed, sitting in the JPMorgan finance building.

They nailed sheets to her wall for the photoshoot. David has a secret suspicion she wanted to be born a man, but this was Kathy — She was as she was, and any speculation on what she might be was futile. Gender was just another reminder of things chosen for her, decisions she couldn’t make, like the money or the year she was born. She shot him a pointed look, her pencil-black eyebrow raised.

Does this look good?

She’s dressed in leather, per the usual. She bares her tattoos, per the usual. She’s wearing sunglasses even though the apartment is dim, lit only by the blue television in the corner

When they left the building, she said hi to the hookers.


They’re supposed to be shooting a movie. Robert is setting up his cameras, Matias is conducting what he calls “Individual psychic research” which means interrogating Kathy on more Russian mistresses.

Okay, Lilya Brik. How did she die

I only know she was a lesbian. And Mayakofksy thought

She was a witch.

Matias passes a bottle of whiskey between them, sat on the door in front of her book cases. Directors and cameramen keep rearranging things, startling dust which seems to collect everywhere. Matias starts laughing hysterically, which causes Kathy to start laughing hysterically, which causes Robert to say:


Are you really going to get drunk before we shoot a movie about your life?

And Matias says:

Don’t you want to make it accurate?

Kathy snorts, her eyebrow piercing glinting in the incandescent camera lights.

Can we make a toast? To my new book this year! To grove press!

To fucking blood and guts and high school

Isn’t it blood and guts in high school?

I don’t know, I just write the books, I don’t

Memorize them.

They both drink, pouring the liquor into one another’s’ mouths.

Okay, no more booze until you answer the trivia question

Which one – about the book title?

I think I’m right, I think it’s blood and guts and high school

No! How did Lilya Brik die?


I don’t know – thrown over a bridge to drown? Shot?


Of course

On sleeping pills. She broke her hip

and I think she was about 87? She didn’t want to spend life in pain.

Robert finished setting up the cameras and pointed them toward Kathy. He asked her the typical interview questions – what are you working on? What are your inspirations? She held up big ink drawings, diagrams, maps meant to correspond with dreams and psychic transcendence. She carefully leafed through books in her library, reading passages without looking at the camera. She placed herself within the “great literary tradition” and then told the audience to fuck off.


It’s right after the Reagan years, not yet the nineties, and writers can’t afford to be just writers anymore. Kathy is an adjunct professor at Evergreen University. Adjunct professor means:

They’re not gonna pay me enough

(she had 250,000 dollars left in her trust fund account at this point)

Her colleagues have had enough of her, smoking cigarettes inside and drawing indecipherable diagrams on the walls in permanent marker. She tells her students:

Don’t be a writer; no one will pay attention to you, (and) Writing is all the things around writing (and) All good writers are not necessarily good writers.

She tells them:

There’s more of a community for musicians than for writers

(as if her students don’t suffer from the same conditions she does)

She likes being famous. She likes how many students come to sit in on her lectures, filling up the aisle until the fire marshal declares it unsafe. She likes the way they meditate on her words, gravitate toward them, collect them in tiny notebooks and cassette tapes. And while she tries to talk about Oscar Wilde, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, the students just want to talk about her. Her ideas, her life, her books.

She calls them “the pleasure dome”. A book in which a reader can jump around to whatever section, whatever narrative gives them the most fulfillment, the most relief. There is no structure beyond time. Characters arrive and then disappear and arrive again without explanation. Sex ends and begins without orgasm, babies are born without mothers, constructed from computer scraps. She wanted to start every sentence with a period. In her eyes, an attempt to write any story is simply cheap replication of much better novels. She told the university this and they still hired her.


There is a period in which everyone knows Kathy Acker. When she’s alive, she’s phoning William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, the Antin couple. She’s a hologram of a person, slipping in and out of various realities at will. Lecture halls are introducing her with a pointed the. The Kathy Acker. As if rather than a person she’s a fancy object they’ve acquired, THE mona lisa, THE gutenberg bible. And she accepts the invitation of the the, talking about French modernism and non-objective novels in posh leather sofas in front of stunned undergraduates. She waits patiently for their questions.

Kathy says she’s interested in Fame for one end

(1)  people whose work I want to find out about would talk to me

(2)  I would somehow be able to pay for food rent etc. doing something connected

(3)  artists I fall in love with would fuck me.

After the lecture she sips expensive champagne with the San Diego literature professors, diluting poverty to something approachable (she has 238,000 dollars in her trust fund account). She goes home alone, phones Shaar Murray,

Hey, are you still in London? I’m getting bored


She is being diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. The doctors do not call her “THE Kathy Acker” and they do not ask her opinion. They tell her about treatment plans she says she cannot afford. Seven thousand dollars for a mastectomy. Doctors, she thinks, do not give importance to things that will die.


Murray’s apartment’s apartment was filled with things he had written about other people. In fact, there was so little Shaar Murray in Shaar Murray that Kathy thought he might be some sort of mirage, a skin filled with the leftover lives of other people. There was a David Bowie poster above the bed. Kathy Acker thought about fucking David Bowie whenever she was on top, which was nice, a break from Shaar Murray and his army of inside-thinkers to talk at her all day. He got up at dawn. He owned a harmonica. This combination resulted in the first separate apartment she’d have in London, which was her own, and which served as the backdrop for a nearly weekly breakup between her and the musician.

They never break up for good. Kathy used an exacto knife to cut out the eyes form the poster, a talisman, which she keeps tucked in her wallet. Murray drew the eyes back into the poster using the white plaster of the wall as a canvas. It was cramped. The desk over owed with papers, the carpet stank of ash, and David Bowie’s transplant eyes followed her all over the apartment when she came to retrieve her thoughts. She knew sometimes other women would come into the apartment, and Murray would teach them to play his harmonica.

Do you know how to email

(she asked one evening after Shaar set up a projector on the bed)


(he said, adjusting the paper lantern in front of the beam of light, so the little room could have its own paper moon.)

I’m leaving you for a woman I met in australia At least I think she’s a woman. She might be a man. We email. We use AOL.

You could be a man

(he said, placing his hands on the absences of her breasts)

Kathy liked to be cut free from all her illnesses. She didn’t like when sicknesses, or their various cures, penetrated her, invading the thin line that separated her body from other things. She refused chemotherapy 4 months ago. She would’ve cut out the lymph nodes if they’d let her, assurance the cancer would not make it into the next life. The nurses fingered her delicate aortic veins. She wore headphones so the hospital noises would not make it into her brain, damaging the carefully cultivated gray matter of fifty (or fifty three) years. Shaar didn’t come to the hospital.

Finally she cut free of him too, severing the string of apologies they had made back and forth for the last six months. The unexpected tension of a sudden switch to dial tone’s what did it in, his voice cut short with gravity, her hand pulled back down to earth along with the phone.

She imagined sad harmonica music pouring out of his at window, like the hollowing of a lonesome dog.


He’s not sure how she found it, or why he’s going along with it. The clinic in Tijuana is the only holistic medicine center that will accept a cancer patient that late in their diagnosis. They drive down, along the 1, from San Francisco. She packed almost nothing: three shirts, a leather motorcycle jacket with a painted rose, two notebooks, a letter from Allen Ginsberg, and a suitcase full of books. Matias did most of the driving.


The small medical, antiquated chart has the date of her real birthday, a disputed fact that allows for two simultaneous deaths: one at fifty and one at fifty-three. The real birthday becomes real when she tells the nurse, who writes it down with a red plastic pen. Kathy turns the un-real into the real quite frequently. In the next few days she’ll deliver on the promise of mortality. Matias is asleep in the chair, small ginger hairs from his scruff mating with the Mexican chair lint. Kathy is needle awake.

Is it night?

No one answers


                                                   No one answers again



                                                   A groan from the chair



                                            Another groan from the chair


Is it night yet?

I don’t know, I was sleeping

This is the hospital room. Of course, none of her friends would call it as such, which is why they are no longer her friends. Her friends like hospital rooms where doctors try to save people from dying.


She’s shivering in the way sick people shiver: inside out. The dirt floor dances with red dust, all stamped with the footprints of nurses and shamen. They tell him that she will die soon. This is when he understands her aversion to the linoleum floors of hospitals: how all that secretes from you is swept away rather than absorbed. How all the bleeding, the cumming, the breast milk, the tears are temporal. In the hospital, tears don’t baptize anything. She’s crying into the dust with heavy, silent breaths. They were planning on driving up to San Deigo, but that was in the past when they were people who could afford time. She goes outside.  She wants to cleanse herself of the bad water she claims made her sick again, but really wind just rubs her skin raw, dehydrates her until she collapses and he carries her back to her bed

Thin skin, white, pale, nearly albino. Patchy white hair, shaved fuzzy bald. A hieroglyphics of tattoos: the tiger, the koi, a skin-wreath of owers. Intentional and unintentional body alterations cutting through her silhouette. He’s giving her a back massage, an attempt to ground her pain in this world, but her thin body slumps toward the ground. She’s practicing.


She holds up her notebook, a diagram of a pyramid drawn in black ink.

What do you think about this?

Outside, a dust storm rages, threatening to pull the hospital tent away from them. Red dirt blows in and out through the thin white fabric.

For what? A book?

For my grave. For my library, for when I die. I want to take the knowledge into the next life.

You bought that plot in New York. Do you remember? The three foot wide one?

By the church you liked so much?

That was before the cancer root took hold.

Jesus fuck Kathy, I can’t build you a fucking pyramid.

Matias had never seen a storm without water. It haunted him, how fast things had turned, and how when it ended the desert would still be dry, ready to rage again.


(she was covered in a white towel, turned terra-cotta in the dust.)

I had the money for chemotherapy

I know. I knew.

I was afraid of my hair and my teeth falling out.

It’s okay.

Her hair was already falling out, not that there was much to notice was some gone. Her teeth were slowly rotting from the vomit. He could make out the silhouette of bone in her legs, the shadow of sickness. The darkness of her veins. She blamed some of it on her inability to write, to purge herself of the psychic pain. The muscles she had ate at themselves until the leftover skin sagged beneath her arms.

I shouldn’t have taken Richard’s name.

This is my father’s fault. It’s something that happened in childhood, you know, the shaman told me I must make peace with my childhood. The cancer root is there.

And as she spoke this, both Matias and Kathy struggled to understand if what she was saying was a believed truth or a desperate reach to make herself feel better. She was not a person who had ever expressed a fear in death, rather she feared a loss of self-hood. She wanted the body in her casket to be adorned with the same tattoos, the same piercings, the same muscle she had built with her year after year. She wanted her death to be a cult holiday where college students did bumps off her novels and read each other’s shitty poetry, where her former lovers reminisced fondly. It pained him to see her so physically weak, so inadequate in the minds of public opinion.


I think the best part of death is we don’t have to hold onto anything.

But I want to.


She had asked for one thing, and he had tried to deliver. He drove the library across the country himself, from San Francisco to New York, poured whiskey into his McDonald’s coffee before hitting the road, paid double for the U-Haul when it crashed into a telephone pole. He made it. He arranged for the University of Cologne to take the books, no real reason for it but he knew they’d treat them well, and so he loaded the books onto the cargo ship with the utmost care.

When they arrived, the professors in charge of organizing and preserving the books found the pages thick with mold. The cardboard boxes Matias had wrapped in plastic were no match for the ocean, pouring in through the cracks in the steel. They had been stored in the hull, and their fragile spines had been used to break the waves, cutting the vessel through the sea. There were new preservative techniques to remove the mold from the books, but the chemical baths would have destroyed the ink Kathy used for her ideas, her diagrams, her notes. After several enraged phone calls, the worst of which resulted in Matias throwing his phone against the wall (and due to the fine craftsmanship of most New York apartments, into his neighbor’s living room) the University admitted there was not much they could do. There were a few things they could salvage, the rest, they weren’t sure.

In the end, they let the books rot outside the science and engineering building. Kathy would’ve liked it: knowing mold would eat away at the words, making new words, how books rebirth themselves, how when the rot bit into the word erosion, what remained on the page was eros.


Published May 4th 2023

Caroline McDonald is an undergraduate philosophy student at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work focuses largely on themes of identity in literature, the banal southern California landscape, coffee stains left on cafe napkins, and time. Her work is forthcoming in Bridge VIII magazine.

Anna Karakalou is long time scenic artist for film and television. She is most interested in matching imagery to story, but she likes to start with her eyes closed and see what there is in the paint that wants to come out. This piece was created while she listened to the audiobook version of Dance, Dance, Dance, by Haruki Murakami, where the protagonist of the story is searching for a woman through a dreamlike landscape. The painting is done in ink and acrylic on card and is 14×20.