In a poem called “Dear Andrea,” in her newest collection, Sorry, Tree, Eileen Myles writes: “Spare me the postmodern / experimental poet / bullshit / Honey think hard / about moments of / love you’ve experienced / with me / I want that love.”
Here, in the exposed harsh light of the poem, Myles turns to a poetics of desire, confrontation, and intimate inquiry to evaluate the emotional complexities of relationships. Formally spare, direct, and chillingly insightful, the poems in Sorry, Tree reveal motives to situations in which desire brings words forward, the poem offered as a reflective instrument of human psychology and spiritual vision.
“I think writing / is desire / not a form / of it,” she writes in, “For Jordana,” meditating on the separation of lovers and the marvelously fractured sense of perception this brings to the contents of a “day that’s captured / some way /separately.” These distinctions about writing as something other than form -- the extension of one’s perceptive capabilities, perhaps, as a process of apprehension -- marks Myles’s work with peculiar insight to the sexual and spiritual presence in words. Such erotic markings bring readers into situations where desire is enacted in the words, rather than formally organized to comment with reflective distance on the broken relationship of lovers. Form certainly exists in Myles’s work, but her writing stresses the process of a discovery in language that is motivated by a willingness to witness desire’s force in words.
Anyone with a casual acquaintance with the work of the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, will recall how for him desire has no completion. No object can satisfy the needs of an individual. We are desiring creatures. Period. And once we recognize that objects can never satisfy desire, we can begin to investigate the particular force and shape of that motivating force in our lives.
In Sorry, Tree, Myles studies desire from a perspective of one who has lived life fully and with her senses open to experience. A striking sense of wisdom accompanies these poems, for in them we are located within a language of desire that provides contexts for memories, moments of stark self-awareness, and critical engagements with others.
In “Therapy,” she writes:
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 rolling reasons.
The “landscape” evoked here can apply to how she treats the poem as an entity of self-entrance to language too. She claims that “[h]ome” is “not where I write / it’s where I vegetate,” indicating a similar meditative relation between therapy, writing, and domestic life. Such relations are significant because Myles suggests that poetry provides a way to see one’s self in words and that this is different, if similar, to the self-reflective moments in therapy, as well as to the vegetative and inwardly turned hours of domestic habitation. Thought and feeling come from unknown worlds within, but in poetry’s organizational field, they arrive with a sense of sudden discovery as one’s language life brings into view one’s feeling life from the unconscious constellations through which we live. Myles moves her work from description of experience to self-revelation in this way. Self-disclosure, of course, is rarely enough for others who observe from the outside. Unless you’re a therapist, paid to listen, what’s the point? What Myles achieves, however, through such disclosures in poetry are sympathetic renderings of human situations. We learn from her discoveries, which are never self-indulgent, but brief, punctuating the fabric of the daily. “Just to / discover / art,” she writes, “makes / me look / long & hard.” And by translating perceptive experience into poetry, Myles shares reflective possibility with her readers, who are renewed to an experience of the world through her work.
A prose poem, entitled “Everyday Barf,” closes the book with Céline-esque dark humor and persistent self-inquiry. On a boat moving between Provincetown and New York, Myles relates vividly the results of marine motion via storm. She writes:
It was almost too stormy for people to ride boats. And the man next to me began puking. Urp, he went. Splatter, right into a paper bag. I think he was a fag. He was with his lover. Wha Wha Wha. He gagged. The woman next to me & I looked slightly at each other. This is gross. She was sitting with a man, but she chose me to share the feeling with. We were disgusted. Maybe a little bit scared. I didn’t want to puke. Not like this. No place. I never want to puke. Hate puking. Haven’t puked for years. Then behind me a woman began. Really gagging her ass off. Heaving. Again, and again. Little coughs of puke. Getting it together. Puking again. We were sick. The whole bunch of us were rocking with the gags, praying to fucking god we wouldn’t start puking our guts out too. You could also smell the stuff. And the rain splashing against the glass windows of the boat. The boat tipping, aiming up. Have you noticed how tipping is in the news. For a while things were spiking, they were ramping up and now they’re tipping. That’s the word we like, it’s what we see and I saw the boat rolling and tipping. Barf. It seemed my mother wouldn’t have enjoyed this trip. She’s 83. How would she receive a boat full of puking adults. I think she would have gotten up and moved. She wouldn’t have just sat there. I began to think I had done the right thing by not getting her on this boat with me. I wasn’t wrong. Opened my notebook and started celebrating the fact. What fact. My séance. My sitting there on my ass on the boat in the middle of all these people puking.
The picaresque scenes of puking travelers is intersected with reflections upon literary strife, gender relations, political protest, and a daughter’s relationship to her mother. The emotional cleansing demonstrated by the physical hardship of puking, however, provides an ending to a book that concentrates its energy on transformative feelings, confused signals, and misunderstandings. The physical effects of throwing up resemble the emotional burden of bringing to order the chaos of feeling in the symbol-rich variance of language. Poetry, for Myles, offers a way to recognize the patterns of one’s life, and yet this self-cleansing comes with great effort. No one wants to get sick; the puke is called forth through bodily pressures. And so, too, words come at times from similar efforts of unconscious stress. The disclosure of self provides a kind of knowledge that extends beyond the limited field of one’s bodily state. For Myles, the disorder brought on by “barf” offers a way to restate the complicated social and spiritual webs that interpenetrate the body.
“My mother would always try and make us look at the sky,” Myles writes. “Look at the sunset Eileen. It made you really want to look away. It just ruined it for me. It was all about her.” And yet, in her awakened state, among the carnivalesque agony of pukers at sea, she finds new sympathy for her mother as an impersonal coordinate in her life. She becomes more than mother, providing a matrix of poetic language in Myles. Only through the purgative experience can she realize what her mother means to her, and by extension, the rest of our crazy fucked-out culture. “All these words were living,” she writes.
The boat was rocking and the people were puking and it was her gift to me. So I say what our president said when he was told how great it was to have god in the white house. He said thank you. He thanked them for how beautiful they were. It was good to be here.
Sorry, Tree gathers extraordinary work by one of America’s most important poets. While many are content to exploit formal possibilities or to confess their personal miseries, Myles isn’t afraid to explore the impersonal truth of things. Her firm and rooted sense of the poem gives her a marvelous inner authority others fail to achieve. This newest work shows yet again how essential her voice is for the present moment.