Eileen Myles, Twice: On Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice and Chelsea Girls
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Eileen Myles comes in twos in 2015: Ecco has paired its publication of I Must Be Living Twice, a collection of Myles’ new and selected poems, with a reprinting of Chelsea Girls, her novel first published in 1994. The noticeable observation is that Myles is indeed living twice through the dual re-publications of her work, although to be familiar with Myles (who employs a doppelganger in her prose and, often, two-word lines in her poetry) is to recognize the one-two step of her thinking, her living, her writing. For her to exist in two places at once — in the old work that is now, once again, new — is thrillingly appropriate. Indeed, she ought not to exist any other way.
Aside from the more metaphorical purpose the parallel publications serve, Chelsea Girls and I Must Be Living Twice are perfect compliments in framing Myles’ life and work, satisfying both for those new and returning to her hefty oeuvre.
Chelsea Girls is one of the great, if under-read, New York City novels — a boozy, glassy-eyed account of lesbian sex, drugs, and family in the 1960 and ’70s, with the title being a tip of the hat to the famous hotel hangout of the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, and Andy Warhol (who has a Chelsea Girls of his own). One part Just Kids, one part Jesus’ Son, and one part New Narrative, Myles at once works in an established tradition and transcends it:
The next day when I woke up at Tina’s it was very difficult. I remember she was kissing my back which I love. Staying in the apartment of someone you know well’s lover, spending a night where someone you know has been having an affair, being in their affair and having one too is a gorgeous grey feeling. The phone rings and rings and you know it’s your girlfriend in the hospital. She’s probably going to kill herself and it’s your fault. No it’s not. I liked drinking Martel right out of the bottle, a small pint bottle she kept on her kitchen shelf. It became part of my secret about her that I drank that. She eventually answered the phone and it was Christine and no she hadn’t seen Eileen, though she saw her at Lucy’s last night. Was Chris trying to control the world from the hospital? Tina laughed.
A novel in the cloak of a memoir, Eileen Myles herself is the model for the first-person protagonist at least in name. However, Chelsea Girls itself isn’t even a novel, but rather a collection of closely tied short stories (a close reading of Myles does nothing if not force you to reevaluate labels over and over again). Then again, one does not have to go far to find a narrative in Myles’ writing, which is often presented with the same staccato one-two beat she uses in her poetry. Nearly all of the stories in Chelsea Girls have a poetic flourish to their endings, flaring out in magnesium micro-sentences that leave an afterimage on the mind and tongue. Finales include “I don’t know why” and “I loved it” and “That’s all.”
At the same time, Chelsea Girls is a novel where every story stands on its own and every sentence is its own complete story. Pick one at random: “I didn’t even know I thought women like you were sexy.” Another: “One day my father died.” Another: “Christine went with me to Robert Mapplethorpe’s and like I said she was either a monster or an insane lamb.” Each is rich enough for its own nomadic journey of unpacking, refolding, and unpacking again.
But one cannot separate Myles from her primary vocation as a poet, which sneaks back into her novel both in quotes of her own poems as well as in the aforementioned stylistic nods in her sentence structure. To appreciate the extent to which the writing in novel and verse is, in some ways, one and the same, Ecco’s handy collection, I Must Be Living Twice, introduces both new poems as well as selections of the old. Particularly notable are the works in Myles’ impressive decade-spanning trio of publications: A Fresh Young Voice From the Plains (1981), Sappho’s Boat (1982), and Not Me (1991).
For those new to it, Myles’ poetry is quickly recognizable at a glance, as it is often as visual as it is sonic — strings of poems, or tendrils, rarely much longer than two or three words in width, stitched together like a drumbeat. “…It could/be another city/but it’s this/city where/I start/being alone/& alive bringing/my candles/in while/I go walking/in the rain” she pounds out in “Hot Night.” Slightly longer lines, such as those in one of her masterpieces, “An American Poem,” have the same feeling of being dripped, one by one, onto the page:
Am I alone tonight?
I don’t think so. Am I
the only one with bleeding gums
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 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
alone. I am not
alone tonight because
we are all Kennedys.
And I am your President.
After 1997, Myles doesn’t have another collection until Skies and On My Way, both belonging to 2001. For a writer so intimately tied to New York City in her work and life, it is impossible not to read 9/11 into every line: “…The people/in New York/like a tiny chain/gang are connected/in their/knowing/and their saving/one another…” she writes in “Milk,” the heart of Skies. Throughout the collection too are the lingering motifs of clear blue skies and “that plane/overhead” — although Myles later told Rain Taxi that while “Milk” is her “World Trade Center allegory,” it was “really written out of a sad personal moment. But there it is.”
There it is — it’s an offhanded comment, almost arrogant, recalling the proud chin and “cruel and suspicious” eyes in Myles’ Mapplethorpe-photographed portrait that serves as Ecco’s cover of Chelsea Girls.
Studied closely, you might agree with Myles that she is a president, a prophet, a god. But more often than not her work is as simple as those three words, there it is, where you are left out of breath, dizzy. While reading you’ve missed your stop on the metro or the last few words of what someone has said to you — be sure to forgive yourself: Reading Myles is nothing if not a physical experience, the one-two promise of a heartbeat that goes, I’m alive. I’m alive.
by Eileen Myles
by Eileen Myles