Her mother, Claire, who would
haunt Acker’s work in various guises, was beautiful but anxious. Acker wrote of
her mother the way so many feminists of her generation would view their
mothers: as victims of their own gilded cages, granted luxury but no meaningful
work or selves, resentful of their children for having placed them in this
predicament but lacking a language to articulate their plight. “Her most
important role,” McBride writes, “was to serve as a negative example.”
Iconoclastic as Acker was, her
early escape took familiar forms: books, college, sex, and marriage. Classmates
recall her carrying around Modern Library editions of the classics she was
devouring. McBride digs up her high school publications, which include a riff on
Romeo and Juliet. Writing yourself into the canon, after all, is the
province of dutiful students as well as avant-garde artists. She described her
early sexual experiences as windows to experience new worlds. While still
in high school, she met a college student who would drop out and move to Cooper
Square, introducing her to the world of experimental filmmakers. After a brief
stint at Brandeis she married Bob Acker, an intense academically minded student, and moved with him to San Diego. In her mythological version, the move West was
to follow Herbert Marcuse, the sociologist with a cult following among radical
students, but in truth, she never took a class with him. Marriage was, as for
many women at the time, a way out, to replace one family with another. (Her
parents sweetened the deal by disapproving of Acker; a second marriage to the
musician Peter Gordon resulted in a long friendship but no change in her
aversion to domestic life.)
Acker returned to New York at
the start of the ’70s, a decade that reverberates in myth and memory for its
cheap rents and artistic headiness. What’s most striking in McBride’s account,
though, is just how small this world was. Unlike in much of today’s siloed
culture, visual artists, poets, and musicians blended easily. Acker knew
everyone, but then again, everyone in this world knew everyone. As suited her
fascination with writing as transformation and a form of consciousness, she
began as a poet, making an impression at the Bowery Poetry Club, at the time a
home for the largely female heirs of the New York school like Bernadette Meyer,
Anne Waldman, and Alice Notley. She self-published her early works and sent them
to a carefully chosen list of friends, enabling them to make a splash despite
their tiny circulation.
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