Writing an Inferno
By Colin Herd.
Inferno, Eileen Myles, OR Books 2010
Inferno is the latest novel by the poet Eileen Myles, and the most recent publication from the innovative publishing house OR Books. It’s Myles’ third book-length work of fiction, the other two being Cool For You (2000) and Chelsea Girls (1994). Distinguishing the books that way, though, suggests a degree of generic separation between the different strands of her work that really doesn’t assert itself at all in the reading. Her fictions are deeply personal, characterized by a clarity and upfront-ness that is at its core not prosaic but prosodic, rooted and generated by the rhythms, intonations and inflections of speech. Likewise, her non-fiction essays and art-writing, which were beautifully compiled in The Importance of Being Iceland last year, are similarly personal, conversational, informal, linguistically charged and poetic. Her fiction has the same qualities and seems to have an equal degree of ‘truthfulness’ about it as her poetry and her essays. Perhaps bearing this in mind, Cool For You was touted as a Truman Capote-inspired ‘non-fiction novel’, blurring the distinctions between fiction and memoir. Inferno, on the other hand, is subtitled ‘a poet’s novel’, and its focus is squarely on the business, or the life-choice, of being a poet as Myles experienced it in the giddily avant-garde, and punk heart of New York City.
“My English professor’s ass was so beautiful. It was perfect and full as she stood at the board writing some important word. Reality or perhaps illusion.”
These are the first three sentences of the novel and by my reckoning, they have to rank alongside “This is the saddest story I have ever heard”, “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen” and “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” as the best, most full of promise, most coolly evocative of novel-openings. These three simple sentences describe and crystallize a potent, sexually charged, desire-encrusted moment of awakening, in a novel filled with just such moments. Like Cool For You, Inferno is a ‘coming of age (as a poet) tale’. Come to think of it, so much of Myles’ writing could be termed that, a kind of ceaseless and recurring self-discovery, self-conquering, self-examination and self-creation. “Reality or perhaps illusion.” Or, as Myles states in the promotional trailer for the book,
“The first fiction is your name, I think that’s why I use it in my books all the time. I mean Eileen Myles. Am I Eileen Myles?”
So, Inferno is a sequence of ‘coming of age’ moments. One of the first, being invited by the English Professor to read her poetic response to Dante’s Inferno in her English class:
“There are moments when I’ve literally felt drowned in life. When circumstances have led to a moment so rife with possibility, a possibility that you can’t possibly understand.”
In another, much darker, altogether more tense example, the Eileen character is taught, like a trainee, how to give a hand-job to a regular client at a massage parlour. She realizes she just can’t do it and flees the room. The narrative that concludes with this crisis-episode is built-up-to gradually and indirectly, spliced in between other plotlines, diversions and conversational digressions. This is a key aspect of how Myles’ writing proceeds and succeeds, in swirling narrative patterns where every moment has the potential to return and blossom into another narrative strand, nothing is wasted and everything pregnant with potential and significance. So, for example, at the beginning of the novel, we learn of the first poetry reading Myles attended. Organised by her English professor, it was a reading by the poet Marge Piercy, the first poet Myles saw: “I didn’t think I really knew there still were poets.” Much later in the novel, and later in her life, when Myles has recognition and a degree of fame as a poet, she goes to another Piercy reading, and encounters ‘the real Marge Piercy’ there, who denies ever having read at U. Mass on the invitation of Myles’ professor Eva Nelson. Myles is certain she did and there’s a kind of comic stand-off with neither side willing to concede. The encounter is strange. It seems stuffed with some kind of significance, but it’s difficult to make anything of it other than uncertainty and confusion about what actually happened: “Reality or perhaps illusion.”
But whether or not Marge Piercy was the first poet Myles saw read, she certainly wasn’t the last, and the book is crawling with a cast of famous, cult and not so famous poets, artists and writers. They appear in the book not as idle gossip, nor as ego-building name-drops but as important characters in the life of the character Eileen. I particularly liked the chapter about the underrated poet Bill Knott, and an open-eyed, honest account of a German reading tour organized by Semiotext(e), alongside Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus and others that pulls no punches about the harsh realities of selfishness, ambition and competition among writers. Coupled with the pleasure of getting Myles’ take on these writers, is the very great pleasure of reading Myles’ take on her own writing, from discussion of individual poems such as ‘An American Poem’, to more general statements about why and how she writes, such as the beautiful, sad one with which this review is going to close:
“Writing is just what I do to frame my longing. I replace myself. The longer I live the deeper it goes. It seems like it will never end this feeling. I throw a stone down and nothing ever comes up I don’t even get circles.”
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and forthcoming in Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 20th, 2010.