‘The Thrilling Teeth of Feeling Everything at Once: A Review of Eileen Myles’s “Chelsea Girls”’, by Emma Marie Jones


On the coffee table ventti filters spill loose like pieces of a board game. You can’t buy them in those long sticks anymore unless you know which 7-eleven to hit up and it turns out I don’t. Bobby pins and twenty-cent pieces and two cans of vb, the one with a greasy glittery ring of lip gloss round the hole (that one is mine) on top of my book. On top of Eileen Myles’s face. There’s a piece of tobacco above her lip, a lip photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe one time when Eileen was coming down from speed, a lip in her own words “cruel and suspicious”, and the tobacco looks kind of like a moustache. Which is funny because in the book Eileen is always talking about how she feels like a woman but she looks like a boy. How she likes to look like a boy. How she gave the portrait to her mother to hang on her wall where it, being art, looked kind of weird maybe with the happy snaps around it like you know all these kids on porches and then Eileen’s face, cruel and suspicious, eyes glassy and deadened with the speed. A poet’s gaze must always be unflinching. How else could it catch everything?

You know that sound ice makes when it’s cracking in your cup? Like it’s settling in. It always makes me think of the horrible tearing noises made by the Titanic as it was going down. Not that I was there but I saw the film. Was it the Titanic that made those noises, the severing of metal, or was it the ice? The groaning shifting ocean cracking its cold spine. Yeah! I like the terror of it. The bigness. The much smaller ice in our glasses makes much smaller versions of those sounds and nicer sounds too clinking sounds and some guy borrows our novelty sexy hunk cigarette lighter and comments on the novelty sexy hunk and we exchange a look that says we both know he thinks we’re stupid but this lighter is 1) a cute joke and 2) a deep commentary on the prevalence and inanity of the male gaze lol hehe.

But what about my gaze? What about the way we gaze at each other when we each think the other isn’t looking. What about the power of a gaze to puncture truth and to puncture fiction in exactly the same way? Like okay, imagine reality’s a piece of paper folded in half and the gaze pierces it right through the middle then you open it and there are two holes—which hole’s the truth? Writing’s an act of witnessing that folds the piece of paper back in half again. The truth and fiction are two different holes but when you line them up and look through both at once you see exactly the same thing. Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls, I think, is kind of like that.

The copy of Chelsea Girls the publishers mailed me is a reissue. We’re celebrating twenty years of what the book’s about which is being a writing drinking fucking tripping stealing starving lesbian poet in New York’s East Village in the 1970s and 1980s. But no. I mean yes it’s about those things, but when you look underneath those things Chelsea Girls is a book about, well, looking. It’s a book about watching and recording, holding transient things to keep them real. But what is real? Rachel Hurn writes in The Paris Review, “Chelsea Girls is a book of prose that reads like memoir and is called fiction. I didn’t know this at the time. I thought it was all true, all about Myles, and in a big way I still think so.” I didn’t know this either, but I thought so too: it’s about Eileen Myles the celebrated poet, or Eileen Myles the fictional character who is also a celebrated poet, or it’s about both. What happens to one Eileen happens to both Eileens. What happens to either Eileen is true.

Whether it’s a factual truth or an inner emotional truth or a chosen and doctored truth doesn’t matter. It’s really happening, it’s happening on the page and it’s happening to me, to me, in me and for me cos she’s giving it to me that way, Eileen, she’s manipulating real events or embellishing them or telling them to me exactly as she remembers them happening and I don’t care which because things are only true if you think they are anyway. Chelsea Girls offers us one lens through which to view small events that make up a time and a place that we have come to view as iconic: the East Village of the poets. Like the folded piece of paper, this lens of Eileen’s perception is the puncture that aligns memory and invention so you can see them both at once. It’s what led Hurn in her reading—and me in mine—to believe all of Chelsea Girls was true. Or maybe just to shrug off the idea there is only one way something can be true.

Dissecting the borderspaces between contemporary fiction and non-fiction, Geoff Dyer writes in The Guardian, “all that matters is that the reader can’t see the joins, that there is no textural change between reliable fabric and fabrication.” Look mate, idk. Sure, technique’s important: blending hard fact with poetics takes skill and practice, and I’m pretty excited as both a reader and a writer of non-fiction that the mainstream literary scene has begun to recognise creative ‘texture’, to use Dyer’s own phrase, as a legitimate way to approach and tell non-fiction. I’ll also concede that textural change in a written work—unless executed with precision, deliberation and self-awareness—is 100 per cent guaranteed to piss off any editor. But why should the intersections between fiction and non-fiction be rendered invisible? Prioritising a blending, a blurring of these intersections as “all that matters”—shit, acknowledging a need to blend at all—presupposes a binary model of opposition between literary truth and non-truth that to me feels purist, restrictive and old-fashioned. How can we assess moments in history, be they lived, real or imagined, and separate them into the simple categories of “reliable fabric” and supposedly unreliable “fabrication” when nothing as we perceive it in the moment could possibly be classified this way? And what makes fabrication so unreliable, anyway?

Chelsea Girls forces you to rely on the unreliable. Eileen tells you that she’s making half this shit up, but she doesn’t tell you which half: “I just started doing this thing,” she writes, fried and frisky and needing to pee, “between remembering and imagining. Last night I’m taking what happened and unspooling each look into a conversation as they really were.” The entire work is set in this space between remembering and imagining. You never know which version of events made it into the book. There are no signposts to tell you when you’re slipping from the real, remembered East Village into Eileen’s imagined one. You never notice a textural change, but you can see the seams. Eileen points to them. According to Dyer’s model, this should make her more untrustworthy, but it doesn’t: it makes her more honest, more relatable. Here—in this space between remembering and imagining, in this private and intimate fissure of memoir and memory—here, it doesn’t matter. Here, it’s all true.

In this interview with Broadly, Eileen was all, “I love retweeting because it’s like, what does it become once you’ve rewrapped it?” And I was all, trust a poet to see RTs not as social media capital but as a new and fun and experimental way to process and present a lil nug of truth. Cos what else is memoir but a rewrapping of events, and the author’s own perception the wrapping paper? Within Chelsea Girls, though, there’s an extra layer of perception that acts as a double-wrapping: the author’s awareness of being perceived. Eileen calls it “the ghost of being watched”, and there are multiple watchers: Eileen watches herself, writes herself watching herself, writes herself being watched by others and knows, all the while, that this teeming exchange of looking and watching and gazing and witnessing is being read. Eileen writes every word aware that her readers’ gazes will pierce the paper, will make multiple holes in the page of her reality, each one rendering its own truth: she writes her way around this by permitting this, by simultaneously creating and witnessing her own multiplicity, poeticising it.

These acts of self-witnessing construct Eileen for us as we read them and, doubly, for herself, self-consciously, as she writes them. The result is a book that’s thick with looking. The fluid gaze transcends memory, chronology, physiology. Using the gaze as vehicle Eileen shifts without warning—and without needing warning—from 1980s New York to the 1960s Massachusetts of Eileen’s childhood and back again. The gaze, when applied to language—or maybe language when applied to the gaze—forces time to be non-chronological, forces it to squeeze into weird spots it wouldn’t normally, and we slip between past and present Eileens, between protagonist and author Eileens so fluidly we often don’t even realise it.

Even with all this slippage and experimentation, we are conditioned to trust authorial perception. And we do trust it, and through its subjective lens we see or at least we believe we see Eileen tripping on acid at an opening at Parsons, watching the women and their toady skin; Eileen as a girl cutting her knee open on a bottle of Walker’s orange tonic. Eileen being pissed on by her lover, “fascinated by the acrid taste”; Eileen hungry at some little kid’s birthday party watching all the parents like they’re aliens; Eileen reciting a poem called “Roast Chicken” to some cops, “wishing you / were / all of mine / and I / was only / yours”; Eileen watching her father die; Eileen making French toast for Jimmy Schuyler in the Chelsea Hotel while a waitress waits in a bed upstairs with tits for her to suck on until checkout time; Eileen waiting for a rebate cheque so she can buy tampax. Eileen! I hear you! A poet counting coins! Cut to me, twenty years later, squatting inconsequentially on the carpet by the mirror piling fifty-cent coins and then twenties then tens then finally (here the coins are so small they can no longer dam the desperation) fives, piles of dollars, nine dollars, feeding the coins into the myki machine at the train station, feeding the coins into the coles self-checkout, counting dollars in my head and holding in my hand a packet of libra ultrathins and a tin of fancy feast and thinking, which object is more important this week or can I get away with putting one in my pocket? I give you, just as Eileen gave me, one lens through which to see this small event. Is it true, or isn’t it? And more importantly, does it matter?

Eileen’s Mapplethorped face keeps staring at me from the front cover of the book on every surface of my bedroom, peeking out of my bag at me when I’m not reading her, young and solemn and coming down. “I could put it in the bathroom,” Eileen wrote of her portrait. “That would be kind of cool. While you’re shitting here’s a picture of me ten years ago. Robert Mapplethorpe took it.” I practise making the same face in the mirror. I post selfies with the same deadened gaze and a friend tells me I look bored I should stop looking so bored I look prettier when I smile. I tell the friend fuck you my gaze is all-encompassing and smiling makes things narrow. (I tell the friend this in my mind because I am too afraid of conflict to say it irl.) I tell myself the deadened gaze is important because when my face is unconstructed in this way—or constructed to look unconstructed, deliberately accidental, the way poetry is—it’s a gaze that’s full, like Eileen’s gaze is full, of the boiling surging teeth of observation and wonder that are happening under every poet’s most manicured dead gaze. The thrilling teeth of feeling everything at once, yeah, but also the total deadweight paralysis that comes with it. Cos your body’s not meant to feel everything at once, but it can. It can if you open up to it and that’s how you see poems in things that aren’t poems, like ice cubes (me) and roast chickens (Eileen). That’s why poets are so fragile. We’re basically trying to look in every direction at the same time, all the time. Trying to pierce holes in everything. Trying to line them up.

Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based poet and writer. Her short fiction, poems and essays have appeared in Seizure, Spook, Meanjin, The Lifted Brow, Scum, Stilts and The Suburban Review, and in 2015 she was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets at @emmacones.