The Importance of Being Iceland by Eileen Myles

The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art (Semiotext(e) / Active Agents) BY Eileen Myles. Semiotext(e). Paperback, 216 pages. $17.
The cover of The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art (Semiotext(e) / Active Agents)

During a recent reading for her new book, The Importance of Being Iceland, Eileen Myles observed that pitching articles to magazines and museums left her with copious work to collect into a book “about how I’ve made a living.” The Importance of Being Iceland, while serving as a tongue-in-cheek record of these endeavors, is also a series of personal ruminations about what it means to be a poet at large in the world. “The poet is like the earth’s shadow,” Myles writes in “Universal Cycle” (1998). “The sun moves and the poet writes something down.”

If The Importance of Being Iceland reinforces something Myles’s fans already know, it’s that she’s always writing. Alongside her prolific output of fiction (Cool for You) and poetry (Sorry, Tree), Myles has been drafting essays and reviews and participating in interviews—work in which she challenges herself (and implores readers) to study the overlap between the physical and the intellectual, the personal and the political. Prose pieces in Iceland are sorted topically rather than chronologically. Sections labeled “Art Essays,” “People,” “Talks,” “Travel,” “Body,” “Moving Pictures,” and “Blogs: 2004–2006” reveal Myles’s long-standing interest in transgressive characters and in forms of creativity that encourage innovative modes of expression.

The earliest piece, from 1983, which contrasts Ted Berrigan’s book The Sonnets with Frank O’Hara’s “vividness, his being-in-life,” has the wild, conversational tone and flash-glimpse narrative structure that marks Myles’s earlier fiction and poetry. Opening with a dictionary definition of anneal—inspired by a line from the book at hand—Myles riffs on her emotional reaction to Berrigan’s work, quotes friends in conversation about the poetry, and chides her own critical thoughts by ending with “. . . Ouch, who wrote that?!” This piece acts as a tribute to her poet-teacher, as do essays about James Schuyler and Allen Ginsberg. What’s more, it blueprints Myles’s essayistic voice, a combination of intimate, colloquial language and astute, formal observation. Placed mid-collection, “The Sonnets” serves as a bookmark, reminding readers that Myles’s writing has always been about letting thought shape form.

In the most recent texts, Myles examines her personal history to sympathetically epitomize universal human needs and desires. “Live Through That?!” (2008), for instance, transforms tooth flossing into a metaphor for aging and sobriety. After recalling her family’s history of alcoholism, she says, “I found myself in my thirties leaning into the mirror one night cleaning away and I thought: fuck, is this what I lived for—to floss.” Maybe Myles’s confident authorial voice is so addictively unique because she tempers assuredness with unruly sentence structure. Turning questions into statements, using all-caps for emphasis (“my mother who is in her 80s . . . has ALL HER TEETH”), and linking phrases in epic run-ons lend serious passages some serious humor. When not going for impassioned, comedic relief, this style achieves what Myles, in “Prints of Words” (1993), claims the best poetry does—it “keeps moving at all costs.”

She alludes throughout the book to the successes and failures of language. In the elegant title essay, “Iceland” (2008), Myles compares the contours of a “kind of epic poetry singing called Kvaedaskapur” to the “contours of the land.” While language is good, in some cases, at expressing the elasticity of place and time—“I had this beautiful arrival before I even left,” she writes about her Icelandic adventure—it is not always so useful for relating, for example, how art is enhanced by environment. In trying to describe artist Roni Horn’s “temple” in Reykjavík, Myles becomes exasperated: “But you know—words don’t do it. They don’t. They never say enough. Ask any writer. Language just fails. It’s no place at all.” Even still, Myles closes the essay—and introduces her collection—with the word courage.

Trinie Dalton is the author of the novel Wide-Eyed (Akashic, 2005) and the editor of the nonfiction book Mythtym (PictureBox, 2008). Her novella, Sweet Tomb, is forthcoming from Madras Press in December.