The mourning pause

Sophia Shalmiyev

November 30, 2017

Our manic relationship to memoir has already circled through many shame spirals in this reality-hungry culture, and the dog memoir genre — from the stirring Hachikoto books to the feel-good Marley and Me franchise — is so oversaturated that every purchase comes with complimentary eye-rolls. Jill Abramson, of The New York Times, was slaughtered in reviews of The Puppy Diaries, partially because she expressed her fantasy of sharing monumental bylines with her canine partner, Scout.

But Eileen Myles' new book, Afterglow (a dog memoir), is not to be shrugged off. What Myles (doggedly?) crafted over a period of nearly twenty years is actually a writer’s diary, a sacred text, which began in 1996 when Myles adopted a pit bull, Rosie. It is a book on craft in the vein of Virginia Woolf and Brenda Ueland, about leading the life of an itinerant, then suddenly famous, writer — with all its uncertainties and insecurities and hand-to-mouth glories — while Rosie stands in as an anchor.

Myles writes of their many romantic loves and infatuations and of their father’s death in Afterglow, as in almost all of their work. There is a steady link between the women Myles has chased and the trauma Myles endured at the hands of their original hero: the lucid dream of a father that Myles had pursued and tried to sketch out for future poems and books since they were a Catholic schoolgirl. Myles has said that the subject of the father comes back again and again because they hadn’t mastered and reconciled the devastation of that original loss — and that this memoir is about digging down into the pause, not rushing, while their dog dies, giving Myles the opportunity to digest death and its inevitability.

It would be bold to announce that Afterglow is their own version of Pushkin’s verse-novel Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse that begins with a restless protagonist bearing witness to his ailing rich uncle’s slow death, “chained to his bed” and wondering “when will the Devil take his own.” Even if the suggestion is ridiculous — comparing anyone to Pushkin is an exercise in death-by-hyperbole — I cannot think of any other poet, memoirist, thinker, and public persona who deserves the title more than Myles. They have the swagger, the full dance card, and the wanderlust of Pushkin’s autofiction character. Try this experiment: crack open a copy of Eugene Onegin alongside Chelsea Girls, preferably with a few lighted candles about, and old photos of Eileen Myles, then watch the bridge between these two lusty and restless figures emerge.

But Myles, unlike the impatient young Onegin, doesn’t pray for their beloved to find a swift conclusion. Our Onegin stays present, slows down, speaks into Rosie's “human” eyes and bathes away her incontinence in a steady rhythm, always with a proverbial ear to the ground for the final curtain call. Myles is a grown-up and worn-in version of this classic bon vivant. They lived through fleeing, and remained still for the drawn-out and inevitable ending of their love, writing through and out of and back into it.

Anthony Lane notes in his New Yorker review of the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion that the “deathbed scene, a staple of fiction and painting in Dickinson’s era, has all but vanished from cinema.” Well, the deathbed scene is the center of Afterglow, and it is primarily cinema that Myles has said she is most interested in as a writer.

Myles’ craft, devoid of the nuisance and nuance of traditional punctuation, moves a high-speed-shutter eye through slack-jawed vignettes reminiscent of Robert Altman films. In fact, 3 Women, Altman’s most overlooked masterpiece, has many Myles-like tics and themes throughout. We never know whether his characters are truly separate or an externalization of one woman's many fragmented selves — a yearning child, a promiscuous and needy woman, a watchful and weary mother. In Afterglow, the writer is many people, the writer feels most alive recording and reordering the business of death, the writer plays god, the writer is sober and maybe only a dog can understand what that’s like, and the writer’s dog is also her father reincarnated — an alcoholic who is solid and scary and missed.

As much as we pray and fantasize that the scenes in our minds will become words of deliverance once on the page, by the time those words are all lined up (like a suburban cul-de-sac), what we read is no longer what we imagined — and so we must keep casting about for the selves that will make our book live. Writing anything down is a loss. It is a pipe dream, and the plumbing is never quite like the house we built in the sky. It also means editing, means building a promise to yourself that abandoned intentions will be journeyed through once again. “We mourn the loss of the letter but dogs mourn the loss of the thought,” Myles reminds us.

As Myles touches on in this book when mentioning the AIDS crisis, it has been the burden of the queer community for some time to bury the dead, to eulogize, to preach the sermon, to prophesize, to make fairy dust out of ashes — to see their fathers within their intuitive dogs. (Queerness has been equated by church and state as equal to animalness for some time. Still is, despite Myles, despite Rimbaud, despite Freddy Mercury, despite Valerie Solanas, despite Roland Barthes.)

Because witnessing death is a sort of schizophrenia, an honor and a trauma that can activate muteness, it is a welcome aspect of Afterglow that Myles creates shifts in voice and point of view throughout. The book is womb-like, full of water imagery; piss comes often, and it must be washed, on repeat, until we are swimming in it in the methodical or frantic way our speaker does. Myles is umbilically tied to Rosie who, when ready to go, was “swimming in some fluid and I was there with her. It was our intimacy. A silent place.”

It was also a place Myles knew they could not travel past, but walking their love to the gates and writing letters to her, recording their and Rosie's travelogue, and tuning into all the internal narrators who could have seen the pair in action, is their fate as a poet. The speaker is a prophet, a cultural critic, a canine, an old man who died and came back, a sister, a child, and a mother at once. Rosie was so beyond categorization, she became poetry. And even though Myles read to Rosie all of the lyrics she ever inspired: “She did not need poetry. She was it. Mainstay of my liturgy for sixteen point five almost seventeen years. She was observed. I was companioned, seen.” Rapprochement.

Afterglow leads us through the eroticism of the dead body exhumed in the same way Roland Barthes is consumed with reconstituting his object of desire in The Lover’s Discourse. Here, Barthes could have been describing Myles’ gorgeous purgatorial language: “Endlessly I sustain the discourse of the beloved’s absence; actually a preposterous situation: the other is absent as referent, present as allocutory.” Mom stayed, she lived (how ordinary), and so it is mom who remains through rejection, boredom, and brilliance — through Myles' dailyness. Dad drowned in drink and had a bookend in the story, a tomb, a finality to mine, and so it is dad who became a myth when young Eileen ripped the back page off and ran with it to make more of him, feed the page to her dog, break up words and marry them again.

A middle child ("the receiver") squeezed on both sides into a vessel for the images around them, Myles looks back on childhood and declares, “the child is a virtual movie theater, get this, not of sex but of creation. Get this. True Creation.” Myles “felt the tugging from the male side, and another from the female, and those were my siblings. Yet this inbetweenness, this aloneness, hear it now, is holy.” They were always the sweet flesh of the fruit looking for a rind. They were always the turning pages of a book — the middle parts.

Myles grieves more thoroughly in Afterglow than I have ever seen them do before. Their strut is still that of a New England misfit with a gummy grin, but one who is capable of saying: "I told myself when I was thirty that it's all cool cuz I look twenty-four, but by the time I turned fifty I knew that death is coming for us all, no matter how good you think you look for your age." Afterglow is an exercise in corporeal writing and re-writing of Myles' own history: living on the burned edges of being and not being, of choosing and not choosing.

Maybe Myles is a punk poet whose book we see sticking out of Thurston Moore’s coat. Maybe Myles a sleepy butch beauty in Robert Mapplethorpe's milky black and white portrait staring back and asking us "how the hell do you know what cool is anyways?" Maybe Myles is an impatient, staccato kid who doesn’t want to grow up, gobbling up dreams, sucking on Heraclitus fragments like spoonfuls of bodega ice cream, showing us their stained tongue. And so maybe Afterglow is the torch song of Myles’ identity as a mythmaker, a true flâneur, ghost dog at their side, with sneakers firmly planted on wet pavement.

Books in this review:
  • Afterglow
    by Eileen Myles
    Grove Press
    September 12, 2017
    224 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Sophia Shalmiyev's lyric memoir, MOTHER WINTER, recounting the author's childhood emigration to the United States from the Soviet Union, will be published by Simon & Schuster in January 2019. She has written for Vela, Ravishly, Visitant, Electric Lit, Portland Review, and many more. Shalmiyev lives in Portland, Oregon, with her two children.

Follow Sophia Shalmiyev on Twitter: @@sshalmiyev

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