Eileen Myles, an interview and a poem

Eileen-Myles-WEBIt was with great satisfaction, and not without amusement that I read several recent interviews with and profiles of Eileen Myles, a poet who has always been much beloved, but who has only recently become the kind of poet profiled by the New York Times. I am always happy to see poets given big profiles in the mainstream press; right after this, I found another profile in The New Yorker. In this brief interview, from the Talk column in the Sunday Magazine, there was so much to love:

Poetry always, always, always is a key piece of democracy. It’s like the un-Trump: The poet is the charismatic loser. You’re the fool in Shakespeare; you’re the loose cannon. As things get worse, poetry gets better, because it becomes more necessary.

Which is not unlike what Ursula LeGuin said recently in the speech she gave upon receiving an award from the National Book Awards. Myles’ hyperbole is funny:

I think it would be a great time for men, basically, to go on vacation. There isn’t enough work for everybody. Certainly in the arts, in all genres, I think that men should step away. I think men should stop writing books. I think men should stop making movies or television. Say, for 50 to 100 years.

Myles ran for President a while back, as the first “openly female” candidate. This poem, related, is from her 1991 collection Not Me published by (semiotexte), An American Poem. It as satisfying much like her interview is satisfying: she says things that are profound, necessary, hyperbolic, and funny. Her poetry is accessible, and down to earth:

An American Poem

BY EILEEN MYLES

I was born in Boston in
1949. I never wanted
this fact to be known, in
fact I’ve spent the better
half of my adult life
trying to sweep my early
years under the carpet
and have a life that
was clearly just mine
and independent of
the historic fate of
my family. Can you
imagine what it was
like to be one of them,
to be built like them,
to talk like them
to have the benefits
of being born into such
a wealthy and powerful
American family. I went
to the best schools,
had all kinds of tutors
and trainers, traveled
widely, met the famous,
the controversial, and
the not-so-admirable
and I knew from
a very early age that
if there were ever any
possibility of escaping
the collective fate of this famous
Boston family I would
take that route and
I have. I hopped
on an Amtrak to New
York in the early
‘70s and I guess
you could say
my hidden years
began. I thought
Well I’ll be a poet.
What could be more
foolish and obscure.
I became a lesbian.
Every woman in my
family looks like
a dyke but it’s really
stepping off the flag
when you become one.
While holding this ignominious
pose I have seen and
I have learned and
I am beginning to think
there is no escaping
history. A woman I
am currently having
an affair with said
you know  you look
like a Kennedy. I felt
the blood rising in my
cheeks. People have
always laughed at
my Boston accent
confusing “large” for
“lodge,” “party”
for “potty.” But
when this unsuspecting
woman invoked for
the first time my
family name
I knew the jig
was up. Yes, I am,
I am a Kennedy.
My attempts to remain
obscure have not served
me well. Starting as
a humble poet I
quickly climbed to the
top of my profession
assuming a position of
leadership and honor.
It is right that a
woman should call
me out now. Yes,
I am a Kennedy.
And I await
your orders.
You are the New Americans.
The homeless are wandering
the streets of our nation’s
greatest city. Homeless
men with AIDS are among
them. Is that right?
That there are no homes
for the homeless, that
there is no free medical
help for these men. And women.
That they get the message
—as they are dying—
that this is not their home?
And how are your
teeth today? Can
you afford to fix them?
How high is your rent?
If art is the highest
and most honest form
of communication of
our times and the young
artist is no longer able
to move here to speak
to her time…Yes, I could,
but that was 15 years ago
and remember—as I must
I am a Kennedy.
Shouldn’t we all be Kennedys?
This nation’s greatest city
is home of the business-
man and home of the
rich artist. People with
beautiful teeth who are not
on the streets. What shall
we do about this dilemma?
Listen, I have been educated.
I have learned about Western
Civilization. Do you know
what the message of Western
Civilization is? I am alone.
Am I alone tonight?
I don’t think so. Am I
the only one with bleeding gums
tonight. Am I the only
homosexual in this room
tonight. Am I the only
one whose friends have
died, are dying now.
And my art can’t
be supported until it is
gigantic, bigger than
everyone else’s, confirming
the audience’s feeling that they are
alone. That they alone
are good, deserved
to buy the tickets
to see this Art.
Are working,
are healthy, should
survive, and are
normal. Are you
normal tonight? Everyone
here, are we all normal.
It is not normal for
me to be a Kennedy.
But I am no longer
ashamed, no longer
alone. I am not
alone tonight because
we are all Kennedys.
And I am your President.

Right? She is the partner of Jill Soloway, the creator of the TV series Transparent, who said  of Myles:

I see Eileen as a wayward walking country minister posing as a dyke poet. Her mind is the most expansive mind I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in contrast to. There is no thought or impulse of mine, be it revolutionary, feminist, radical, dirty, beautiful, silly, abstract or murderous, that feels ugly. That totally frees me up to say to myself: more, more, more.

Plus that great gummy smile. Myles is the author of a novel, Chelsea Girls, recently reissued, and the collection of poetry ‘I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975 – 2014.

The Facebook Sonnet, by Sherman Alexie

Welcome to the endless high-school
Reunion. Welcome to past friends
And lovers, however kind or cruel.
Let’s undervalue and unmend

The present. Why can’t we pretend
Every stage of life is the same?
Let’s exhume, resume, and extend
Childhood. Let’s play all the games

That occupy the young. Let fame
And shame intertwine. Let one’s search
For God become public domain.
Let church.com become our church

Let’s sign up, sign in, and confess
Here at the altar of loneliness.

The Blue House, by Tomas Transtromer


It is night with glaring sunshine. I stand in the woods and look towards my house with its misty blue walls. As though I were recently dead and saw the house from a new angle.

It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its timber has been impregnated, four times with joy and three times with sorrow. When someone who has lived in the house dies it is repainted. The dead person paints it himself, without a brush, from the inside.

On the other side is open terrain. Formerly a garden, now wilderness. A still surf of weed, pagodas of weed, an unfurling body of text, Upanishades of weed, a Viking fleet of weed, dragon heads, lances, an empire of weed.

Above the overgrown garden flutters the shadow of a boomerang, thrown again and again. It is related to someone who lived in the house long before my time. Almost a child. An impulse issues from him, a thought, a thought of will: “create. . .draw. ..” In order to escape his destiny in time.

The house resembles a child’s drawing. A deputizing childishness which grew forth because someone prematurely renounced the charge of being a child. Open the doors, enter! Inside unrest dwells in the ceiling and peace in the walls. Above the bed there hangs an amateur painting representing a ship with seventeen sails, rough sea and a wind which the gilded frame cannot subdue.

It is always so early in here, it is before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.

A motor far out on the water extends the horizon of the summer night. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.

Jack Gilbert and H.D.

Poetry! Just this week I’ve met two other poetry fans. It makes me happy to meet other poetry fans. Especially when they recommend poets I’m not familiar with. One of them recommended Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems this week, and sent this lovely poem:

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

Another new friend recommended H.D. to me. I’ve never read her poetry, but found Eurydice, which is a dark and powerful poem about hell. It concludes:

At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light;

and my spirit with its loss
knows this;
though small against the black,
small against the formless rocks,
hell must break before I am lost;

before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

The masters of information have forgotten about poetry

The masters of information have forgotten about poetry, where words may have a meaning quite different from what the lexicon says, where the metaphoric spark is always one jump ahead of the decoding function, where another, unforeseen reading is always possible.

– J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year

Also:

Poets and artists live on frontiers. They have no feedback, only feedforward. They have no identities. They are probes.

– Marshall McLuhan

Also:

the verses of Kabir have four different senses; illusion, spirit, intellect, and the exoteric doctrine of the Vedas; but in this part of the world it is considered a ground for complaint if a man’s writings admit of more than one interpretation.

– Thoreau

via Roberto Greco

A WORD ON STATISTICS by Wislawa Szymborska

Symborska

Out of every hundred people,

those who always know better:
fifty-two.

Unsure of every step:
almost all the rest.

Ready to help,
if it doesn’t take long:
forty-nine.

Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four — well, maybe five.

Able to admire without envy:
eighteen.

Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.

Those not to be messed with:
four-and-forty.

Living in constant fear
of someone or something:
seventy-seven.

Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

Cruel
when forced by circumstances:
it’s better not to know,
not even approximately.

Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.

Getting nothing out of life except things:
thirty
(though I would like to be wrong).

Balled up in pain
and without a flashlight in the dark:
eighty-three, sooner or later.

Those who are just:
quite a few, thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:
three.

Worthy of empathy:
ninety-nine.

Mortal:
one hundred out of one hundred —
a figure that has never varied yet.

(translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak)

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