INFERNO [A Poet's Novel]
Eileen Myles, O/R Books, 2010

How did I not know about Eileen Myles? An icon, a feminist, oh, a feminist icon? An activist. A New York person, a person of that city, who can’t make sense without the city. Well no. I didn’t know.  Because Eileen Myles is a poet, and I’ve shied away from poetry my whole life. It just always felt too difficult.   I was handed Inferno by a wise friend who loves it, and while she and I very often disagree about many aspects of literary culture, she knew that Infernowould transcend all that.

Inferno is a “poet’s novel.”  It’s also autobiography.  Myles, on her website, calls the book a kunslerroman: “a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity.” 40-odd years ago, in a world literature class, a much loved professor says “Dante really had no other way to talk about his time except in a poem.” Throughout her life, Eileen Myles knew she would have to communicate the same way.  However, as a woman, Myles is always outside the canon too, so she can step outside form.  The challenge she has given herself with Inferno is to pull these forms into a cohesive document of her lifetime, and the work she has produced. The narrative, while substantial, functions as foundation for rumination and philosophy. It too is about pulling pieces together. There’s no real linear flow; anecdotes bounce around in time, sometimes within the same paragraph, but this indicative of her work.  “What I started to understand was that the poem was made out of time — past, present, and future.”  The disjointed biography, ostensibly prosaic, is a form of poetry.

When my friend loaned me Inferno she said “This is a book about New York City.”  Like Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Inferno is saturated in New York, full of recognizable artist and place names.  While Myles had visited the city as a child, it is on a trip in 1972 as a very young adult that she fully understands the kind of life New York could offer.

New York was right now. The people I had read about, seen in magazines simply walked out the door, onto the sidewalk, stood right here.  Stepped in there and got a drink. In these stone corridors, life began.  The myth was true.

New York is the biggest part of the novel’s foundation; it exists behind almost everything, even when Myles is physically not in that location.  For me, one of the most skilful and evocative scenes in the book is about her riding the subway from Queens into Manhattan as a child, her mother having booked a hotel erroneously advertising itself “close to downtown.”  This passage converted me to her writing, completely.  That she could write this great thing about a mid-century subway

The Main Street Flushing line, so hideous and great.  Unlike the gross modern subway that Boston got with its bright designer colors so everyone could think about the T from outside and say: Boston, how Scandinavian! Marimekko! How DR! You were supposed to have educated mid-sixties Helvetica feelings and I resented it.  I wanted the Latin mass, the obscurity of church, and I needed my subway dirty and old so that when I entered the city with my mother and later went on my adult own I would feel surrounded by a hallway of corruption.  It was so old, it was the new.  The train that took us to the World’s Fair was dark green and military-looking in its public harrowed use.  It was like a broken-down Nazi.  New York didn’t have to go around pleasing people.  I was plunging with my family into this past.  The ads on the subway were rye bread and corn pads.

Eileen Myles moved to New York at the age of 24 to be a poet. There is intent, a movement from doing to being. “When I was in grade school I could write poems about anything and it was just a thing I could do.” However, there is a pull, as there is with most young people, toward definition “No one asked me to have a life like this, to be a poet. It was my idea.”  This movement from doing to being reminded me of Foucault’s thoughts on the history of the concept of homosexuality, as a movement from behavior to identity:

Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (History of Sexuality I, 43)

Says Myles: “I became a lesbian in New York.  It was my first or second career.  It was wrecking my poetry as long as I didn’t know what it was.”  Foucault’s concept is useful in this context, skewed as it is towards the gay male experience.  Myles, too, comes up against an erasure of lesbianism, when she’s asked to read at gay bar in the early 80s. “We got totally booed by those gay men.  I think it why we were invited.  Lesbians in general were verboten on this scene.  You had to hide yourself in gay culture.”

Being gay and being a poet are not simply traits, they are the inextricable filament of Eileen Myles. She writes about a line in Hart Crane’s “The Bridge at Estador”:

Twisted by the love of things irreconcilable. That was it.  That was being gay for me—the slant moon with the slanting hill.  The line just never undid itself—it’s unbelievable—and every time it ripples in the exact same light.

Myles is fully realized and it doesn’t matter what the outside knows or doesn’t.  When she considers the releasing the document that is Inferno to the world she wonders what

[t]he marketing people will say—so who is she. Who is the author of this book, this lesbian no one, that we should listen to all this crap about her development.  […] Cause who are you—I mean, really.  I’m…uh the poet Eileen Myles.  Why not.

That “uh,” when you’re halfway through the book, isn’t hesitation; it’s emphasis.

Myles declares her lesbianism, and in the chapter “my revolution” (which comes near the end of the text) she shares something she’d learned over years of loving women: “Clits were all different.”  And she lists them.  For pages she details the women she has been intimate with, how she fucked them, how they liked to be fucked, what one’s clit hood looked like, how another sounded when she came.  She tells of the women who hated their bodies, especially their genitals, their feeling abnormal. “There is nearly no woman who regards her pussy as normal.” This passage is a public service to women.  In the time Myles is writing about, the rise of the fully shaved non-visible-labia pussy in porn had not yet happened.  But now it has happened and Myles knows the hegemonic pussy is a lie, because she has seen them, has fucked them, and she has one. It’s so important for her to say this to women, because so many of us would never know, if all you ever see is your own (or the screen images that dominated for so long).  It’s an exhortation to discovery; it is Betty Dodson’s class with fucking replacing erotic pedagogy

If there is always something necessarily exclusionary about identity politics, Eileen Myles, ever crafty, seeks to deflect that.  When I read the following quote, I was having a back and forth about sexual politics, and was being told that my preferences didn’t matter, politically.  What I wanted was unimportant in a larger context.  I went home, and I read Eileen Myles, and she said “Growing up, adults always said: if I give it to you I will have to give it to everyone. Well give it to me I say. I am everyone. That’s exactly who I am.”  Inferno performs a reverse- individuation, pulls you into Eileen, and makes of everyone a poet. The book is for you, then.  It is a “poet’s novel.”

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Heather Cromarty is a reviewer and blogger in Toronto