Eileen Myles: Narrative Astronaut

By The Old Goat

The sentence ends, ”…my big dick cunt,” and that’s the nut of it. Four words—all Eileen Myles needs to convey the essential tension between language’s fixity and our shape-shifting selves. How do you gender that? ”I was making out with a naked woman and keeping my clothes on for a while made me a man,” is how the sentence begins, mid drunk sex scene in the 1994 story, ”Chelsea Girls.” It’s no surprise that, in life, Myles prefers non-gendered pronouns, but their body of work—forty years worth in a dozen books of poetry and six of prose—depicts a resolutely female world full of shes and hers. Men are included, the boy a part of the woman, the male and female changing places in a world that radically affirms the cosmological primacy of the cunt, names and deplores misogyny, and locates genius in the lesbian. Myles famously ran for President of the U.S. in 1991 as ”an openly female candidate,” but their constituency is all of us. ”Gender,” they write, ”is where you park your car for one day and one day only.”

Myles’s restless interest in long-form prose has generated an unusual series of books, four and counting: including Chelsea Girls (1994); Cool for You, a ”nonfiction novel” (2000); Inferno, ”a poet’s novel” (2010); and Afterglow, a ”dog memoir” (2017). As the subtitles indicate, a kind of play if not skepticism vis a vis genre conventions compels Myles. Chelsea Girls arrived in the world bearing no genre, only the author’s name and a title. The Library of Congress catalogued it as ”fiction,” yet all the events in it are real. Read front-to-back, Chelsea Girls has all the cumulative power of a well plotted novel, but the chronology is completely zigzag. Cool for You is a bildungsroman, but again the chronology is wack; Inferno is Dante’s Divine Comedy, but told by (and about) a lesbian poet in New York circa 1990s-2000s; and Afterglow is indeed a dog memoir, a miraculous book that establishes its own genre while shedding light on the deeper currents that keep Myles moving across the conventions of prose in search of a form.

I read the poetry before I read the prose. Two collections, small (Sappho’s Boat, 1982) and large (Not Me, 1990) were in some of the gay and lesbian bookshops where I often promoted my own work, four novels that I wrote in the 1990s. Eileen looked like a cute man on the back cover of Not Me, and I did the gay man’s familiar double-take, looking at a lesbian thinking ”who’s that hot looking guy?” and then blushing because what, sorry, I thought you were…attractive? If my reaction screwed with the clarity of our assigned genders the poems went further. In ”Blue Jay”:

She shall
be fat & wrap her arms around me. She shall love me as a boy
& I will be her wife…
In ”Basic August”:
Is Life perhaps just another thing that men own, like the world
so not having
a greedy antenna hanging between my legs I don’t know how to insert myself powerfully in anything’s
path. It is

mine tonight, and shut the feeling out, like a light and in
the dark, get.

”Kind of / a furless / pussy, my heart,” writes Myles, complaining that ”My mother tells / me I am not / her son, my / sister says / that was not my / crime, being foolish…” The poems are all first-person and autobiographical: Eileen Myles writing ”Eileen Myles,” an ”I” seated firmly in the body while the mind ranges across time: backward into memory, sideways into associations, or forward into expectations and fears. Language can do that, sailing across time’s vast falseness. Marbled with present-tense reflections on the problems of composition, the poems seem to enact a ”continuous present,” a mode of writing that the 20th-century American genius Gertrude Stein theorized and practiced. Stein called it ”writing what you are writing, not what you think you are writing.” The mode arises when ”the composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living that they are doing, they are the composing of the composition of the time in which they are living.” By writing ”in the living that they are doing,” a writer scripts a continuous present: ”The artists live as they do which makes the work compose as it does.” Words, lines, and paragraphs gather and stir, like the billowing exhalations of a runner running.

Myles’s prose can be distinguished from their poetry, if you care to, by the staging of this activity. While the poems perform Stein’s continuous present, their prose stages the struggle of its coming-into-being against the hostile logic of time, the convention of a before and after. It’s a struggle with narrative, and ultimately a struggle with death, out of which Myles finds a way in Afterglow, with the help of their companion and teacher, the deceased pit bull Rosie.

These are all first-person autobiographical reckonings with the progress of events in Myles’s life, ”how I got here” books that, among other things, refract prismatically a set of events from childhood (what other narratives call ”traumas”). When your father dies on the couch when you’re eleven—and you’re alone with him, silently transcribing your ”punish task” (”I will not talk in the corridors, I will not talk in the corridors”) 500 times—you carry it with you the rest of your life. Eileen also carries the death of a paternal grandmother, Nellie Riordan Myles, confined to a state hospital that used electroshock and orbital lobotomies on its patients (Nellie included), a gang rape at age eighteen, humiliations in Catholic school, and various animal deaths, that are told and retold across the course of all four books. It’s not all loss. Eileen becomes a lesbian, a poet, and rises to a certain height in the New York City poetry scene. But if there’s any teleology in this body of work, it is that of Myles, the writer, becoming bolder and more artless with each volume, sequentially shedding some of the formal maneuvers that helped shape and defend their earlier tellings.

Chelsea Girls, the first, is the most artful and impressive book, and leaves no room to doubt the writer’s mastery. Most readers will finish it within however many hours it takes after opening to page one. There are 28 stories, including an epilogue (weirdly third-from-last), and the book closes with a masterpiece, the titular ”Chelsea Girls.” At under ten-pages per story it can be read like a fat magazine, dipped into and out of, or read cover to cover like a novel. Either way the chronology is scrambled. We start in ”Bath, Maine,” on a drunk revel that leads Eileen’s girlfriend to jail and Eileen to a poem called ”Roast Chicken” that closes the story. It’s post-New York—Myles’s life breaks down into: 1949 – 1969, growing up in Boston; 1969 – 1973, leaving Boston as ”Leena”; 1974 – 1984, becoming ”Eileen,” a lesbian poet in New York City; and 1985 – 2019, the peripatetic life of ”Eileen,” gender-fluid poet from New York—so ”Bath, Maine” must be in the late ’70s and Eileen in their late 20s, or so; next, ”The Kid” (”I came home from school one day in the 7th grade with a punish task”) is 1961, on the day Eileen’s dad died; then ”Merry Christmas Dr. Beagle” (lesbian poet Eileen scamming amphetamine pills to resell) returns to late ’70s or early ’80s; then ”Light Warrior” gives two pages of present-tense self-reflection, more poem than story, which ends ”I have waited all my life for permission. I feel it growing in my breast. A war is storming and it is behind me and I am moving my forces into light;” leading to ”Bread and Water,” another New York story with the same drunk girlfriend who was arrested in ”Bath, Maine.” Holding on to the familiar scaffolding of separate stories, each with a title, readers jump back and forth with ease. The collection tumbles forward this way toward a crystalline moment, on ”a hot summer day in 1979,” which are the last words in the book. The whole has an undertow, a deep forward motion like an incoming tide, and read front to back, its zigzag telling displaces all of chronology’s false claims and small-mindedness.

The time sense in the closing story, ”Chelsea Girls,” the way this short piece of prose locates its place and belonging within the greater sweep of time, is a technical marvel. The story is a past-tense recollection of three claustrophobic scenes one summer night and the next morning in New York City—a three-act play—beginning, ”The waitress was cute.” Myles italicizes the verb, showing how to sound the line out loud, but also highlighting the past tense. A page later, general recollections of that long ago summer deliver us to the scene of the opening line, now rendered, ”She is cute said Chris.” We come into the present time of Act One carrying all the baggage and breadth of what the future narrator will have lost. The plot is simple, familiar: a bored couple having drinks, flirting with the waitress. ”Chris was tanning that summer and planning our next play. I was writing my poems on napkins.” Eileen, who tells it, also casts this past into a hotly anticipated future: ”I lived for nights like the one I was about to have with [the waitress] Mary Turner.” Eileen will have sex with her that night, after the girlfriend, Chris, maneuvers all the parts into place and deliberately exits the scene. When Chris exits, closing Act One, the story breaks into the present tense, and a remarkable account of Eileen’s apartment: ”The floors in my apartment are nice old wood. There’s a tree outside the window and in summer its shaking green leafiness acted like curtains… Sometimes in the afternoon friends would come by and we’d drink red drinks, hot ones. By the fall the leaves were down and I began to think of my apartment as blue. It’s warmer now, everything having gone around twice. Chris used to live here. For a couple of years. There’s a character now called Eileen’s apartment and perhaps she remembers everything I don’t.” This brings us sharply into the time of writing, and casts a shadow of loss back across the story itself, even while we’re in the middle of it. Technically it’s impressive, an elegant solution to a common storyteller’s problem, conveying the distance of the telling.

Act Two, and Eileen and the waitress, Mary, are in a cheap room in the Chelsea Hotel with a bottle of champagne. ”She was so pretty. She was very strong. We rolled around. We held each other down. Then we fucked. I had never been fucked by a woman before. It’s scary. You want to do something for so long.” Recollection takes Eileen back into a page-long sexual history connecting Leena’s childhood across time to Mary fucking Eileen in the Chelsea Hotel, all lost. Morning, Act Three. Eileen works for the poet Jimmy Schuyler, who lives in a room in the Chelsea, and he needs minor, daily care. Leaving Mary asleep, Eileen goes to Jimmy’s and tells him the story of her night, rewinding us across all three acts until Jimmy is asleep. Eileen stuffs a wad of Jimmy’s cash as payment into her back pocket where, ”I felt something damp. It was the poem I wrote on a napkin last night. The ink was kind of smeared but I could read it. Want to hear my new poem, Jimmy. I wrote it last night. It’s called ’Under My Umbrella.’” She reads it—a long narrow Eileen Myles poem, placed within the story of its composition, in the wide-margined middle of the page—then finishes: ”He woke for a second. Nodded. I’m leaving now. Did you have a good time? Oh it was alright. Bye Jimmy. Then I opened the door and stepped back out to the hall which I’ve mentioned was brown. It was a hot summer day in 1979.” The End. Suddenly we are everywhere at once alive with loss, and it’s a kind of miracle.

Time is an antagonist in all of these books. Myles confronts chronology’s morbid threat, that every narrative must end in loss, and restlessly plays with the pieces in the game, moving them around, rearranging, sifting and shifting the past, the present, and future so that none of the pieces ever falls finally off the board. The stakes are high. For instance, Nellie Riordan Myles, their grandmother who died in a mental hospital, is recovered in Cool for You’s ending section, ”To Go Home.” Nellie’s life appears in fragments, scattered in time, re-gathered by Myles’s telling, a zigzag visitation that hides her death like the ace in a game of Three-card Monte: Nellie was born in 1880; in 1940 she felt ill; she came to America in 1900; it’s 1940, she’s not feeling well; she came here from Ireland in 1900, famine; she had no teeth when she got to Westborough, the mental hospital; she was a professional; Nellie walked around and around, lost interest in everything, then Helen (her daughter) died, appendicitis, ”it just went bad”; she started cooking dinner again; then she got worse. ”I stood outside Westborough one day and the color had returned” (it’s 1995). I shorthand it here, but the pattern is clear, and similar patterns shape the restless back-and-forth of most of Myles’s prose, keeping all the parts in play against time’s grinding logic. Nellie can stay with us so long as Myles writes it, in death and illness as in life. It only ends when there’s no one left to read it. This strategy also knits together the contradictions of a girl-sometimes-a-boy growing up female and lesbian, and sometimes-a-man-or-boy, without proposing the straightjacket of a coming out story. Identity is a self-dug grave, and Myles shirks the task nimbly.

Cool for You uses a conventional form (a working-class bildungsroman in which a series of shitty institutional jobs constitutes coming-of-age) to free the narrator from micro-managing all of the stories. There are plenty—Nellie Riordan Myles’s; Eileen caring for the crazy and infirm; leaving Boston; becoming lesbian; the Myles family falling apart, quietly, inwardly, reading their books; the Delays, dirt-poor neighbors with many lessons to teach Leena (who wants to be an astronaut)—but they intertwine throughout the book, less beginning-middle-and-end than a restless sea, a continuous ocean of ”coming-of-age.” The storylines sprawl across its three sections (”North Building;” ”To the West;” and ”To Go Home”) coming and going, seemingly, as they come to the writer’s mind. That mind is lucid and patterned (section one is mostly about childhood and shitty jobs; section two is ten dense pages of a dark turning-point in San Francisco; section three features Nellie, the astronaut that Leena wanted to become, and Eileen Myles, the writer) but given to drifting. While the liberty to move this way makes Cool for You less driven, less commanding than Chelsea Girls, there’s a palpable gain, an intimate confederacy with this generous writer who’s invited us into the ”continuous present” of their writing.

With Inferno, ”a poet’s novel,” Myles jettisons the genre conventions that shaped her previous books, retaining only the raw fuel—Eileen Myles writing the life of Eileen Myles—and a borrowed structure, Dante’s tripartite division of The Divine Comedy into Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Myles explains, in Purgatorio (which is a grant application to the Ferdinand Foundation) that, ”throughout my inferno I am following both Dante and Freud’s models for ’existence.’ The Divine Comedy is of course in three parts. But Freud’s definition of sanity has only two: the abilities to love and work. Women though might actually be a little more medieval than men. We don’t start off being ’human.’ I mean that’s been my experience. So in the part that precedes this part…the young female narrator in becoming a poet has also become human…I go forward now with work, then love.” Inferno pours the continuous present of Myles writing into a formal partition of ”human,” ”work,” and ”love.” Within these divisions chapters have titles (”in and out,” ”west end,” ”poet,” ”reading & eating,” ”witches and nuns,” ”poetry is making money,” etc) and generally begin on topic, stray the same way that Myles’s poems stray, but also return and end. It’s chatty. Myles dishes, naming names, which Dante did too, but enough of the names in Myles’s Inferno are familiar (Kathy Acker, Patti Smith, Ted Berrigan, John Ashbery, etc.) you hardly need a glossary. In the context of New York, gossip is poetry, a natural or even constitutive element in the work of Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and others of the so-called New York School, and it seems to prime the pump for some of Myles’s sharpest insights about poetics. Myles delivers their poetics in a roaring flow of gossip, introspection, recollection, politics, and every other element of living, including this: ”What I started to understand was that the poem was made out of time, past, present, and future. It lives in the present, it breathes there and that’s how you let anyone in…As soon as the poem ceases to be about anything, when it even stops saving things, stops being such a damn collector, it becomes an invite to the only refuge which is the impossible moment of being alive.” Myles’s poetics is breathing is writing is living.

Inferno instructed me, but also made me blush and worry, stunned by the narrator’s appetite for glory, their ravenous need to hold greatness and excel, as if this one life, the narrator’s, were the only force keeping us from the void. It’s a boastful, jealous, and egocentric book, like someone shouting against death. I had that feeling anyway, until Afterglow (the ”dog memoir” recounting Myles’s beloved, late pit bull Rosie) put it to rest.

Afterglow starts with a gate-crasher: in 1999 a letter arrives from ”Rosie’s lawyer.” The absurdity (a dog lawyer?) and straight-faced seriousness (legal action is threatened if Eileen fails to respect Rosie’s rights), set the tone for a book that will include a puppet talk show, footnotes by strangers, Rosie’s posthumous writings, and interventions from beyond the grave. In Afterglow others will finally speak. It’s still Eileen Myles’s book, still autobiography told in the first person, but Eileen’s just a much bigger person now.

”Rosie began dying in June, having those mysterious fits.” Very quickly, within the first thirty pages, we witness Rosie dying—and then dead—in plain, closely observed paragraphs: a steep decline, piss and shit dropping out her semi-paralyzed ass, and then a morning visit to the vet, euthanasia. ”She pushed it in. Maybe her ass her thigh. She stopped. She put her stethoscope down on her heart. She’s gone.” The plainness gives the events weight, solidity, and their swift conclusion wipes the world clean of all that shaped it, all that mattered to Eileen. ”Then I stepped back into the world,” they write, and we enter ”The Puppet’s Talk Show.”

This fifteen-page script stages Rosie’s posthumous appearance on a TV talk show convened by puppets, a quartet from Eileen’s childhood as it turns out (though that’s neither revealed nor important in the context of the script), principally Oscar, the host of the show. It’s astonishing normalcy, the frankness with which it transmits a public conversation between puppets and a dog turns the continuous present upside-down. By so purely inhabiting its artifice ”The Puppet’s Talk Show” recasts the autobiographical, first-person oeuvre of Eileen Myles as itself unreal, a performance whose limits are now exposed (revealed by the author themself). Rosie and Oscar put the critique directly: ”OSCAR: …it’s not so clear how much of the work here is yours…Authorship! Who’s writing who?…ROSIE: Want the facts? Ok here’s the facts…My lawyer wrote Eileen Myles ten years ago and she did nothing. I was begging her…OSCAR: We’re in Puppet Time. Do puppets have time? ALL PUPPETS: O YEAH! (Rolling up the mountains and the hills…)…ROSIE: Okay so I totally wrote the letter. OSCAR: What are you saying? ROSIE: There’s no lawyer. There’s no money. I…I never said it because it kind of confuses things. I put it in her head. It’s what we always did. She feels she wrote it…The stuff early on about ’the hand-addressed letter’ is fiction, just covering her ass.”

With which demons does Myles here struggle? The falseness of every performance in narrative prose? Or their ego’s jealous hoarding of authorship in a world that in fact made itself collectively, involving all the living and the dead in the construction of a continuous present? Whatever limits Myles probed in their oeuvre are here surpassed by Rosie and the puppets. ”The Puppet Talk Show”’s abrupt reversal of what is real and what artificial breaks open the prior limits of Eileen Myles’s performance as writer. Now they’re one puppet among many. The defended ”I” of ”Eileen” gives way to an oracular polyvocality that includes Rosie, others of the dead, anonymous foot-noters, and transcriptions of short personal films (an approach to notation that amplifies a nascent, essentially Objectivist register for Myles). Familiar elements persist. We get the minutia of the hours and days, love, friendship and betrayals, lesbian and otherwise, shop talk, a revelatory trip to Ireland reconnecting them to Nellie Riordan Myles, and even a lecture, a cosmology of foam, all in Myles’s first-person telling. But in this sea, float islands of prophetic dicta, equal parts poetics, politics, and theology, which have no precedent in either Myles’s work or that of their contemporaries: ”My point? Foam means I want. Is it the trail of it, the tingling stuff on the side as I’m reaching. Cunty, even? Waters churning when they pitched the severed genitals in. Like cooking right…Foam is pure knowing, foam is pure birthing, foam is a depiction of the supreme board without pictures. It is a dream of cells, a dream of being…My dream is that history is backwards.”

Interesting that in their restless search for form, Myles finds ”foam.” Pit bulls produce it by the bucketful. Afterglow is a hallucinatory, anti-Modern performance, the poet as oracle through whom wisdom from other worlds reaches us. This mode has a deep history (Joan of Arc is a precursor, and some Greek and most Celtic oracles) but scant contemporary context. Of course Myles’s book is also an act of love for a dog, a wise creature who taught and continues to teach the poet; but reducing it to that would be the defensive, almost appalled reaction of a reader unwilling to accept Myles’s greater claim—that the world is female, dog is God, and Eileen Myles its oracle and prophet (”female” in the sense Myles has taught us: fecund, fiercely alive, foamy, fluid, and inclusive of all Dog’s creatures, no matter what’s between their legs). The poet’s chosen description, ”a dog memoir,” suggests that while Myles is willing to make the claim, they’re somewhat shocked by it too. But it is richly theirs, the result of a twenty-five-year long exploration of narrative forms by a poet committed to the ”continuous present,” unafraid of precarity, and unpersuaded by conventional measures of success.

In Afterglow, Myles allows death to make its claim, a permission the poet had fiercely refused for most of their life, and it’s liberating. Reading the books in sequence, Myles shedding one convention after the next as they goes, is like watching the cumbersome stages of a Saturn V rocket spend themselves and drop away as the payload—readers and writer—is shot deeper into the weightless freedom of space, a continuous timeless vastness where we float, with all of the living and the dead. This continuous present of writing not only dissolves chronology’s claims but ultimately breaks the boundary that keeps what is past, including the dead, from their collectivity with we who are present.

16 August, 2022