October 2010

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore


Inferno (a poet's novel) by Eileen Myles

Ever have a teacher who tells you that Dante’s Inferno is a “heavily coded poem,” and then assigns you to write your own Inferno? Me neither -- maybe that’s why Eileen, the narrator of this “poet’s novel,” falls in love. Or wants to fall in love. Doesn’t want it; wants it: “I had never learned from a woman with a body before. Something slow, horrible and glowing was happening inside me.”

Here’s the thing: that wasn’t really the assignment -- everyone else writes papers:

I remember her holding something I wrote, a gleaming page, mine, that rolled out of the sad typewriter on the kitchen table at 33 Swan Place. My father had given us that typewriter, it wasn’t even mine yet, it was ours, the family. It would be mine when I left home. I was already gone, I would take it with me, but everyone sat in class now listened while Eva Nelson stood there and read my inferno.

While this Inferno is a novel, it also follows the details of Myles’s life: a childhood and young adulthood in working-class Boston, a move to New York in the early-‘70s, and a path of self-actualization as a poet in a now-mythic downtown New York: “I understood community. Going to the place and standing around. Aiming for connection to bodies, language and the future.” This was New York when you could go to a place and stand around, and still have enough money for a three-room apartment. In Soho. With Debbie Harry in your building.

There’s a residence hotel that falls down, and poets carry their things outside in boxes, so they can move into other boxes. There are poets like rock stars, and rock stars like poets. Now there are just rock stars. Poets are somewhere else. Maybe in the stars. Maybe that’s a good thing. “You could be completely serious like you’re in the great place and whoosh pull back just like holding a tiny toy castle in the palm of your hand -- then even go inside it.”

Inside Myles’s castle, everything is pared down even when it’s rambling and raw and rough and broken and shy and bold and open: “We were so excited because the silence of our childhood was over.” We’re still waiting for Eileen to have sex with a woman, all that gorgeous anticipation from the classroom on the first page, but instead we keep hearing about creepy men. Eileen goes to readings, so many readings that she becomes a part. She is reading: “I felt like the guys I knew were so in love with our story that they couldn’t even imagine being outside of it like I did all the time.” And: “Sex with men occasionally could be fine. It was their point of view that was troubling.” There’s the guy who inspires Eileen to think that “being a poet was real, because he was,” suddenly pulling down his pants one night on the beach “(l)ike I would get down and suck, just like that.” It’s these descriptions that encapsulate the problems of male supremacy, but sometimes the writing gets clunkier: “They should try being female.”

Myles describes an ongoing fight with poet Amiri Baraka: “He and I were at this poetry conference and after I spoke he proclaimed that lesbian poetry and feminist poetry were pornographic and not revolutionary.” She challenges him, and the crowd embraces her. Afterwards, some people, “mostly black poets,” express discomfort with the congratulations heaped upon a white lesbian poet for challenging a prominent black poet in a straight white poetry world. This anecdote illuminates the messy intersections of structural homophobia, misogyny and racism, but Myles punctures the potential with a summation that dismisses the complications of her own rendering: “When Bill Clinton was the first black president, I thought well maybe I am just a regular black poet. But now that we do have a black president I’m returned to just being queer.”

True, that does sound a bit like something you’d find in a grant application, which is what Myles turns the book into. Literally. Eileen sleeps with a guy for money, but then the next day she doesn’t know how to ask for it. So then we turn the page, and it says: “Submitted by Eileen Myles to the Ferdinand Foundation.” Genius!

This satirical grant application is many things in one: a history of New York (“Bowery” means farm, it was originally Peter Stuyvesant’s farm); a summary of Myles’s performance art endeavors (Joan of Arc; a dancer “standing there like a big cookie;” the NEA); a critique of the snottiness of the performance art world (“you can be queer, but really be queer in the wrong way”); a challenge to liberal hypocrisy and gay misogyny; an invocation of lesbian sex (finally!); a description of Goethe’s house; a tale of art world largesse (just don’t let the dog off the leash on the 70-acre farm); a warning about media consolidation; a taste of name-dropping (Nan Goldin’s eyes, Kathy Acker’s antics); and, of course, a near-death experience while visiting a volcano in Hawaii.

If the first part of the book consists of tiny chapters that become worlds of their own, the grant application section sprawls and rants. You just know Eileen is going to get the grant when she says things like, “I wrote the first chapter of this book, my fucking inferno, and New York blew up.” And then we’re beside the inferno of that Hawaiian volcano, and when the page turns, “I notice the Starship Enterprise is often shot from outside. Sailing through space with its theme song blaring. Like this is the show, don’t worry.” It’s the transitions in this book that make it truly jaw-dropping, transmissions honed from the feelings you’re forced into when one thing slams into the other.

Inferno shows us the adventure of poetry, but also reveals the places where a poet starts to philosophize absently: do we really need to know that the “quality of people’s togetherness” is called a bhav in Bhakti yoga? Instead let’s stay in that space where the page becomes your head, expanding. Soft and soothing and full with the emptiness of becoming: “The place I found was carved out of sadness and sex and to write a poem there you merely needed to gather.”

Inferno (a poet's novel) by Eileen Myles
OR Books
ISBN: 1593762119
256 Pages

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (City Lights 2008).