Eileen Myles is one of those rare writers who is also seen as an icon, a legend, a rock star. But as downright cool as Eileen Myles is, there is nothing elevated about her, or her writing. The thing about Myles is that her poetry keeps us right here, in the cracks and fault lines, where poems unravel things as they are rather than as we think (or hope) they should be. Over the last three decades, with her gritty wit and brazen post-punk poetics, Myles has taken her readers and audiences on a savvy but visceral ride through her poetry, stories, novels, and performance texts. Oh, and she ran for president in 1992, which if she had won as a queer female write-in, would have been a whole other (equally savvy and visceral) ride.
Myles’s newest effort, Snowflake / different streets—her first book of poetry since Sorry, Tree in 2007—is actually two volumes of poetry housed in the do-si-do book form. Harkening to the square dancing move between partners who join from two sides of the dancing line, the do-si-do book artfully frames pairs of written texts that play with doubling, opposites, or as tandem teams of sorts.Snowflake, dedicated to poet Joan Larkin, is framed as “New Poems” and starts at one end of the book where different streets, dedicated to Myles’s girlfriend Leopoldine Core, offers up “Newer Poems” starting from the other end of the book. What Myles has a great gift for—writing poems that nimbly shift between radically different moments, realities and states of mind—she activates in a deft new way through the inventive form of do-si-do bookbinding. The poems push from either end of the book and meet up at the center spine in a poetic collision. Or, as I remember Myles saying at a Skylight Books reading in Los Angeles this March—the two volumes fuck each other. For all of Myles’s verve, boldness, eroticism and braininess, the do-si-do does her right: here, her poems get physical.
The fact that Myles pushes toward a new edge in her use of form is no surprise. As a poet, she’s tackled librettos, operas, a poet’s novel, and touring performances with the notorious lesbian-feminist spoken word collective Sister Spit—to name a few. What’s riveting about Myles’s act of boundary-bending is the physical manifestation of her poetics. In Snowflake / different streets the form of the book itself, more than a clever container that reflects her craft, actually enacts a kind of physics. The do-si-do form takes the engine of Myles’s poetic moves—propelling parallel yet diverging worlds toward, through and against each other. While Snowflake evokes a world of driving, transitions and journeying in her Southern California life, different streets lands Myles back in New York City and in the lap of desire and love found.
These bookended worlds are markedly different in tone and tenor, but threads, connectors, and gaps appear as the volumes press toward each other. An “impossible body” in Snowflake echoes to “impossible words” in different streets; moments of vulnerability appear in the forms of blind spots around love and aging in different streets and choking when finally on a winning streak in Snowflake. And as the book closes toward itself, meditations on sunlight, though referring to different narratives, create resonant patterns. In “The Importance of Being Iceland” Myles writes,
a dish of light forms / an enormous pancake / called day across / the sea / and some lights / o’er the front of my legs.
From the other half of the book in the poem “my box” Myles says,
and if you / don’t watch / me like a / hawk I won’t / be scared / I want to be / loved like / a sunbeam / that is / it comes / across the room / or the ocean.
Some images like these are exacting matches across the do-si-do divide while many other moments offer strikingly off-center parallels. In the poem “Like” from Snowflake, Myles writes,
Drinking that much / Diet Coke on the plane / to prove / I am a man / young guy down / there with / a beard looking / like a goat / and with the white construction / of Oakland
In “to the mountains” from different streets, Myles says,
When I look out / at you / how absurd to think / of Diet Coke / killing me / I’m flying through / the air / and there you are / white and dangerous / who’s kidding who
The image of drinking Diet Coke on a plane is so perfect in its parallel; then the Coke as meditation veers off in riveting ways where gender and implied cancer or plane crashes stir up humorous and strange dissonances that we get to chew on as we do-si-do between the volumes.
Whether you see the textual encounter as a punk smash-up, a big-bang constellation, or a lyrical huddle will depend on your sensibilities. But here’s the hitch: you the reader are asked to get physical with poetry. You may start reading from the opposite end of the book than you intended and land in a new narrative (Toto where are we?). Or, if you skip too far ahead you will find yourself unexpectedly with upside down text (imagine! the horrors!). Or, ahem, you might find yourself manhandling the book—flipping the double-timing duo back and forth as you find convergences between your parallel readings, activating your own poetic, and come on let’s just say—erotic—puzzling. The reader has no choice but to be that involved, so roll up those sleeves and prepare to get hands dirty, greasy, and wet.
Living in the LA area, where notably one-half of Myles’s new book journeys to and through, I was lucky to hear her talk about poetry and read from Snowflakes / different streets as it was hot off the presses. Eileen Myles has such a relaxed, hip style that, despite being a tour de force, she makes you feel like you can just come on in and make yourself at home. Sitting in the living room of her mind on several poetic occasions made the moves of her do-si-do debut more tactile, and electric. In a poetry workshop this spring, Myles spoke about writing in fragments and how the contemporary writer is in the uncanny position of filling holes. She claimed the poem is a hole you drop things into. This is the magic of Eileen Myles: for all of her intensity and keen focus she is also a great trickster. With quick-witted and light-footed speed, Myles drops detail after seemingly random detail into her poems, which accordingly twist and turn. Called one of the most “restless intellectuals in contemporary literature” by Dennis Cooper, Myles activates the poetic space where reason and mischief team up as do-si-do partners. I picture Eileen swinging around in her poem-holes watching us dart, bump, and slide as we connect her equally absurdist and heartfelt dots. Eileen, with her sharp and winking eye, playing her modernist master-mind-jokes. In the poem “Snowflake” (the one in Snowflake—yes there is a pair of snowflake poems, one in each volume) Myles opens by saying,
There’s no female / in my position / There’s no man / wow / there’s a raccoon / on the tail / of the plane / and there’s / no one / seeing that now / but me.
With her short lines, Myles skips us down the page from the image of no female, no man, a raccoon, a tail, a plane, and the aloneness of her seeing; the poem then hurtles forward into a deeper story of anger and love where a snowball is hurled and keys are taken, but a snowflake appears as a live moment, melting and short-lived, but nonetheless an occurrence felt and seen. For all of her play, Myles’s holes also drop deep.
Through Myles’s associative leaping, we slip from thought to feeling, from small seemingly mundane details to bigger moments with high stakes. What is so refreshing about Myles is the lack of preciousness—she doesn’t weight one image over another; she just hands the details over to the page and to her readers. On the flipside of the book is a parallel example in “Smile” from different streets. The poem opens with a knife and a (not so literal) peach, but then six lines in “That drip in the kitchen is like someone I know.” Myles cycles through mentions of Frankenstein, Mark Wahlberg, a dog, and Eileen, as a third person. The drip appears several times more: “I’m wearing that drip most of all” and “The drip has tones” before Myles talks about the idea of enormous hurt, “And I have carried mine / for so long I now know it’s nothing special.” She goes on to say, “It’s the agony / of being human” and ends with a sweeping gut punch: “Everyone’s a monster like me. / Now I know everyone.” What I love about Eileen Myles is how she carves out a new mode of vulnerability—one laced with edge, wit, and irony, where thought and feeling are not at odds, but instead stack up as an assemblage, a moving pattern we humans are situated inside of. The drip and Mark Wahlberg and Myles’s enormous hurt and the dog who dies six times are all on equal ground—they have all been dropped into Myles’s hole of a poem with a resounding kerplunk, an absurdist orbit of hahaha and the boldness of a poet not hiding from her raw part of the human equation.
In Snowflake / different streets Eileen Myles gives us what she’s got: hole after poetic hole. At once conceptual and visceral, Myles’s do-si-do delivers moving objects of thought + feeling as flight patterns and crash courses where she reminds us that thought—even our own belonging to our own ideas—is something beyond us, something we don’t own. As Myles says in the poem “The nervous entertainment”:
I don’t have / a working voice / I just have / a voice that / comes out the / way it / wants apart / from me.
This is the casual cool of Eileen Myles. She just lets the good poems roll. Because she trusts them to do their work. She is right there, letting them happen on their own terms. Savvy as Myles is, you get the feeling that the words just fall out of her head. As they fall out of her mouth when she reads. Indeed, some poems in this book are transcriptions, recorded on cell phones and digital recorders—and they tumble with the ease of daily syntax. If you are new to Myles’s work, it can take some getting used to—you might ricochet around for your first few reads. But it is exactly this loose, casual aesthetic that is Eileen Myles. Her syntax—the turn of phrase, the glide of daily speech paired with the bumps and tugs of what she drops in those poem-holes—matches the cool of Eileen herself. She seems to amble right into and through her poems.
At a hike and reading at Towsley Canyon in April hosted by LA’s Machine Project and the CalArts Poetry Collective, Myles read poems from Snowflake / different streets at a number of “stations” chosen along the way: a small tar pit, a fork in the path, and under a tree at the top of a pass overlooking the 5 and the Los Angeles mountains. There is Eileen in her jeans and Vans and plaid shirt, kneeling in the dusty path with her new book hanging loosely from her hand. As you sit and listen to Myles, you have to be that cool, that relaxed; you have to be that Eileen Myles. Fitting enough, as this is the poet who mischievously asks: Who is Eileen Myles? So go ahead, pick up this do-si-do of a book, flip it around and around and see what comes out of those bright and super-cool poetic holes.
K. Bradford is a poet, performer and cultural worker who hails from too many places to list. Currently, she's pursuing her MFA from CalArts and living down a dirt road at the fringes of one strange SoCal suburb.