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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Eileen Myles's_The Importance of Being Iceland_, reviewed by Genevieve Manset

Eileen Myles
The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays on Art
ISBN-13: 978-1-58435-066-8
Semiotext(e) 2009
Paper: 366 pp; $17.95

reviewed by Genevieve Manset

The same poetic heat that Eileen Myles brings to her performances can be found in her first collection of essays, The Importance of Being Iceland. Not shy about a disruption of form, what starts as an art review or a travel memoir morphs into riffs on language, modernity, sex, gender identity and politics. Associated since the 1970’s with the New York writing, art and queer communities, Myles gets the word out from the cultural edges.

In the opening essay, Myles writes that she went to Iceland in part because of her “interest in small things.” Her writing appears inspired much in the same way. Her recollection of Hans Unrich’s neo-fluxus multimedia project Do It is of the possible postmodern meaning in one piece—a wooden crate of apples. When searching for the illusive Icelandic writer Kristin Omarsdottir, she ends up reporting instead on picking blueberries in the rain with Kristin’s girlfriend’s family. Discussions of Icelandic culture, history and geography also make their appearance here, as does a persistent cold rain.

ffffffffffThe rainy days in Reykjavik were great for art. I sat on beanbag
ffffffffffchairs in a museum with Kristin and Haraldur. The walls around
ffffffffffus were saturated with soft pink balloons like the gentlest most
ffffffffffgigantic breasts. Three of us bobbing in the darkened screening
ffffffffffroom. It was amniotic feeling.

While most of the essays are not about travels in Iceland, they still contain that same traveler’s heightened perception. Because Myles’ writing is heavily weighted with unique specifics, the moments when it becomes expansive and universal are both well earned and profound, as in this from the essay about the poet Tory Dent, who was HIV positive:

ffffffffffThe sirens we hear, women, homosexuals, and all the pioneers of
ffffffffffour time, are calling for a culture big enough to contain or embrace
ffffffffffor encompass the shapes and needs of all our bodily destinies.

Much of her writing is of this bodily destiny we are all born into. In one of her talks Myles worries over a reading she gave the night before in a church: “…now here I was again, that woman, about to read something else disturbing: my poem ‘Mr. Twenty’, is full of scatological language.”

This worry transfers to a discussion on what women are allowed to talk about, especially when it comes to their bodies. She also speaks to a fear women share about being considered out of control. After a series of venues including the Times and Village Voice refuse her piece on her experience with menopause, she admits to feeling gross and ashamed. It’s this, her willingness to be vulnerable, that invites an intimacy between reader and author that could otherwise be lost in writings about the hip world that Myles navigates.

In a tribute to the poetry she’s devoted her life to, Myles writes that it’s “a live thing, this invention, the avant-garde poem.” Myles breathes life as well into the essay, introducing new creative possibilities into the genre. If you appreciate being drawn out and tossed about by a talented writer’s cognitive riptide, The Importance of Being Iceland is sure to carry you off and leave you on some distant shore.


Genevieve Manset is a poet and writer from Bloomington, Indiana. She is currently a MFA student in Creative Writing at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and is part of the Boxcar Books collective, a volunteer run, non-profit bookstore and community center.