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Eileen Myles's celebrity shouldn't eclipse her skill as a poet.
Nicole Eisenman, Amazon Composition (1992), ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975–2014
Ecco/HarperCollins, $29.99 (cloth)
Eileen Myles is having a retrospective moment. Her work, in its many shapes and forms, mandates celebration—the large-scale kind that might take up an entire gallery or floor of a museum, like Nicole Eisenman’s exhibition, Dear Nemesis 1993–2013, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Experiencing Dear Nemesis meant walking through rooms full of bodies, sculptural and painted, curated to disrupt the way we are used to wandering through space. The connection between Eisenman and Myles is not incidental: I first encountered Eisenman’s work on the cover of the 1994 edition of Myles’s Chelsea Girls. The canvas depicts a mass of bodies, female, perhaps fighting, definitely engaged. Myles’s latest collection, I Must Be Living Twice, works in a similarly embodied way. Moving through decades of carefully selected writing changes us; it reminds us that poetry is a form of activism and that language can shift our experience and understanding of the world, can do something beyond the page.
Myles recently described her relationship to writing by saying, “Part of my way of giving myself permission to write was to create a literature in which I belonged.” What does it mean to belong? What does it mean to be read as female first, as lesbian, and then as a writer? Creating her own permission, Myles demonstrates how and why it is crucial to subvert labels and schools and to resist institutionalization. Creating a literature, Myles builds her own gallery space, one filled with elegant, unabashedly female and feminist stories, rooms through which no reader may comfortably drift in and out. Now, with Myles appearing regularly in interviews and lifestyle pieces in the New York Times and with a character based on her in the television series Transparent, these questions have taken on a public resonance. This new fame makes it even more important that we return to the substance of her writing, so that her vital art continues to anchor her latter-day celebrity.
• • •
Myles addresses questions of class and gender with a rare and frequently uncomfortable rawness, directness—even, sometimes, vulgarity. Poetry is undeniably tied to privilege—who has the advantage of time to write—and Myles never shies away from this. She asks readers to grapple with how much class affects the way the poet works with and through the economy of language and the nuances of speech. In “Greece,” she writes:
I tell my friends
I intend to spend
a solid month
This is ridiculous
my friends say.
Look at yourself.
Your shoes are worn thin.
When rent time comes
you fall down on the street
until someone comes along
drops dollar bills on you. . . .
On July 1st
sitting in my apartment
with my sandals on
I will be in Greece.
This is madness
my friends say.
You cannot travel by sheer
I agree with them. It’s madness.
But in Greece I will be sane.
At first glance, the image is clear—a hyperbolic, yet very real description of a “poor poet.” But there is no hint of the shame or stigma that comes with articulating need. And while the poem reads conversationally, the text is carefully crafted. Notice the way the only punctuation marks Myles uses are periods. This pushes the reader to experience the sentence as a full stop each time, causing the poem to move at various registers of speed. When the poem is a conversation, the phrases are terse. At the end of the poem, punctuation grants the reader entry into the richness of the poet’s imagination, an imagination that trumps monetary wealth. It is a luxury to have the time to read, let alone read slowly and linger on individual words. This is a poem that pushes the pace of reading, while the content points to the material realities that prevent one from regularly dwelling on language. The dialogue, a casual exchange between friends, is quick, realistic, and temperamental. “Greece” is one of many poems in which Myles reminds us that speech is a marker of identity; the accessibility of Myles’s language opens up the possibility of poetry to everyone.
The accessibility of Myles’s language opens up the possibility of poetry to everyone.
“Writing” also explores the links between speech and the composing process. A kind of ars poetica, it begins, “I can / connect // any two / things // that’s / god.” Readers are accustomed to an “I” that tells a story, but Myles’s “I” is omnipotent, while not dependent on narrative or linearity. We trust the “I,” we travel with her, even when the path she takes is unexpected, disruptive, and surreal. Each jump engages the reader in the dynamism of the speaker’s unpredictable stanzas:
Visually these stanzas appear as clouds of various sizes sliding down the left margin of the page—site-specific and sound specific, working with and within a vernacular that pervades the poems and mirrors back onto the landscape they are written out of. Myles places the self in space, on the page, but always on her own terms. As she writes in “The Poet,” “The lines are designs for something / real, how much space around the slender bars I bend and shape in / the name of my world.” Indeed, Myles has crafted work a reader can walk around in.
But the space of this work is meant to challenge us, not to indulge us, with its unrelenting interrogation of selfhood and the lived experiences that shape one’s identity. Myles names some of these questions in an interview with Adam Fitzgerald: “How does one have a self? That’s like the great question. Not who am I? But what am I?” By pushing from who to what, Myles insists that we move past the pronoun that always points to specifications involving a person, ideally beyond answers rooted in normative binaries such as male and female. What asks for more information without mandating that this information be explicitly tied to a genre of body or being. Myles demands more careful attention to language, attention that grapples with the complexities of class and gender seldom articulated with direct rigor in contemporary poetry. Myles greets her reader with the kind of familiar language that reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s “continuous present”—language that everyone knows how to use and understand. Yet, as with Stein, we see familiar words become dismantled like “hey ducks / I don’t / look.” The speaker calls out, asks for attention, but doesn’t “look” as expected. This is writing that never acquiesces. If “to write / is a form / of accounting / & approximate / promise” (“Your Name”), then part of the act of writing is to find—or create—the lexicon that depicts how we understand our names.
Myles makes a new queer “norm” possible, visible.
Perhaps this rigor explains why reviews of Myles’s work, such as a recent piece in The Rumpus, focus on the way “sexuality is a core component of her identity” instead of on close readings of the work itself. When faced with walls of paintings in a gallery, the eye is always able to make surface judgments about color and image. It is much easier to label a text as concerned with “sexuality” than to examine rigorously the ways the poetry requires a reader to think about experiencing the world as both female and lesbian while rejecting easy definitions of either term. Sexuality presents low-hanging fruit because Myles writes beautifully and forcefully about it (“I am / the only saintly man in town. Don’t be afraid to be feminine. A girl / on a rowboat, full of holes. She saw words shooting through”). But left unconsidered is the way her work, which spans from 1975 to 2014, creates a necessary retrospective space that rejects heterosexual norms. Myles makes a new queer “norm” possible, visible.
The poem “Snowflake” begins:
There’s no female
in my position
There’s no man
here’s a raccoon
on the tail
of the plane
The emphasis here is not on “female” or “man,” but on the importance of what the speaker sees, the significance of perspective. This perspective is surreal and strange, but, mostly, it is—as it always must be—individual and proudly absurd. Moving through these lines in time, engaged in the drama they create, we are made to see what Myles’s speaker sees: “a raccoon” or “no man.” This is another instance of poetic omnipotence. The pauses between “wow” and “there’s a raccoon” and “on the tail” all slow the reader’s progress. Similarly, we pause between “there’s no female” and “in my position,” leaving room to imagine what that position might be, or to invent a new position. “There’s no man” hangs in the air, interrupted, deflated, and displaced by a new observation.
José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) proposes a definition of “queerness” that rejects the mainstream sense of the term as representing anyone outside of normative genders or sexualities: “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” Muñoz focuses on the possibilities of queerness, how we might build an alternative future in which to hold and respect these bodies. His use of “queer futurity” as a term of hope is grounded in the idea that “queerness is not yet here,” which suggests that writing is one vehicle that can be used to build a possible “there.” What are the words that would make the what of this/my/our dyke body visible? And, what tools do we need to craft this future space? I Must Be Living Twice presents us with poems that model what it means to engage these questions; in its impassioned engagement we find rooms and alcoves built from disruptions and line breaks. It is fitting that the last poem before the book’s “epilogue,” “My Box,” closes: “Here / this is / mine. Don’t / misunderstand / me.”
The first time I heard Eileen Myles read was at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Summer Writing Program in 2001. She opened with the poem “Scribner’s,” which begins: “There’s a little / more going / on here / than preservation.” Looking at the text, I can hear Myles reading it, the inflection of her line breaks, the way the poem made me feel a part of a conversation I had been seeking. “Scribner’s” continues: “my cover / is an illustration / of me & / so is my / writing an / observation / of truth.” The weight of words such as “preservation” and “truth,” coupled with the quickness of short lines propelled me through the text so that its urgency became my own. The poem’s end (“I’m no / longer a dyke / just a man // hello little / bird”) resounded as assertive and surprising—the morphing of the identity of the “I” coupled with ending with a greeting. In my notebook from that summer, I wrote, “Eileen Myles begins—‘It’s so fun to be here at the end of gender.’”
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