A Different Kind Of New York Story

Eileen Myles is a poet, but also so much more than a poet. In her autobiographical Chelsea Girls, recently reissued by Harper Collins, Myles lays bare the life of a poet in 1970s New York. This is not a book that makes its genre plain. It could be an essay collection or a novel or prose poetry. We don’t need to know what it is, however, because the words Myles leaves on the page tell us everything that matters. This writing is raw, rough, vulnerable, tender, erotic, repulsive. The narrator and her friends and lovers and enemies scrape through New York, living artistic lives, or at least trying to. Each chapter could be read alone but all 28 chapters come together as a monument to a lived experience.

Myles is a master of observation. She describes a woman she knows thusly—“I call her Robin because she is red and black and angular and resembles a bird in her speed and in her cruelty.” There is drinking, drugging, debauchery among Myles and her friends. “The lives of drunks and druggies is such a treacherous moral landscape with avalanches and peaks and nasty pitfalls.” The beauty of Chelsea Girls, is that we get to explore this “treacherous landscape,” and we are left nearly breathless from the honesty of it all.