Megan Boyle & Embarrassability
By Colin Herd.
selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee, Megan Boyle, Muumuu House 2011
Keats is sometimes thought of as an embarrassing poet. Pejoratively by his detractors (a little too indulgent, too romantic and not enough restrained) but also positively by those, such as Christopher Ricks in his 1974 book Keats and Embarrassment, who see potential in embarrassment as a literary value. Embarrassment can be the result of a breakdown in communication, a recognition of not being at-one with those around you, and an awareness that linguistic communication is not a simple AtoB transference. Or it can be the blush of visible discomfort at categorisation. I blush, for example, when the man who showed me and my boyfriend round his flat the other day said, casually, and in a sweet well-meaning way, ‘I don’t suppose it would interest you but there are very good schools in the area.’ And embarrassment is also an undermining of stable selfhood, a gesture that the self is disrupted, unwritten, incomplete. All of which seems relevant to Megan Boyle‘s debut full-length collection selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee, the newest release from Tao Lin‘s Muumuu House, a press whose writers have often and kind of unthoughtfully I reckon, been dismissed as self-indulgent and embarrassing.
A sense of the threshold between public/private is inscribed into the ungainly, awkward and, I may as well say it, embarrassing title of the book. What does ‘unpublished’ mean, when you have the book in your hands? Unpublished as ‘blog posts’, I guess, but publishable as poems, which suggests the poem as a kind of permissible space, free from the kind of embarrassment a blog post might cause. Except it’s not entirely free, the membrane between public and private or art and life or whatever not quite so stretchy, as in the poem ‘embarrassing moments’,
email from my dad saying he’s read ‘everyone i’ve ever had sex with’ (age 23)
where ‘everyone i’ve ever had sex with’ is a poem of Boyle’s, also in this book.
As with other Muumuu House publications, Boyle’s writing is both intensely personal and detachedly monotonous; even, in her employment of the list poem (and so many of these poems read like list poems even when they’re not): programmatic. In ‘everyone i’ve ever had sex with’, which for me is one of the book’s stand-outs, she uses the basic format of Joe Brainard‘s ‘I Remember’, i.e. an act of recall, and she’s taken it somewhere via Dodie Bellamy‘s ‘The Debbies I have Known’ to an uninhibited catalogue of men, women, boyfriends, anonyms, boyfriends’s brothers etc, punctuated in a really unsettling and repetitive way by the detail of whether or not condoms were used. I can’t help but find this poem extraordinarily moving, in spite of itself and beyond its disarmingly simple structure, complex and indefinably frightening, as well as funny, pleasingly outrageous and weirdly engrossing. It’s got to be something about the sketchy matter of fact details and a sense of emotionality that isn’t outright addressed and all the more haunting for it:
jess: jess is a girl and she gave me my first orgasm from another person. we hooked up twice. we were really good friends. i wish we hooked up more. i wish we were still friends. it felt weird giving oral sex to a girl, like my head was above my body and was surfing or something. I don’t know how to describe it.
Something about the short sentences and the gaps between just bows with meaning and emotion etc even in the act of foregoing much description of emotional attachments or significance. It’s like when someone asks you if you’re upset and the very act of telling them you’re not upset somehow makes you upset, even if you weren’t before. Boyle’s poems hang around on the cusp of meaning and emotional significance:
some moments are not meaningful at all
‘meaningful’ is not the right word and neither is ‘introspective’, it’s a word that exists between those words
i think some moments exist to be simple sentences that don’t necessarily have a greater purpose than to be exactly what they are
I’d say embarrassability is the keynote of Boyle’s writing, rather than embarrassment, because it’s her uninhibitedness about inhibition that gives her poetry its energy and interest. It’s a bit like embarrassment is the backing track to which sometimes Boyle’s in tune, and sometimes she’s not at all, right down the opposite end of the keyboard, stomping out “unabashed”. So if ‘everyone i’ve ever had sex with’ is unabashed, all the ‘i probably sound stupid right now’ etcs are back in tune with the backing track.
You get the sense of enormous attention being paid to the surface of her poems, which is as it should be, the surface being the province of the blush, and Boyle does the blush on the textual surface of the poem as well as anybody:
last night i got drunk and cleaned my room, it was okay
i don’t know why i just wrote ‘it was okay’
i think it was because it would make that line look complete
that line was a little too long
that one was a little too short
but since they were together it looked okay
that line just interrupted the ‘flow’ thing i had going on
so did that line
and this one
that one ‘brought it back’ okay
A textual disruption or flush that seems like a blemish but isn’t, it’s just a temporary, vanishing, un-pin-downable blush. Mimicking (or not mimicking I don’t know) a kind of neurotic, obsessive talkativeness, the poem’s surface is shattered and then put back together within a couple of lines, as if someone edited the film Titanic so that just as it rears up and is about to break in two, it actually sailed back into the water reconnected and carried on to New York. Just so as you realise there even is a surface, and it’s maybe cool and programmatic but it’s temporary and fragile too.
If anywhere it was obvious that the self is unwritten (unpublished) and fragmentary, then that place is the internet. Boyle’s is a book of lyric poetry when ‘everyone is searching for something on petfinder and craigslist’. It’s a book of coming of age poetry when coming of age means “i will be 24 in october/ 24/ starring kiefer sutherland”. It’s a book of confessional poetry when confession is the mode of “professional blogging assholes”. I mean, it’s an embarrassing book of poetry. But embarrassment has its value.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and his poetry collection, too ok, by BlazeVOX.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 11th, 2011.