Is Eileen Myles the Mainstream Queer Poet We Need?


Eileen Myles, poet and writer

...There is an argument
  for poetry being deep but I am not that argument.

            Eileen Myles, “A Poem,” Not Me

I BECAME INTERESTED in Eileen Myles not because of Transparent, or even her poetry, but because of her relationship with the young poet Leopoldine Core. You might be familiar with Myles’ proclivity for younger women from the character on Transparent, Leslie Mackinaw, obviously modeled on her, who is originally shown with her arm draped around a nubile waif. Allie wonders if she is, in her late twenties, too old for her, again obviously imitating life as Jill Soloway — much younger than Myles, but much older than Core — is now very publicly partnered with the poet. Digressions aside, the point is that I came to Myles backwards, starting with a some lesbian gossip and working my way back to her early writing.

I don’t know for sure whether the rest of her new audience came to her backwards as well, from Transparent to her poetry and fiction, but given that a small amount of TV viewings — let’s say 100,000 — would make a book a bestseller, I think it’s a safe bet. This makes perfect sense to me: no poet becomes truly famous by merit of their art. Poetry might be the very antimatter of fame. It’s only poets who find themselves perfectly positioned at a cultural intersection who find themselves celebrated in the mainstream, like, say Whitman or Ginsberg. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that these two poets, as well as Myles, are queer — she has been said to bring “a gay woman’s voice to an aesthetic dominated by gay men” — but it’s certainly not a coincidence that they’re all white.

Eileen Myles’ recent fame strikes me as an awkward situation. She has long been a cult icon in the lesbian and poetry communities, but cult icons retain their status based on a certain moment in time. The cult film perhaps best embodies this concept, as it can never change and impinge on its own future; this is why remakes can be so grievous. In fact, Myles’ newfound fame feels like something of a remake — not people coming to their senses about what in history was truly great and important, but trying to squeeze capital out of something that will never be as relevant as it should be. Back in the ’70s, she was a badass, but now, her brand of lesbian macho seems second-wave, her whiteness is glaring, her equation of vaginas and gender oppression makes me cringe.

Her best, most relevant poetry, in my opinion, was written before the year 2000. Even the poem Allie reads on Transparent, “I always put my pussy,” was published in 1995 in Maxfield Parrish. I like this poem, although it makes me nervous because I know that Myles and I disagree on the poetical and political meaning of pussies. Poems read on television aside, her early work has the most energy and clarity, and her political messages were far more effective:

     ...I spin dreams
     of the quotidian out of words I
     could not help but choose.

     They reflect my educational background,
          the educational situation of
               my parents and the countries
     their parents came from. My words
               are also chemical reflections”

                           The Irony of the Leash, The Irony of the Leash, 1978

Compare this to the stilted attempt at racial consciousness in the new work included in I Must Be Living Twice:

     have no
     reason to think
     your ancestors
     were stolen
     from their
     home in A-
     and because
     of my not
     knowing that this
     is true
     but thinking
     that it
     is possible
     it makes
     me certain
     that respect
     next time
     would be
     for me

                           “London Exchange,” New Poems, I Must Be Living Twice

The awkwardness of phrasing and word choice in this poem is so extreme, it’s clear to me she’s out of her depth. I found the same awkwardness in the bizarre, cissexist agenda she published with Jill Soloway, The Thanksgiving Paris Manifesto:

     All primary positions of power (including but not limited to presidents and queens, 
     prime ministers, cabinet ministers and their ombudsmen, kings, comptrollers, 
     their representatives and congresspeople, alderpeople, senators, lords and mayors) must be 
     held by female-identified or vagina-bodied people.

The stutter of “female-identified” OR “vagina-bodied” — a phrase I would love to never see again — is horrible in quite a similar way to the breaking up of “Africa” into two lines. That is, it’s problematic, and even beyond that, just plain perplexing.

Straight people might do well to understand that their interest in queer culture often seems capricious at best. They have a weird habit of labeling anything LGBT that manages to scrape into the mainstream as a “trend,” as if straightness is eternal and the rest of us are just blips. The truth is that all of us are fleeting, and very few of us make it into eternity. If it looks like Eileen Myles is going to be the ONE queer woman poet that makes it, you might forgive us for feeling cheated. What about June Jordan? Audre Lorde? Or, among those living who could still attend red carpets, Robin Coste Lewis or CA Conrad? As queer poets surrounded by each other, it’s hard to ignore the way a representative was chosen for us, raising her to a position both tokenized and privileged.

If you read her poetry, you’ll see that Eileen Myles has always wanted to be famous. Case in point, her poem “April Noon,” included in I Must Be Living Twice:

     1,000,000 women
          not me moving through
     the street tonight
     of this filmy
          city & I
               crown myself
          again & again
               and there
          can’t be
               two kings.

                          "April Noon,” Not Me, 1991

Myles couldn’t have known how film-y her life would get, but she never needed us to crown her king. She was doing it all along — she even ran for president in 1992. We just have to decide if and how we’ll serve her. I, for one, can never be a loyal subject.

Ironically, that might put me closer in line with her than ever. Take her treatment of “The Death of Robert Lowell”:

     O, I don’t give a shit.
     He was an old white-haired man
     Insensate beyond belief and
     Filled with much anxiety about his imagined
     Pain. Not that I’d know
     I hate fucking wasps.

                           “On the Death of Robert Lowell,” A Fresh Young Voice from the Plains

I definitely don’t have such harsh words for Myles, but I think she would understand that when you have a critical impulse like that, no one is spared. But unlike Lowell, she’s not dead yet, and it’s way too early to give a final verdict on her life and work. She’s already lived twice, and I’ll certainly be watching and reading what comes next.