Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Wave Books, $20 (paper)
Willie Nelson recounts how, in the late 1950s, he worked in a club in Houston that was all the way across town from where he was living. On the long drive there and back, he would write songs, and by the end of one week, he had come up with three that he figured were keepers. Today they are classics: “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Crazy.”
An output like that sets a fairly high bar for the creative use of one’s commuting time, but in her latest book, Snowflake/different streets, Eileen Myles rises to it, offering the reader a humanely funny extended meditation on travel through space and time, and how such distances are mediated by technology and the mind.
Myles’s first book of poems in five years, Snowflake/different streets is actually two discrete collections published in a tandem edition: Snowflake, subtitled “new poems,” and different streets, subtitled “newer poems.” In the former, Myles includes a suite of pieces that she categorizes loosely as “the LA/Driving poems.” These, she explains, were “dictated onto a small digital recorder while I drove from San Diego to Los Angeles at twilight then night” at a time when she was commuting to the University of San Diego. The first of these, “#1 (With Music),” quoted here in its entirety, is fairly typical of what this experiment produced:
This is the emerging
possibility of writing
down a thimble of
a street with a cake of a
bushy imported trees
& the pop music given
to me by some young
person in fact
the one person I know
As Myles notes, this method of composition directly affects the poetry it yields. When dictating, as opposed to writing or typing, you can’t alter what’s been said or look back at it to determine how best to proceed; you can only move ahead. The result is likely to be less conceptually self-possessed or even policed than it might otherwise be, and the material at hand is the stuff that emerges organically, what the mind drifts off to of its own accord or what it can’t avoid. As a result, the majority of these poems—not merely “the LA/Driving poems”—offer a quick lyric meditation in one uninterrupted burst. In the first poem in Snowflake, for instance, Myles begins, “sometimes / I’m driving / and I pressed / the button / to see who / called & / suddenly I’m / taking pictures. / Big dark / ones.” Her choppy syntax and shifts in tense evoke the temporal confusion and happy accidents technology has been known to produce.
The poems contain few complete sentences and fewer narratives, consisting instead of the kinds of disjointed phrases that pop into your head when occupied by some menial task. In this way, the poems enact a radical receptiveness to passing thoughts and experiences. While most commuters don’t pay attention to random observations, Myles treats them as expressive components of something bigger and more continuous. They offer less a confessional narrative or other artistic rendering of the subject than a fleeting glimpse of the thing itself, like a linguistic snapshot, or a string of photo-booth prints in lieu of a gilt-framed portrait. In fact the camera, along with the Dictaphone, is one of Myles’s totem machines, albeit too limited in what it takes in, she suggests. In “#8 Car Camera” she writes that she wants
to touch a button
and turn the entire outside of my
car into a camera
so that everything that’s going
on out there could be coming in
could be held and recorded
cause I don’t want to point the camera
I want it to be as open as I am
In the poem “Snowflake,” Myles addresses the impermanence and uncertainty that can accompany this radical receptiveness: “There’s no female / in my position // There’s no man // wow/ there’s a raccoon / on the tail / of the plane / and there’s / no one // seeing that now / but me.” Often a writer tries to order her experiences—to shuffle or refine the sequence of events and impressions to make her account make sense to others and subsequently to make sense of herself. Myles limits her new poems’ ability to do so, yielding a free-flowing effect of keen observation deliberately lacking value judgment, mostly free of any push toward epiphany or auto-interpretation. In “#3 (Peach . . .)” Myles writes of her “need to meet the new technology head on,” and the premise feels organic and genuine, as do the poems, reveling in the pureness of their own experience of the contemporary moment as well as of the unique moments of their composition.
And just as the reader might be thinking, “Wait, isn’t she celebrating our dependency on fossil fuels and cars and highways?” Myles presents two well-timed albeit somewhat blithe self-critiques. Here’s “#10 Ball”:
Is there anything about oil we don’t
like we’re driving on our own limited past
something that’s ancient like the history of
this ball we’re driving these cars on
the fluid of everything and everybody
that ever was here
we’re draining that
to just get around
and it’s nice that
I could feel around in
the dark to say
to touch a button
to make it light
Different streets, too, contains poems that speak directly to how they were written. The “how” in this case is lower-tech than in Snowflake. In “Pencil Poem #3,” Myles writes “I stole this / it would have made / the person who manned / the list glad / this fat pencil / but I surrounded it / with need.” Here, Myles refers to the minor crime she confesses to in the acknowledgements, namely that this set of poems exists “in praise of the fine fat pencil I was using, stolen from the mailing list in the lobby of INTAR, NYC.” With characteristic wit, she adds, “I apologize but damn what a good pencil.”
“Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts,” Nietzsche said, and in these “pencil poems” as well as in the rest of different streets, Myles contemplates what could be considered various forms of neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to reconfigure itself in response to changes in behavior, environment, and neural processes. Here again Myles is interested in the way the self—and all social beings, even animals—operates within and adapts to its environments, from the changing of seasons to interactions with others, as well as to one’s own thinking and writing, and to the force of language itself:
it’s a smelly season
don’t you think
the earth knows
the bugs are beginning to look
you’re throwing your mother’s
old stuff out
your friends are beginning
I want to show
mine something different
the ripples I’ve become
the way language changes
and rocks heal & burn
your little round animal
face keeps coming around
the corner but
oh no now you’re coming down
I’m looking up
Just as the method of composition affects the work in both Snowflake and different streets, so too does their presentation in a tête-bêche (“head-to-toe”) binding. Neither of the books has a back cover; rather, there are two front ones. When you get to the end of the first book, you find the upside-down last page of the second. This type of packaging is often used for two-way language dictionaries. It was also used for nineteenth-century devotional texts.
This last connection may be the most appropriate one here, for as different as they are, Snowflake and different streets both stimulate a certain kind of mindfulness. They encourage the reader to consider not only how art is shaped by the context in which it comes into being, but how we too are products of time and place.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.