Eileen Myles

of New York, New York

Winner of the 2010 Shelley Memorial Award

Smile


It's just not as much fun without a good
light and a sharp knife
I mean leaning into the peach of
it. People find the time
and I am finding mine
to get theirs sharpened or use yours
the drip in the kitchen is like
someone I know. Today's cold
is an affirmation of the purchase
of yesterday's new shirt. I mean I knew the cold
would come some time but today.
I'm wearing that drip most of all.
My half made meal and even the space
that surrounds the incredible possibility
of hunger on and on like my favorite man
Frankenstein. The drip has tones.
A relationship with the holding
bowl that is only holding water.
All these rhymes all the time. I used to
think Mark Wahlberg was family.
So was Tim but close to his death
he told me he was adopted. Every
time he smiled he thought Eileen
is a fool. Or that's what love looks
like. If I woke and my master was horrified
I would go out into the world with this
enormous hurt. And I have carried mine
for so long I now know it's nothing special.
It's just the fall and the sound of her sirens. It's the agony
of being human. Not a dog who dies maybe six
times in the lives of her masters. Everyone's phony
and made up. Everyone's a monster like me.
Now I know everyone.

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Katie Peterson and Mary Jo Bang on Eileen Myles

There is something consoling about Eileen Myles' writing. For other writers, it's the consolation of knowing that one can be lyrical without sacrificing candor. For readers, it's that the vastness of the human condition can be shrunk to something we can face; history, large and small, can be boiled down to its moving particulars and still give a sense of something as small as a mood or as large as a zeitgeist. In the poem "1993," published in School of Fish, she writes: Everything/shouldn't be/so quick/deep down/from the/past to/now & forward/to the/future something/is biding/its time/my wealth." The poet turns the idea of time into snippets and in doing so, breaks down those standard immensities—the past, the present, the future—into molecular-sized bites that become, in the last unpunctuated turn, the speaker's own investment of days, hours, minutes, seconds, unfinished half-seconds: "My wealth." Lyric in subject, and odd in delivery. That's part of what makes the best lyric poetry, the best. It makes Dickinson, Dickinson, and Hopkins, Hopkins. That distillation of the expansive, the elevated made human and small and rendered in terms that refresh our knowledge of it and echo our persistent quarrels with it. For a second, at least, we grasp it.

In Myles' poetry and prose there is compassion for the drama of human experience—the totality of the life of the body, and it's adamant desires, combined with the restless life of the mind. She sometimes laments our state of impoverishment, and sometimes celebrates our incredible abundance. Lesbian daughter of the marriage between the New York School and the Language Poets, her work is often playful and personal and yet, like her poet-parents, the narrative thread that threads through the work isn't evidence of egocentrism but of example—of a life rooted in language. And in sexuality. And in one's singular position in a world that is keen to identify difference. Life, like time in the line quoted above, is broken into encounters and stories told to a waiting ear: from "Each Defeat" in Sorry, Tree "I didn't tell you about the creature with hair/long hair, it was hit by cars on the highway/Again and again. It had long grey hair/It must've been a dog' it could've been/Ours. Everyone loses their friends.//I couldn't tell anyone about this sight./Each defeat/Is sweet."

Eileen Myles was born in 1949 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and graduated from UMass-Boston in 1971; after graduation, she came to NYC with the intent of becoming a poet. To that end, she spent 1975–1977 taking classes at the St. Mark's Poetry Project where she studied with Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Paul Violi, and others. She worked as an assistant for the poet James Schuyler and, around the same time, met Allen Ginsberg, who because a useful model for combining activism and poetry. She became an integral part of a thriving poetry and queer art scene in the East Village.

Since then, in addition to her many books of poems, she has published magazines, edited anthologies, written reviews, essays, short stories (Chelsea Girls), a novel, Cool for You, performance and theatre pieces, and a libretti ("Hell"). In the 1980s she was the Artistic Director of the St. Mark's Poetry Project; in 1992 she ran, as a write-in candidate, for President of the United States. She's performed in independent films and in 1997 and 2007, she toured with the performance group, Sister Spit. Her most recent books are Sorry, Tree by Wave Press (2007), and a collection of essays about queer identity, art, travel, and Icelandic poetry, entitled The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art. That book was supported by a 2007 Andy Warhol Creative Capital art writing fellowship and published by Semiotext(e)/U Mass Press in July 2009. Her articles on art and poetry have appeared in Art in America, Bookforum, The Nation, The Believer, Artforum, and elsewhere. She is a Professor Emeritus of Writing and Literature at the University of California-San Diego, where she taught from 2002 to 2007, and is currently a Richard Hugo Visiting Writer at the University of Montana in Missoula.

In a 2001 article about her in the New York Times, she is quoted as saying, "Ted Berrigan, who was an early teacher for me, and a good one because he was Catholic, would always talk about poets in terms of their final vows. There's a sense of getting deeper and deeper into this thing if you let it be as important as it could be." Final vows make permanent the temporary vows one makes at the beginning. But in some religious orders, the first vows are the final vows. The acolyte pledges fidelity from the outset. One senses this is true for Myles. Clearly her belief in the importance of keeping art and
poetry at the center of her life has never wavered. That "life in art" has become the art itself—which is to say, her work is a persistently insightful look at a world in which the poet is a provocative participant.

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