It’s the year 2018. In a press conference, NASA scientists have just announced a shocking new discovery. As part of their research into cryogenic sleep for deep-space flights, they have finally uncovered the secret of immortality. At that announcement, the press corps immediately respond with murmuring and more exciteable, goose-like noises, but as the sussuration begins to build into a straight-on frenzy, the lead scientist raises her hands. Wait a minute, she says to the assembled media. Look, she says. There’s a catch.
You’ve never heard a room deflate so fast. Of course there’s a goddamned catch! There’s always a goddamned catch! Jesus Christ, lady, tell us what the goddamned catch is.
So she launches into a highly technical explanation of the process of bestowing immortality on a person. It’s very complex and it involves a special protein bath, the application of a complex network of electrodes, and the infusion of a very special gas — so rare it has never before been placed on the Periodic Table — that only exists in infinitismal quantity.
One guy, the man from Fox News, he bellows from the back of the room, Jesus, lady, just tell us what you’re trying to say! She glares at him, but then she decides to lay it out so she doesn’t get interrupted again. (She hates being interrupted.) You can hear the bullet points in her voice, practically see the PowerPoint unfolding before your eyes. (Sorry, but PowerPoint still exists in 2018. Hate to be the one to break it to you.)
So here’s the deal, she says. They can only make one person immortal. The way they do it is they take out the person’s brain, dip it in the bath, expose it to the incredibly rare gas, and hook it up to so many electronic sensors that the brain can “see” and “hear” like normal. They’ll install the immortal person into a brain-powered wagon, not unlike the Mars rover, that will allow them to roam the earth forever, seeing and hearing and observing and noticing. The brain will be able to communicate via writing, through an old-fashioned ticker-tape device from the front of the rover.
The reporters, by now, have cocked their heads. They look like a bunch of confused labradors.
The scientist explains, because written communication will be the easiest and most efficient way for the subject to communicate, we suggest that the person we choose for this procedure be gifted at written communication.
The press corps loses its collective mind. Are you talking about saving a writer’s brain for all eternity? The scientist smirks a little bit, leans into the microphone. It’s what she’s been waiting for all day. Exactly, she says.
So who would you choose to roam the earth forever as a brain in a jar, seeing and hearing and writing? Me, I’d pick Eileen Myles.
I’ve written in the past about the genius of Eileen Myles’s prose. Her essay collection, The Importance of Being Iceland, was one of those revelatory pieces of writing that forever changed my idea of what non-fiction could do. She’s sharp and confessional and she sees things, hears things, feels things, senses things, that nobody else can.
But I’ve never before written about Myles’s poetry. It’s not for lack of trying. But the truth is that Myles’s poetry is almost too good for me to wrap my head around. She’s one of those gifted poets who makes it look so easy that one of her books might trick you into thinking that you’re a poet, too. And then you’ll spend a decade writing terrible poetry while trying to nail one of your thoughts down onto a piece of paper. You’ll feel awful the whole time. Eileen Myles makes it look so easy, you’l tell yourself, why can’t you manage to do it? Why can’t you even come close?
Myles also wrote one of the very best titles for a book that has ever been written: Sorry, Tree. It’s funny and self-effacing, and it forces you to think about the book’s very, you know, book-ness. And the first untitled poem in the book continues with that mediation, although in a slightly more violent way:
When I think
in prayer books
Already the book has apologized to the living thing that died to create it, and on its first page it gives you the image of the author grabbing a book and shaking it. Sorry, tree. Sorry, book. Myles seems apologetic on the cover for bothering to write a book, but in that first poem she’s reversing her charge, suggesting that no book can hold her love, that love is as sacred to her as prayer, and that the idea of any book containing her love is silly. There’s a lot to chew on there: some Whitmanesque hyperbole, a little self-criticism with a metafictional twist, and a dash of a good-old-fashioned love poem.
Myles tricks the reader into thinking they can find the exact genesis of each of her poems; they feel so clear and confident that you can see them being born in her beautiful cerebellum. The birth of “Therapy” seems as clear as a neon sign:
I like therapy because I don’t need my glasses
I can sit there naked like the animal I am
a beautiful honest animal
a landscape of roiling seasons.
This feels like honesty. It seems to be a call for clarity. But is the clarity you lose by taking off your glasses worth the emotional clarity of therapy? And what is the therapy for? You can’t tame a "roiling" season, or make it work for you. You have to work around nature. Is she saying that therapy would no sooner work on her than it would a chimpanzee?
In the same poem, Myles thinks of all the writing trapped on an old computer of hers, she remembers rimming an old lover, and breaking her own advice about how you should “always go to the party.” Twice, she evokes the sea — the sea, the sea! — and throughout she remarks on the difficulty of communicating with an old lover. (It’s impossible to talk face-to-face with someone when your tongue is in their asshole.) This dualism is everywhere in her work. She invites you in with a clear statement, or an apology, or a joke, and then you realize you’ve been tricked. A poem about communication is really about silence. A poem about love is really about hate. A poem about home is really about death. Unless all those poems are really about both of those things. Which they probably are.
The poems in Snowflake are much shorter, and often less involved, than the poems in Sorry, Tree. They’re often made up of single-word lines, trailing down the page the way a, well, you know, falls from the sky.
Snowflake is interested in Los Angeles, in cars, in gasoline (“like we’re driving on our own limited past”) and feeling uncomfortable where you are:
I just pull over
listening to the fossil
in my guts
this city for the
with more traffic
I don’t belong
you make me so sad
Snowflake is presented as a flip-book. It shares a spine with another collection by Myles titled different streets. On one side you have a collection about an ill-fitting city, and then you turn it upside down and backwards to find a collection that is much more comfortable in its own skin. The one book is a criticism of the other. Which comes first? Who knows. Flip a coin. Flip the book. You get the sense if you were to drop different streets/Snowflake, it would rather spin in a circle forever rather than land with any one side facing up. It’s a book that can’t decide if it’s better to be in a place wishing you were somewhere else or to be somewhere else wishing you hadn’t come.
Always the choices. That’s the thing about Myles’s poems: she understands that the dozens of choices we make every day profoundly affect who we are. She’s not interested in making the choice. She’s interested in having both sides: the sinner and the saint. The domestic and the adventure. The lover and the fighter. The gushing love poet and the cynical observer. The poem “Pencil Poem #3” in different streets ends:
The new poems
are poems of
But first I’ll
The sacred and the profane, the healing poet and the funny poet. The thing about Myles is she’s never afraid to wrap her hands around a poem and shake it and shout at it: Why not both?
That’s a very good question.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant