Published in The Saturday Paper, Mar 24 2018
In Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, the writer starts training a falcon after her father’s death. The bird is both solace and wild embodiment of grief, renowned for being “murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign”. This groundbreaking bereavement memoir is the closest correlative to Eileen Myles’s latest work, yet Myles’s unclassifiable text remains as unique as the pit bull at its heart.
Afterglow is a requiem for Rosie, the canine “life partner” of Myles, the lesbian literary icon who prefers non-binary personal pronouns. Rosie was a familiar presence throughout their poetry, essays, art criticism and novels; she even stood by their side when they ran for president in 1991-92. Rosie’s tough-guy façade, much like her master’s, belies an underlying tenderness.
The once-cult writer is today a cultural rock star. Myles is lauded as a pioneer for genre-bending feminist writers such as Chris Kraus and Maggie Nelson, and for inspiring TV touchstones such as Lena Dunham’s Girls and Jill Soloway’s Transparent (featuring a character based upon them). The readerly challenges presented by Myles’s latest work, however, show why this restless mind will never be subsumed into the mainstream.
To describe Afterglow as memoir, even “dog memoir”, is an attempt at domestication. The book is also a fantastical rejoinder by Rosie. The sharp-shooting pooch speaks from the Great Dog Park in the Sky to recriminate her “owner” (a term she would definitely reject) for “a variety of abuses and crimes against dog kind”. The book opens with Myles receiving a letter from a dog lawyer, typed in Comic Sans, who is “getting the ball rolling on dogs’ rights”.
What does it mean to write like a dog? To follow one’s nose, guided by instinct over intellect? To live in the moment? To eschew self-consciousness, be blind to breed politics?
The self Myles performs on the page shifts genders as fluidly as Woolf’s Orlando. Digression, rather than chronology or plot, is Afterglow’s circuitous driver. They write with the intimacy of the personal essayist, slanted with the poet’s penchant for rhythm and image. Describing an evening walk, Myles finds musicality in Rosie’s vantage: “flash of pink tongue and a lot of grass … and it’s black and yellow and white you can see the grade by the sunlight and shadows flashing off-on as she, waving tail and a beige butt and those loopy legs are negotiating an excited run on a good day …”
Humour abounds in the premise’s sheer absurdity, replete with a dog psychic who insists that Rosie is “quite a little poet”. Refusing “furever friend” platitudes about who saved whom, Rosie goes so far as to claim responsibility for Myles’s prolific output: “Check it out. She admits it but people just think she’s being poetic, humble, theoretical.” Eileen and Rosie’s relationship has power dynamics as complex as any human romance.
Myles renders their beloved in detail so keenly observed as to be an act of devotion. Rosie has truly been seen. They describe each doggy possession left behind, both talisman and memento mori, banal yet life-giving routines, and the visceral closeness of palliative caregiving: “I attended my dog’s ass, the collapse of her rear legs that I saw as little high heels”.
Myles’s three autobiographical novels – a tripartite bildungsroman of the working-class Irish-American artist (Cool for You), the emerging lesbian (Inferno) and the gritty New York poet (Chelsea Girls) – deploy such a deceptively blunt style that, at the time of their release, some critics mistook it for style’s deficit. Afterglow’s highly experimental prose initially looks like a departure, but there’s continuity in Myles’s ongoing challenge to the masculine edifices of capital-L Literature.
In fragmentary chapters that shift registers from talk show script to letter to conference speech, Afterglow also tramps across New York, San Diego, Los Angeles, Marfa, Istanbul and Ireland. Interleaving the voices of Myles, Rosie and Myles’s immediate and distant ancestors – at times, confusingly so – Myles undermines any notion of the writer as genius or authority, even when delineating their own life. Afterglow doesn’t show the multitudes of the self so much as obliterate the sovereign self completely.
Myles asks, “is this the right place to say that my use of POV, perspective and pronouns is cumulative and historic, performative and not abstract … Just as a camera has the capacity to go forward and back … likewise in writing you have the capacity to address in many ways in the same sentence. Because in fact reality does not occur in sentences.” The writerly self is inseparable from a messy historical tapestry, for this is also a book about family and inheritance, about alcoholism and Ireland, about loneliness and ageing and letting go.
As a portrait of Rosie unfolds, this “fifty, sixty pushy pounds of doggy love” is shown to be enlightenment incarnate. In Myles’s trickiest turn, dog quite literally becomes its celestial reverse: “I was feeling a little extra naked after describing the ritual of mopping her piss and I thought that’s it. She’s god. And I felt so calm. I’ve found god now.” The result is an astonishing book, by turns oblique, maddening, elemental, sublime.
In Myles’s first poetry collection, The Irony of the Leash (1978), the titular poem enlists the canine as a kind of totem. Then 29, Myles cast themself as a “passive dreamer” who had spurned Catholicism for art. Writing is their chosen salve to the realisation that “life is not enough”. They write: “Dogs do not believe in God or Art. Intrinsically they have a grip / on things. / I unfortunately do not. I sit / here with a bottle of beer, a cigarette / and my latest poem …”
Now 68 and decades sober, Myles will only claim prophethood through the voice of a pit bull, a mere vessel for the doggy divine. Yet the origin questions of this poem, and all Myles’s work to date, continues to plague them: how does a working-class Irish-American kid from Boston dedicate their life to art making? What do they keep, and what must they leave behind?