When I think of the word “evolution” the first thing that comes to mind is Darwin. But Eileen Myles’s latest book of poetry, titled Evolution, has a different connotation. On the cover is an unmade bed , a white desk lamp, two books left astray, a coffee mug, and blinds pulled halfway up to reveal a fire escape. Readers may assume this is Myles’s living space, and that we are invited into it to ponder the evolution of their writing and our reading of it. Or perhaps we are invited to ruminate on the evolution of human beings as a people — where we are at this point in time, when scientific and social evolution, regarding climate change, identity politics, human rights, are more than ever in conflict with religious and conservative thinking. How can art protest, heal, and even incite change? Which public voices can we trust? How can we sustain our most vital connections, our relationships, our friends?
I remember the first time I read Myles’s poetry, the thrill of landing on the poem “The Sadness Of Leaving,” from the 1991 book Not Me, and reading, “Everything’s/so far away—/ my jacket’s/ over there. I’m terrified/ to go & you/ won’t miss me/ I’m terrified by the/ bright blues of/ the subway/ other days I’m/ so happy &/ prepared to believe/ that everyone walking/ down the street is/ someone I know.” While “you” addresses someone intimately connected to the speaker, the poem broadens to encompass larger notions of desire, intimacy, loss, and, ultimately, death. This poem cuts right to the challenge of our human condition, which can feel alternately bearable and unbearable. Like much of Myles’s work, “The Sadness of Leaving” deftly shifts between the mundane and profound, without specifying which is which. The poem tunnels through concepts and emotions, while the simultaneity of everything pulses and gathers. As Myles writes later in the poem, “I want/ to show you this.”
What does it mean reach out through a poem to your reader, or, as Myles states in a note on the back of Not Me, to “address my culture”? Is it intentional, as reflected in “Immanence,” from their 1995 book Maxfield Parish: “All the doors in my home are open./ There’s a pulse outside I want to hear.” This leaning into the “pulse outside” is about the current, the sediment, the slipperiness of “life” as we know it. In Myles’ work, there is an attempt to be a person as fully as possible, to let the poem walk and shift with all their pieces sloshing this way and that, and inviting the reader for the ride. When divisiveness and arrogance in our society seem to deaden the world around us, Myles’s poems are wandering and fresh.
Evolution returns to many of Myles’s previous themes, their ongoing exploration of gender, sexuality, queerness, urbanity, mortality, art, and radical politics, as well as an infinite fascination with animals and nature: birds, dogs, flowers. But there’s also something that has newly evolved — a crystallized declaration of intent. Myles states in a wonderfully discursive talk they gave at the June 2017 Feminine Mystic conference, which appears at the beginning of Evolution: “I’ve had all this crap in my pockets tokens of this and that and I’m ready to whittle it down and examine my own message and my own time.” Later, in a poem entitled, “Washington,” Myles writes, even more directly, “I would like to do something/ before we mourn/ the end of American/ democracy.” This mourning is real and palpable, but there’s no mistaking Myles’s desire to take action and re-thinking what taking action can mean and how it can manifest collectively right now.
The last poem of Evolution, “Sweet heart,” begins with the lines: “Fresca’s got a new look/ but I’m not drinking/ that. My coke/ struck the ice/ and the ice /cube cracked.” Unlike some of Myles’ earlier works, which straddle present and nostalgic modes, Evolution is more focused on attending to what is immediate and urgent. Even the consonance of the “coke/struck/cracked” is a cutting-through to the core, a signal that there is no time to waste.
I’m moved by Evolution, by the grief it marks in cataloging our political and ecological crises, along with more personal losses, such as the passing of Myles’s mother and other loved ones. In “Transmission,” Myles writes, My mother/ helped/ me. And/ now she/ is gone. She/ also hurt/ me so it’s/ good that/ she’s gone.” I’m moved by Evolution’s introspection and hope, as Myles writes, “I can grow/ different/ in the/ day or/ three decades/ in which/ I’ve got/ left/ I can/ grow towards/ the mountains/ sit in solidarity/ with prisoners/ or go/ to jail. I’m not joking/ I can/ push different.” I’m moved by the words of a poet who is willing to explore their own evolution, as in these lines from “Sweet heart”: “I/ may turn nothing/ up but this/ gentle scratching/ in my yard/before making/ a call opening/ the self/ somehow so it’s/ possible to/ have a friend/ to call/ not only from/ need but interest/ in their life/ the body I’m/ pouring into/ joyous to be/ connected/t o someone.” This reaching from inward to outward reminds me of a quote by the scholar Sarah Ahmed from The Promise of Happiness: “Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.” Recognition, solidarity, and friendship are essential today. When Myles wrote in “A Poet Of Compassion” from Not Me, “I should/ be in a/ helping profession/ rather than/ an observing/ profession,” I imagine that’s exactly what they’ve been doing all along.