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National Treasure: Custodian of Consciousness
on June 10, 2001
Eileen Myles's Cool For You rocks so hard it hurts. Like most memoirs, it's moving, and often sad, but where other books devolve into wee wistful prettiness, Cool For You stays rigorous- like a breaststroke, performed again, and again, and again.
Ms Myles inhabits several different descriptors- Irish Catholic, working class, lesbian, alcoholic...- which she refuses to codify into "identities", though illumines beautifully nonetheless. It's embarrassing to admit, but here I am at age 30 reading the book, and for the first time in my life really getting the horror of the snares set out for people just based on class alone. But, anyway, Ms. Myles brings all this to vivid reality before her reader- like her tale of working in a rancid home for mentally retarded adults, hungover, and bingeing on fistfuls of M&Ms- the candy used on the patients for behavior modification. Occasionally she'll switch gears entirely, putting aside the story-telling mantle and delving into off-the-cuff but nevertheless brillaint philosophizing, like the mini-rant about why the image of a female Christ could never power a whole vast culture like the male version has, because the figure of a suffering woman is a given, if not a redundancy.
Myles is a philosopher from an alien logical system- one where no one ever, ever tries to make a totalizing statement.
As a big fan of Ms. Myles' poetry, I believe that the book's flat-footed, precarious, lyrical, and epigrammatic voice stems from decades of verse-making, esp. of the hip and savvy New York School style that she is the sole remaining inheritor of. Her metaphors and descriptions are just this side (-the genius side) of disaster- in the hands of anyone else- anyone who had the slightest lapse of faith they'd collapse, leaving a big old mess. In her hands though, they punch you through conditioned ways of seeing into something rougher, and more beautiful.
An eastern European writer (Vaclav Havel? Milan Kundera?) once said something to the effect that no one actually cares about the future- that for both nation-states and the individual control of the future is only appealing in so far as it means control of the past- rewriting the official history to come out always looking good. But neither Myles' voice nor story(s) are self-seeking. Coincident with this she never tries to crystallize the past, to present it as one whit more fixed or comprehensible than right here right now, you the person reading these words. (The running story of her instutionalized grandmother, to whom the book is dedicated, is a toccata of gaps, mysteries, and paraphrase.) A conscious, chosen, and endlessly repeated act of moment-by-moment non-resolution.
That's rare discretion, and so very precious. If it were up to me, Eileen Myles would be a National Treasure.