Crossing the Invisible Line

Eileen Myles, 1980; photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, from the cover of Chelsea Girls
Eileen Myles, 1980; photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, from the cover of Chelsea Girls

1.

Eileen Myles’s new and selected poems are titled I Must Be Living Twice, a phrase that any poet past the midpoint and looking back might utter, surprised to find a fund of work on the page as robust and spontaneous as any “real” life she lived. But Myles’s poems set a bar for openness, frankness, and variability few lives could ever match; and so in her work, the surprise second life is actually the one lived off the page, refracted through decades of Myles’s astonishingly vivid lines.

The solemnities of art are, in Myles, everywhere undermined: “I like to get really stoned/and revise everything I’ve ever done/Leaning/against the refrigerator,” she writes in “La Vita Nuova.” You’d score that a win for life, if it weren’t for the fact that we hear about it in lines of verse. The title alludes to Dante; “leaning”—with the unshowy pun on Myles’s first name—is among the most important words in American poetry, handed down to Myles from two of her New York heroes: Whitman (“I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass”) and especially Frank O’Hara in “The Day Lady Died” (“I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of leaning on the john door in the 5 Spot”). It is deeply characteristic of her that the most Dionysian moments are also her most vocational. Only a poet who agreed with Robert Frost that poems are “play for mortal stakes” would boast about getting stoned and heedlessly working on revisions.

Myles’s work has always been uncompromisingly frontal, a face-forward presentation of herself, simultaneously vulnerable and scrutinizing. If you look at her, she looks back. Her classic autobiographical novel from 1994, Chelsea Girls, has been reissued to accompany the volume of poems. Photographs of the author appear on the front covers of both volumes. In the black-and-white Robert Mapplethorpe photo on the cover of Chelsea Girls, Myles looks young, ethereal, maybe high, and, perhaps most of all, dazzled—daunted to be Mapplethorpe’s subject. It could be an album cover; it isn’t the only detail of Myles’s life and work that calls to mind Patti Smith. In Catherine Opie’s recent color portrait of Myles on the cover of the book of poems, Myles looks brash, handsome, bemused—and, most importantly, neither male nor female (or both at the same time): “the gender of Eileen,” as she has remarked in interviews. Myles sits on a stool, her muscular forearms and battered knees in the foreground. On a lark, in the 1990s, Myles ran for president as a write-in candidate. This photo looks for all the world like a presidential portrait: switch out the wardrobe and readjust the posture a little, and Myles could be Calvin Coolidge…


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