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Well I’ll be a poet.
What could be more
foolish and obscure.
I became a lesbian.
From “An American Poem” by Eileen Myles
Inferno is a chameleon. Some readers will come to Inferno (OR Books) for its story about how to become a poet. Some readers will want its imaginative history of New York in the 1970s. Some readers will zero in on the sex. Some readers will pick it up for the author’s name on the cover. None of these readers will be disappointed. Inferno is a mash-up of fiction, social, economic and cultural commentary, ars poetica, history, and satire. Unlike what the title suggests, Inferno is more hellacious than hell-like, more brazen than fiery blazes, more brimming than brimstone.
One reading of Inferno is as the stylized ramblings of a narrator coming into adulthood in New York in the 1970s. The novel opens with the narrator’s observation about the ass of her English professor and includes various escapades involving work, sex, and survival. This might lead readers to believe that Inferno is a “coming of age” story or even a “coming out” story, but the book resists both categories. Inferno is both and neither.
Inferno is also a dossier of the lifework of a writer, though it resists that assignation as well. Myles presents part of the book as a grant application to the “Ferdinand Foundation,” along the way lampooning the philanthropic systems of arts funding, but Inferno resists the formula of grant writing. While the dossier of Myles is distinguished, for readers unfamiliar with Myles’s body of work, Inferno, even with the trope of a grant application, provides no easy narrative of her many achievements.
Inferno is also an intellectual genealogy. Though again, this moniker is not accurate and the text resists the label. Inferno is as much as it isn’t an intellectual genealogy. There is a reading of Inferno that traces Myles’s development as a poet in relationship to poetry formations in New York, particularly the East Village and St. Mark’s Poetry Project; poets like Hart Crane, Robert Creeley, Alice Notley, and others make prominent appearances in Inferno with the suggestions that all were central to shaping Myles’s writing and thinking. Yet Inferno is not a book of remembrances of great teachers; Myles mentions teachers and mentors more often as characters with quirks and tics rather than as sages or Charon.
Although Inferno complements Patti Smith’s recollections of Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids, particularly as both are located in the same moment in history, Inferno is not a book that remembers famous people before they were famous, just as it doesn’t revere people who are famous today. In the book trailer for Inferno, Myles says, “It seemed to me that poets should be loved and respected when they are alive and shat upon when they are dead.” Thirty-five years ago, she enacted this philosophy with a poem about Robert Lowell titled, “On the Death of Robert Lowell,” which included the line, “The guy was a loon,” among other, more provocative, lines. Myles reflects on her intention to “say these awful things about this dead man” and affirms, “It was a great pleasure.” In the end, Myles is a true iconoclast, more interested in seeing how icons are dismantled than in burnishing her own status as an icon.
Although Myles recounts writers that influenced her explicitly in Inferno, particularly Alice Notley and James Schuyler, I am interested in an implicit genealogy of Myles as a writer, which places her in a tradition of lesbian writers, particularly Jill Johnston and Gertrude Stein. Many have noted the recent passing of Jill Johnston, famed for her direct action on the floor of Town Hall when she was appearing on a panel about women’s liberation with Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, and Diana Trilling moderated by Norman Mailer. As Johnston neared the end of her speech that evening in 1971, she and two other women passionately kissed, first standing on the stage and then rolling on the floor; Mailer famously sputtered, “Come on, Jill, be a lady.”
Today, Johnston’s book Lesbian Nation is more referenced than read; in fact, Myles notes, visiting a friend’s room in New York, “on the bookshelf I saw Lesbian Nation, Mothers and Amazons.” (Inferno 165) The words “Lesbian Nation” today suggest history—a formation of lesbianism and feminism from the early 1970s; Lesbian Nation seems like a relic, even Johnston described it as “a period piece.” Yet, the power Lesbian Nation evoked and continues to evoke is not a remnant of the past. Rereading Johnston’s Lesbian Nation, I was amazed by the stylistic and intellectual resonances of Inferno and Lesbian Nation.
Johnston’s argument is, in brief, that the feminist revolution “is a battle not only to wrest control from the men but to confront the women ourselves with the spectacle of our collaboration with the men in maintaining our helpless position. The tool of revolution is consciousness.” (Lesbian Nation 263) Johnston argues that through the revolution of consciousness:
All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it naturally they are but don’t know it yet I am a woman who is a lesbian because I am a woman and a woman who loves herself naturally who is other women is a lesbian a woman who loves women loves herself naturally this is the case that a woman is herself is all woman is a natural born lesbian so we don’t mind using the name like any name it is quite meaningless it means naturally I am a woman and whatever I am we are we affirm being what we are…” (Lesbian Nation 266.)
In this iconic passage, which was first spoken at Town Hall in front of a filled auditorium, Johnston’s ideas are expressed in a stream of consciousness style that layers phrases upon one another evoking a meaning that is fluid and emergent.
Johnston surprised me. Not the ideas, many lesbians were thinking about and repeating Johnston’s ideas about lesbianism and lesbian separatism throughout the 1970s, but Johnston’s style. In the seven chapters of Lesbian Nation, most are written as a single paragraph. Each chapter is a large block of text with long meandering sentences. Johnston rambles and explores her mind; she references personal experiences and attends to the metaphoric, political, and social meanings of those experiences; throughout this exploratory discursive structure, however, Johnston still weaves a narrative, which ultimately becomes a polemic. Myles’s discursive strategy in Inferno is similar to Johnston’s in Lesbian Nation in eerie and palpable ways.
This way of thinking and writing doesn’t begin with Johnston; it reaches back to the prose of Gertrude Stein in The Making of Americans. The Making of Americans is Stein’s great modernist novel. Now, to be fair, to see the connections between Stein, Johnston, and Myles, one can easily look at Stein’s poetry. The stream of consciousness, the repetition, the construction of clauses that overlap and build on one another, the way that thinking unfolds on the page are all evident in Stein’s poetry, but her achievements in The Making of Americans help us to understand Stein’s ambitions and the breadth and depth of her intellectual and literary engagements. The Making of Americans is a huge novel of nearly a thousand pages, in which Stein explores not only an American family but also about the entirety of the creation of America. About a quarter of the way through the novel, Stein writes:
I will tell about it now in women because it comes easier to them about it in them; more and more, then I will tell about it in men. It is the same in men as in women but it separates a little clearer in women and so it will make a kind of diagram for a beginning. As I was saying I like to tell in the beginning, I like better to tell it about women the nature in them because it is clearer and I know it better, a little not very much better. One can see it in her sooner, a little, not very much sooner, but on the whole it is clearer, things are more separate generally in her, perhaps it is a little clearer in her, perhaps I know it a little better in her. (Stein, 255)
Stein’s idiosyncratic syntactical structures, “perhaps I know it a little better in her,” are echoed in Johnston’s sentences, “I am a woman who is a lesbian because I am a woman,” and in Myles’s sentences. Consider this passage from Inferno where Myles writes:
A thing that was always so difficult about feminism was that it didn’t contain a boy. Nobody wanted to deal with that part, so I just always felt dirty and poor. A boy was my secret part, so where should I put that? Even if I was a feminist I would still have a evil secret baby. Myself. I wrote a poem called Misogyny. Not for the book, I mean I had it hanging around so I sent it to them. It expressed my confusion. It was punk. Misogyny got rejected. I was destroyed. How would I ever get to be female. What was I? (Inferno 178.)
Here Myles’s humor is similar to both Johnston and Stein, and, although the configurations of gender are different for each of the authors, the sense of transgression and exploration are as evident in Myles as they are in Johnston and Stein. Ultimately, the mind in Inferno, and how we explore it reading the book, is similar to the mind and how we explore it in Johnston’s Lesbian Nation and Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Situating Myles in relationship to Stein and Johnston is not genealogy that Myles suggests explicitly in Inferno. This genealogy labels her “lesbian” and “feminist” in particular ways; Myles resists the suggestion. In Inferno, Myles has an uneasy relationship with a particular formation of lesbian-feminism in New York in the 1970s. Upon realizing “there were lesbian poetry magazines. . .one called Aphra, one called Thirteenth Moon,” Myles noted, “clearly it was a trickle and it might dry up. You didn’t want to get caught there.” (Inferno 172) Later she writes, “The feminists seemed so serious, even when it was about sex. They taught in college and seemed rich. They just weren’t hip.” (Inferno 182) Myles and her crew in Inferno are, of course, always hip; although I wonder how Myles sees herself now after teaching gigs at University of California-San Diego, University of Montana, and Washington University, among others. Serious? Sexy? Hip? In fact, Myles is an icon to various groups of younger feminists. She dedicates Inferno to Michelle Tea, toured with Sister Spit, and Bitch Magazine paid tribute to her. She is, if not like the feminists she disliked in the 1970s, a new breed of feminist in the 90s and 00s who is admired, even revered. While Myles seems to have a vexed relationship with the label of feminist in particular situations, she never eschews the label lesbian – or queer. This is why situating her in relationship to Stein and Johnston seems both appropriate and apt as a way to suggest the power and import of her achievement in Inferno.
The sheer scope of Inferno can make it difficult, even unwieldy. Myles’s attention as a writer jumps frenetically at times and her cast of characters is large and constantly in motion. Yet, the ambition of this novel and the fine writing—the moments of extraordinary imagination, the keen observations that Myles makes at every turn, the dazzling insights that delight page after page—make Inferno an important contribution not only to Myles’s oeuvre but to the continuing legacy of ‘lesbian literature’ or if one prefers a less narrow category, “American literature.”
INFERNO: A POET’S NOVEL
By Eileen Myles
ISBN: 9780984295081, Paperback, 256p, $16