Eileen Myles: poems. Installation view. Courtesy of Bridget Donahue Gallery.
Review of Eileen Myles: poems
Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York: November 11, 2018 – January 13, 2019
“I got a digital camera in ’04,” Eileen Myles explains in Afterglow (a dog memoir) (2017), a poetic account of the writer’s life with their pit bull Rosie:
Digital means discontinuous. Discrete. Like a series of 1s, not a whole picture. I liked the recording part the best. When I could pony up the money got myself a handy cam. I took it on our walks. I began a process which I continue today. Little god! On our walks I noted down my thoughts as poetry and then I began filming the sound of my voice. Not the recording. The live listening to myself in the sensorium, me here in the world in the park, yammering.1
You know what happened next. The camera phone came along, and then the iPhone 4 with its front-facing camera, and then Instagram. Now just about everyone has a device in their pocket that allows them to record their wanderings and yammerings and broadcast them to the world. Eileen Myles has always been ahead of the curve.
Myles, who is often associated with the so-called “New York School” of poets and artists, has long been a fixture of the Downtown Manhattan art scene, frequently writing about art and working in the company of artists. In 2016 and 2018, Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts showed prints from Myles’s Instagram account, where they currently have more than twenty-two thousand followers. But poems, Bridget Donahue Gallery’s current show of Myles’s photos, feels official. Featuring twenty images selected from Myles’s Instagram account and restoring the photos to the humming world of Lower Manhattan, where Myles has lived and worked since 1974, the exhibition proclaims their status as poet, writer, and photographer.
At first glance, the idea behind poems seems a little weird. Why would anyone want to trudge down the Bowery in the cold to look at photos you can see on Instagram? The thoughtful organization of the show and the quality of the work quickly dispels those doubts. The exhibition features fourteen large digital prints (dating from 2016 to 2018) of similar size (mostly 24 x 18 inches) nailed directly to the walls of a small, bright white room. The effect is like a more intimate, horizontal version of scrolling through an Instagram feed. A plywood box on the floor turns out to be an installation called “earlier works,” and it contains six more framed photos (from 2015 to 2017) that visitors can pick up and look at. For all its usefulness and popularity, Instagram is a pretty bad way to experience photography because of its inherent size constraints and the fine details that are lost in image compression. The stunning quality of the prints on view in poems allows us to experience these photos anew and gain a better sense of how Myles’s photography fits into their artistic practice.
Myles works loosely within the tradition of contemporary American photographers like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, whose color photos feature everyday scenes and objects more than people. But whereas Eggleston and Shore rely on ruthlessly precise compositions to legitimize their interest in the quotidian, Myles adopts an aesthetic that is more suited to Instagram’s speed and immediacy, allowing qualities like canted angles, camera shake, and missed focus to enter the frame. Myles’s slyly titled “line” (2018), which features a grassy hill ascending to some railroad tracks, could be mistaken for one of Shore’s Instagram posts, until you realize that the tracks move across the frame at a skewed angle. Similarly, “we’re going to Monte Alban & we’re looking for Mr. Churro” (2016) has all the characteristics of a quick iPhone photo. Shot from the back of what appears to be a taxi, the driver’s forehead, reflected in the rearview mirror, cuts across the top of the photo. Rosary beads dangle from the mirror in soft focus; the scene through the windshield—traffic lights, street signs, greenery, other cars—is completely out of focus. What’s important here is not the technical virtuosity of the image but the record of a moment, the familiar but disorienting feeling of riding around in the back seat of a car.
The title of the show explicitly connects Myles’s photography to their poetry, and “certainly,” one of the photos in the show, even appears on the cover of Evolution (2018), Myles’s new book of poems. Myles’s visual and written work do share elusive qualities that are best articulated by Fred Moten’s blurb from Evolution’s dust jacket: “I mean it’s pretty but it ain’t pretty and all of that is in there.” Myles’s writing and photos are messy but uncluttered, expansive but attentive. They don’t have time for bullshit. They have to tell you something right now, before the moment, or the occasion, slips away.
It’s no wonder, then, that Myles has taken to the instantaneousness of social media. “I think poetry is in a really great moment right now,” they recently told Hilary Weaver of Vanity Fair, “because of all the social media and texting; it’s both a place where you can drop a line.” Myles went on to explain:
When I teach poetry, I teach people that it’s not your vocabulary, it’s not even really a personal feeling for what you think you have to say. It’s a body language and it’s an attitude and it’s a pace and a frequency that winds up being really interesting…. I think that’s what poetry is, and I think that’s what’s being shared in this moment. Instagram is a real new playground.2
Poetry and Instagram can seem like extravagances, distractions from the real problems of nascent fascism and impending environmental catastrophe. Yet, as Myles suggests, in their capacity to “drop a line,” poetry and Instagram both fulfill an important social function. They say, someone is on the other end of the line, someone is paying attention, and you are not alone. Robert Frost, maybe the last writer anyone would associate with Myles, also recognized this aspect of poetry: “There’s always this element of extravagance. It’s like snapping the whip: Are you there? Are you still on?”3 In our lonely age of neoliberal atomization, this is no small thing, and it’s all over the poems in Evolution:
there’s so many of
you why don’t
I have to click
what’s the use
Ultimately, poems leads us back to the “real new playground” of Myles’s Instagram account. Myles’s pit bull Honey (adopted after Rosie’s death) is a subject of several of the photos on view at Bridget Donahue and an even bigger presence on Instagram. Myles’s embrace of the photo-sharing app bears a striking resemblance to their initial adoption of digital photography. “I had rescued [Honey] from the jaws of death & now I must walk her,” Myles explains in their Artist Statement for poems. “She nearly yanked my sixty-something arms out of their sockets & together we explored what lower Manhattan had become…. Honey’s utter curiosity & openness to day & evening all led me to putting IG on my phone & exporting our nights & moments.”5 In a recurring perspective, the camera even appears to be tethered to Honey’s leash, as if she’s leading the camera, which, in a way, she is. Myles’s photographic eye roves—and I mean this as a compliment—like a dog’s tender and capacious attention, pulling us to some interesting trash on the sidewalk or a relish packet on the counter. A canine-like, extra-sensory perception draws us to a pile of Formica chips on the kitchen table and makes even that look compelling. What better way to survey the wreckage?
- Eileen Myles, Afterglow (a dog memoir) (New York: Grove Press, 2017), 55-56.
- Hilary Weaver, “Eileen Myles Considers Instagram a Form of Poetry,” Vanity Fair, September 11, 2018. https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2018/09/eileen-myles-book-of-poetry-evolution.
- Robert Frost, “On Extravagance,” The Robert Frost Reader: Poetry and Prose (New York: Macmillan, 2002), 501.
- Eileen Myles, Evolution (New York: Grove Press, 2018), 134.
- Eileen Myles, “Artist Statement: poems” (New York: Bridget Donahue Gallery, 2018), https://bridgetdonahue-media-w2.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/files/ZHX9wum1QgytsyafKuoCCA.pdf.