cool for you by Eileen Myles

by j.serpico


the heartbeat of time

A black-and-white photograph of Eileen Myles hangs over my computer. I consider the picture reassuring, an incitement to write from the heart and to always avoid the conventional and logical paths to writing, to consider a text as one would a map: a page sits within itself, reliant on neither the previous nor the following pages. For a greater context further reading — an unfolding of the map in its entirety — is encouraged, but never required. The journey is particularized on each page. To know where one is, is not to know where one is going.

Perhaps I sound overly esoteric, but I think Myles would approve. Myles is primarily a poet, cool for you being her first published book-length work of prose. Much of her poetry contains a radiant immediacy, a caught-up-in-the-moment feel. Events unfold, but do not transpire. Time is unfailingly detailed, but never seems to leave the present. The moments she describes linger in the forever everyday, the now. In her book Not Me, this is captured in the poem “Mal Maison”:

cover art

Cool for You

Eileen Myles

(Soft Skull Press)

And so I got some marigolds
instead of slitting
my wrists tonight.
And guess what I
had to live through
today—hanging on
to the phone with
my desperate wrist
on Sunday, guess
what I had to
live through, what
new shame, humiliation
rejection which I guess
is also worth it, I guess
it is, right, I could be
dead, right—and this
is so much better.

In cool for you the moment described competes for dominance and resonance with the moment of description: “I know I’ve told you this before but I’m lonely tonight and it’s raining out.” At any given time, how an event or a feeling is expressed remains strongly bound to the particular moment of expression. Myles both emphasizes this pattern and continuously defies it, her novel unfolding through a series of willfully disconnected chronologies. Her voice is the thread that binds each tale, each page, each image.

Yet Myles’s words do not exist in her own personal vacuum. There is a struggling effort to place her thoughts and perspectives into a larger continuum:

For this was I born, for this came I into the world?...You’re familiar, I suppose, with these disappointed words of Christ. I’ve often thought of a female Christ. Mostly the world can’t take it. Because of people’s feelings about the delicacy of women and also because of what a meaningless display female suffering simply is. If you belittle us in school, treat us like slaves at home and finally, if you get a woman alone in bed just tell her she’s all wrong, no matter what sex you are…

These are the words of someone well-versed in the theories and iconography of Catholicism, tinged by a childhood spent in working-class poverty in the small-town suburbs outside of Boston. cool for you spins itself through multiple expositions of a girl child’s everyday and into an adult woman’s retrospection. It is an autobiographical novel that speaks in a vernacular first-person voice which resists the typical and linear approaches to storytelling, working instead alongside moments and anecdotes that seem spontaneous and improvised.

cool for you is divided into three sections: “North Building,” “In the West,” and “To Go Home.” The divisions would appear arbitrary, as the tales told — a grandmother’s descent into insanity, a father’s early death due to alcoholism, a string of minimum-wage jobs which culminate in a stint at an institution for the mentally ill, and an adolescence built on self-sufficiency — wind through the book at will. After just a few dozen pages, the fragments and memories begin to haphazardly arrange themselves, and the figure of Eileen Myles emerges: “I was living a life that I wrote, all these disappointing and confusing things would be perceived in a book, one that was read, and then it would be okay, the world I was in. I imagined a book that forgave.”

Myles’s voice is directed at the reader in a tone that veers between confession and questioning. Her stories are true, or at least they seem true to her. She’s said it all before — she skips from childhood to middle-age to adolescence and back, and she admits she might even be lying: “I might be making this up, but the house I grew up in cost my parents $13,000.” Facts are relative and maybe even irrelevant, as this “autobiography” admits outright that what matters, what rings true, are not expositions that generate accuracy. For Myles, to be honest and real and true is to speak of moments in a way that is most closely related to the feelings gleaned from those moments; the details may be rigged, but what these tweaked and polished and maybe even misrepresented confessions evoke is never less than real.

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