AUGUST 24, 2012
I FEEL LIKE I NEED to forget what I know about Eileen Myles in order to review her new book of poems, Snowflake/Different Streets. In 2012 it’s almost impossible to separate the experience of reading her books from the popular mythology that derives from her career as East Village bon vivant, openly female write-in candidate for president, and feminist lesbian icon. This is, of course, the problem with fame, even of the underground sort — it mediates our experience of an artist’s work, which is always already saturated with what we know about them.
Such saturation is peculiarly heightened by an artistic practice rooted in autobiography, which in Myles’ case, as poet Alice Notley points out, “may be seen as a continuous striving for unity, of moment to life to short line to poem to performance of poem already written.” Notley nails it: an immediacy that feels real has long made all of Myles’ personae equally stagey and seductive, larger-than-life and totally approachable. And from the seventies through the early nineties confessional candor, insightful cultural analysis, and a highly constructed authenticity united Myles’ poetry, prose, and public performances into one seamless project. Interestingly, her most recently published prose — The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Writings in Art (2009) and Inferno: A Poet’s Novel (2010) — continues to refine her New York School mythos while redefining her current image, proving that prose continues to serve as Myles’ preferred medium for cultural autobiography. But the new poems of Snowflake/Different Streets made me realize that Myles’ myth functions independently of the past decade of her poetry, her fame out of synch with her career as a poet.
Of course I don’t want to forget what I know about Eileen Myles. I’m among those who’ve eagerly followed the career she seems to have fashioned for herself out of sheer chutzpah and a genius ear for the tones and syntax of the American vernacular, and I’ve become attached especially to her Schuyler-esque lines amped up with a feminist, queer, working class politics. I don’t want to forget what I know about Eileen Myles because it was fabulous to be in the audience when, at the 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards Ceremony, she won a thoroughly deserved Lammy for Inferno.
Earlier that night we’d had to sit through an irritating speech by Edward Albee, who was accepting a Pioneer Award from the Lamba Literary Foundation. “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self,” he said, “I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay. Any definition which limits us is deplorable.” It’s because of gay writers like Albee, who do damage to the community by reinforcing homophobic double standards disguised as “universal humanism,” that I don’t want to forget what I know about Eileen Myles. For a reader familiar not only with Inferno but with the thirty years of Myles’ poetry, fiction, plays and essays that preceded it, her win that night both validated and reiterated some of the central aesthetic and sociopolitical claims of her career, namely that, as she writes in the novel,
Poetry (and this is why I love it and will until I die)
always winds up being the conga line between random
chaos and it. It being the real monster moving up the
coast. The Norm. Pretty much the white norm though
if you agree to its terms, anyone can come. Well, one
of anyone. That’s what makes it so insufferable here.
This horrible view. That the mind’s possessed of two
stops. Good (which includes everything from “safe
for kids” to the entire grim suburban American maw
full of uplifting, meaningful, accessible verse), then
dirty and crazy[…]The poor innocent mind is what’s
ultimately being policed. No strolling, stopping, no
counting, no waste. No sniffing, no peeing. No turds.
Definitely no turds. Pick it up!
I love that Eileen Myles will never say that she is not a lesbian writer. I love that Eileen Myles will never say that she just happens to be a lesbian — as though sexuality were only another shared existential accident, like we’ll run into each other in the airport in Denver because both of us just happen to be queer. I love that Eileen Myles will never say that in order to be a great artist she just needs to transcend her sexuality and gender. And yet I love that Eileen Myles has said in an interview with Ed Foster that, “You can’t live in a lesbian or a gay world exclusively, I wouldn’t want to and finally I think it would be unsafe if you could. The strength of a culture relies on its interrelations.” Given that so many elements of contemporary U.S. culture — from the accelerating corporatization of our private lives to urban planning to an ever-expanding penal system to voter identification laws to literary awards themselves — enforce alleged distinctions between “the good” and “the dirty and crazy,” Myles’ emphasis on interrelationship is downright radical. And though I like the fact that, like Albee, Eileen Myles deplores definitions that limit, I love that Eileen Myles would not have us erase definitions themselves — only their power to limit us.
But all this love for Myles as a public figure didn’t serve me well while reading the two books collected in Snowflake/Different Streets, a double volume that confirms and completes her shift from her earlier voice-driven poetics to a more concept-driven texuality. Since Skies (2001), her lyrics have increasingly risked abstraction even as they’ve continued to explore autobiographical and cultural experience; the stripped syntax and sharply broken lines of Skies and Sorry, Tree (2007) insistently mediate and productively question the “representational” quality of Myles’ vernacular voice. But even while her poems began to distinguish between conceptual and autobiographical gestures, and seemed to privilege the aesthetic over the political, Myles was publishing prose as part of books like on my way (2001), Skies, and Sorry, Tree. Framing her more abstract poetic practice with narrative and political rhetoric, personal essays like “The End of New England,” which addresses the role of working class speech in Myles’ work, and “Everyday Barf,” which complicates the notion of autobiographical “everydayness,” also explain some of the poems’ conceptual concerns, allowing entry into work that no longer relies on the feel of intimacy for primary appeal. Significantly, however, Snowflake/Different Streets includes no prose, no structuring personal narrative or guiding rhetoric. As if to underscore the growing divide between her careers in prose and poetry, Myles has chosen to leave readers alone with the poems. Why?
On my own with not one but two books of her poems, I found myself involuntarily forgetting a lot of what I know about Eileen Myles, forgoing my personal investment in her mythology in order to notice thematic patterns, obsessions that underlie and tie together both volumes. Though Snowflake and Different Streets read quite differently — the former rooted and in conflict with the nomadic car culture of Southern California; the latter adamantly rooted in attention to the present moment, whether in Montana or Manhattan — they do indeed share themes of technology, mediation, perception, communication, and relationship. It seems important to note that these themes are linked together — and driven — by desires: to connect intimately with another; to see clearly the mind’s relation to the world; to respond to such clarity and to record a response; to examine how language structures and sustains connection and relation; and to bring connection, relation, and response into dramatic tension through language. And while their roots in desire might not make these poems seem so different from those in 1997’s School of Fish, their recognition and exploration of how desire gets rerouted and mediated by technology is certainly new, as in this untitled short lyric from Snowflake:
the same string
from person to
that we carry
have no homes
This is vintage Myles: the short lines and severe linebreaks wittily complicate the images through the accretion of grammar. The first four lines conjure both the children’s game telephone — two tin cans linked by a string — and telephone wires strung pole from pole, images that get updated quickly by the final three lines, which suggest the postmodern nomad roaming urbanity with a cellphone in their pocket. The juxtaposition of the tin telephone with the cellphone suggests just how rapid the phone’s evolution has been, but the poem claims that “phone isn’t/the same string,” a particularly troubling insistence. The poem doesn’t explain how the string has changed “now/that we carry/them and/have no homes.” Leaving us to think about how each iteration of technological advancement changes the mode and quality of connection “from person to/person,” the poem also leaves us to think about the nature of those changes.
Snowflake in particular often returns to complications in communication wrought by technology’s manifold and rapid evolutions, though Myles avoids didacticism by exploring new technologies as means to generate new writing. It’s worth remembering that Myles is a veteran of longhand drafts in notebooks and on legal pads, a writer who has said in interviews that her poems take formal cues from the sizes of the pages on which they were written — skinny lines from the notebook, fatter lines from the legal pads. So it makes sense that another short lyric concerning digital technology, this one entitled “Computer,” might begin with a wreck and end with a question:
I’m not even a boat
I’m where a boat
I put my impossible
body in your hands
is this a pen
Like “phone isn’t,” this poem begins with a distinction made with a negative — “I’m not even a boat” — but unlike the former poem, “Computer” makes explicit its position before it raises questions. I’m particularly fond of the associative movement of this poem because the speaker makes such concrete claims — I’m not this, I’m that — before qualifying the act of entrusting her body to “you” as a kind of impossible task. And though it comes across as a totally surprising non sequitur, the last line’s tonal shift delights me, as does its crucial introduction of the question of the pen. Title and closure, two scribal technologies frame the poem — the former often characterized as having supplanted the latter — making a kind of historical proscenium within which the poem’s action happens. Myles’ drama of self-definition, wreckage, and bodily trust takes place between computer and pen, typing and writing longhand, a space that’s “not even a boat,” but “where a boat/crashed.”
And while “phone isn’t” and “Computer” playfully pose serious questions about technological mediation, Snowflake also includes a series of transcriptions Myles calls “the LA/driving poems,” a series she dictated into a cellphone or a small digital recorder while behind the wheel. Investigating “This…emerging/possibility of writing/this way,” these poems demonstrate a far less anxious relationship to communication technologies. But anxieties emerge from the poems nonetheless, largely by virtue of their site- and action-specific nature. In “#9 Destroying Us,” Myles points out that the series relies on her consumption of oil, and that she doesn’t “mean to romanticize/this thing that’s destroying/us all.” Unsatisfied with its didacticism, the poem’s second stanza underscores the ethical complexity of technologies that aid in human connection and the fulfillment of our desires while also fostering our destruction: “romanticize this thing/that’s destroying us/I would drive/a couple of hours/for friendship.” It’s admirable, the way she mindfully shifts the grammar to create a possible indictment of her behavior rather than a defense of it. Similarly, in “#10 Ball,” Myles first asserts the fact that “we’re driving on our limited past,” consuming “the fluid of everything and everybody/that ever was here…just to get around.” Then in the second stanza, Myles shifts to an admission that complicates her conscious use of limited natural resources
and it’s nice that
I could feel around in
the dark to say
to touch a button
to make it light
The poem’s closure implicitly asks whether it’s worth trading oil for the aesthetic experience of the poem — but its final sequence of images is inconclusive at best and sinister at worst, especially considering the weakness of the introductory qualifier “nice.” Given that it’s a transcription, the poem’s first allegiance is not to the most correct or ethical thoughts — though it’s obviously aware of them — but rather to the mind’s nighttime drive from San Diego to Los Angeles, an experience that elicits from Myles a deeply conflicted response. And if Snowflake consistently thinks about how deeply embedded in such conflicts contemporary experience is — paying special attention to what conditions confer value upon experience, as well as what conditions distort or destroy the value an experience is supposed to have — Different Streets is less plagued by the anxieties and unhappiness that distance the mind from experience.
Put simply, it’s a happier book, unabashedly romantic, its poems immersed both in the immediacy of perception and poetry’s linguistic materials as well as the pleasures of erotic and emotional connection. This is what makes the two books such productive companion projects. Snowflake/Different Streets is beautifully designed and bound in a dos-à-dos structure: its two books are printed front-to-back, each of the covers acting as an entrance while each exit meets its upside-down other at the middle of the volume. The books quite literally function as retrograde inversions of each other; the reader has to turn the world of Snowflake: New Poems upside-down and backwards to get to Different Streets: Newer Poems, and vice versa. Given the important differences between them, the gesture of upending the new poems in favor of the newer poems is not a trivial feature of the books’ design — it’s a form of punctuation that underscores a dramatic shift in tone.
“The new poems/are poems of/healing,” Myles declares early on in Different Streets, “But first I’ll/be funny.” The healing and good humor in these most recent poems seem not only to stem from the new romance that provides their context, but also from a spiritual practice that perhaps has renewed Myles’ dedication to examining the present moment through an awareness of the mind in language. If at first I was surprised by the steady presence of Buddhism throughout both books, it didn’t take long before I realized how deeply consonant a Buddhist practice is with certain aspects of Myles’ poetics. Just as Snowflake’s “LA/driving poems” highlight consciousness of one of technology’s most insidious paradoxes — it enables even as it disables — so the “Pencil Poems” of Different Streets answer them with an increased consciousness of identity’s paradoxes. If one of technology’s primary seductions is that it seems to belong to you, this is also true of identity, and though it might seem merely a beautiful irony that this series was written with a stolen pencil, Myles uses this fact as an entry into an extended meditation on selfhood. Myles’ theft of the pencil serves as a metaphor for how the mind fashions and clings to self:
but it was borrowed
I suppose Buddhism
is to face the
holds the stage
Given that Myles’ fame is based in part both on her relationship to identity politics and our cultural love for the “self-made” artist, it’s hard not to be moved by these poems in which self becomes both less precious and less original. It’s not only “borrowed/slipped on” but anonymous, “whoever’s” — convictions quite different from those with which Myles has traditionally held the stage. In another poem from this series, Myles admits, “now I remember/when I began to speak/I began to speak/like him. I mime,” effectively rejecting creation and ownership of another “possession” upon which her career has been based: her voice. Such arguments about the always already mediated nature of identity easily recall postmodern tropes of the socially constructed self, but where other writers might mourn the loss of a “real” self or celebrate the infinite possibilities inherent in such constructions or aestheticize self as a camp pastiche, Myles remains neutral, even critical: “Don’t/misunderstand/me” she commands, her final linebreak emphasizing the conceptual fragility inside “me.” Given her claim that these are poems of healing, it’s hard not to admire what begins to seem like a ritual of self-assessment and a consequent casting-off of worn-out values. “At/the bottom of this/pencil,” she writes, “is an eraser/something soft that takes/it away.” Even her past sex life is subjected to this process: “I may have/ had my ‘lovers’/my partners. That/was a waste.” It’s no accident that this series ends with a declaration and an admonishment: “This/is life. Take a deep/look.”
But of course “a deep/look” is exactly what Myles has always given life, and it’s by virtue of Myles’ attention to the present that Different Streets seems most deeply consonant with her oeuvre. Re-reading these poems of meditative immersion in the moment of writing about thinking or feeling or seeing brought me back to a late passage in Myles’ Inferno, a paragraph that could serve as a kind of ars poetica for her commitment to transcription as a spiritual practice:
I was standing in the middle of winter one afternoon and the sky
was blue and the air was incredibly white and clear and there were
boats in the water and it was sparkling, everything. The day was clear. Glass. I whipped out my notebook, stuck the cap of my pen on its
back. I was ready to gather this and that. It would not be the whole
text of this day, it would only be fragments. But I didn’t begin. It
had lately been a problem that poems didn’t make any money, you couldn’t sell them, so what were they worth[…]Had I ever considered
what this was worth. Just standing in the goods. If the words I plucked
out of standing here were incomplete then probably they were not “it.” And maybe this was. The thing was existence itself.
This passage beautifully captures a mind self-consciously entering its perceptions, only to be waylaid by worry, beset by anxieties that keep it from its appointment with the real. I admire how Myles catches herself in the act of accepting the mind’s anxious distractions, and then redirects her meditative focus from the clarity of the day to the value of being in the clarity of the day. Perhaps identity carries less value in the poems of Different Streets so that existence itself might carry more. In this, the poems surprise because they capture an expansive, capacious consciousness without sacrificing the material problems of living, writing and loving to rarified spiritual insight.
Though the book contains plenty of autobiographical detail concerning Myles’ life as a writer and lesbian, such details remain themselves, no longer coalescing into myth. Instead, the book’s saturated with this desire to gesture toward “it,” to somehow get fragmentary words to capture some essential aspect of “the thing,” and Myles’ genius lies in making the grand gesture that includes the trivial detail and the sublime at once, their juxtaposition underscoring how we are small and made large by connection, paradoxically isolate and dependent. I love that she doesn’t mind if, in aiming so high, she misses her target; I love that sometimes she just moves the target lower for a yuk; that their casual grandeur lapses keeps the poems from sentimentality. And anyways, the point isn’t aesthetic success — though the poems indeed succeed — but to persist in the right attitude toward just standing here together. I love this new work, as much about loving another woman as it is about what it’s all worth. Turned toward existence, the poems’ orientation and their ethic of attention leaves their language able to detail the most intimate scales of wonder and change. “I am beginning to know,” declares Myles,
I am gold a transforming
the clipped end of an
utterance I was saving
for you when I saw your
the door approach
and everything moves