On living twice

Poet Eileen Myles at the Penn Book Center

5 minute read
Eileen Myles: A countercultural legend (Photo by Libby Lewis)
Eileen Myles: A countercultural legend (Photo by Libby Lewis)

I’ve arrived early to the Penn Book Center to make sure I get a good seat for a reading by the poet Eileen Myles. Only the older crowd has already arrived, and I’m one of the few people under 40. There’s a small food spread at the back: cheese, crackers, wine (bottled and boxed). One can overhear conversations about who’s been reading what and who has a new book out. The audience seems to consist mostly of writers and academics — not surprising for a poetry reading.

Two o’ clock comes and goes as the younger crowd trickles in, fashionably late — grad student types, twenty- and thirtysomethings. The small seating area quickly fills, so many people head up to the second level to stand or take a seat on the floor. This includes Myles herself, who kneels on the floor while Frank Sherlock, the poet laureate of Philadelphia, gives an introduction. He describes Myles as “part Huck Finn, part Gertrude Stein,” a fitting description of a poet whose voice encompasses the realms of the vernacular, the experimental, and the deeply lyrical, all while maintaining a particular, and distinctly American, sense of place.

Casual, conversational

The reading commences, and I’m struck by how, despite Myles’s iconic status in the literary community — she has also written novels, nonfiction, and short stories — her comportment, like her poetry, is conversational, informal, almost intimate, as if we were close friends seated around a coffee table in some East Village studio instead of in a bookstore filled mostly with strangers. Her accent is defiantly Bostonian, with ‘r’s regularly dropping away to leave us words like “stahted” and “ahmageddon.”

Her reading style is expressive but not theatrical, practiced but not calculated, and not unlike her regular speech — which we get plenty of. “I’m chatting my ass off,” Myles says sardonically at one point. “It’s gonna be one of those readings.” It isn’t always clear when the chatting ends and the poems begin, but it doesn’t matter — Myles’s frequent asides provide notes on the bygone eras, people, and places that appear in her poems, poems which, in Myles’s own words, “are populated with people who kill themselves” or, like a great many of Myles’s Manhattanite peers, died of AIDS. Her regular interruptions and commentary don’t detract from the reading but simply bolster the elegiac quality that already imbues her work.

An era of high misery

Myles read exclusively from I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014 (for fans of her recently reissued short story collection Chelsea Girls, Myles jokingly offered to whisper a paragraph or two in private) and for the most part focused on her earlier work, poems from an era of “high misery.” In “The Sadness of Leaving,” we find Myles paralyzed by loss and finding solace in memories of old films, old feelings. “I won’t / kill myself today. It’s / too beautiful,” she writes, leaving us to wonder what “it” might be and what about its beauty makes her want to keep living.

This specter of loss raises its head again and again, whether in the form of death, the end of a relationship, or something more mundane. Myles kicks off “Peanut Butter” with the claim that:

If you get right

down to it the new

unprocessed peanut

butter is no damn

good & you should

buy it in a jar as

always in the

largest supermarket

you know. And

I am an enemy

of change, as

you know.

Myles is tongue-in-cheek here: She’s openly gay and a countercultural legend of sorts; she even ran for president in 1992 as an “openly female” candidate. But in “Peanut Butter,” this lightheartedness gives way to more serious ruminations as Myles confronts the specter of her own death and what will remain after she’s gone:

I would like

to be used for

years after

my death. Not

only my body

will be compost

but the thoughts

I left during

my life.

Considering legacy

In his introduction, Sherlock brought up the idea of Myles’s legacy, what she has created and what she will leave behind. This notion of the poet’s legacy, of what is (or isn’t) left behind appears repeatedly during Myles’s reading. In “Romantic Pain,” Myles is standing on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry smoking a cigarette, looking out over the water: “I feel / like Hart Crane,” she writes. In channeling Crane — whose groundbreaking poetry, scant production, and premature suicide cemented him as both a member of the American canon and as a figure of profound tragedy and Romantic (and perhaps romantic) aspiration — Myles both places herself in the lineage of iconic American poets and questions the desire to be part of that lineage. Myles, unlike Crane, did not drown herself in the Gulf of Mexico at 32, nor, in “Romantic Pain,” does she truly want to. But the specter of death and the desire for a legacy, which haunted her forebears and will haunt her successors, remains present.

But after an hour filled with deaths, losses, and erasures, Myles changed course, introducing notes of optimism and excitement previously absent. She closed the reading with an essay on poetic practice, touching on, among other things, the young(ish) writers whom she sees as mapping out a new vision for poetry in the 21st century, writers like Maggie Nelson, Adam Fitzgerald, and Dana Ward. She then took questions from the audience, and her answers, whether pertaining to future projects (yes, Chelsea Girls will likely be out as an audiobook before long), breaking the confines of genre, or weaving a multitude of poetic voices together into something resembling unity, were careful and unaffected, evincing an off-the-cuff wisdom that confirmed what the whole previous hour had already established: Myles’s literary legacy is well-deserved, and even if she isn’t Hart Crane, she's not wrong to feel like him.

What, When, Where

I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014 and Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles (Ecco/HarperCollins). Reading on October 3, 2015 at the Penn Book Center, 130 South 34th Street, Philadelphia.

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