Chelsea Girls (1994)
Words by Ibby Bridges
Chelsea Girls (1994)
Sex, drugs, and the lesbian memoir. Chelsea Girls tells the life story of Eileen Myles, from their working-class childhood with an alcoholic father to their drug-fuelled life as a poet. Despite being published nearly thirty years ago, Chelsea Girls remains as fresh and vigorous as it did in 1994.
I first encountered Eileen Myles through Marchioness, or at least, I assumed I would. Throwing their name into Google, however, revealed that my distinct impression of familiarity had not been off the mark. In my late teens, I had harboured a completely healthy fixation on Michelle Tea’s lesbian anti-memoirs. Myles attended Tea’s queer open mic nights in San Francisco in the early 90s, and the more I read of Chelsea Girls, the more I felt like an archaeologist. I had dug one layer deeper into the poetic queer memoir.
Calling Myles’ work a memoir is quite rightly, an oversimplification. The prologue ponders whether Chelsea Girls is “a novel or a memoir or a collection of stories (or whether it's really even a book at all).” This mish-mash of types is used as a medium for queer self-expression: to exist outside the borders of the defined.
Born in 1949 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chelsea Girls chronicles Myles' life in Cambridge, Boston, and New York. Each place represents a different life stage and a different relationship to themselves. The book’s chronology neither reflects the timeline of Myles’ life, nor acts as a timestamp of when they wrote each extract. However, as the book continues, the reader is provided with more puzzle pieces and, through the haze of sex, drugs, and alcoholism, a complete narrative emerges.
The vignettes are anchored by a memorable cast. Standouts are Chris, who Myles is trying not to be in love with; Robin, a sort of “famous junkie”, Mary, their childhood ‘wife’; and Janey, a girl who was raped and “renamed herself” outside of men. Identity is reflected through our clothing choices. ‘Orange construction boots’, ‘alligator shirts without the alligator’, and ‘faded jean pockets’ are sharp details of the simultaneously relaxed and edgy lesbian aesthetic. They provide a strong impression of the time passing as Myles’ identity develops as well as the carefully uncaring curation of a poet’s wardrobe.
Clothes also serve to sign-post relationships: Eileen wears ‘Chris’ blue shirt’ which is promptly unbuttoned and discarded by another woman. The shirt becomes emblematic of a complex on-again-off-again platonic and romantic relationship.
There is a sense throughout of something Holy. During Myles’ Catholic childhood in Massachusetts, God is omnipresent and impervious; in their lesbian relationships in New York, God becomes something tangible: a body to worship. Chelsea Girls is that in the end, I think, a life rendered into a book apart from the self: a subjective object, tangible and impervious, a body to worship. Myles’ muses that:
‘I see my existence as similar to that of a sundial's when I simply stand, and slowly the notion of movement is suggesting itself to my consciousness and acting is also appropriate in the realm of the saint, the character who begins her life in the windows of a church, in the religious air of her own imagination.’ (Light Warrior, 25).
Here, the mythos Myles has created is perfectly encapsulated. Myles observes themselves through memoir, and through their clothing choices, we read the identity they wish to project: a lesbian-poet raised to sainthood. We observe Myles, in their stained-glass window, and simultaneously, they observe us. The stream of consciousness writing reflects the author but also the reader. It invited my own pencilled scrawlings - furtively bound into Eileen's own. It’s a treasure trove of a book, so immersive and so reflective that the author and the reader, subject and object, become possibly, impossibly, conjoined.