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The Poems Are the Plan

Tue, 08/15/2023 - 12:56
Eileen Myles
Carolyn Tompkins

“a Working Life” 
Eileen Myles
Grove, $26

Please allow this rather pretentious quotation to serve as an introduction to a review of Eileen Myles's latest book, "a Working Life": Once upon a time Maurice Blanchot wrote of Kierkegaard, "By constantly talking about himself to some extent and reflecting on the events of his life, Kierkegaard manages as a rule not to say anything essential about them and founds his greatness on withholding the secret. He reveals and conceals himself." 

I discovered this quotation in "Tramp, or the Art of Living a Wild and Poetic Life" by Tomas Espedal (Seagull Books, 2010).

Myles has been a presence in Manhattan since sometime in the 1970s, arriving there from Boston, but actually in 1974, as quoted on the dust jacket, "to be a poet." The author of 24 books and counting, and not counting many articles or comments not published, Myles has been on the rewarding gravy train of literary accomplishments, leading to being elected a member of American Academy of Arts and Letters. Myles lives in New York City and Marfa, Texas. 

It is probably unfair to compare the ever-productive and ever-publishing Myles with, say, just for a moment, T.S. Eliot, whose collected poetry comes to 208 pages. The two most recent books of poetry by Myles clock in at 524 pages. It is impossible to say of course if anyone will ever take down from the shelf those 524 pages in 10 years from the moment of this writing, while the poetry of Eliot has survived his death 58 years ago.

I well remember many years ago asking Lawrence Durrell if he ever wondered whether his reputation via "The Alexandria Quartet" would survive his death. His simple reply: "What has posterity done for me?" I am sure Myles would echo Durrell's question and so write and publish another book.

But opening "a Working Life," one reads the first poem, "For My Friend":

Nothing / better / for people / than dogs / nothing better than ma / king / you scream / here. There were / two super / new cars / and then / some pink / chicken / filets / I guess / there were / berries / for sale / in Scandinavia / a man in / a plaid / shirt & / cookies / also they / are / working / in the ceme / tery / I can see / their blue / ladder / from here. / A man has written / a book / about many / deaths / or many / things to do after. / Read it / read it / they say / but what / comes / after / is a small / idea. Now / is large / rainy. / Amy I wish / you luck.

Of course there are now no rules in the writing of poetry, no accepted standards of execution or expectation, though one wonders why it is necessary to use two pages for what could be printed on half a page if it had been broken up in the manner indicated, as one thinks, as one should, of saving the environment. 

But in the acknowledgments, Myles writes, "I wanted to say 'a Working Life' means the poems are the plan, not that this book is about labor exactly." But Myles is also aware of the present moment: "I'm grateful to the pandemic for causing me to write poems like it was the '70s, and to my orange pitbull and friend Honey, who was with me all that time."

I went back to another Myles book, "Not Me," from Semiotext(e), 1991, where one reads the poem "Autumn in New York":

It's something like returning to / sanity but returning / to something I have / never known like / a passionate leaf / turning green. / August almost gone / "— That's my name, / don't wear it out." / As if I doffed / my hat & found / a head or / had an idea / that was / always mine / but just came / home, the balloons / are going by so / fast, I lean on / buttons accidentally / jam the works / when I simply / am this / green.        

Does one expect some sort of refinement with age, or is it better to accept consistently a constant voice, an endless recitation with its force of insistence? In "Evolution" (Grove, 2018) there is a poem "Aloha" that is two words in length: "great title!" But then there is the poem "Today": "I would love to love someone / forever & fuck them till they / died." 

On the facing page is "Memorial Day": "They came / back from / the army / they don't / share & / then they / get a / new phone."                

Way back in 1983, after Myles had come out with a third book, "A Fresh Young Voice From the Plains," I published three poems by Myles in Adrift: Writings Irish, Irish American and . . . One, "Try It Out," read: 

I want to the eternal apathy / all my bests are sentimental / whirling brandy nice hips / and who couldn't kiss the waitress' neck / and all of her shoulders / cabs, fast, a five-dollar bet / on something I have no comprehension / of at all. Oh, the old sentimentality, / lucidity, a cup, a 20 minutes / it's so arrogant to be this passive / the body's frogs are leaping! and the mind beams on. 

In the next issue of Adrift, David Rattray, the uncle of The Star's current editor, commemorated a liaison he had with Eileen Myles in two poems, "Red Wings" and, here in its entirety, "Pale Tomboy": 

Go ahead, pale tomboy / Hater of broad daylight / Hate me for the power I have / To knock you up, / The crimson sails / At the rape of Troy, / The blood from your womb / Under my nails. / But as dawn strikes its claws / Into the flank of night / I could kill / For another hour in your room. 

The poem "Red Wings" also concerned itself with Myles but is too graphic for a family newspaper. 

Thomas McGonigle's books include "Going to Patchogue," about his hometown.  

Eileen Myles, a visitor to East Hampton, has family here.

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