July 12, 2019KR Reviews

“This is what we’re doing”: On Eileen Myles’s Evolution

New York, NY: Grove Press, 2018. 240 pages. $25.00.

“Growing up, adults always said: if I give it to you I will have to give it to everyone. Well give it to me I say. I am everyone. That’s exactly who I am.”
     —Eileen Myles, Inferno: A Poet’s Novel

Eileen Myles begins Evolution, their first collection of new poetry in seven years, with a long section of prose, untitled and undescribed except for a short footnote, which tells readers that they are “reading a talk [Myles] gave at a conference in June 2017, The Feminine Mystic, co-sponsored by Shaker Museum.” The speech inaugurates an act of radical re-individuation:

I am Ann Lee. I thought that would be a good place to start. I am Eileen Myles. I am 67 years old. My mother died on April 3rd. She was 96.

Without negating their first identity, Myles suspends, or overlays, the possibility of both—a flickering and lyric self-obsessing. In the next line, the “I”-multiplicity broadens to encompass the reader, who transforms from lapsing or fickle overhearer to intended addressee: “I am writing to you from Cape Cod. It was a horrible week.”

As it shifts between months and topics—politics and the mundane, “a Diet Coke & / a newspaper” and the “Russian stuff”—Evolution lopes forward in the strutting style of the witnessing and sincere, but gorgeously nonaustere, poet in New York, “the only place / that corresponds to my / need / to be every place / at once.” Its thingedness—full of tangible objects—and thingliness—full of such real and material language, like the dreamscape that Myles knows “is not / made of language but energy / that will stop when I die”—are projected into the phantasmal afterlife and toward their mother, whom they “do not want” to “have died in vain”:

I was wandering through the jungle
anywhere on earth but I was a woman
in bed in New York and how many
people have died in wild places
dreaming you were still in bed
would you know.

In poetry, Myles reminds us, we can speak to the dead; throughout, their book is gracious to the listening “you,” even when it pretends, lightly, to preclude it. Together, these poems are a slow-trickling elegy to Myles’s mother that, as they unravel in long, braided strophes, develop into an extended meditation on loss and desire. The gift of Evolution is its bold depiction of the textually-rendered “I”-Eileen beyond that pseudo-nonchalance that plays and re-plays with notions of “humility,” the “task” of which, “at the moment,” Myles admits that they are “not particularly / into”—but, at the same time, “not against.” Their book is a well-washed object; in their idiosyncratic and heavily enjambed verse-style, remembrance ripples in the wide, flat lacunae—the “left” space. The poetry initiates a conversation with the reader: “I began to miss my mom,” continues Myles in their opening prose-piece. “Around weather.” What kind? And so? “It like rained all day long and all night long.” When it isn’t talking about her, it’s talking about her. In some poems, this kind of wavering is enacted typographically, in varying lines and voices, as one auto-textual entity blends into the next:

If I could
about if
you know
me what
could I do.

Compositionally, the text denatures: that synthetic self-awareness, on the part of the poet-“I”—the why am I here—is deadly. The same thing happens, sonically, in “Harp”:

I set up
a Christmas
tree & covered
it in pink
light. &

went out &
bought a teevee
set that
did every
thing. which

is now
a symbol
of decay
& yet I
want to

That aural coalescence—“day,” “decay”—trips the poem into action, as though Myles strung it with lights that, at the end of the poem, are all turned on at once: the poem performs a phonemic self-“decay[ing],” and the “day” is the unusable—but desired—waste that’s left behind, an icon of the bright pink, synthetic, and fluorescent light of the “teevee,” the “Christmas / tree.”

In 1999, Sal Randolph curated an exhibition, the “Free Show,” that involved collecting artifacts from contributors, arranging them, and opening the gallery to spectators, who were encouraged to take the objects—not waste at all, if waste is something at the end of its material life, no longer able to be used or reused. Writing on the show in a 2014 essay, Myles argues that “potentially a lot of art is waste, wasted labor, wasted intellection.” An artist is a person admired for their capacity to create “conspicuous graceful waste,” they posit. It’s not waste if it’s wanted; it has lives left, passing between people who take it because, for one reason or another, they desire it. Waste is unserviceable; it is a pile or mess of constituent parts, damaged beyond repair. Wanted things, even if they serve no function except to be brought home and thrown in a drawer, are imbued with emotional currency and therefore remain “of use.” To be “unsaleable,” though, is to have emotional currency without commodity; Myles maintains that an artist is a person capable of commodifying their “vision.”

What serviceable things—services—are left over in the long process of making?  When Myles turns back, in Evolution, to the story of Ann Lee, their mode of discourse shifts, and the two types of person—the made, the re-made—come together to deliver a devastating statement of ars poetica:

Ann Lee could have kept trying and one of those pregnancies might have made a baby and one of them would kill her. Not now. She said lifting a hand. I won’t survive but my church will. My work.

My work. Stratified, dialogically, Myles’ turn toward the “I”-position of the rationalizing Ann Lee-figure captures their object: how to survive since, or after.

You didn’t
know I
had so
much inside
me buckets
of malice
of peace
I don’t want
to go
all library
on you
now like
my mother
the mother of

What does love do? Myles asks, whose lineated poems crystallize a different kind of logic: a sweeping non sequitur that imagines everything into being and then, in exchange, is “move[d]” by those things (“The rubied surface of / Deteriorating cities moves me”). The difficulty has, in part, to do with inplasticity, a queered aversion to change: unmarked by punctuation, Myles’s verse often feels typographically paratactic, with its severing of the line—and, even, the word—and lack of horizontal dips and trails across the page. But this spatial slightness precipitates a lyricized and multivocalic “I”-Myles that, clinging to the left margin, is riveting; that restraint and constant, unceasing compulsion to fracture is the nesting place of the unassuming, difficult mourning with which the book walks, daily, as the months change and the mornings grow quieter and, still, like those long, running sentences, nothing changes, and no one returns from the phantasmagoric dream of the “still in bed,” asleep—a kind of “evolution” enacted, each morning, by the living.

Talin Tahajian grew up near Boston. Her poetry has appeared in Iowa Review Online, Indiana Review, Best New Poets, Black Warrior Review, Copper Nickel, and the Rumpus. She edits poetry for Big Lucks and the Adroit Journal, and is an MFA candidate at the University of Michigan.