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It was as if I was the wind, a storm and all the other children were dull phenomena.

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Our ultra-queer coverage.

Eileen Myles photo
Eileen Myles reading poetry. Loss P. Glazier

Books

Eileen Myles: Cool For You

by Kelly Cogswell

JANUARY 29, 2001. In "Cool For You," her latest autobiographical novel, poet Eileen Myles explores growing up female, queer, and literary in white, working class Boston. It's one of those rare books you read, and think, That's exactly it. That's the soul of the matter.

Eden
"It was a grey day and I felt a need to exhibit my bravery. I had heard of school and this was it. I gulped in some air and made a big chest. I became Perry Como, Mario Lanza, and sailed into the schoolyard singing my heart out. It was as if I was the wind, a storm and all the other children were dull phenomena. How can they stand it, I wondered—my power?"

Bit by bit, we see this strength, originality and innocence chipped away—by the nuns at school, her relatives, friends. I wanted the young Myles to be like Huck Finn on his raft, who consciously turned his back on the law, and embraced hellfire, rather than rat out his friend, the runaway slave Jim.

But she couldn't make that choice, not in the pre-Stonewall 1950's, or even today. For lesbians, this inverted knowledge of good and evil is not a plot device like it was for Mark Twain, but everyday reality. And most of us simply aren't up to hellfire and ostracism. Instead, to be accepted, to be straight, to be "natural," we do what feels unnatural and wrong, even immoral. We betray ourselves. Myles became a scapegoat and clown to court the popular crowd. Later, she endured alcoholic heterosex despite her real desires, or as atonement for them.

Head Case
Intercut with recollections about Myles' own life is her pursuit of the medical records of her father's mother, Nellie Riordan Myles. Nellie was born in County Cork, Ireland. She immigrated to the United States at twenty so she wouldn't starve to death, cleaned houses for eight years, got married, had seven kids, and lost most of her teeth.

She was already wornout and depressed at 60 when Helen, her daughter, died. Helen was operated on for appendicitis and peritonitis set in. Nellie would walk the streets at night crying. Her sons didn't know what else to do, but to take her to the doctors. They weren't rich and had their own problems. Nellie was in Massachusetts' state mental hospital for decades until she died.

Myles is repulsed at how easy it is for women to be lost or erased in a state institution, but attracted by the freedom that craziness affords them. You don't have to pretend anymore to be straight, middle-class, insensitive, self-sufficient, happy. You are taken care of. Working after college at a different mental institution, Myles identified with the inmates. What Bobby Doyle liked to do, she said, "was take all his clothes off and get down on the cool bathroom tiles and curl up against the frost white porcelain of the toilet... I knew how it felt."

Redemption
Cool For YouIf you don't know already, Myles makes sure you find out. As each humiliating revelation unfolds, you become uncomfortably aware that she has turned you into the worst kind of voyeur: a voyeur of ordinary horrors, those that are so common and untheatrical they never make the headlines. You hope for anesthesia or redemption in Myles' story, but there is none. Her misery isn't beautiful. Her small tragedies don't make her smarter or better. There is just action and reaction, indifferent and inevitable.

That is perhaps the point of this disturbing memoir, the banality of misery, and the strangeness of hope. It can be summed up in Myles' memory of picking up a salesman in a San Francisco bar. She was, of course, looking for free drinks and oblivion. He was, naturally, looking for sex.

"... he pulled his underpants off. A little dick. He kept putting spit on it and whacking it. It was like it didn't matter what I saw. It was weird. C'mon help me, he said. So I helped him. He didn't want to kiss me. He didn't want to hold me. His little dick wouldn't get hard. Get down there, he said. Just kiss it, he asked. It was like his spit I couldn't stop thinking of. The dick, that little thing was nothing. It was dark. I mean it was pretty dark, just from outside. I remember sucking on his stupid little dick. Rub your tits against my legs. C'mon. I had really small breasts. I tried. It was like touching someone. Shake your tits. Pull yourself up a little bit, so I can see them. I couldn't do it. C'mon shake your tits. It felt stupid. I couldn't do it. Why was the salesman demanding a show. Why did I have to do it. Shake them, shake them please. He was jerking himself off by now. C'mon. C'mon. C'mon. It was so dark in his motel room. Shake your tits, shake your tits. The cars going by made scars on the walls. It was dark. C'mon shake. I shook."

Cool For You. By Eileen Myles.
Soft Skull Press, USA.
List: $14.00. Online: $9.10.

Related links:

For the Village Voice feature: The Queer Issue: My Intergeneration by Eileen Myles, June 2000. Slowloading, but worthy.

For more about Eileen Myles.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

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