Eileen Myles has had quite a year – publication these few months back of, not one but, two new books – I Must Be Living Twice – New and Selected Poems 1975-2014 and the re-publication of her 1994 novel (now so-called, as against “short stories”), Chelsea Girls (both from Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins). The meme was (perhaps) set with this – Rachel Monroe‘s September 21 article in New York magazine – “After 19 Books and A Presidential Bid Eileen Myles Gets Her Due” – “Four decades into a writing career spent decidedly and defiantly in the underground scene”, Monroe writes, “Myles is having an unexpected bout of mainstream success”. “Lately…people have started using the word “legend” when talking about her life and work. Isn’t it weird for her to find herself installed in this 21st-century version of a canon after spending her whole life outside it?” – Eileen’s response is then quoted – “I always aimed at being a legend”, she tell me, grinning. “In the (19)70’s in New York, Allen (Ginsberg) was treated like a legend. But he was still engaged – and it was always a thrill when he would show up at your reading, like a kind of validation. So it’s, like, there are people whose work you respect, and you want to succeed them.”
I Must Be Living Twice, Monroe notes, is “a 368-page bid for that legendary status”.
Michelle Dean in The Guardian, a week or so later, takes up the theme – Eileen’s “ascension into the mainstream” – “The New York poet has been writing since the mid-70’s but with new fans – like Lena Dunham [sic] – she’s become one of 2015’s most celebrated literary stars” – Vice, in its interview with her ups the ante (Cool For You was one of Myles’ earlier titles) – “Eileen Myles Has Always Been Cooler Than You”)
And here’s another recent interview (with Jake Blumgart) for The New Republic.
– & with Adam Fitzgerald for Interview – (opening with the observation, “Eileen Myles isn’t interested in being your fucking legend..”)
Eileen’s ubiquity is not simply confined to the printed page. Paul Weitz‘s recent (2015) movie, Grandma (starring Lily Tomlin as an irascible lesbian poet in her mid-60’s) opens with a quotation from her writing (“Time passes. That’s for sure”). And the current series of the Emmy-award-winning tv show, Transparent, features a character (played by Cherry Jones) loosely based on her (two poems used for the show were actually written by Myles and she also has a cameo).
The “rock star poet” (but is that a flattering or limiting soubriquet, inviting irrelevant comparisons with poets like Patti Smith, Bob Dylan?). Whatever it means, she’s been that for some time now. this illuminating radio interview from almost five years back
and in response to a more focused questioning – on poetry and politics:
“I think I learned from observing when I was young, the impact of my friend Allen Ginsberg that poetry both propelled a poet to a unique kind of prominence by virally changing the culture around him/her by the skill of their assertion of -not even necessarily “the political” but – by describing in their work (and their life) what was urgent to him or her and through that finding out pretty quickly how supremely political that action was and is.
In Chelsea Girls, the narrator (who shares a name with the author) ponders how to inscribe her book:
“Allen Ginsberg asked me to sign his book.I must have stood there for five minutes drawing a complete blank – “Hi Allen, from one howl to another”. “Dear Allen, I’m glad you think I’m a poet. Love Eileen”. “I’m the only woman you like, right Allen?
Bob Rosenthal, Allen’s long-time secretary verifies Allen’s respect for her – “(H)e liked Eileen’s poetry, actually, I think because she was gritty and earthy and direct”
“Yeah, and I met Allen when I was 25. I went to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and at that time it was sort of.. there was a little gay connection between Burroughs and Ginsberg and whoever else liked the young Puerto Rican boys who hung out at the Nuyorican Cafe. So they were, right… We…We all assumed that they were there to hear us, you know, but, in fact, it was the boys! But, nonetheless, Allen heard me read a poem and he just came running up to me and was like, “Who are you?” and stuff, and connected. And in a weird way, Allen, of course, he didn’t know what to do with me. It was clear that this girl was sort of boyish maybe, and I think he figured out that I was queer but that didn’t stop him from trying to fix me up with his boyfriend, you know, because Allen was just a tribal sort, you know, and sort of like “Here’s a girl. I don’t know what to do with her, so I’ll fix her up with Peter (Orlovsky)” And he even walked up to me at a reading at St Mark’s Church a week or two later and I was standing there with a circle of poets (but we were all young, you know, people in their twenties, me and the guys, basically) and Allen walked up very politely and said, “Peter Orlovsky would like to take you on a date. May he call you?” – It was like, it was so Old World, it was like he was inviting me out on a date, it was like an arranged date with me and his boyfriend. And I actually would have gone, but I didn’t know, I just didn’t know, what to do with a date with…Peter..with Allen’s boyfriend, except to go on it. And then, you know, but, in fact, it never happened. But Allen was very quick, you know, to.. He liked me and was very open and was trying to do what he knew to do with me – although, he did, he hooked me up with (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti too and got me published in City Lights, which I just thought was the beginning of everything, you know. And it kind of was – it kind of was and kind of wasn’t”.
Here’s Eileen on Allen.
( her contribution to Jason Shinder‘s 2006 anthology, The Poem That Changed America – “Howl” Fifty Years Later)
Somebody knows how many “who”‘s there are in “Howl” (and someone even knows who all those whos are). I considered calling Bob Rosenthal, Allen’s longtime secretary, or Bill Morgan, the archivist-painter who sold Allen’s papers to Stanford, to find out who was that guy “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge” – and lived! [Editorial note – It was allegedly Tuli Kupferberg, but he jumped from the Manhattan not the Brooklyn, Bridge, and it was not an act he wished to be remembered for, or regarded as an act of courage or even as something to be laughed at] – I remember the story and people laughing that there acually was such a guy, like he was even pointed out one night in the bar – That’s him. But my point actually just is that the poem functions so often literally like a trailer. The announcer voice of the poem keeps folding all those lives in as preview of the spectacle the poem will produce, meanwhile it’s producing it now, and so much of the excitement of “Howl” is its capacity to produce those to effects at once. You’re rubbing your hands as you read – ooh, this is going to be really good – but the experience is already happening.
And were all those whos poets, or poetlike people. It seems to me that Allen actually pluralized the identity of each poet by means of these wavelike lines, announcing the poet’s arrival again and again. He (or she) wasn’t exactly a poet, didn’t need to be. The poet came in this cascade of people. Allen made the poet’s identity something vague and postmodern. He was one of them, not which one. They were more like the barnacles on the poet’s boat as he surged forward carrying them, because they “who drove cross country seventy-two hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity…”
Well, it’s a little Pete Seeger, isn’t it, the singer in a broad room inviting us to join in ’cause whose vision is this after all?. Or maybe Mitch Miller: “America, sing along!” Authorship (or poetness) seems really secondary in the poem-spectacle that everyone seems to be writing here (in “Howl”) . It’s Allen’s identification, bringing all those lives in close, that works, and it also occurs to me (and Allen I think said this often) that it works a little bit like it did for Christopher Smart, Ginsberg’s other great literary predecessor besides (William) Blake (and William Carlos Williams). And I’m thinking of the Smart of “Rejoice in the Lamb”, (part of) which begins, “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry..“. “Rejoice in the Lamb” is a long (about eight hundred lines) and obsessive poem, which goes on, in a stiff but attentive evocation of catness: “For he rolls upon prank to work it in./For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself/For this he performs in ten degrees./For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean/For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there./For thirdly he works it upon strech with the forepaws extended./Four forth he sharpens his nails by wood/For fifthly he washes himself.” The poem ends like this – “For by stroking of him I have found out electricity./For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire/For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast./For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements//For, tho’ he cannot fly, he’s an excellent clamberer/For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped /For he can tread to all the measures upon the music/For he can swim for/For he can creep”. Christopher Smart was living in a madhouse in restraints when he wrote this poem, never published in his lifetime. I mention it because it’s entirely structured in repetitions, a poem in chant form, much like “Howl” and thr cumulative effect of the slightly-recoiled paw of the first line is the cat practically moves. A poem that uses repetitons throughout, a standard of religious verse (which both Smart’s and Ginsberg’s poems are), ultimately has the effect of being a flipbook, a kimd of low-tech predecessor of film (as Ginsberg knew it and increasingly not as we know it now – since film’s gone digital), and an equally good producer of altered states, and bliss.Like when you jumped up and down in childhood saying “taxicabs, toxicabs. taxicabs”, the words started to sound strange, but you also got “high”.
I turn to Kenneth Anger too in search of this mode, a euphoric one, considering Scorpio Rising (1964) to be another epoch-changing work of art. Anger’s method was refered to in one description as “semiotic layering” which works just as well for “Howl”. Kenneth Anger was relentlessly cultish, andthough his accomplishment and influence weren’t any smaller than Allen’s, maybe the scope of who he was aiming the work for, audience-wise, was more precise. But his film employed the same biker boy references, and fanatical love for a number of American subcultures of the ‘Fifties, was homoerotic, and, in the context of the film, the effect of its culture was totalizing in the extreme. The building repetition of belt buckles, motors, flashing signs, and flags finally produced a world that triumphed by its end – the case was made. Allen’s ambitions were messier and planted more wildly.”Howl”, like a Brian de Palma film, ends again and again. And even in the mostly nonspecific and linear-feeling Moloch section – “Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch!” – And, later – “Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch!” – then, finally “Light streaming out of the sky” – Where did that last one come from? Allen was such a diligent student of ecstasy and vision that he knew that as the swastikas and belt buckles flicker, something happens, the road opens, and a space opens up as well inside the poem, the cat creeps, or perhaps you just stayed up all night, praying to Moloch, and dawn is its mystical reply.
“Howl” is a poem full of miracles and events, not the least of which is its own machinery. Because you are in it, witness, and you watch the poem grow. The only promise in this poem is more, and it makes good, not in some other world but in this one that you read in.
Yet aren’t these all photographs – or stills?
with mother finally ******…”What do those asterisks mean? Fucked? Fried? What? Such a place to begin a stanza, which then turns into a passage of endings – “and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window, and the last door closed at 4 A.M, and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet”.
All those “last’s” feel like the sort of things you’d see in, say, the Holocaust Museum or a museum of the American Indian, or even in an anonymous family album that turns up in a thrift (store). Tragic or no, after each of these “last’s” I hear a click of the shutter – it needs to preserve. (William Carlos) Williams, in his Introduction to the City Lights version of “Howl” makes passing reference to the resemblance between the poem’s hell and that of Jews in the last war.
I never thought about “Howl” as a Holocaust poem, though I’ve been aware rereading it that it has Holocaust phrasing, the trauma of the Holocaust is all over it. So why not allow the overt thought to surface, that maybe this poem forced America to experience, in an indirect fashion, something it otherwise felt compelled to refuse? The sheer madness, the total horror of the Holocaust. Pictures of emaciated corpses, the same pictures again and again is one version, but what is the invisible horror of “Howl” that all the “angelheaded hipsters” are running from? Is it the world we now know? Allen drops the loving leash of friendship around his own neck when he repeatedly promises his institutional war buddy, “(Solomon, I’m with you) in Rockland/where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep”
Carl Solomon is a Jew and he sounds more and more like Allen’s mother (“you imitate the shade of my mother”), whom Allen may have needed to affirm his attachment to, and her own stay in a mental hospital. Through Solomon, he did.I haven’t touched the especially poignant and relentless flavor of Allen Ginsberg’s misogyny . There are so many instances of it here – “the one-eyed shrew of the hetrosexual dollar, the one-eyed shrew that winks out of the womb” – actually all three fates are pretty bad. And elsewhere in the poem, women provide opportunity for male bravado – “you’ve murdered your twelve secretaries” – or holy self-abasement – “you drink the tea of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica“. Yuck, right? And he must have been singing the hipster virility of Neal Cassady when he referred to someone “who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset“. I guess male = sugar. No sweet pussy on its own? Not in this man’s howl. In the Beat canon in general ( see Kerouac) thanks to birth, we’re blamed for life. It’s a belief that might be as old as Buddhism, or Judaism. At best, we (females) are occasions of reflected light, practically the walls of the womb itself, the home and the office. You light up my life, we sing.
All of this somehow brings me to the boxcars line again. If women at best reflect male light, what is the entire concept of America doing in “Howl”? Isn’t it some big moon too? An imaginary space? In a poem or country where female energy is repressed or erased, doesn’t it return as structure itself? The poem is a woman we’re gathering in? What is this dream? – “‘who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night” – I keep wondering about that “grandfather night”. The “lonesome farms”, of course, are a case of attributing how you feel sitting in the car to the farms and they’re out there. But “grandfather night” seems very old. Older than America. I wondered if this poem’s train isn’t speeding through a night in which people are being yanked out of their beds never to be seen again. Are on the train being carried to an unspecified destination. America? A country of incarcerated black men and smiling blond women. Is the pederast the new Jew? Ask Nancy Grace. For Ginsberg, pederasty was just another of his happy crimes. Yet look at the Michael Jackson trial. Right now  it’s the only one, pinned mostly on homosexuals, for Christ’s sake, though statistically most pederasts are heterosexual dads. The train is traveling through time, the effluvia of “Howl”, taking pictures as it goes. It’s a gift to look at this American poem at this moment in time, to wonder where it was really coming from and where it went.”
More Eileen on Allen – here
here’s Eileen, in a promo, singing the praises of the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa
“one of the essential voices in American poetry” – I Must Be Living Twice, reviewed by Jeff Gordinier this past Sunday in the New York Times