Readings in Contemporary Poetry

Eileen Myles

Introduction by Brighde Mullins

Eileen Myles' poetry emanates immediacy, inventiveness, inclusiveness. Her role as a teacher, an editor, and as a candidate in the 1992 Presidential Election have all demonstrated her unstinting energies. Her levels of energy are matched by the levels of her concerns, evidenced in her poems of the city, of making a living, of making notations against chaos. Artaud has written "the spirit of profound anarchy is at the root of all poetry" and this anarchic spirit appears in her animating presence and in her subversive re-invention of existing forms.

Myles' work presents a shifting persona, but one that is always responsive, always articulate. In one poem she states "I'm just a simple Catholic girl" and the arbitrary difficulties of the life of a simple Catholic girl who is also unapologetic about her love of women, has granted a generation of lesbians the permission to use the facts of their lives in their work. These lines are from her long poem "Promotional Material:" "We get pushed around. We don't know how to fight. Or, if we do, we're called bitches. Which is an angry dog. A bitch in heat. And if you talk about it people say Oh, you are a feminist--which means you are whiney and out of date. The other thing that happens if you complain: they think you're a lesbian. Who's that angry, complaining Lesbian? Ever get yelled at in the street by a man--You--You--Lesbian. Everyone laughs. Just the word DYKE is funny. And you ARE a lesbian which ruins everything."

The preceding passage, from her collection Not Me, also illustrates Myles' ability to take the circumstantial, the nebulous, and the private, and to transform these materials into the insistent, the concrete, the public. She turns incidents into events. Her poems are enactments; seemingly random locutions branch off onto many loops, coexisting tracks, to create a new music of relational intricacies. She's a good observer, with a complete appreciation of the grace of the actual-- she selects, organizes and discriminates as she trawls through the world with a seemingly inexhaustible flow of language, a posture that's a mixture of humor and sadness, insouciance and carefulness. The following prose-poem is from her latest book, Maxfield Parrish: "It is not lost, my century, thanks to us. We are the liars and thieves, we are the women, we are the women. I am full of holes because you are. I am the only saintly man in town. Don't be afraid to be feminine. A girl on a rowboat, full of holes. She saw holes shooting through."

This final, visionary image, of a girl in a sinking rowboat, is at once tragic and hopeful. The boat is going down, after all, but the girl in the boat is seeing and saying, not just sinking. This articulation is sustenance, is proof that "poetry is strong enough to help." I'm reminded of Artaud's image of Joan of Arc: even as she is burnt at the stake, she is gesturing with her hands, signalling through the flames.