I BECAME OBSESSED with Eileen Myles via a worn-out copy of Not Me, a bright green book of poems that streamed in skinny columns. These were poems that I read so often and with such mania that a line would often ring through my head like a song. Any life can look back on itself and wonder how it all would have shaken out if, perhaps, you had gone to college, or if your parents hadn’t gotten divorced, or if you’d moved to women’s land in Arizona rather than urban California. I wonder what my life would look like if I hadn’t read Eileen Myles. I can’t imagine who I would be or what exactly I would be doing.
For years, I thought of Eileen Myles as mine — my own secret, special writer. Her poems and stories detailed a New York City that was perhaps already gone. Meanwhile, I had just landed in a new San Francisco, which was roiling with a new kind of lesbian, who eschewed the term lesbian for the boot-kick of dyke. I felt a sort of golden thread connecting the life in her writing to the life I was beginning to live, and I clutched it as I moved through my unfamiliar days.
Walking by City Lights in 1994, I saw Chelsea Girls in the window, its yellowy color giving it the look of an aged, antique volume, that sepia Nicole Eisenman painting on the cover. It was a shock to see Chelsea Girls in the window like that — placed there by someone who also understood that this was the kind of book that makes readers come inside. Buying a book was a big deal for me in 1994 because I really didn’t have any money, but I bought it then and would buy it again and again throughout my life. I read the text to death, trashing it, spilling coffee and alcohol onto it, forgetting it in bars or at the houses of girls I would never see again. Chelsea Girls haunts me like something I lived through, like my own life. When you spend so much of your days immersed in a book, at what point does the story become your own? If I could calculate the number of hours I existed inside it, and add to it the number of hours I spent thinking about it, revisiting it, really remembering it as if it was a memory — they are my memories, aren’t they?
I most remember reading Chelsea Girls in the dark, at bars around San Francisco in the ’90s — beneath the staircase in the back room at Dalva, in a booth at Blondie’s or The Uptown, at little round cocktail tables at the Paradise Lounge or Casanova. I was starting to write stories, but wanted only to write about my life, the girls I was falling in love with, lightly stalking, being dissed by. I wanted to write about being drunk in the daylight and also at night, and about having sex in dark, damp rooms, hands smelling like cigarettes and pussy, the beds perpetually grimy, flat on the dusty floor.
Aside from all that, I also wanted to write about New England. I had recently emigrated from the North Shore of Boston, a grimy, busted city called Chelsea, old-world and hostile. It was a strange, tough place and I had become preoccupied with it since arriving in San Francisco, partly because people from Chelsea don’t move to San Francisco. A person needs money to move, and people in Chelsea don’t have any. I myself managed to bundle together a purse by working as a prostitute; had it not been for that wise decision I might still be in Chelsea. When I meet people from Massachusetts, they are always from Newton, which has become a bitter joke. Newton is the anti-Chelsea, a place where people have money and go to college and are afforded the privilege of moving around this country.
Eileen Myles was more than a simple writer: she was bound to her writing in a way that nearly transformed her into a shaman. “At the end of the world I am my poem” — so ends the final piece in Not Me, “A Poem in Two Homes”; Chelsea Girls contains similar proclamations. “I am a significant person,” she writes in “Light Warrior,” an investigation of her name. “… maybe a saint, or larger than life. I hear that you judge a saint by her whole personality, not just her work.”
The Chelsea in Chelsea Girls is not scabby old Chelsea, Massachusetts, but the far more glamorous Chelsea Hotel, where Sid famously killed Nancy and Andy Warhol filmed his superstars. It’s also where Myles is fucked for the first time by a woman — a wholesome-looking lesbian waitress named Mary. The waitress had “powerful, black celtic eyelashes,” and she takes the author to the Chelsea, with its bad art and thin beds. “How do lesbians have sex?” is, of course, an eternal, offensive question, delivered by leering men and idiots of all genders. The secret, however, is that everyone, perhaps especially lesbians, must learn to have sex, must teach themselves and one another, constantly charging up against the limitations of assumptions and convention and imagination, not to mention the body. In the story “Chelsea Girls,” the author is delighted to learn she need not give up the vigorous rogering heterosexuality had occasionally provided: “So Mary started fucking me. One finger two fingers three fingers. And her face all that strong part coming out, dissolving her prettiness and pale freckles and celtic distance into force.”
For me, at 23 years old, girls were the mystery, and drinking — being drunk — and writing was the mystery. Eileen Myles was deep in it, solving it, reporting from the inside. These were sacred texts for sale in the window of a bookstore like no big thing. Look at how she writes about her affair with a famous junkie called Robin:
I must fuck Robin. That was my job. She had the largest … cunt, vagina I had ever stuck my finger in. It was big red and needy. I stuck two three fingers in and fucked her and fucked her … She moaned and growled with pleasure. Such a woman, I have never met such a horny animal nor have I ever so distinctly serviced a woman before. Do you want my fist inside you. Anything, she shrieked, anything.
My own investigations were likewise proving that females were not particularly fragile. Queer sex could feel like children’s make-believe and a carnival haunted house and a lion devouring an antelope. It could feel like psychic surgery and a newfangled workout routine and an aggressive cuddle-fest. We were, as Myles reported, “animals.” Reading this made me feel happy and alive. I was of this people; I must find my own complicated junkie to have violent sex with. In 1994, nothing seemed like a better idea, save for being able to write about it later.
I wonder what anybody thinks about using your own life, the actual words people say to you in the secrecy of love, or separation, or the oblivious moments when they’ve simply torn off an insult and flung it at you and you’re the one who remembers every little word, at least the ones I use and I fling it back in their faces, if not there, then here, sooner or later and they say, “Oh, I can’t believe I said that.”
That’s from the beginning of the end of a story called “Jealousy.” It’s a big question. Did Eileen feel liberated to spread her whole personality out onto the page like this? Was it okay? Could I do it, too? These were my questions as I luxuriously smoked cigarette after cigarette inside various bars, a pint of amber beer before me, slopping some onto the pages as I went — my pages and hers because now I always brought Chelsea Girls with me when I wrote. I would pick a story and read it before starting into my own notebook.
Reading her stories was like a prayer before beginning: Dear subconscious spooky hidden writing place, please hear the glory of this story, “Bread and Water,” one of my favorites ever. A broke lesbian, who has her period and cannot even afford tampons, is sort of bleeding around her East Village apartment hoping for a grant that will never come, tallying the petty but significant amounts she owes the bakery, the neighbor, not getting a piddly 10-dollar deposit back. Dear everything that understands how much 10 dollars really is, let this truth and the deceptively simple, plainspoken way in which it is delivered, a voice just so cool, please let it trigger in me my own whatever it is, my own voice, my own cool, let like recognize like and release something, okay? Gulp, gulp, smoke, begin.
Beyond the seductive enchantment of Myles’s voice — blunt, almost arrogant with authority, tangential, intensely conversational, personal, real — the deeper zing of Chelsea Girls was the stories about growing up in Arlington, Massachusetts, a city not at all far from Chelsea and its corresponding class bracket. Chelsea Girls is a significant lesbian work but it is also a significant working-class text. Check out this summer job, from Bath, Maine:
At work we dipped these small — or sometimes fairly large — wooden frames into vats of stain. Their destination was the cheap carnivals, and beach towns of America. Those mirrors that say Grateful Dead, or NY Yankees.
Over and over the work reveals itself to be a history of what it meant to be working-class in America before globalization, before technology transformed the workspace. Myles evokes how an illicitly sourced diet pill turned the monotony of Xeroxing into a light show; how women lined up outside the glass doors of Filene’s Basement (RIP), the infamous Boston designer discount market. There was an underground entrance accessible from the subway and the crowds stood ready to stampede their way in. My sister worked at Filene’s Basement, and, coincidentally, my alcoholic father worked for the post office, just as Eileen’s alcoholic father had. This was my occupational landscape, and to find it in this document of serious lesbian cool flipped me out. Eileen worked as a cab driver, a waitress, behind the register slinging tobacco at the Harvard Coop. She worked as a chambermaid at a Holiday Inn, where she was shocked to encounter a disgraced family friend — a woman doomed to die an ugly, alcoholic death in the not too distant future.
Chelsea Girls also revisits the death of Myles’s own alcoholic father. In “The Kid,” a chillingly sad piece, a young Eileen is instructed to “watch” her father. She watches him die, savoring the terrible moment and the proximity to death, that mystery, and the strange bond it strings between them forever. At the end of the story, as she recounts the ways her father’s death has altered the family, she declares, “I would be a beatnik.” She is attempting to control how the death would alter her: “… I would make everyone so sad and be so cool.” Sadness and cool are the twin pillars of Myles’s voice, mixed with the detached, dark humor born of the two. In Chelsea Girls we lose Tootsie, charming and wild, to a drug overdose, while Tootsie’s date to Woodstock plows his car into a wall, stone sober.
There is also sexual violence, and the casualness of the reportage feels particularly deliberate here. This is the female day-to-day, is it not? Myles falls in love with an office co-worker, who turns out to be a girl famously gang-raped at a New England dance in the ’60s. “Nothing should take that long she said.” The author’s own similar assault, at a summerhouse on the Cape, is detailed in unsentimental, spare language. The effect is wrenching, infuriating. In the morning, sick, hurt, and hung over, she walks to the beach and writes her name in the sand — EILEEN MYLES — wondering, “I had been raped, right?” That the culture of acceptance and denial is strong enough to blot out the unequivocal horror is a horror of its own.
Fear of not being understood is the greatest fear I thought lying on the bathroom floor at 11P.M. worse than not pleasing people, worse than anything else I can think of. Worse than being cold or alone. Worse than getting old.
So begins “Robert Mapplethorpe Picture,” which explains the cover photo of this new edition: a portrait of the author snapped by Mapplethorpe in 1980. The joke of the story is that Myles offered her mother back in Arlington the image for her “photo wall” — a wall that the lesbian poet daughter was conspicuously absent from. A piece of “real” art smuggled into the regular working-class décor. To be an artist and a queer is to be an outsider in your family as much as in the culture at large, especially in the ’70s or ’80s. The secret Mapplethorpe is a metaphor for the daughter herself — a lesbian icon, an influential poet, “a significant person, maybe a saint,” sitting there in her body in the family and culture that neither sees nor understands her.
With Chelsea Girls, Myles forces a cultural and a literary reckoning with her life on her own terms, demanding understanding, the text held to the reader’s throat. What it was like to be female, with that permeable body — to be a lesbian, to be working-class or flat broke, to be a poet, a drunk, a speedy pill-popper — to be heartbroken and heartbreaker, to be half an orphan, to have so much to say yet forced to claw out a place to say it with your own ragged, dirty fingernails — this is Chelsea Girls. That it was allowed to go out of print at all is, in the parlance of the North Shore of New England, “a sin.” That it is back in print, able to be placed in bookshop windows, to grab the eyes of a person whose life it may profoundly alter, is not a miracle — it’s justice. “I would like to tell everything once,” the author writes, “just my part, because this is my life, not yours.”