On Eileen Myles, 2017 Massachusetts Poetry Festival Headliner

by Woody Woodger | April 2017

Pulling off Patti Smith is hard, but Eileen Myles does it in reading glasses. She slipped into the podium, something akin to osmosis, and hushed the packed Ballroom A at AWP this year. I sat in the back, completely ignorant of Myles’ work and prestige. From the moment she started reading, I felt it immediately—her magnanimous nonchalance, swift and careless as a barber’s razor down my cheek.

Sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, Myles, together with Alice Notley and Sonia Sanchez, headlined a reading in the cavernous Ballroom A at this year’s AWP in Washington DC. The room was spontaneously humid, crammed with so many to see these three Poetry Society of America Shelley Memorial Award winners.

As I dug my shoulders against an cushionless convention chair, Myles wasted no time. She launched into her poetry and I was struck by her voice. Her presence and her poetry itself congeal into a kind of sweet Southie ballad. The kind of voice that slings an arm over your shoulder, gives you a noogie ‘cause you looked like you deserved it.

I guess I would have a soft spot for a TMI Bostonian oozing with baditude, but it’s how Myles contorts her vibrato into charm that is really impressive. She lassoes you with her candor. Her rolled up flannels and just-came-from-a-basement-show hair cut tell you she doesn’t need to make friends, so it’s all the more sweet when her work invites you into her feverish psyche.

This psyche often plays itself out through absurd and satirical political commentary. A political  commentary such as in the poem “An American Poem” which Myles read at the event. I was drawn to this poem in particular for its chatty propheticism, its ability to balance the sincere and witty without diluting either.

Myles’ “An American Poem” follows a lyrical account of the speaker’s life—a Kennedy feeling choked by her heritage runs away to New York to be a poet. The concept, gripping enough, is compounded by Myles’ merciless, deadpan matter-of-factness:

“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.”

What is truly striking is how Myles mutates her images in this piece, referencing and reframing elements to provide both a cyclical and unstable environment. Take for instance how the image of teeth mutates in the poem.

“And how are your
teeth today? Can
you afford to fix them?”

The speaker asks the reader for the health of their teeth, having them consider if their teeth match their ideal and how unfair it is if they aren't. Later, the speaker comments:

“People with
beautiful teeth who are not
on the streets.”

This comment changes the image of teeth in Myles’ poem, clearly defining them as an indicator of wealth and the life people want to lead. However, the image of teeth appear, and are reframed, yet again when the speaker asks:

“Am I
the only one with bleeding gums

Rather than teeth appearing as a desirable symbol of wealth, we see a wealthy speaker whose mouth—presumably because of her words—have come to rot anyway.

In the same way Myles references and reframes images, so too does she mutate how the speaker addresses the audience. In the beginning of the poem, we see the speaker simply recounting her story, addressing the audience as a peer with nothing to gain from the conversation; that is, until she admits, “Yes, / I am a Kennedy. And I await / your orders.” From there on the speaker gives a speech used to persuade the audience “Shouldn’t we all be Kennedys?” Even when the speaker wishes to “[escape] / the collective fate of this famous / Boston family,” she can’t help but continue the cycle, becoming the politician she was destined to be.

What is so appealing about Myles’ work is how she can use her comical, political speaker to sincerely bring the audience to the edge of existential.

“Do you know
what the message of Western
Civilization is? I am alone.
Am I alone tonight?”

The charm of Myles work is that she can use her highly political speaker to illustrate the general public’s anxiety over the over politicized nature of the world, our social value, and art…

“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”

Her pronouncements spill more than materialize, with every mutation, every reframing of an idea or image crafted to tumble across your consciousness and force you to come dragging along with it, perhaps helping us feel like “we are all Kennedys,” just babbling along to our carouseling history praying for a day a bolt to come loose.

Seeing Eileen Myles perform this poem at AWP, indeed seeing her perform all her poems, was simply stunning. But I will say that watching her on the jumbotron, echoing around some vacuous ballroom was a little disappointing. Myles is the kind of performer who makes one yearn for proximity, for a cafe-close encounter where one can feel fully invited into the breadth and cosmic depth of her poetry, every prophecy like knives hanging quietly in the kitchen.

Woody Woodger’s first chapbook postcards from glasshouse drive is currently forthcoming from Finishing Line Press and his poetry has received publication in Barely SouthExposition Review, 2 Bridges ReviewSoundings East, and (b)OINK, among others. He will attend Western Washington University’s MFA program in Fall 2017 and was a graduate of the Salem State Poetry Seminar. He currently resides in New England.