Eileen Myles has two new books out this week, a career-spanning new and selected poems called I Must Be Living Twice and a reissue of her beloved 1994 novel Chelsea Girls. Part of what makes this an event is the fact that this is Myles’ first time working with a major publisher, Ecco Press, an imprint of the gargantuan HarperCollins. It’s an acknowledgement by the powers that be of what her fans have always known: Myles is a big deal, a rock star, sort of like the Patti Smith of contemporary poetry (Ecco also publishes poems by Patti Smith, but Myles’ are better).
Myles got her start at the end of the 1970s, as a latecomer to the second wave of New York School poets â€” a community of friends and mentors loosely based around the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, which is still running today (and of which Myles served as an influential artistic director in the 1980s). Her elders and peers were Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Ron Padgett and a host of others who followed in the footsteps of the first wave of New York School poets like John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler.
Schuyler was particularly important for Myles â€” she worked as his secretary and caretaker for a while when he was living in the Chelsea Hotel. She includes those days in Chelsea Girls, which isn’t really a novel at all, but a series of rambling memoiristic stories that trace Myles’ journey from her teenage years in an alcoholic family to her freewheeling emergence as a lesbian, poet, and badass in New York City.
Her prose in Chelsea Girls is choppy, stream-of-consciousness, sometimes agrammatical, and almost always mesmerizing. Schuyler’s room â€” “There was a little chair, salmon colored, next to his bed with several packs of Export ‘A’s, old coffee and rings on the orange seat from other coffee cups. There were pennies, two prescription bottles of pills” â€” rises up around us as we read about how Myles “must take care of him.” The morning described above follows a night spent upstairs in the Chelsea with a woman named Mary: “One finger two fingers three fingers.”
Chelsea Girls is always this vivid and engrossing, whether narrating the sordid episodes of Myles’ sexual and artistic coming of age in a decidedly less-slick-than-today downtown New York, or her uneasy youth in Cambridge â€” which she portrays with surprising affection, despite moments like this with her drunken father: “There were times when my mother would force him to the table from the bedroom. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t sit up. She’d put food on his plate and his face would fall in it. She would pick his head up by his hair. His face would be covered in cabbage and potato and the juice from the corned beef.”
Myles’ poems are cut of the same cloth. Aesthetically, she’s a New York School primer, like Schuyler, who made a high art of recounting exactly what was before his eyes, but Myles is much more adventurous. Where Schuyler obsessed about flowers, Myles gets deep into the minutia of sex, intoxication, and the vagaries of love:
I’ve got a magenta sock and a rust
Sock on. Just like the, uh, Futurists.
And my old work shirt. Feels good
Since it’s clean for a change.
Oh, do you want some? The broccoli’s
Good with the grated cheese on it. Yeah,
The fishcakes suck,
but just douse them with lemon juice.
This is the end of “Homebody,” a not atypical early poem. Myles doesn’t usually make stuff up; she transmits the world in front of her to the page. Coded into her transmission is the real day-to-day stuff of relationships: mismatched socks, making food for someone who comes by, or looking “up at a shirt/ on a door/ that smells of her/ & say she’s gone/ you might cry.” This is classic conversational New York school poetry, set in 1980s New York, where the rent is cheap, Sonic Youth is just getting going, and there are artists and poets everywhere Myles looks.
Myles is a gateway poet, offering admission to anyone who wants it into a life in search of inspiration â€” though it’s hardly lofty and clean. Myles’ vision of poetry is organic and personal, and it’s a DIY vision, poetry with a punk rock spirit. It’s a search for what Lorca called “duende,” the dark spirt that animates art; Myles describes it in her own way in the prose poem “The Poet:” “I made myself into a poet because it was the first thing I really loved. It was an act of will. I realize that now. I was always afraid of asking for things from the devil. I would probably get them.”
We are lucky she did. Even when recalling the darkest of moments, Myles is relentlessly casual, and even joyful. She has a good time journeying through Hell, and like a hip Virgil, she’s happy to show us the way.
Craig Morgan Teicher’s latest collection of poetry is called To Keep Love Blurry.