Where The Wild Things Are

Eileen Myles’s new memoir of her dog has much to say about being human

‘Now I know what love feels like. I do it and I think it. I love feeling this. Love loving your doggie ass.’
Eileen Myles, Afterglow (2017)

In Marfa recently, on a writing residency, I met the American poet Eileen Myles. Eileen was always with her dog, an attractively square-jawed pit bull named Honey. Honey reminded me of a human, but I couldn’t put my finger on which one. Over time, this feeling intensified. Was she someone I had known in another life? Did she know my secrets? I gazed into her dog eyes. It was impossible to tell. Everyone in Marfa seemed to have a dog. There were at least as many dogs as people. Then, I read Eileen’s book.

Rosie is dead. Rosie, also a pit bull, came before Honey and was Myles’s companion for 16 years. Rosie is at the centre of Afterglow (2017), a whole book, crooked and profound, devoted to the spiritual exhumation of a dog. The end of Rosie’s life, we learn, was agonizing and protracted. Each day brought with it dramas of servitude and guilt, puddles of piss and abjection. And yet, Rosie’s doggie twilight was also tender and heart-breaking and illuminating in the way that ends can be. The book is subtitled – brackets the author’s – ‘(a dog memoir)’.

Afterglow opens with a crime. One day, Myles receives a preposterous, hand-written letter from a woman who identifies herself as Rosie’s lawyer. ‘Dog lawyers have only become possible in recent years, even months,’ it reads, going on to allude to some shadowy, as-yet-undefined wrongs perpetrated against said dog. You laugh. Then you wonder: ‘Is this for real?’ In the next chapter, Myles admits this about Rosie: ‘Our relationship is part discomfort and humiliation and part devotion.’ From here, Afterglow is filtered through the perspectives of both dog and owner, though it wanders eccentrically, too: dipping into Proustian memories drawn from Myles’s childhood; riffing on reincarnation, the wages of Condoleezza Rice, the crimes at Abu Ghraib and more. Virginia Woolf, who once wrote a biography – both erudite and silly – of a cocker spaniel named Flush, might be tickled.

ch-1769721.jpg

Leonora Carrington, Myth of 1,000 Eyes, 1950. Courtesy: Bridgeman Images, London; photograph: Christie’s Images © Estate of Leonora Carrington / ARS, NY, and DACS, London, 2018

Leonora Carrington, Myth of 1,000 Eyes, 1950. Courtesy: Bridgeman Images, London; photograph: Christie’s Images © Estate of Leonora Carrington / ARS, NY, and DACS, London, 2018

Afterglow’s most endearing and original scene involves Rosie being interviewed by Oscar, the puppet host of a puppet talk show. Rosie pours out her frustrations to Oscar like he’s Oprah Winfrey, insisting that it was she, Rosie the dog, who wrote all of her famous owner’s poems. Afterglow is many things, but it is certainly a meditation on collaboration. Oscar the puppet, in turn, offers his own existential puppet jeremiad: ‘People put their hands inside us, they enter our heads and bodies and make us say things whether we believe them or not.’ Who can ever think of a puppet in the same way?

Myles’s book is a shape-shifting, unclassifiable thing, confident as it turns its back on the straight jacket of genre but also on received ideas about authorship, temporality and even metaphysics. Why can’t a dog be jealous, feel harassed, have opinions of her own? Have literary aspirations, even? Likewise, why can’t a memoir be digressive, hysterical, fictive, even? By the end of the book – in the wake of revelations about addiction, gender and, inevitably, the terrifying condition of being alive – Rosie the dog has a full-blown personality. You feel for her. You also sense that she has forever changed her owner. Afterglow scrambles our unthinking acceptance of humans as superior beings.

This is not an entirely new position. The ancient Egyptians mummified animals as votive offerings to the gods and brought their pets to the afterworld as company. The late surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington, who wrote about and painted strange creatures, also considered them a sacred, higher form. For her, the transformation of human into animal was a benediction. Writing about Carrington in the Guardian last year, Marina Warner observed that ‘people in [her] paintings gain in stature and, by implication, in wisdom the closer they come to the creaturely’.

Which brings me, naturally, to the subject of Donald Trump, that most inhuman of humans, who, as it happens, is the first president in 150 years not to have a pet. Like petless Donald, Eileen Myles was once a wildcard candidate for the presidency, in 1993, her run immortalized in ‘I WANT A PRESIDENT’, a poem-letter by the artist Zoe Leonard. ‘I want a dyke for president,’ the screed began, calling for a president who knows what it’s like to have no health insurance, to have shitty teeth, to lose a lover to AIDS. Leonard’s text, like Afterglow, offers a wild and wide empathetic embrace; it runs counter to today’s narrow me-first culture, when the President addresses a sea of billionaires at cheesy Mar-a-Lago on the eve of historic tax cuts and smugly announces: ‘You all just got a bit richer.’ Myles’s unusual (dog) memoir calls upon us to open our minds a little, to feel, but feel imaginatively, to walk in the shoes of another. It is, unexpectedly, a book for the times.

Main image: Leonora Carrington, Myth of 1,000 Eyes, 1950. Courtesy: Bridgeman Images, London; photograph: Christie’s Images © Estate of Leonora Carrington / ARS, NY, and DACS, London, 2018

Negar Azimi a writer and senior editor of Bidoun, based in New York, USA.

Issue 193

First published in Issue 193

March 2018

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018