Legendary Poet Eileen Myles’s New Book Is 'a Dog Memoir'
'Afterglow' is a book about dogs, narrated in part by Myles's dead pitbull, Rosie.
Photos by Caroline Tompkins
Eileen Myles is handsome like a Kennedy and energetically grounded. They sit in their living room with their legs crossed, ankle to knee. It's a one-room studio apartment in New York's downtown Lower East Side. There's a bathtub in the kitchen. Later, they tell me, they've lived here for 40 years.
Socks and underwear spill out of a suitcase and onto the floor around us, betraying the fact that Myles got back last night from Marfa, Texas where the writer splits their time. There are also stacks of their new book, Afterglow, the cover a black-and-white photograph of the writer posed on a stool, the spotted face of a pitbull next to their feet. The canine, as well as the 15 years Myles shared with their pet, is the subject (and sometimes narrator) of their newest book, "a dog memoir," out today. It's in the late pitbull's voice that they christen the 90s "such a lesbian moment for dogs."
For decades, Myles has been a mainstay of New York's poetry scene. They've authored 20 books, launched a presidential campaign, and won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Still, articles about them tend to fall into platitudes, anointing the poet cooler than you, an avatar of supreme coolness, and the epitome of cool. In recent years, millions have seen their poems (and a character modeled after them) on their ex Jill Soloway's show Transparent. At the same time, Myles continues to frequent downtown New York art galleries, reading their work, supporting their peers, and generally cruising the scene.
Myles picks up a copy of the hardcover book. "Look at the binding," they say, gesturing to show me a small image of Rosie's face on the book jacket spine. "It's so corny but great."
Myles has had a prolific career and achieved a zealous following of queer liberal arts college feminists. This new book, by virtue of its canine subject and maybe even that image on the book jacket spine, is likely to open their writing up to a wider audience. A book about a dog sounds like something people buy at airports. "My hope is that," they trail off, "I don't know. It's a bait and switch."
Afterglow is a weird book, wild and unruly in its style. It doesn't have a single linear narrative, but it's lively, conversational, and highly intelligent. I can't imagine anyone sitting down on an airplane to read it being disappointed.
It's a book of multiple textures and rhythms. "I've never felt so many different voices getting unleashed in a piece of writing," Myles reveals, demonstrating through their text that you don't have to stick to any one mode if you're a rigorous prose stylist whatever voice you adopt.
Myles credits their training as a poet for preparing them to glide between these different voices. "You do a reading for a half hour. You get up and you do something that opens the room, and then now that you've done that, you can do something that's a little more abstract. When you've done that, you can do something that's a little narrative," they relate, explaining that this book parallels their approach to working an audience. "It's just trying to hold people, the same way that film is edited to morph and massage the consciousness to keep it engaged."
The book opens with a scenario where Myles receives an "awkward hand-addressed letter" in the mail. "I take the liberty of calling you 'Eileen,'" the dispatch opens, "to begin the unpleasant duty of forcing you to legally take responsibility for the damage you have inflicted over a period of nine years upon the being you have taken to calling 'Rosie.'" It's a letter from a "dog lawyer" informing Myles that a wealthy individual has left their pet a large sum of money to press charges against its owner (Myles) for abuse. "It's been clear to my client," the lawyer explains, that "the best way" to get "the ball rolling on dogs' rights" is "to take up an individual dog's case, not the case of 'all dogs' which is too ubiquitous to pursue."
The letter is a fictional provocation. And absurd. But it sets the tone for a later slice-of-life account Myles relays from when Rosie was in heat for the first time, when they invited over another pitbull owner and his stud dog. While the dogs had sex, the other dog owner pitched Myles and their friend his shopping-network business. "Everyone smiled when we talked about the dogs," Myles recounts. "The dogs were like these girls we fucked while we were doing business." The chapter is titled "The Rape of Rosie."
Throughout the book, these investigations into power, hierarchy, and relationality are balanced out by sincere elegiac reflection on a life shared with another being. Afterglow is a book about dogs, as well as the lessons of caretaking and intuition that they teach us, but it's also a book about listening and observing, about how we communicate and how we relate. "The dog is obviously listening, is obviously watching. They know you better than anyone," contends Myles. "But what do they know? They know the speed at which you talk. They know the animal you."
Amidst the book's Sebaldian juxtaposition and Tristram Shandy-esque tangents, Myles fixates on frequencies of transmission. They ask what's the quality of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films, the shape of Kurt Cobian, George W. Bush, or Adolf Hitler's charisma? A life spent writing is one devoted to studying how we observe and how we record. "I'm really interested in copying," Myles explains. "The human as bad technology is really exciting to me." They recall an early writing exercise they used to do. "I would just open the refrigerator and copy what was in there."
They tell me one of their favorite pieces of writing is a book-within-a-book, Cartoons, a fictional novel that's featured in the 1972 novel Edwin Mullhouse by Steven Millhauser. "This one chapter, it's just a cartoon," remembers Myles. "You know, like Bugs Bunny is running down the street and a bowling ball hits him and there's a hole in him and through it you can see a tree and somebody's flipping an egg—all that cartoon stuff—but what he does is transcribe it perfectly. It's just, like, you get it."
The most loony-tunes chapter in Afterglow is a transcript of a fictional talk show hosted by a puppet where Myles's dead dog Rosie features as a guest. The writer says it was inspired by reactions they got after a reading in which they performed another chapter from the memoir, then a work-in-progress. "People really liked it but they were like, 'Is Rosie going to talk?'" recalls Myles. "My brain operates in this way, I sneer at something and then I regard it as an interesting problem."
Whether they're being a surreal raconteur or heartfelt chronicler, Myles's words are always exacting. They kick you in the gut, at times, leaving you winded at the next punctuation mark. In their homage to Rosie, Myles captures the state of loving with rare precision. As they relay the recording of a home video of a walk with Rosie, the poet recounts, "She turns blazing, thirsty white-faced tongue out member of the dead heading home. White stripe of sun on her back."
Companionship, death, alcoholism, and reincarnation are all treated by Myles's demanding prose. Their book is rich with emotional intelligence and seems destined to reach more than Myles's usual readers. At a pre-book release event at the American Library Association Conference, people lined up to show them photographs of their dogs. The writer calls them the "doggish people."
Myles is self-assured there's something in their writing for this new audience. "On some level, it's a spiritual book. I'm talking about some serious stuff," they acknowledge. Rosie is confident too. " Afterglow," Myles panders, ventriloquizing the pitbull's voice, "is totally a book with legs (four if I can be dumb) so it will go a lot further than your Eileen-based fictions."
This article has been updated to refer to Myles with gender neutral pronouns.
Afterglow is out today. Buy it here.
Follow Whitney Mallett on Twitter.