CONFESSIONS OF A JANUS HEAD: EILEEN MYLES’S SNOWFLAKE / DIFFERENT STREETS
(collected in Snowflake) and “newer poems” (collected in different streets) interact with each other to inhabit a single body. One might not immediately consider the psyche of Janus when we come across the god in ancient Latin poetry; but what would the door[wo]man’s one face say to the other on any given night on the job? Perhaps: “when you changed/your mind I thought/you had taken mine/into account.” Perhaps: “A system/isn’t so much closed/as sinister/no I mean conceptual.”
Myles makes no overt reference to Roman mythology; but here we have a book with “two fronts,” one that enters into the public sphere and another that enters the private. Snowflake is full of cross-country back and forth, between East (New York City) and West (San Diego, Los Angeles); its speaker is absorbed in the external world of fleeting people and places—and “it’s wide/out there”—as a blur in a passing car to the rest of the world. Such a transitional existence has become commonplace as we reach for our digital gadgets to keep us “in touch,” at the sacrifice of more tangible connections:
Whether we are granted or denied particular experiences, however, becomes less a source of crisis when we come to depend on these technologies: “what’s not technology/what’s not seeing.” We could trace the meaning of “technology” and find in its derivation the study of art and craft. What’s not integral to the poet’s devotion to experience? There exists the constant desire to fully take in one’s surroundings—to “turn the outside of my/car into a camera”—and to digest and immortalize the space and moment in which things happen around oneself:
I want it to be as open as I am
Although the speaker is more stationary in different streets—surrounded by a familiar locality, personal belongings, a cat named “Marco Polo” staring “into the/dead end/of the apartment,” and a lover whose presence varies (sometimes she is a poem), it would be difficult to argue that the pages of this second collection are any more (or less) introspective or intimate than those in Snowflake. These poems differ in that there seems to be less of an inclination to “be the thing/that holds it all”; instead, things are recalled from the past, with an impulse to release it all into the world:
I just have
different streets is more aware of its leaps through time while Snowflake is more aware of its movement through space. No matter when the speaker is, physically or mentally, her various experiences are compressed into the present moment of each poem. The poem itself is “a strong day/that can withstand change,” not because it is “enormous” like history, but because it “is so subtle” and can provide the “tiny details” of one’s gradual transformation. One wonders what space there might be left in the shared brain of Janus to contemplate the present, when his backward and forward gazes are so focused, but the synonymous acts of being and becoming are as dependent on memory as they are on aspiration:
[…] If I
Political and environmental concerns find their venue in Snowflake. During times of war, the Gates of Janus before the Roman Forum remained open. As a result of Rome’s efforts to expand imperial control, the gates were rarely ever closed. Not much has changed since then, as we are still “not/the kindest/of mammals”; if anything we are worse, “with our fucking/tar & our bombs,” with our oil consumption “like we’re driving on our own limited past.” The speaker does not exclude herself, because she cannot. Janus never moved from his post at the door because he understood the world according to past mistakes and premonitions. Should Janus even blink in an effort to physically intervene, he might forget, or fall shortsighted; should the poet do so, the very poem on the page might not have been written. This is a common source of anxiety for poets: to “romanticize this thing/that’s destroying us,” in an effort to bring it to others’ attention.
One might think different streets might offer the sanctuary of closed doors, but opens with the speaker’s own self-directed warning to “Worry about yourself,/Eileen.” The “agony of being human” takes over as the collective body becomes synonymous to the victimized nature of Snowflake, tortured by loneliness and longing, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and suicide. “The new poems/are poems of/healing,” she writes in different streets, “But first I’ll/be funny”—an unexpected punch line, as if to say humor was not a healing agent in these poems.
Although her presentation is novel, the book’s dualism shouldn’t strike us as unfamiliar. It’s an innately human one we inhabit daily, as present impressions merge with memories and ambitions to produce a continually revised sense of self. Myles’ book should instead strike us for its embodiment of beginnings, endings, and transitions in various outfits—how it is to simply be between and with[in] residences, institutions, relationships, obsessions, seasons, technologies, pets, etc.—here, from the unique vantage of Eileen:
There’s no female