Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Poetry of Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles is a whirling dervish of contemporary poetry, drawing bits of conversations, startling thoughts, anecdotes, jokes, and everyday occurrences to assemble poems about passion, love, and how we experience the modern world.

One of Xeno's paradoxes goes something like this: You can never reach a destination. Suppose you want to walk to the mailbox. You're fucked, because before you can get there, you have to get halfway there. But, before you can get halfway there, you have to get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a quarter, you must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on... So, you're fucked.

It seems to me that Xeno's paradox rests on a difference in how human beings experience time and space. We experience space as discontinuous, divisible, and bounded, and we experience time as a continuous flow, unified, and overlapping. We can measure time, but we cannot separate moments from one another, and our experience of any moment seems to overlap with other previous moments. We cannot stop time, turn back time, or save moments in time, no matter how much we would like to. And the most important fact about how we humans experience time is that we have no experience outside of time and human time is always finite. It's always running out.

It also seems to me that poetry is an art form that takes time as its medium, in much the same way as music does. The poet seems to take moments of speech and thought and invest them with a certain weight and meaning, hoping to make them resonate and endure. While we are constantly encountering speech that intends to be understood instantly, and in a sort of banal way, poets intend their resonances to sink in slowly and deliberately. Like LSD, poetry has to be absorbed and given a bit of time to take effect. I think it has to be heard aloud.

Clearly, I'm no expert. These are all the observations of a novice; I'm still trying to figure out this dang-nabbed poetry thing. Part of my motivation in writing these Another Sky articles is self-education: it's an excuse to learn about all sorts of things that are outside of my area of specialization. Poetry is very new to me. I'm familiar with many of the 18th and 19th century poets, as well as the beats; but fairly new to contemporary poetry. As a novice, I still find everything I hear impressive, even though I know that's naive. You know that poem about the place in France where the naked ladies dance? I think it's brilliant.

Okay, so I'm not that clueless. However, when Charlie Huisken says that Eileen Myles's book of poetry 'Sorry, Tree' is in his top ten list for this year, I have to defer to his superior knowledge. It's certainly one of the best books of poetry that I've ever read. But, what do I know! Charlie lives, breathes, sells, and thinks literature. Take his word for it.

Eileen Myles's poetry is composed from brief moments assembled and invested with meaning. Bits of conversation, half-completed thoughts, anecdotes, and fictions placed beside one another to play off each other like improvisational musicians. Listening to her reading at This 'Aint the Rosedale Library on Saturday night, I felt like I was watching a clever magic trick. How does she do that? How does she create these poems that are so honest and forthright, yet still so imaginative? I feel like the things I write are generally either affected or boring, with nothing in between. Myles is a whirling dervish of striking ideas, observations, beguiling glimpses of life lived, and collected moments. She's from New England, and as my New England side of the family would say, she's wicked smaht.

Many of her poems go by in short bursts, like popping firecrackers. They're just a few brief thoughts, but thoughts of high quality that provoke many more thoughts. Many are autobiographical poems, dealing with being in love, being in America, being gay, being human, and often about being reminded of being human. Some are casually hilarious, but then twist and reveal some startling insight. One of my favorite pieces in the book is 'Everyday Barf', a prose piece about a public boat ride in which several passengers are vomiting at once. But, it's also about the fear of death and the way that Bob Dylan composed his songs. Myles often replicates the way that disparate thoughts lead into one another without clear design. Everyday Barf reads a bit like Molly Bloom's nighttime thoughts.

When she read at This 'Aint the Rosedale Library, Myles was quick-speaking. Sometimes poets will draw out certain words, and some seem to telegraph which words are supposed to anchor in the listener's mind. Myles reads like someone who grew up in Boston and lived for years in NYC. She's lightning-quick and impatient, and she added on to many of the poems as new thoughts occurred to her. You got the sense that she writes poems to organize her constantly ongoing mental activity. At one point, she realized that he had left a page of a prose piece at the house where she was staying. A friend ran back to retrieve the page, while Myles explained that the entire story built to the missing crescendo, but worried that, once retrieved, it wouldn't live up to her description of it. Within minutes, the errant page was returned, and the climax of the story was far better, more moving, and exhilarating than she had described it.

It was clear that she had her fans at the show. BUST Magazine described her as a 'rock star of poetry' and that was obvious on Saturday night. Maybe more of a punk rocker. Since she first read at CBGB's in 1974, Myles has steadily found her place as a poet. She seems best suited to this generation, which is more exuberant and outrageous than the more doctrinaire and dour seventies. I wasn't surprised to see that she traveled on the Sister Spit Tour, or that she's just read with Lynnee Breedlove, who was the first author that I thought of when we saw her read.

Eileen Myles inspires a lot of younger poets, particularly lesbians. There are some people who are naturally seen as inspiring, and I'm not always sure why. But I think it has something to do with this: there are so many things that you get social approval for doing: buying a house, working in business, making a lot of money, getting married to somebody that your parents like- all of that is easy to do. And then there are things that receive a sort of low-level social opprobrium: being gay, or old, or weak, or mentally-ill, or ugly, or foreign, or poor, or just different. People who are inspiring seem to live above all of that- they have an inner assurance in who they are in defiance of whatever society mandates. Eileen Myles is a proud, loud, and confident poet, dyke, and woman, and I think she's inspiring because her life is a big Fuck You to the idea that she shouldn't be.

Again, what do I know! I'm a 33-year old white guy who lives in the suburbs (sort of) with my loving wife and cat. But, Eileen Myles's writing speaks to me anyway. As someone who grew up listening to punk music, what I admire most about her work is its honesty. All of the art that I enjoy is united by a certain purity of vision- I don't like half-measures and cop outs. Besides, the thing about social oppobrium is that it seems to ever increase- the haters always find something and someone else that they don't care for. Give it time- we'll all be outsiders.

And art ever increases, constantly seeks to purify and save moments, to polish them to a bright shine, and hold them up for re-examining. Eileen Myles has more energy than most of us do; she's done at least twenty books, and has more on the way. When Claire and I drove her to the airport the next day, she talked quite a bit about wanting to make movies. Certainly, this too is a medium that could use more honesty and purity of vision. I'm looking forward to seeing what she shoots.

And she inspired us too; as soon as we got home from driving her to the airport, Claire and I both got to writing. Eileen Myles is the sort of writer who makes the rest of us want to write.

Another Sky.


Holly said...

This thing about being a 33 year old white guy living the suburban life of domestic standardization... I've been wondering about that. Not the guyness, no much, as the possibility that I am somehow... lacking in legitimacy because I'm average in some ways. *Everyone* is average in some ways, that's the magic of taking averages in the first place. Is this just a standard white guilt thing or what? When I start having to put my whiteness and ordinariness on things, right after my name, as a sort of disclaimer? I might have some ideas about stuff, but hell, I'm not even queer!

I get frustrated about this, mostly because it seems wrong, but I've not the slightest clue what to do about it. My suspicion is that there's a demographic that's currently the butt of the joke of unhipness, and there's nothing to do but wait until that passes, and there's something more... inclusive... to be a part of. The key, of course, would be to make something interesting. Be the Harlem Renaissance. Be the Outsider Art. Be the beat poets.

The trick, of course, is to be discovered--caught doing that, by whoever is next in charge of deciding what's cool, and held up as an example of the thing that's so cool, regular folks don't even know it's cool. You have to be this hip to even recognize this as an art form...!


Rufus said...

I don't worry about it too much. I just try not to come off as feeling other people's pain when I really don't. I wanted Eileen Myles to know that I thought her work was incredible; but I didn't try to suggest that it spoke to my experiences. Besides, Claire and I aren't straight or gay. So, nobody relates to us- we don't exist.

Besides, like I said, eventually we'll all be outsiders. Politics is taking over all of civilized life, and politics is getting to be cultish and exclusionary. I learned from Lou Dobbs tonight that those of us who don't give a shit about 'illegals' are actually 'extremist radicals'. We're well outside of the mainstream- a threat to America. It's exciting to suddenly be an extremist without doing anything.

Eventually, having fooled around with the same sex or smoked dope in College will be enough to make one a social outcast. And since you still read books, that should be enough to get you lynched in a few decades from now.

So, just keep doing what you're doing and eventually you'll be creating outsider art.