Publication of I Must Be Living Twice: New & Selected Poems by Eileen Myles is quite the event. This generously sized collection is the largest book of her poetry yet published. It is also her first appearance with a large publishing house, Ecco an imprint of Harper Collins. After a brief opening run of new poems Myles revisits the full arc of her poetry: from her heavy drinking, sexually adventurous days as a young poet in the 70s through her years of sobriety from the 80s into the 90s, when she fell in love with her first dog, Rosie, and on up to her current acclaim as nothing less than the foremost lesbian poet-hero of our time. Her poetry provides avid testament to her sense of artistic comradery and lineage whether it’s by blood—her working class ties of loyalty and accent to Boston—or friendship. By way of both she has made her way as a poet based in New York City where she has remained rooted, even when living and working outside of town, keeping the same rent control apartment in the East Village since 1977 a few years after first arriving on the St. Mark’s Poetry Project scene fresh out of college.
Breaking into the poetry world game wasn’t all that simple for Myles, who realized her sexuality after realizing her vocation as poet. Yet in its own way it was that simple. Her poems display her knack for knowing what she wants and going after it regardless of consequences. She sees her life straightforwardly for exactly what it is nothing more, nothing less. As Myles puts it in “An American Poem”:
[…] 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.
She brazenly confronts anyone and everything, including herself, accepting nothing’s for granted and assuming she deserves the same chances in life as anybody else. Her poems retain every ounce of honest, self-scrutinizing gusto she’s able to muster. She’s a version of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” though unlike Lennon her “fame” requires she continues working on a regular basis. She may have made it into the upper ranks of the academic world with her tenured faculty status at the University of San Diego but it came without co-opting her core artistic beliefs, not too mention at the cost of having made herself feel essentially adrift, as she notes in a recent interview with Ben Lerner in the latest Paris Review. In order to make a living as a poet she’s forced to constantly uproot herself from her home in New York. She has no qualms over what she endures in order to earn a steady paycheck. She hasn’t sold out in the least.
“An American Poem” continues with a tongue-in-cheek commentary upon the American Dream of Success, i.e. that it’s there for the taking available to anybody. It’s a rather glamorous poem for Myles. Whitman’s barbaric yawp spun into a phantasmal, giddy claim that she is herself a “Kennedy”: “Yes, I am, / I am a Kennedy.” Riding high on a Whitman-style of inclusiveness, Myles also exclaims, “Shouldn’t we all be Kennedys?” She insists the possibility exists for everybody. It’s of no surprise she decided to run for president in 1992, the year after Not Me appeared, which closes with this poem. Myles is relentlessly equating her poetry with her life, merging together the reality of each. The poem is a construction she disappears into just as much as the poem disappears into her life. Her art is intimately tied to learning how to live one’s life, exploring the possibilities of poetry’s power to teach new lessons regarding the self.
In a short essay from 2014, “Twice”, included here as an Epilogue, Myles describes how one result of this practice is an “anonymous” feeling in regard to her own experiences, as the writing of the poem places her at a certain removal from them:
Each poem that really happens and by that I mean one that was conjured in a state that manages to find its own rhythm in something deeply anonymous about the self. I think being a poet or a writer you’ve spent so much of your time processing, consuming, really creating an alternative self that is entirely composed of language so that there are precise speeds or toxins or organs in it that work in concert with the state that you are in and can only neutralize your own pain by vanishing into a song composed of exactly that timbre, or something. I don’t know what it is. It’s just that I’ve vanished into kind of a not trance but dictation that utterly resembled the circumstances I found myself in but by enumerating them I evacuated even from my own pain and wasn’t so much out of my body but in it in some other way, deciphering the details around me like a breathing tapestry. (“Twice” from the Epilogue)
Myles’s self-referencing is demanding in its veracity. She opens her life to her readers. Often opening lines are immediately full of intimacy, attention grabbing as she indulges the urge to state exactly what’s up: “I am always hungry / & wanting to have / sex. That is a fact.” (“Peanut Butter”) or “I’m playing with the devil’s cock / it’s like a crayon / it’s like a fat burnt crayon / I’m writing a poem with it” (“Prophesy”). Again and again, sex is of paramount importance.
oh, oh, what
pain I need
and I get
For Myles, sexuality is a core component of her identity. There’s no getting away from it: “sexual-looking in / that funny way flowers / always are.” (“Yellow Tulips”) As an out lesbian for several decades running she doesn’t raise sex as a political call-to-action yet she realizes she doesn’t need to as it inherently already is a political act. And Myles is often at her best when expounding upon her love for a current lover:
I always put my lover’s cunt
on the crest
of a wave
like a flag
that I can
to. This is my
when we’re alone
The power of having that feeling of being “alone / in public” is a phenomenal rush of emotion. It’s a feeling that’s been taken for granted by heterosexual couples forever, in so far that the being “alone” together wasn’t something that must of necessity be kept hidden. However for lovers in the LGBT community it has moved in the course of Myles’s lifetime from being either impossible, or a likely physically dangerous possibility, to being entirely acceptable, fully backed by Federal law. Her frank no holds barred presentation in her poetry of her passionate love affairs has long placed her at the forefront of the battle for LGBT equality. She’s never accepted that the world would be headed any other direction.
With its opening line declaration “O, I don’t give a shit.” Myles’s “On the Death of Robert Lowell” is one of the quintessential poems of the bad/good old poetry war days between the once so-called cooked and raw schools of American Poetry. Tensions have mellowed a considerable bit since she wrote the poem (Lowell died in 1977), yet it’s delightfully sinister youthful disdain for “an old white-haired man” directly stating “I hate fucking wasps” quite handily still serves as tart acknowledgement of the undeniable undercurrents of class friction at work within American poetry. Such current tensions of economic inequality oftener than not get jumbled up in the MFA degree rush and swamplands of various social media platforms. It’s healthy to have a poet such as Myles gaining a broader recognition without backing away from the edgy, street-wise attitude which has always been a defining aspect of her work. I Must Be Living Twice offers several versions of Myles-as-poet and all of them ring true.