Sorry, Tree by Eileen Myles. Wave Books, $14.
Reviewed by Meg Hurtado
Eileen Myles’s Sorry, Tree achieves a wispy, brilliant blend of the political and personal. She does not shy away from historical subject matter, but she defines it by way of the ordinary day. But make no mistake, the days of a poet of Myles’s incisive talent contain nothing ordinary at all. Love, lawn-chairs, death, bad dreams, and September 11th all wind their way through verse at once confessional and driven purely by form.
In the book’s second poem, “No Rewriting,” Myles attempts a palimpsestic view of personal and socio-political history, and succeeds masterfully. She begins with what could be the dialogue of vagabonds. As with all the dialogue in the book, Myles does not clearly identify a speaker, but the poem starts with the line, “nobody’s going to come in and take my cup of money,” and continues with “sometimes the only no I have is to reverse things.” The second remark might appear slightly esoteric, but in the context of street-dwellers it could easily refer to turning clothing inside out, or sanity. The third piece of dialogue--“I agree. It’s a good place to shit”--seems a clear indication of her fearlessness in approaching the homeless lifestyle. Myles advertises herself as a feminist condottierre of the East Village--a romantic self-image, but appropriately paired with her childlike ability to “pretend” rather than simply conceive or craft.
Thus, she begins the longest and most comprehensive poem of her book with the voices of the marginalized. All her voices partake of this quality, whether she speaks as a lover, or for her lovers, as a child or a philosopher. She achieves, through the various facets of her authorship, both celebratory and subversive effects--elebratory because she embraces bohemia, and defends it to “the people who always think the public problem is theirs are gay,” etc., and subversive because in her lines she has recreated bohemia as comprehensive, autonomous. By insulating the avant-garde with such single-mindedness with her outward-moving expression, she draws attention to the fact that bohemia too blooms by immanence.
Myles does not shy away from the outer frame of her own lifestyle. She never caves to the urge, so prevalent in Western artistic tradition, to erase her own hand from her work. At no point in her poetry does she pretend, or allow the reader to pretend, that she produces poetry by some kind of predestined, disembodied, mystical process of illumination from above. She mentions not only her status as a poet, but the mechanisms which she must manipulate in order to sustain that status. References to artistic grants, something the amateur reader of poetry seldom considers, pepper the book, as do references to writing classes and poet-in-residence gigs. By incorporating these external “systems” into her artistic worldview, she buttresses it against criticism which might take insularity and attempt to call it blindness or ineptitude in the face of reality.
Her work takes its roots from the visible, the tangible, and the corruptible. This root, furthermore, takes all kinds of forms--everything from commentary on materialism (“I’d like to buy one of those / really expensive / doors like I saw / in the Times”), to descriptions of love which are anything but Sapphic in style or mood (“I love you too / don’t fuck up my hair”). She manages to mix this debt to temporality with an awareness of the abstract greatness of such a debt.
Myles draws on an incisive journalistic knack for assorting images, but these images never truly stand alone. This knack asserts itself most strongly in her poems regarding love and politics--namely, the four titled “Dear Andrea” and “No Rewriting.” The first of the “Dear Andrea” poems exhibits her blend of external and emotional naturalism. The poem consists of several seemingly disjointed thoughts that rise to a feat of pathetic fallacy and characteristic internal clamor: “And the sea / hits the rocks & / the seagulls hop. / Man am I / in love.”
Great events, whether historical or personal, are defined by Myles in terms at once precious and plebian. Most notably, Myles structures the timeline of the morning of September 11th around two events: moving her car, and going downstairs to get a cup of coffee. According to her narrative, she missed the literal witnessing of the event; but for her, witnessing is more than an act: “it was never out my window but I see it out there now.”
With the realization that Myles indulges her role as witness, we reach the heart of her work. She takes her responsibility to bear witness for the marginalized seriously, but never exclusively. One poem, “To Hell,” reads very much like an homage to Ginsberg’s “America,” a work that has worked its way out of the avant-garde and into the mainstream. Myles survives this transition by way of the reverberations of her fearless voice.