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Eileen Myles’ Inferno

Poetry Book of the Year 2011

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Inferno, A Poet’s Novel by Eileen Myles
OR Books (cover image used by permission)
Eileen MylesInferno (A Poet’s Novel) is poetry book of the year 2011! Of course, it is a novel—but Myles’ prose is so dense and fun and immediate that it always seems to be saying, “A poet wrote this and I can’t wait to become a poem myself.”

Inferno—a novel with the title of a classic poem. I remind you of this because when you Google “Dante Inferno” the first listing is the digital game: “...battle through the 9 circles of Hell facing fierce and hideous monsters, your own sins, and a dark past of unforgiveable war crimes...” Which sounds like Myles’ Inferno: a coming of age/becoming a poet/coming out/going sober story.

Living in Poetry World, Manhattan 1970s

The poetry world of downtown Manhattan 1970s, centered around the universe of mimeo mags at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, is evoked playfully, painfully, hilariously. It smells true. Some characters get the names of actual players (full disclosure: Bob Holman appears in the book); others get pseudonyms. But this is no Official History—boho antagonists to the St. Mark’s scene Don Lev, Enid Dame and Barbara Holland are given loving mentions, as is Marguerite Harris and her Dr. Generosity’s reading series. You get a side of Patti Smith different from Just Kids: “It was all an act, like being funny and cool could be poetry.... I think it’s the future of poetry, I told him. And it still is.”

Myles hears the gossip at St. Mark’s, why Paul Blackburn did not become the first director: “‘they’ gave the job to someone else. I never could find out who ‘they’ were.” She gives us cameos of Ted and Alice, Anne Waldman, Ron Padgett, a whole chapter on how Bill Knott was the inspiration of Punk (!). From Aram (Saroyan) to (Bill) Zavatsky. Santo from the 9th St Copy Shop. She quotes Joe Brainard on his deathbed: “One good thing about dying. You don’t have to go to any more poetry readings.” About her own tenure as Director at the Church, a friend says, “She always made big speeches about not wanting to get all involved with that-boys’-scene-at-the-church because of her loyalty to Adrienne and June.” She has nasty encounters with older women poets Marge Piercy and Rochelle Owens. John Ashbery waltzes through. The evolution of Orchidia Pizzeria to Two Boots Pizza is detailed.

Not Just a Memoir—It’s the Writing

But it is the wonderment of writing itself that is the center of Inferno, the Hell of mining for a poem as real as reality, whatever that is, and the Heaven of living/writing it. And lo, that’s what Myles does in this indescribably delicious understated work of genius.

As if the whole novel were a poem, Myles drops ideas from early in the work into a latter portion with no transition, nakedly, sans context, jarring the reader into making new connections within her always terrific stories, creating a fugal counterpoint, juggling a false start at an escort service with learning the ropes in a massage parlor with getting into Einstein on the Beach at Lincoln Center without a ticket.

To get prose up to the speed of poetry, she enjambs sans line breaks. Could one actually have a job, being a poet? “I had that thought just briefly one tiny light and then it was gone.” Myles gets into the head of the poet and describes the act of writing a poem better than it has ever been done, better than I ever thought possible: “And I sat there in the afternoon, drinking bourbon, getting good and smashed, being completely open to the world in that temporary way like I was when I came to town and I was discovering myself to be a poet. I had my notebook open to all the light coming in. I’d have a thought and write it down.”

“We who write poetry and think about it all the time—who walk the streets that other humans walk, past pizza stands and trees, are citizens meanwhile of a secret country with its own currency that gets exchanged anecdotally, even whispered in the loud thrumming silence of the day, in the galleries the Marxist auditoriums jammed bookstores (being jammed with thin and irregularly shaped journals and books and people generally twenty or thirty), the stinking bars where poets meet and read in.” What Bolano writes about, Myles lives. “The poet’s life is just so much crenellated waste, nights and days whipping swiftly or laboriously past the cinematic window.” “In the sexual encounter of our lives, when your time is uncommodified, amateur, kid, punk, unobserved, over, before, days marked useless, private, unshipped, so to speak life stays in the swarm of free-range sex shifting into art, back to sex, art again.”

On writing “The Irony of the Leash”: “It had a hook and it jangled throughout. I had to go out and get it, somehow.... I always need something to do.... If you don’t hear things again and again, I don’t see how the poem can really be a place.... Each instance added landscape. You can literally make conviction, just with words. I got it one night.”

Quotable Myles

Why did she leave Boston? “’Cause the poem was real and the job was not.” Try Frank O’Hara: “The poems were queenie—slippery and fast like the city.... You could hear it right on the page.” James Schuyler: “The poem was hanging out and sneering. It was lounging, then turning fast.” She meets Alice, a first crush: “It was like she was a flaming tree in the middle of the house.”

Remembering the days when all poets had black spring binders, to keep poems in: “It felt like a book. It was all about the book then. And a bag to put it in. The search for the bag produced a poem or two because of course it was a mythic search. The bag I wanted was beyond reason—something to hold my poems, twice as big as the universe and it must be androgynous. Cause, you know. And I found it: tough and white and resembling something I’d wanted for a long, long time.”

Lesbian: “I was always inspecting lesbians because I was pretty sure I was going to be one. But I wanted to be a poet first.” “I became a lesbian in New York. It was my first or second career.” “I kept hinting that I was a lesbian in my poems. That was my job, being catholic. Filling my poems with a secret so thick you could bounce on it.”

She goes for a walk and looks up in the sky and sees an old kitchen fan there, removing odors, all grimy. Her insides whirring, she tried to calm by naming everything—trees, road, frightening fan—which “yielded a tiny poem I could never get right—the tenses always at odds, but it really happened. I saw my own death in the sky.” “Like a spilt glass of milk, my life. A white pool shimmering on the floor.” “Nope, I am destroyed. A shattered boat of a person. A broken window here, a lousy bell there, an old crappy dyke with half a brain leaking a book. A drippy excrescence. A Schmear.”

Sometimes the references get so ambiguous (no one is better at the unparticularized pronoun than Myles), that you can’t tell if she’s writing about sex or poetry. “In bed I would lie on my back in the dark and keep nudging them. It seemed like it was about being tight. Making the word fit so good that before you knew what they meant, the opposite thing happened.” “ I remember sitting in the bar at the Carlyle on September 11th (or riding up Madison Avenue to meet you and your sister) when there was only one way to be. The whole city, we were all outside.”

Who else could compare her downtown tenement flat with Walden Pond? “When Thoreau made lists on Walden Pond measuring and figuring out he was just like me broke in my apartment in New York. No one could find me now. No one knew what I was. I was addition and subtractions: sunlight, bumpy, white walls, millions of windows, Café Bustelo, my feet, the yellow phone, the foam mattress on the floor, the utility table on rolling wheels, the pink metal edged restaurant table, the mug that I liked, the coffee sock.”

Fashion: “Figuring out what to wear so it wouldn’t look like I thought about clothes.”

This is the best way to write about this YOU GOTTA READ THIS BOOK! Give some hit-and-run examples of the genius. You get a choice of two covers: one an elegant flash-flame op art motif red/yellow/black on white, the other a black and white portrait of a woman’s face with a cigarette burn through the lips. Choose wisely, but you can’t lose.) So stop reading right here and go to OR Books to buy a copy of Inferno, paper-on-demand or ebook. Or go on for more samplings—there are no plot spoilers in a poem. Rereading is the experience.

Hell, Purgatory and Heaven

Like The Divine Comedy, Myles’ Inferno is divided into three parts. Sandwiched between Hell (“My English professor’s ass was so beautiful”), in which our heroine leaves her working class family in Boston to be a poet in New York, negotiating a couple of sex-sleaze exploits in the doing, and Heaven, in which she kind of makes it in the downtown poetry scene, comes out as a lesbian with the angelic Rose and unites the poem/life divide, the Purgatorio section is called “Drops,” and is written in the form of a draft of a grant application, complete with typewriter font, crossed out words, and a running commentary. Perfect. If Dante had a plot device like the draft of a grant application I know he would have used it. As a little girl Myles invented an alphabet of symbols—sun, wave, stick—and used them in chalked cryptomessages on the sidewalk. Ted Berrigan proclaimed her “the last of The New York School.” She may be more Beatrice than Dante.

In “Drops,” she tries to keep the honesty of the poem alive inside the snow job that is a grant application: “It seems clear to me (certainly from here) that something always knew what I was doing. I’m inviting you to support that something.” “Ten years later when I had gotten sober I actually got a grant from the NEA to do another play called Modern Art.” “A patron actually a friend actually a friend of Rene’s (Ricard’s)” provides her a retreat at her country house in rural Pennsylvania. he writes “An American Poem," where she proclaims herself a Kennedy, that we are all Kennedys. She runs for the Presidency. She tours Europe with Kathy Acker, Richard Hell, Lynne Tillman. The conclusion to “Drops” (named after valueless orchard apples on the ground) is a satori atop a live volcano late at night, alone and lost. “Everything was good after that, all three planes and especially giving this account to you.”

The writing of love and sex: “It was like we were a couple of mimes. It was spring and the early nights were a cool blue. We were sailing. I had just broken up with somebody and I had a tremendous feeling about sex. It was like a spin painting. I noticed at the height of excitement a nipple might become a mouth and you’d forget who was doing what to who and now all that feeling was coming into language. Surrealism had been corny but now it was the way to go. Sex was a disordered prayer.”

Description of her dog Rosie shitting: “Under a streetlamp in Cape Cod, on a small ledge of grass. On the beach in the day and I hate her shitting in the dark as much as I used to love smoking. Loved seeing it weave, it’s not the shit, it’s the air. It’s the colon. It’s the opening. We’re basking in language itself. The silence of my friend. My love. The one beyond words in her silence. She is eternally before. When she speaks it is shit, a gift, something to do. In our moment, of waiting, pointing. Silent gear, what we went out for—that is pointing. Shit is the award. The award is shit.”

Sappho: “A little goat boy saw all this broken pot and soft stuff... like paper... he carried it home and they threw it in the fireplace... he heard this British guy on the other side of the island was buying stuff.... This is the story of Sappho. Each piece we’ve got and most of it was destroyed is full of holes. Sappho didn’t write tiny poems with giant leaps. They were torn. Everybody, mostly men, a Swinburne, for example, had been filling her holes ever since.”

“I start with a problem and I keep returning to the feel of it, not the idea. I don’t replace it. It seems if you stay in an actual groove... then the poem never really gets lost or boring.” “The problem with imitating a poet is you don’t really know what they mean. Hopefully. But then you start to implicate their style in your confusion and next thing you know, you’re parodying.” “The absolute worst thing in the world—for like the average poetry reviewer—is nonsense. Them making nervous jokes about what they deliberately don’t understand.” ”Or the angry [critics] holding their heads oh no like a virus is taking over. My mind! Like it’s such a big deal. Minds are always being taken over. Succumb, don’t resist.... It’s why I read.”

“Poetry (and this is why I love it and always will until I die) always winds up being the conga line between random chaos and it.... Poetry is not hard. In fact, that’s the problem. It’s like going to the beach. You don’t go: a-hem, cough-cough, in other words... you just lie down. People read in bed for a reason. Nobody needs to be so damn awake. Sleep and Poetry. It’s what Keats meant.”

At one point, Myles spends a couple of pages on the novel Seabiscuit—how popular it is, how American it is, how the “reading experience” is almost like porn. It’s an extraordinary meditation—when she goes shopping she thinks, “book, racehorse, and family-size package of ground beef.” She’s like Allen Ginsberg in the supermarket in California. She’s everywhere, Seabiscuit is everywhere, but when you get right down to it, and with Eileen you always get right down to it, “If a fucking horse can tell his story why can’t I.” No question mark because no question: because she’s a poet/lesbian/outsider. “My girlfriend and I were standing in our kitchen—while I pondered the hopelessness of writing a book about a poet. Have you ever considered the demographic you are writing for. Yes I have as a matter of fact. While I lowered her into a shallow grave.... If a fucking horse can tell his story, why can’t I.”

Suddenly, in “Heaven,” after Rose has picked her up and it looks like sex is about to happen, we have this perfect poem embodying and opposing all the rules and intuitions, everything Eileen’s given us. It’s called “Friday” and it’s about perfection being writing a poem based solely on watching fish swim in a fish tank, describing what they do as being the most important thing in the world. And of course it’s written in prose that looks like poetry, lines being one or two sentences. “C’mon everyone lotsa traffic, lotsa opportunities. I patrol the boundaries. Upsa daisy, down down down. Yoo hoo. Going crazy. Yaaaah. // The temptation to be divine, existing in all of us. Everyone turn. Only the white fish.” The last line: “Yup, this will definitely go in.” And here it is, on pages 223-225.

She’s unstoppable because she’s a poet, unbridled because she’s Eileen. An act of audacity and clarity, a poem straining to be a life, Myles’ Inferno is a book for the ages, a crystallization distillation of what poetry is and art is, what life and love and sex have to do with it. Because of this, no one will read it. But you will....

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