THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ICELAND:
TRAVEL ESSAYS IN ART
By Eileen Myles
Los Angeles, SEMIOTEXT(E), 2009. 368 Pages. $17.95
“The first thing everyone knows or doesn’t know about Iceland is that it’s not Greenland… The other thing you’ll hear from anyone about Iceland is they stopped there on their way to Europe cause the tickets were cheap… It’s a kind of a pit stop place, a gas station so to speak.” Similarly, the first thing everyone knows or doesn’t know about Eileen Myles is that she’s a legendary poet and novelist, or that she’s gay, or that she once ran for president. The other thing you might hear from anyone who has read her latest book, The Importance of Being Iceland, is that Eileen Myles and the isolated, ever-growing island country have a surprising amount in common. For one, they are both much more than the sum of their better-known parts.
The Importance of Being Iceland includes two decades worth of critical essays, interviews, journal entries, and blog posts in which Myles assumes the roles of art critic, travel journalist, and conflicted pedestrian trying to find “a way to be in the world.” Myles skips freely between the personal and historical, academic and commonplace, masticating an array of topics from Robert Smithson, Roni Horn, Allen Ginsberg, and the 1970s New York art scene to hush-hush queer communities in Russia, shrinks, barf, weddings, and oral hygiene. By arranging her prose pieces topically rather than chronologically, she creates a veritable map of her meanderings and further solidifies her status as a champion of transgressive forms of expression and points of view.
In the book’s title essay, “Iceland,” Myles explores the “lonely” country’s unsteady terrain and deeply rooted culture as the foil of her own sense of inbetweenness. “The connectedness and disconnectedness of landmasses on our planet is part of our planet’s history. My history,” she writes. But the moment she grounds herself as a complacent denizen in the land of flux, she’s off again: “The best poetry keeps moving at all costs.” Frequently digressive but always relevant, Iceland shifts from Boston to Vegas, Walter Benjamin to Gertrude Stein, and “teevee” to poetry, following such craggy and superlative ADD tangents as could only spring from the mind of a truly American writer.
Yet as Myles whirls through her myriad subjects, she seems doomed to prove John Ashbury’s theory that “poets when they write about other artists always tend to write about themselves.” For example, in “On the Road with Björk,” Myles’s sketch of the impish musician’s concert performance borders on sheer self-reflexiveness: “Björk leans forward… all gallant. She steps back and dances around, skips… Running close to the lip of the stage, claiming it and making it come alive.” (Replace the names and the word ‘stage’ with ‘page’ and that’s Myles, all over). But such egoism is embraced as yet another inherent part of being Iceland: “I mean, I kind of stand on assembling identity as a way to find knowledge,” Myles admits. “I’m not sure if I’m telling a story or unveiling my mania.”
In the end, Myles always finds her footing in language, and it is through her idiomatic yet intelligent word craft that she is able to articulate herself, her Iceland, into being. Her turns of phrase have the capacity to stun, embodying a voice that is consistently lean, lyrical, and punchy. The Importance of Being Iceland acquires a rhythm similar to that of Iceland’s epic poetry singing Kvaedaskapur, a “sameness that feels about to change.” It’s like sunlight on water; Myles can’t help but be reflected and refracted by every inch of the pages she sends her thoughts skipping on.
In short: I’d highly recommend grabbing on to this book and not letting go. It’s wickedly easy to pick up and nigh impossible to put down… which is especially great on rainy evenings (in Brooklyn, or Iceland, or anywhere really) such as this.