YOU’RE SPEAKING I’M LISTENING: SHARON OLDS V. EILEEN MYLES

sharon-olds

Does Eileen Myles have a prayer against an icon like Sharon Olds?

Marla, this is one terrific match-up, Sharon Olds against Eileen Myles!

MARLA MUSE: I’ve been looking forward to this one!

Writing free verse has nothing to do with lines and stanzas, and it’s funny how, long after these parts of the poem have become useless limbs and organs, critics keep pretending that they matter.

MARLA MUSE: Shrill and controversial, as usual, Tom…

The line and stanza counts of Olds’ and Myles’ poems are insignificant compared to the number of words per sentence and the tense-changes.

“Eileen’s Vision” by Eileen Myles is as skinny as a young girl: the poem has 73 lines, but just 220 words, and it also has 3 long sentences—one is 120 words.

Eileen’s Vision

One night I was home alone
quite late past eleven
and my dog was whining and
moaning and I went over
to stroke her & pat
her & proclaim
her beauty &
then I returned
to my art review
but Rosie wouldn’t
stop. Something was
wrong. & then
I saw her.
It looked like a circle
a wooden mouth
in the upper third
of my bathtub
cover which
was standing
on its side
it is the Lady I thought
this perfect sphere
on the wooden
bathtub cover
incidentally separating
kitchen &
middle room
in my home
where I
live &
work. That is
all. I’m just
a simple
catholic girl
I had been
thinking, pondering
over my
review. That’s
why it’s
so hard
for me but the
Lady came &
she said, stay here
Eileen stay here
forever finding
the past
in the future
& the future
in the past
know that it’s
always so
going round &
it is with
you when
you write

& she didn’t
go, she
remains a stain
on the bathtub
cover, along with
many other stains,
the dog’s leash &
half-scraped lesbian
invisibility stickers
and other less specific
but equally permanent
traces of paper &
holes
four of
them and they
are round too
like the Lady
& I don’t have to
tell anyone.

“The Request” by Sharon Olds has a more regular, fleshed-out figure; 195 words in 30 lines, and only four sentences—all long.

The Request

He lay like someone fallen from a high
place, only his eyes could swivel,
he cried out, we could hardly hear him,
we bent low, over him, his
wife and I, inches from his face,
trying to drink sip up breathe in
the sounds from his mouth. He lay with unseeing
open eyes, the fluid stood
in the back of his throat, and the voice was from there,
guttural, through unmoving lips, we could
not understand one word, he was down so
deep inside himself, we went closer, as if
leaning over the side of a well
and putting our heads down inside it.
Once—his wife was across the room, at the
sink—he started to garble some of those
physical unintelligible words,
Raas-ih-AA, rass-ih-AA, I
hovered even lower, over his open
mouth, Rassi baaa, I sank almost
into that body where my life half-began,
Frass-ih-BAA—”Frances back!”
I said, and he closed his eyes in his last
yes of exhausted acquiescence, I
said, She’s here. She came over to him,
touched him, spoke to him, and he closed his
eyes and he passed out and never
came up again, now he could move
steadily down.

It terms of pure dramatics, the long sentence produces urgent, attention-holding, excited, and frantic speech in both of these poems.

Both poems are told in first-person past tense, but finish in the present tense.

Myles’ poem begins:

“One night I was home alone”

Myles’ poem ends:

“she remains…& I don’t have to tell anyone.”

Olds’ poem begins:

“He lay like someone fallen from a high place”

Olds’ poem ends:

“now he could move steadily down.”

Could is past tense, but could is also conditional (for example: he says if he could, he would) and coupled with the word “now,” Olds implies the present tense.

The past-turning-into-present-tense adds dramatic significance: the poet is relating to the reader something that happened, but which still has meaning now.

Both poems deal with Threshold Phenomena, like “The Raven,” the model for all such poems: a visitor from beyond comes to the window of one’s familiarity with a coded message that involves amazement, assurance, fear, puzzlement, or, in more pedantic poetry, advice.

Both Olds and Myles use assurance at the center of their poem’s Threshold Phenomenon.

Olds: “Frances back!” I said…I said, She’s here. She came over to him, touched him, spoke to him

Myles: it’s so hard for me but the Lady came & she said, stay here Eileen stay here forever…& she didn’t go, she remains

Each poem, then, features hyper-simple, Biblical actions: “She came over to him” and “the Lady came,” both mystical, acts of profound comfort.

Another similarity is the counter to the sublime (the poems would not be ‘modern’ otherwise?) in both poems:

Myles’ Lady is a “stain” on a “wooden bathtub cover” that has “other stains” and “half-scraped lesbian invisibility stickers” on it, “standing on its side” and “incidentally separating kitchen and middle room in my home where I live and work.”

Olds: “fluid stood in the back of his throat, and the voice was from there, guttural, through unmoving lips, we could not understand one word”

Olds, however, is much closer to the pure sublime in her poem: a man is dying, she, the narrator figures out what his slurred words are saying: “Frances back!” and Frances, the wife, who just happened to be at the sink for a moment, goes to him, comforts him, and then he dies.  It’s a tear-jerker, almost Victorian, but I think the Victorians would have been embarrassed by a poem like this, because with so much death in those days (infant mortality rates at 50%) the Victorians would have would found this poem too starkly self-satisfied with itself.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have probably leaned over to inspect a poem like this and gagged. Elizabeth Oakes Smith would have frowned.  Helen Whitman would have merely winced. Walt, however, would have approved, but we can’t allow one sensibility to approve of a poem for all, if we wish to honor it with a place under the dappled shades of the Elysian Fields of anthology pieces.

Both poems feature, as is typical in the Threshold Phenomenon poem, limited speech or communication: in Olds’ poem, the dying man can hardly speak, and Myles closes her poem: “& I don’t have to tell anyone.”

Specific lack of speech is just one element that can work as a framing device.

The Imagist poets thought image would, by itself, provide that limit, that frame, that focus, which is at the heart of aesthetics—but unfortunately the Imagists confused the great art of painting with cartoon.

To make anthologies for the whole history of mankind, to truly categorize poems as Scarriet March Madness does, is the second-highest calling in poetry, beneath only the inspired writing of the masterpieces themselves.

Eileen Myles, in about as many words, provides more detail than Olds; we learn, for instance, that Eileen is struggling to write an art review, that she’s a catholic but also a lesbian, we get a feel for her tiny apartment, the appearance of that wooden bathtub cover, and we’re even introduced in the beginning to Myles’ dog, who is acting a little strange, to set the tone of the “entrance” of “the Lady.”

Myles, in attempting to frame her poem, and make sure we understand how simple and mundane the poem’s “event” actually is, mid-way through the poem writes, “That is all.” We understand the intention, and it’s minor, but this sentence is probably superfluous.  Two hundred seventeen words, and the poem goes to Heaven; two hundred and twenty, and it doesn’t.  Poetry is that exact a science.

We like knowing these extra details of the Myles poem; both poems are terrific, the Olds more expertly framed; the Myles with slightly more of an abiding, quirky interest.

Without being sentimental (as we pejoratively use that term today), the Myles poem is more Shakespearean, more loveable than the Olds—the Olds resembles a Rembrandt painting (I’m not thinking of a specific one) in its simplicity, its beauty, its passion, and the darkness of its theme. (One crazy critic speculating how the Victorians might feel upon reading it should not be held against it.)

Sharon Olds is one of the best poets writing today.

But these two poems, placed side by side, and scrutinized together, slightly favors the Myles.

Give it up for Eileen Myles, who is advancing past Sharon Olds!

MARLA MUSE: What a thrilling contest!  Scarriet has done it again!

Final score, 66-63.  Eileen Myles is going to the South Bracket finals.  She’s in the Elite Eight.

(cheering)

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