Saturday, June 13, 2009


I’ve known Eileen Myles since the 1970s when she first moved to NYC. She was a young poet from the Boston area who I had a lot in common with, including our Irish-American roots.

It didn’t take her long to find her voice, not only as a poet but as a presence on the downtown poetry scene that centered around the St. Marks Poetry Project, which by the 1980s she had become the Director of.

I always dug her, our common bonds, our love of the word, our ready-to-rumble personalities.

After I moved to L.A., we stayed in touch and did some hanging both there, when she visited, and in the city, when I was visiting.

Then over the years I didn’t see her as much, but tried to keep up with her books and readings (when she did them in L.A.).

She got a university professor position out in San Diego around the same time I was moving back East, so we missed each other again for a while.

But in the past few years we’ve run into each other a bit more at readings and panel discussions (she gave a brilliant talk on Frank O’Hara’s poetry and its influence on younger poets a few years ago at an O’Hara evening at the Tibor de Nagy gallery).

And then more recently, I caught up with one of her latest books of poems, SORRY, TREE and a “novel” that reads more like a memoir (and seems to be) from a few years ago that elevated her profile in the literary world and widened her audience, COOL FOR YOU.

For anyone unfamiliar with her books, these two are a terrific introduction to Eileen’s unique voice and perspective.

SORRY, TREE is like picking up the phone or an earplug for an iPod or other MP3 device, and listening in on someone talking to themselves instead of you, and yet knowing you’re listening in.

It’s both private and public speech sharing obviously private thoughts and moments mixed with direct address to the reader in a way that is both new and seeped in tradition (Yeats said all poetry was overhearing a conversation with oneself, or something like that—I’ll look it up later to check my memory).

Here’s a sample from the poem “For Jordana”—the last few stanzas:

“I think writing
is desire
not a form
of it. It’s feeling
into space,
tucked into
into time,
felt. All this
as a matter

of course
of course

yet being
here somehow,

If not everyone can dig poetry and its attempts to re-imagine language as speech or thought or simply material for constructs of any kind, COOL FOR YOU is a great way to introduce them to the ways in which poetry works, only in the guise of a “novel” slash memoir.

There is so much original language use in COOL FOR YOU, it reads like an extended, or serial, prose poem in many ways. But it also is a terrific story (as, for that matter, is SORRY, TREE, the story of the poet Eileen Myles adventures in love and writing poetry) about a young Irish-American girl and young woman and even present day middle-aged woman (though she hardly sounds like the latter, as is true for many middle-agers these days) discovering who she is and/or wants to be.

It is both perceptive and unexpected. The perspective ever changing as experience informs development informs naming and claiming and discovery and acceptance.

Here’s just one small example:

“…I was living a life that I wrote, all these disappointing and confusing things would be perceived in a book, one that was read, and then it would be okay, the world I was in. I imagined a book that forgave.”

Man, when I read that I knew exactly what she meant and had felt it myself when I was young and have tried articulating it in poetry and prose ever since, but Eileen nails it here for me (though you may have to read the chapter that builds up to that conclusion to get the full impact of it).

The book and its author have been touted as the heir to Rimbaud and other avant-garde or “alternative” literary traditions, and as the voice of a post-feminist generation of lesbians or “dykes” who are not only proud of that identity but even more proud to have transcended it as a limitation or hindrance to claiming its power in the world despite continuing confusion and misunderstanding and prejudice etc. on the part of the wider population.

Hope that wasn’t too obfuscated, all I mean is I have seen Eileen referred to too often as representative of something that she is so much more than. This book, COOL FOR YOU, belongs on the shelf not only of anyone who loves good writing, who digs great novels, who has ever felt like an outsider or confused interloper or secretly great undiscovered artist etc., but also of anyone who cherishes books that are so unique they only appear once in the literary firmament.

I have an ever evolving library of books, several hundred, maybe more, out of the tens of thousands I’m sure I’ve read over the decades. I’m always paring my collection down and always have been since the start, making choices about what I believe I will want to dip back into sometimes or reread completely or just love to know I have handy versus what I suspect I’ll never look at again.

I’ve made a few mistakes and every now and then wish I’d hung onto something that I no longer have, but for the most part, the honing of my library has been a constant updating of not just my taste but my evolving beliefs and concerns and inspirations.

These two books are keepers. No question about it. (I generally keep any books by friends anyway, but in this case, even if we weren’t friends, these books would be part of my permanent collection, as they should be in anyone else’s, or at least COOL FOR YOU for those for whom poetry isn’t as necessary as it is for me).

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