Poetry News

Brian Teare Reviews Eileen Myles

By Harriet Staff

Brian Teare wrote this review of Eileen Myles' new double book collection Snowflake/different streets for LARB.

He opens by talking about "the popular mythology that derives from her career as East Village bon vivant, openly female write-in candidate for president, and feminist lesbian icon.":

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.

Later, Teare returns to this idea of trying/not trying to separate the mythology from the poems:

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:

phone isn’t
the same string
from person to
person now
that we carry
them and
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.

Read the full review here.

Originally Published: August 27th, 2012