Thursday, December 27, 2012

D. A. Powell, Chronic (Graywolf Press, 2009) and Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf Press, 2012)

Two books of poetry that I’ve returned to frequently over the past couple of years are the most recent books by San Francisco-based poet D. A. Powell, Chronic and Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys. I’ve followed Powell’s books since his 1998 debut, Tea, and his five volumes together form one of the most exciting, innovative bodies of work in contemporary American poetry. Chronic and Useless Landscape are assured in their voice and imagery, commanding and relaxed at once.

The title of Chronic refers to many different thematic aspects interspersed throughout the book, literally and figuratively:  constancy (in the sense that pain and illness can be chronic and ongoing, just as life itself can be, if we’re lucky), the persistent drives of desire and addiction (“chronic” being one of the slang nicknames for a drug like marijuana, for instance), but most of all, in terms of time (chronicles, chronology, the ticking of the clock that never lets up).  Powell also plays with the word via the poems’ titles and the sequencing of the collection, which is divided into three sections—“Initial C,” the long title poem, and “Terminal C.”  Over half of the poems’ titles begin with the letter C, and nearly half of the poems’ titles end with that same letter.

This is indicative of both the fullness and the playfulness in Powell’s poems.  All of the major motifs like love, sex, and death are underscored, delicately and deliberately, by fragments of beautiful but derelict landscapes, glittering shards of pop music and entertainment culture, and the slow-motion transition of an agrarian society to a thoroughly post-industrial one.  Powell’s style and stance have taken root somewhere directly between a couple of other poets with distinct California ties, Robinson Jeffers and David Trinidad, though Powell’s poems don’t ever sound exactly like anybody else’s.

Situated amongst crematoriums, California poppies, and continental divides is one of Powell’s finest, most evocative poems, “meditating upon the meaning of the line ‘clams on the halfshell and rollerskates’ in the song good times by chic.”  Even in his more formal and classically allusive moments, Powell is never too far away from disco, and this poem raises that association to near-classical heights:  “it’s still 1980 somewhere, some corner of your dark apartment / where the mystery of the lyric hasn’t faded.  and love is in the chorus waiting to be born.”

Bananarama, Michael Sembello, and B-movie horror flicks are also invoked elsewhere in the book, alongside Maria Callas and Virgil.  There’s an ode to a crab louse that’s as hilarious and trenchant as Frank O’Hara’s wonderful poem “Louise.”  Chronic is the only poetry book I know of that includes an actual fold-out centerfold (!) for two of its poems.  The amiable ghost of Walt Whitman always lingers here, too, in Powell’s long-limbed lines and his all-encompassing eye as it sweeps across the plenitude of meanings of America.  And not just the American past and present, but its potential future.  From the end of Powell’s poem titled “cancer inside a little sea”:

“what does it matter now, what is self, what is I, who gets to speak
or who does not speak, whether the poems get written
whether the reader receives them whole, in part or not at all

child to come, what will you make of this scratched paradise
this receptacle of soil, water, seed, bee, floating scat and spore
brutal wind and brutal tide.  the insignificance of fortunes”

If D. A. Powell's close concentration on squandered rural/urban hybrid landscapes began to take shape in Chronic, it became the sprawling connective tissue in Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys.  During my very first reading of the book upon its release back in February, I was already in tears by the poem “Tender Mercies,” which is only the second piece in the collection, a rapturous apocalyptic prayer that’s suffused with redemptive hope:

“The earth’s a little harder than it was.
But I expect that it will soften soon,
          voluptuous in some age hence,
because we captured it as art
                        the moment it was most itself:
fragile, flecked with nimbleweed,
                                  and so alone,
it almost welcomed its own ravishment.”

In “Landscape with Sections of Aqueduct,” Powell writes, “Ruin, by the wayside, you took as sacrament,” and that acts as a sort of aesthetic/religious mission statement for the book.  He’s able to find some overflowing gorgeousness wherever he turns, from a blossoming grove of almond trees to a young man in worn-out jeans strolling through a suburban shopping mall.  I’ve kept swooning over “Boonies,” a sensuous remembrance of a youthful encounter that’s as close to Cavafy (by way of Antler, perhaps) as anybody else has gotten:  “We’d keep together, he and I, / and we’d gain meaning from our boyage; we’d pursue / each other through the crush of darkling rifts.”  The poem “Pupil” spins a swift reversal on the intellectual seduction of a student/teacher relationship (“You are the headmaster.  Now you must master me”).

I think D. A. Powell is the poet who’s currently pouring the most of himself, with great candor and daring, right into his books.  Composed of equal parts humor and risk, poise and feeling, Chronic and Useless Landscape make an infinitely readable double-portrait that continually resolves, without ever quite settling or coming into permanent focus.  To quote the reassuring closing lines of “Tender Mercies”:

“Be unafraid of what the future brings.
I will not use this particular blue again.”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Paul Buchanan, Mid Air (Newsroom Records, 2012, Deluxe Edition)

For the frontman of a well-known band to release his first solo album more than thirty years into his musical career is surely a rarity, to say the least.  In fact, Paul Buchanan of the celebrated Scottish trio The Blue Nile, which originated back in 1981, might be the only singer/ songwriter who’s waited quite so long to make his solo debut.  His re-arrival with Mid Air is a thoroughly unique and sublime affair, easily my favorite album thus far this year, and maybe the quietest lyrical pop album ever recorded.

Featuring just a delicate piano and Buchanan’s distinctively contemplative vocals, barely registering above a whisper here, these songs together form the equivalent of an intelligent lullaby for adults.  Nearly all of the album’s fourteen songs are under three minutes long.  The Blue Nile became famous in the U.K. for an extremely high level of quality control; the first two of their four exquisite albums contain only seven songs each.  Leave it to Paul Buchanan to create the world’s smallest, most intimate album.

Or not so small, perhaps, in the case of Mid Air’s deluxe edition, which includes ten extra tracks that are unavailable elsewhere, mostly instrumental versions of the album’s highlights, along with three bonus songs.  Strictly limited to 2,000 numbered copies (mine is #589), this special box set quickly sold out and was soon going for astronomical prices of $400 and upwards on eBay.  Gorgeously designed in every detail, the 7-inch box also contains a 20-page booklet with handwritten lyrics and impromptu photographs taken by Mr. Buchanan himself.

Mid Air is certainly a kind of self-portrait, and a self-portrait in the waning years of middle age.  It’s no coincidence, then, that he’s the only musician who appears on the album.  Song titles like “Wedding Party” and “Two Children” make it obvious what station in life Buchanan is singing about, and the mournful tone of his reminiscences also make it clear that all may not have gone as he once expected.  The record feels as if it’s constructed around the concepts of change and loss, especially the album’s opening title track:  “The buttons on your collar / The color of your hair / I think I see you everywhere… / I can see you standing in mid-air.”

Despite how seamless the album sounds, “Newsroom” is among its standout tracks, so perhaps that’s why Buchanan chose that name for his independent label that released the record.  “Last out the newsroom / Please put the lights out / There’s no one left alive,” Buchanan somberly sings; “No one to make love to / No one to blame.”  Mid Air is, without question, a dark-of-the-night album, and also an end-of-the-world album (“Half the world has gone to sleep / Half the world is on its knees / Dreaming of somewhere else”).  But its songs bravely face what’s to come, rather than despairing over it.  Buchanan’s music has always fostered a sense of wonder in the human inability to shake off the stubbornness of the past, thereby finding a way to sustain ourselves in surviving the present.

Sonically, there are many audible touchstones that link these songs to The Blue Nile’s back catalog.  They often seem like tiny sketches for such contemporary classics as “Easter Parade” and “Family Life,” though written two or three decades later.  It’s as though Buchanan is acknowledging his musical past while also gradually letting it go.  That helps to explain Mid Air’s sense of hushed hesitation, too, a quality that annoyed me a bit on my first listen, but eventually grew on me over time.  Like all the finest works of art, the album convinces its audience to encounter it solely on its own terms, which also happens to be the artist’s way of giving back something to us.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Bright Light Bright Light, Make Me Believe in Hope (Aztec Records, 2012)

The album that I’ve been looking forward to the most in 2012 is definitely Make Me Believe in Hope, Rod Thomas’s full-length debut as Bright Light Bright Light, his fantastic electronica project.  (Yes, he snagged that unusual moniker from one of his very favorite ’80s movies, Gremlins!)  I’ve had a huge musical crush on this scruffy Welsh Londoner ever since his catchy and melodic acoustic record, Until Something Fits, first appeared in 2006.  Seven of the eleven tracks on his new effort as Bright Light Bright Light were made available gradually over the interim, and to increasing applause from all corners of social media.  Four previously unreleased songs join them here, equally solid on every sonic and lyrical level:  intelligent, dance-floor ready tunes that are also infinitely hummable.

It’s no secret that Rod is a die-hard fan of piano-based house music from the ’90s; he currently hosts and DJs an ongoing retro club night called Another Night at venues throughout London.  (And he’s a totally fabulous remixer, by the way.)  The influence of Rod’s fascination with ’90s dance music is fully and gorgeously apparent throughout the songs on Make Me Believe in Hope.  Bright Light Bright Light strikes the same balance of drama and optimism that made pop/dance divas like CeCe Peniston and Lonnie Gordon so appealing to an entire generation of club kids, while also putting a brand-new spin on the genre.  Check out Bright Light Bright Light’s recent music videos on YouTube for a taste of the cutting-edge visual artists with whom Rod has collaborated.  Exciting concepts, indeed.

And it’s for that reason that part of Bright Light Bright Light’s pop DNA was hard-wired by Rod’s deep admiration for Pet Shop Boys and Erasure.  There’s always an aura of world-weary disenchantment to complement the surging adrenaline of these tracks.  Rod has mentioned how the songs on his new album focus on numerous kinds of interpersonal and romantic connections, but a sense of disconnection — and the resulting frustration — is just as present, if not more so.  That’s perfectly logical in a way; gay men are surrounded by a culture that’s often unloving, so it follows that loving others and being loved in relationships won’t usually be too simple for us.

Rod critiques this idea from the onset of Make Me Believe in Hope, which starts out with a “storm of solitude” and “my one reliant friend.”  The shimmering opener, “Immature,” boasts a far more honest chorus than the vast majority of pop fare:  “Now everything I wanted seems so immature, and all the time I wasted shines like gold.”  In fact, it’s that level of honesty that makes the sudden glimpses of hope on the album possible.  The feeling of being jaded, tempered by a stubbornly redemptive longing, again plays a central role on “Love Part II,” with its sly taunts of a “clever boy” and ecstatic refrains of “I’m in love again.”

The most danceable number on the record, “Feel It,” furthers the pursuit of desire to the brink of a techno breakdown, which then gets uplifted by the type of roof-raising diva vocals (courtesy of Mykal Kilgore) that formed the intense heart of house music.  The track was arranged and engineered by Del Marquis, otherwise known as the guitarist for Scissor Sisters, who also provides a sweet vocal assist on the sweepingly cinematic “Cry at Films.”  Both “Waiting for the Feeling” and “Moves” continue in this same irrepressible, epic direction, as does the more subtly charming (and chiming) “A New Word to Say.” I'm also certain that I hear a fun little nod to Stacey Q's "We Connect" in the awesome bridge on "Waiting for the Feeling."

Although the entire album is phenomenal (truly), my favorite songs are the slightly darker tunes.  “Disco Moment” brilliantly unfolds its melancholy “boy meets boy, boy loses boy” storyline; Rod describes it as the kind of song he’d imagine for a key scene in a John Hughes movie from the ’80s.  The track begins midway through “another awkward conversation,” a snippet of a lover’s quarrel in a relationship that has clearly reached a stalemate (“I want to go home, or stay out, or go dance, just not this”).  By the song’s close, we’ve arrived at a point of heart-rending separation in the midst of a crowded dance club:  “So you have your disco moment alone, I’ll stand at the side of the room.  You’re dressed in light, I’m just a shadow that’s flickering.”  This theme is beautifully extended on the more down-tempo “How to Make a Heart” as the singer muses, “It’s funny in such a small room there can be so much space between us.”

Despite how finely realized his euphoric and introspective moments are, Rod Thomas also knows exactly when to turn the proceedings a bit more downbeat.  The album’s final two tracks, the quiet “Debris” (featuring vocals by Allison Pierce of The Pierces) and the affirmative “Grace,” together offer the listener a generous emotional landing pad and denouement.  In just over 40 minutes, Bright Light Bright Light’s Make Me Believe in Hope makes me believe in the future of pop music all over again.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

14th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 13th - 17th, 2012)

Seeing eighteen movies over five days is an intense experience, and it actually takes a great deal of stamina, physical as well as mental, not to mention some meticulous planning and scheduling.  My week at the Provincetown Film Festival was a fun time yet again this year, and I met a bunch of interesting people, including YouTube sensation Chris “Leave Britney alone!” Crocker, Jake Shears’ adorable boyfriend Chris Moukarbel (who directed the new HBO documentary about Chris Crocker), and Mr. Kirby Dick, who’s easily one of my favorite documentary filmmakers of all time.  I enjoyed most of the films that I saw enough to write about them, but I’ll focus here on a couple of documentaries and a couple of narrative features from this year’s festival.

David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague, winner of the award for best directorial debut at this year's festival, is the film that I was most excited to see in the line-up, and it also turned out to be the film that made the greatest impression on me.  I already knew about the ACT UP years of the AIDS crisis, having come of age during that era, but I’d previously learned only a little about the intricate details and main figures of the movement.  The exploration provided in the film is both particular and vast, presented in a way that’s narratively textured and at times profoundly moving.  The film’s climactic moment, in which members of ACT UP poured their loved ones’ ashes onto the lawn of the White House in response to the government’s inaction at the height of the epidemic, is an image that I will never forget.

The best aspect of the film, however, was how it introduced me to a number of important activists whom I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, particularly the late Bob Rafsky, whose final tirade in the film is incredibly powerful, and one of the key survivors of the film’s title, Peter Staley.  Staley was a young bond trader in New York when he was diagnosed with HIV, and he bravely went head-to-head with many people in positions of power, including conservative kingpin Pat Buchanan, in order to save his own life and the lives of his HIV-positive friends.  I found him to be the most eloquent speaker in the film; he’s also my new hero.  I was honored to meet him at a party at the film festival, and I gave him a big hug to thank him for his outspoken work on behalf of his generation of gay men and my own.

Hard Times:  Lost on Long Island is an hour-long HBO documentary that I had been highly anticipating at the festival. I didn't expect it to be artful filmmaking, but I was correct in predicting that it would be the most timely movie that I saw throughout the week.  The film’s only screening was also woefully under-attended; I didn’t take a head-count, but there were no more than ten viewers in the audience, including the projectionist.  I have to be honest about just how shameful I found that turn-out to be.  Of course, people will always buy a ticket to see a meaningless, escapist comedy rather than a film that focuses on our currently bleak socioeconomic realities.  New England (particularly Cape Cod) is also a bubble of affluence, so it’s revealing that people would avoid learning more about what the majority of the rest of this country (myself included) is struggling through right now.

The film follows a handful of upper middle-class interview subjects as they cope with the fallout from continued unemployment.  While none of the film’s statistics or images were surprising given the harsh economic climate, I was still shocked by several pieces of information.  For example, calls to suicide prevention hotlines have more than tripled since the financial crash of 2008.  And many employers actually admit to not hiring people who are currently unemployed, preferring to give their open positions to applicants who already have a job.  The most chilling images in the film were of foreclosure agents boxing up people’s belongings in foreclosed homes and leaving them sitting abandoned out on the curbside.  I thought to myself, if you’re paid to do that for a living, then you’re no longer a human being.  Your card has been permanently revoked.

In terms of lighter fare, my favorite narrative feature at the festival was the runaway French hit The Intouchables, which is now playing in theaters and is also the highest-grossing box office smash in any language other than English.  That makes perfect sense, since I can’t imagine anyone not thoroughly enjoying this film.  From its clever and sleekly stylized flash-forward opening sequence, which tricks the audience into thinking that the movie will be a fast-paced thriller or action flick, it’s clear that The Intouchables won’t be your standard Odd Couple-style buddy comedy.

The movie’s premise is simple.  Philippe (François Cluzet, pitch-perfect), a wealthy tetraplegic who’s confined to a motorized wheelchair, unexpectedly hires Driss (the extraordinary Omar Sy), a wise-cracking Senegalese immigrant, to be his caretaker.  Driss had only come to interview for the job in order to have his unemployment paperwork authorized, but Philippe knows that he’ll have a much better time hanging out with the no-bullshit Driss, especially in comparison to the other uptight stiffs and slouches who interview for the position. 

The pair goes hang-gliding, street racing, and even dances to the fantastic Earth, Wind and Fire-laced soundtrack together.  The film’s genuine hilarity is matched by its genuine emotion, the kind that’s better to experience first-hand than simply have described for you in a review.  It’s definitely the can’t-miss comedy of the summer, if not the year, in spite of the fact that it’s a fairly formula-based affair overall.  (Omar Sy even beat out The Artist’s Jean Dujardin for Best Actor at the César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars.)

Coincidentally, my second- favorite narrative feature of the festival was another film from France, but an animated one.  Le Tableau (The Painting), directed by Jean-François Laguionie, is a delightful, color-splashed confection of a movie, but a confection with some contemplative (if unpretentious) depth as well.  Characters inside a painting in an artist’s studio come alive, tumble out of the painting, and venture into the new worlds of other paintings elsewhere in the studio.  While the film works perfectly well for children and young people, it’s equally successful for adults, and its more covert themes are perhaps even better suited to mature mindsets.

Some subtextual implications arise in the naming of the two groups of painted characters in the film:  the Allduns and the Sketchies.  As their names suggest, the Allduns are figures that the artist has already completed, whereas the Sketchies are half-done cartoons of figures that are yet to be painted.  The Allduns are forever causing trouble and lording their superiority over the Sketchies.  (Insert your preferred thematic instance of social hegemony here:  race, class, etc.).

Yet the film’s overarching allegory is all about creation.  The characters who escape their painting are longing to meet the person who painted them, and who left some of them half-done because, as it turns out, the woman he loved had betrayed and left him.  In his frustration, he’d slashed and destroyed some of the canvases.  A wonderfully complex dialogue with the artist’s self-portrait takes place; he even comments on the nude painting of a reclining woman across the room, “Look at her ... she’s still in love with him.”

This allegorical investigation of time and creation manifests, ultimately, as an allegory of our search for the Creator.  Religion is never once invoked throughout the entire film — this is, after all, a children’s text on its surface — but by the final scene, it’s clear that we’ve been heading quietly in that direction all along.  One character makes her way out into the sprawling field behind the artist’s studio, at which point the movie blends live action with animation.  She finds the old, white-bearded painter working on a study of the landscape. Satisfied at having finally encountered her creator, she ventures, “Now I just want to meet the person who painted you.”

I was sorry to miss Kirby Dick’s latest documentary The Invisible War, a treatise on the very tragic issue of rape in the United States military, and winner of the audience award for best documentary at the festival. I simply couldn’t fit the film into my tight schedule, unfortunately, but I’m glad to know that I’ll have a chance to see it at the cinema when it’s released here in Boston next month. I look forward to viewing the film, despite (and also because of) its rigorous subject matter.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Time to Leave (dir. François Ozon, 2005)

I’m very excited to attend the annual Provincetown Film Festival later this week, my eighth year at the festival and my third year reviewing it for my blog.  (Look for my report on the highlights of this year’s festival here sometime next week.)  Back in 2006, my favorite film at the festival was François Ozon’s masterful and heartbreaking Time to Leave, which has one of the saddest, most beautiful endings of any film I’ve ever seen.

Based on his other films that I’ve watched (Hideaway/Le Refuge and several short films), Ozon is clearly among the most gifted filmmakers of his generation, and certainly also one of its best gay screenwriters/directors.  The gay themes are quite central in Time to Leave, though always seamlessly incorporated and never stilted or overstated.  Romain, portrayed by the handsome Melvil Poupaud in a rigorous and finely modulated performance, is an in-demand fashion photographer who lives in Paris with his younger blond boyfriend, Sasha (Christian Sengewald).  Early in the movie, Romain suddenly blacks out and collapses during a photo shoot.  A doctor diagnoses him with a malignant tumor and gives him only three months to live.  Forced to make an excruciating decision, Romain chooses not to be treated for the illness.

Instead, he begins to sever ties almost immediately with those closest to him.  He disrupts a family dinner by harshly criticizing his sister, Sophie (Louise-Anne Hippeau), with whom he’s often been at odds, and he breaks off his relationship with Sasha, making him move out of their apartment.  All of this transpires as he refrains from telling any of them about his terminal diagnosis, a way of sparing them the pain of knowing, ultimately.

The only family member whom Romain informs about his illness is his supportive and soft-spoken grandmother, Laura (played by Poupaud’s actual grandmother, the French screen legend Jeanne Moreau).  The two share a moving scene at her country home, exchanging carefully crafted, heartfelt dialogue that emphasizes their mutual solitude and feelings toward their imminent mortality. Laura encourages Romain, just as his physician did, to try to overcome the cancer. And while she respects her grandson's decision not to undergo chemotherapy treatments, she’s also devastated by the loss that she will soon have to face.

I’ve often wondered if I would do the same thing as Romain if I ever found myself in his position.  The world has been disenchanting enough to me — and the idea of “fighting” a terminal disease off-putting enough — that I can readily relate to Romain’s situation, and perhaps even empathize with it.  As the late critic Susan Sontag wisely argued in her 1988 book AIDS and Its Metaphors, “The body is not a battlefield,” and we are not “authorized to fight back” against diseases in the militaristic sense, whenever our bodies are assumed to be under attack.  Cancers and viruses are just natural biological occurrences, and the idea of “battling” them means that their bearers have lost the battle in the event that they die, to some extent unfairly placing the blame on them.  Paraphrasing Lucretius in her conclusion, Sontag urges us to hand the militaristic metaphor for fighting illnesses “back to the war-makers.”

It’s not coincidental to mention AIDS in relation to Time to Leave; AIDS is actually mentioned in the diagnostic stage of Romain’s health crisis, and again later during an important subplot.  Any gay man beyond the age of thirty who watches this film about a young gay man helplessly (but bravely) enduring a debilitating, life-threatening illness won’t be able to avoid the comparison.  In fact, by the movie’s end, several older gay men sitting in front of me at the festival screening were crying very real tears, no doubt partly due to those associations.

Ozon’s films always place the body in a central position of interest.  His camera is obviously attracted to Poupaud’s lanky frame and darkly delicate facial features here.  The one-take scene in which Romain buzzes off his curly head of hair is a kind of face-off with the camera (and his character) regarding the excesses of beauty.  And a scene featuring Romain in bed with Sasha doesn’t shy away from showing Poupaud fully aroused, just as his character would be in real life.  The interplay of bodies on the screen in Ozon’s films is both lush and overt, intimate and threatened.  Somehow he manages to capture the boldness and vulnerability of the body at once, its naked directness and its shy hesitation; the same words could be used to describe the characters’ emotional interplay as well.  What’s whispered between characters (and unheard by the audience) in Ozon’s films is as crucial as the spoken dialogue that we hear.

This is especially true during the film’s key subplot.  A young married couple (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Walter Pagano), who work at a roadside café that Romain frequents, casually approach him to ask if he will help them father a child, due to the husband’s infertility.  I doubt that the scene in which the threesome consummates this act could be more expertly handled than it is by Mr. Ozon and these actors.  Many movies have attempted it, surely, and most others have fallen short on some level, emotionally, sexually, or otherwise.

As Romain grows frailer and his energy wanes while cancer runs its course, he’s also genuinely pleased that he’ll have an heir, and that he’s given two other people such a generous gift as his final gesture. Knowing that his end is near, he boards a train to a remote coastal town, where he goes swimming alone on a crowded beach, echoing the footsteps of his boyhood self from the film’s opening images.  He then lies down on his towel one last time as the beach gradually empties and the sun slowly ticks down to the line of the horizon.

Melvil Poupaud shed a good deal of weight to match his character’s physical state, and as the actor approaches this final scene, he seems at times almost unable to bear the gravity of losing a gorgeous and promising young man at such an early age. And despite François Ozon’s peerless cinematic composure in the last few frames, it’s clear that he felt exactly the same way.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Eileen Myles, Inferno: A Poet's Novel (O/R Books, 2010) and Snowflake / different streets (Wave Books, 2012)

Especially if you’re a poet, Eileen Myles’ Inferno: A Poet’s Novel is an addicting read, almost like a drug, or at least it was for me.  I kept reading and reading to see whose name would be mentioned next.  Eileen has forged her path and made her own name on the New York art scene from the mid-1970s up to the present day, so the roster of people who appear in the pages of this literary tell-all is deep and vast.  At a cursory glance and just for starters (let’s try this out alphabetically rather than chronologically): John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Ted Berrigan, Jim Carroll, Gregory Corso, Hart Crane, Tim Dlugos, Allen Ginsberg, June Jordan, Bill Knott, Michael Lally, Joan Larkin, Robert Lowell, Carson McCullers, Alice Notley, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, Marge Piercy, Rene Ricard, Adrienne Rich, Aram Saroyan, James Schuyler, Patti Smith, Anne Waldman.

Back in November of 2001, I invited Eileen to give a talk in conjunction with a course on queer identity that I teach at Emerson College in Boston.  I recall that she brilliantly described how exactly the New York art scene operates:  it's a grid of intersecting friendships that overlays the gridded map of the city’s intersecting streets and avenues.  The above list of writers whom Myles encountered in her everyday life makes it clear just how precise her metaphor is.  And most of the poets on this list are ones whom Eileen met when they were in the early stages of their careers.  As she wisely remarks, “There’s no mystery why poetry is so elaborately practiced by the young.  The material of the poems is energy itself, not even language.  Words come later.”

Myles’ Inferno is “a poet’s novel” in several senses:  it’s written for poets, largely about poets, and most importantly, it explores the life and artistic evolution of the author herself, focusing mainly on her development as a poet.  It’s Eileen’s inferno because (in addition to spending some time beside an erupting Hawaiian volcano) she’s our Virgil throughout the book, which is just like Eileen’s generosity — as her readers, we get to be Dante, even though she’s the one who’s writing.  Also just like Eileen:  her poet's autobiography is a long and twisted road through the descending circles of hell that ends in a subtitled section called “Heaven.”

Commenting on the narrative mode of the book late in the novel, Myles says, “It’s easy to write an autobiography if the absence in the story is me.  I remember applying to art school in 1967, staying up late, and I saw my reflection in the black glass of the night.  When a window becomes a mirror.  Who do I think I am sitting here now, deeper in that life.”  There’s a wonderfully prescient echo of that passage very early in the book, too, when Eileen remembers her late nights of studying at her desk as a student at UMass Boston:  “Sometimes in utter hopelessness I put my cheek on the table like it was someone.  I wanted to wake my brain up and be loved.”

The first section of the novel interweaves several narrative strands:  Eileen’s youth and education in Boston, her early years as a poet after her move to New York, and a more specific story about a night that she and another woman spent as hired escorts for a pair of visiting Italian businessmen.  (Just read the book yourself to see how that one turns out.)  The self-consciously postmodern move of the book’s second section:  to incorporate the actual manuscript of a grant proposal that will fund the writing of the novel itself, complete with lots of underlined, presumably typewritten words instead of italicized ones.  It feels like a smart move, as opposed to feeling like a ploy.  After all, Eileen’s Inferno is about how a writer makes her way in the world, and part of that is about money, grant applications being perhaps the best source of it.

In fact, Eileen’s many commentaries on class and survival provide the book with its most distinctive and valuable insights, highlighting the link between starving artists and their unofficial patrons.  Like few other writers can, Eileen manages to pack an entire lifetime of experience into a single paragraph, along with some really sage advice:

“Often, the person in the loft and the little apartment or room know each other.  This is the traditional definition of cool.  Because rich people need poor friends (but not too poor!) to maintain their connection to the struggle that spawned them even if they never struggled.  Poor people tend to know what’s going on plus they are often good-looking, at least when they are young and even later they are cool interesting people the rich person once slept with, so the poor person always feathers the nests of the rich.  If something bad happens to the poor person, the rich person would help.  Everyone knows that.  An artist’s responsibility for a very long time is to get collected, socially.”

For instance, Myles was fortunate to live for two years, on and off, at the country estate of a wealthy New York couple, somewhere way out in the woods of Pennsylvania.  She describes her time there, and the solitary, dedicated work of writing her poems, as a kind of spiritual journey, one that liberated her from all of the trappings of society and its litany of invasive constructs:  “I took my shirt off and I simply became no one, no name, no sex, just moving alive across the land with a dog.  Art brought me this.”  She even begins to say a quiet little prayer each morning, appropriately, before she starts to write.  And who else but Eileen could get totally, convincingly philosophical about watching her dog Rosie take a shit?

I’ve always loved how Eileen Myles’ thoughts and language swim on the page, darting around here and there, impulsive and spontaneous, but also patient and fluid.  That kind of movement is gorgeously examined in the title poem of her 1997 book School of Fish.  At one point in Inferno, she even devotes a whole chapter to wondering what the fish inside an aquarium might be thinking and saying to each other behind the glass.

Eileen’s latest collection of poetry, released just this year, is actually two collections, a tête-bêche book called Snowflake / different streets.  During a reading at Boston’s Brookline Booksmith earlier this month, Myles commented that the idea was for the two books to be shoved together “like they’re fucking.”  She also mentioned that the poems are the product of living in two dramatically different locations; half of the poems (Snowflake) were written during her five years of teaching at UC San Diego, while the other half (different streets) were written after her return to living in New York.  When I asked her after the reading how the places affected her poems, she responded that the effect was quite literal, in the same way that singers from different countries in ancient times cultivated different styles of singing because their voices rolled and echoed differently as they yodeled and shouted across the shapes of their respective landscapes.

The poems in Snowflake actually seem to be influenced a little more by light than by shape.  In the poem titled “Day,” Eileen re-shades her surroundings as a child’s watercolor:

“She perceives
as a paint by
leaping into
a dark two
a puddle
to the hump
of her breathing”

These poems are populated equally by clusters of separately shining cars in Los Angeles and raccoons spotted on the tails of airplanes.  Myles even conducts a cute conversation with her cat in the poem “Eileen” (“Why can / you have a / giant plate / of pasta / and I can / no longer have / my crunchy / treats  Why / am I served / up a cold / fish plate. / you’re not / so thin / Eileen”).  Snowflake is about both attention itself and attention to change, particularly, as in the opening poem, “Transitions”:

“what’s not technology
what’s not seeing
an arm to say
I hold the
line   I hold
the day
I watch the snowflake

A sequence of poems transcribed from digital recordings in Snowflake is balanced out by a sequence of poems written with a stolen, oversized pencil in different streets.  In “#6 in and out,” Eileen’s a “cute 50 something top” who submits a playful personal ad that also riffs on the aging process for queers:  “Anyone / can be beautiful / at 19 or 30.  This / is life.  Take a deep / breath.”  The hilarious poem “the nervous entertainment” finds her living in the home of celebrated artist Catherine Opie, while other pieces trace the history and streets of Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod; “all the places are connected / thus the endless / beauty.”  A poem about the name of Eileen’s girlfriend contains a mighty vortex of an aesthetic notion:

“to write
is a form
of accounting
& approximate
in the sunny
mouth of

Eileen Myles is still crafting one of the most indelible bodies of literature in our own time.  Through gently navigated waves of tension, restraint, and release, the vital part of Eileen’s writing is always — even more than its rambunctious voice — its heart.  Not a paper cut-out heart, but the real heart, bloody and raw and throbbing.  And it knows what its job is:  to keep the body of the poem alive.