“One Lighting the Other, Seductively”: James Schuyler, Eileen Myles, and the Sexuality of Literary Influence

by Kimberly Lamm

As a poet and a figure, James Schuyler’s place in the New York School canon is assured. But unlike the work of his peers John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, Schuyler’s influence on subsequent generations of poets has yet to be explored. Perhaps this is so because it is difficult to find cultural corollaries for the sensibilities Schuyler’s work exemplifies: its stilled quietude, its porous attention, its careful but casual portrayals of intimate reflection, its attention to the sensual sheens of light fading into shadow. Ashbery’s pastiche of discourse, polyphone of clashing styles and tender absurdities and O’Hara’s poet as flâneur persona, his talk performing arabesques of wit from a shifting and evasive center, seem now to forsee identities and their accompanying verbal textures are readily available and recognizable by contemporary American culture.  Yet Schuyler’s attention to, in Barbara Guest’s words, “subjective, delicate states” (16) and the ease with which his work elicits similar states in the reader is a sensibility not readily celebrated in contemporary life.

Schuyler’s work is painterly; it observes and transcribes with color and light, and in turn, enacts and values the kind of attention painting requires, but since the 1970s, painting has since lost its prominence in the visual arts. [1] We would be hard-pressed to hear anyone make the claim Schuyler did in 1959: “in New York the art world is a painter’s world” (1, 1998). Perhaps this is one reason why there isn’t a sustained and collective literary investment, as there was for The New York School poets, to paintings’ nuances of color and light, and the fluid, transformative ease of paint shifting into metaphoric possibility. For Schuyler, attending to the subtle shifts in paint became a means for describing not only the nuances of natural scenes, but the nuances of emotions as they arise in response to the scene before the speaker. In the poem “Evening,” (1974) longing slowly rises to meet the color of an eroding day:

The sullen day
wears off in a dull blue gray
it almost hurts to see: so like
a mood that comes upon you
unawares, uninvited, unwanted,
like missing someone, and a long goodbye. (200, 11-16) [2]  

In her essay “The Vuillard of Us” (1990), Guest compares Schuyler’s work to the genre of the still-life and writes: “The poem’s form seems to drop from Schuyler’s hand like those drops from a jug in a Dutch still-life” (16). In the following lines from “Song” (1980), as in so many poems by Schuyler, he arranges a poetry of still-life by letting the light of the scene composed before him drip into the sound and shape of the poem:

The light lies layered in the leaves.
Trees, trees, and more trees.
A cloud boy brings the evening paper:
The Evening Sun. It sets.
Not sharply or at once
a stately progress down the sky
(it’s gilt and pink and faintly green)
above, beyond, behind the evening leaves
of trees. (235, 1-9)

Is there anything in contemporary poetry that golden and painterly and slow? The work of Eileen Myles might not immediately come to mind when looking for traces of Schuyler’s influence. Myles writes, and is well known for, representations of sex and sexuality that are far from shy. In “Porn Poems” (1997), for example, Myles writes:

Her tongue & her
heart were
in the holster
of her pussy. (48)

This direct and compact, almost imagist poem, emulates the intense focus and immediacy of sexual experience. Furthermore, Myles’ poems are often blunt and swift; they begin running and slam with affect, as though they are catching up to the immediacy of her reactions. Consider the way “Glove” begins (1997):

I couldn’t get over the weather
it was like a punch
that came up from the inside
a sock to my blood
everywhere I looked
I saw trees and the wind
blowing through them
a tiny couple in dark
tables all over New York
the winter of lies  
entranced in the trees
as rustness bleeds up from the horizon
meeting the clouds. (39, 11-13)

“Glove” begins swiftly and bluntly, but as the poem develops, and the horizon takes on the liquid qualities of light and color, Myles’s link to Schuyler’s, “subjective, delicate states” and his passive but always shaping attention makes itself clear. Both Myles and Schuyler render the eye’s passive delectation in light’s movement, acknowledging both its eloquence and ordinariness. Also, the first person “I” is certainly present, but it has a permeable quality, simultaneously shaped by and shaping the scene. The permeability of Schuyler and Myles’s “I” finds its expression in the painterly attention to the colored and sensual—quietly ecstatic—movement of light. As Myles writes in “Twilight Train” (1997),

It’s the sultriness,
the smokey approach
of the loss of
light that I love. (42, 29-32)

For both Schuyler and Myles, the lit sky is a lyrical screen, a projection of the writer’s mind absorbing and meeting the shifting surface of the world.

I have taken the title for this essay from a review of a Jane Freilicher exhibition Schuyler wrote for Art News in 1958. In this review, Schuyler praises Freilicher’s skill deploying the nuances of her medium to highlight painting’s imaginative and transformative potential. Schuyler states that Freilicher’s painting Russian Summer “abstracts the ripened vision of a page of Pasternak into the deep and cooling fire of an opal: colors the most flowering and succulent, one lighting another, seductively”(1998, 25). Not only does this line evoke the movement from literary to painted images, it describes Schuyler’s and Myles’s shared attention to the movement of light; Schuyler’s line can also be read as a figure for Schuyler’s influence on Myles, which is documented, developed, and complicated in her short-story entitled “Chelsea Girls” (1994). In this essay, I analyze “Chelsea Girls” metaphorically; I read it as a meditation on the relations between literary influence and sexuality and their analogous modes of intimacy and exchange. “Chelsea Girls” represents the influence of one’s literary predecessors on the same sensual and sexual continuum as sex itself. One lights the other, seductively.

“Chelsea Girls” is a fictionalized representation of Myles’s work taking care of James Schuyler in 1979. After a stay at the Payne-Whitney hospital, Schuyler was living at the Chelsea Hotel, drugged and fragile. The following passage describes Myles’s thoughts after she has left Schuyler and returns to a hotel room where she has been having sex with a girl named Mary.

I crawled back into the blue bed with her. She was slightly asleep. Not entirely. I don’t love you I thought. I kissed her. I kissed her again. I thought of the big sunflower man downstairs. He was not sex. It was something else. I hugged her. She was everything else. (275)  

Though the speaker attempts to make distinctions between them, what is “sex” and what is “not sex” remains provocatively blurred, vague, and interrelated. Myles doesn’t love the girl she kisses, but does that mean she loves Schuyler, “the big sunflower man downstairs”? Schuyler is “not sex,” does that mean the woman is sex, and is that why she is “everything else”? If Schuyler is not sex, what is the “something else” he is? This essay analyzes the work of Schuyler and Myles and the connections their work makes between the “something else” of literary influence, care, and intimacy, and the “everything else” of sex. “Chelsea Girls” is lit with a care and intimacy that is not sexual, but is still connected to the intensity of experience sex inspires. The story suggests that the intimacy of sex and the intimacy of literary encounters are not clearly distinct, but metaphorically transform into the other, linked by something like the intimacy of care.

In “Chelsea Girls,” Myles literally cares for Schuyler. She brings him his newspaper, keeps him company, makes him French toast with applesauce, picks up his prescriptions, and perhaps most importantly, narrates the stories of her life as an openly gay young woman living in New York. At one point in the story, Schuyler is a little confused about who Myles slept with last night in the hotel (Schuyler knows Myles and another woman, Christine, live together). Myles’s rendition of their conversation, its quick dialogue snapping between selves, enacts their witty and blurred intimacy: “What’s her name, your friend upstairs. Mary. She was our waitress. Whose? Me and Chris. You girls lead quite an exciting life” (272). [3]

As a writer who draws from and expands upon his works’ themes and styles, Myles continues her care on a figurative level as well, though the form Schuyler’s influence takes is a homelier, more quotidian sort. Walking into the lobby with Mary, Myles describes her familiarity with the Chelsea Hotel, and compares it to home: “I was very familiar with the place, its smells and sounds and the degree of dilapidation, the ugly art in the lobby that wasn’t distractingly exotic or worthy of note at all. It was normal. It was like fucking at home. You know, like your mother’s home” (269). The hotel is like home, and taking care of Schuyler is a little like taking care of a family member. His appearance here is not the “famous writer” distanced by legend and prestige: “The first day I stood facing him, a thin man with long curly hair rigidly lying on his bed I blurted out I love your poems. He said thank you….Say your favorite poet in the world is lying there. Who you’ve always been told is unmeetable, has nervous breakdowns, is a recluse into SM” (274). “Chelsea Girls” exemplifies a model of literary influence drained of some of its power, allowing for something closer to reciprocity.

Writing about influence is tricky, especially when it is framed in terms of seduction, and especially when one is writing about women working within a literary tradition such as The New York School, which is as dominated by men as any other. Arguing for an attention to Schuyler’s influence on Myles might risk occluding the directions her work takes that The New York School didn’t; she writes provocatively about class and language, a subject not really part of the New York School’s repertoire. [4] Myles writes about sexuality with a frankness that the New York School poets might only wind through momentarily and deflect with irony. Myles’s continued emphasis on the strength and independence of her persona, found and built and reinforced through writing, doesn’t allow for her work’s particularities to be subsumed under the rubrics influence can provide. At the end of her text “Light Warrior”(1994), Myles writes, “I have waited all my life for permission. I feel it growing in my breast. A war is storming and it is behind me and I am moving my forces into light”(36). And as a feminist writer, Myles constructs texts on the level of craft and style as well as argumentative statement. Her work doesn’t divorce argument and literary texture. So as much as “Chelsea Girls” pays homage to Schuyler and his influence on her work, it is also a subtle but strong critique, not of Schuyler, but of the patriarchy reproduced in representations of literary movements, and especially the record of public mourning, and therefore the memory of prominent literary figures such as Schuyler.

Discussing the divide between lesbian and gay men in the age of AIDS, Myles states: “Men want to be remembered by men. When a man dies, it’s the need to be valued by men, not women, that counts. History, and we still know who keeps that”(1997, 126). By asserting the value and importance of a person through the authority of men’s words and voices, literature, so intimately connected with loss and remembrance, becomes another means of re-asserting the patriarchal criteria of choice. In an interview I conducted with Myles, she told me she forced herself to write “Chelsea Girls” when Schuyler died in order to insist on and make public, rather than interiorize into privacy, the importance and actuality of women’s responses to and memories of Schuyler’s work, life, and death.

So it is both surprising and fitting that at the beginning of “Chelsea Girls” there is only a slight hint that Schuyler is a character in the story. “Chelsea Girls” begins with Myles having drinks with her girlfriend Christine and writing a Schuyler-like poem in a bar’s outdoor terrace. Myles spots a cute waitress, and the story focuses on meeting and making-love to this fair-skinned, dark-haired waitress named Mary who Myles describes with pop-art nostalgia. Mary is a veritable Snow White with eyelashes as “black as black window frames”(259). As tangible and strong as this attraction and mutual seduction seems to be, Myles admits to the literary pleasures that underlie her sexual adventure and Schuyler’s importance as the receiver of these tales. Myles writes, “I lived for nights like the one I was about to have with Mary Turner. Actually, the Mary Turner nights sparkled best in the morning recitation of events for the amusement of Jimmy Schuyler”(260).

This is an easy detail to forget, with all the sparks of seduction and drama in this story, and with all the complicated negotiations between Myles and her sullen and disaffected girlfriend, Christine. They negotiate questions propriety and exclusivity in their relationship. The fluidity of their sexual identities and identifications complicates these questions: “Could we possibly be two boys out cruising women together. But why then was I living with Chris?”(261) Christine sanctions the tryst in a goading way, and Mary and Eileen end up at the Chelsea Hotel. After a night of sex that includes Myles’s reflections on her sexual experiences and preferences — her imaginary image of herself shifts between that of a man and a woman — Myles reminds Mary that she has to go to work. Myles writes: “I’ve gotta go to work. What are you talking about? She was holding my head on her chest. I told you this man I take care of lives here”(271). Perhaps readers of this story are as surprised as Mary when she has to enter “the world of 625”(271). Like Schuyler’s work, Myles’s rendition of his room and their interactions are both imaginative and ordinary--ecceitic. [5] The following passage captures Schuyler’s propensity to simply describe, and the light that opens into this still-life makes the ordinary actuality of things imaginatively glow. Myles writes: “The light flooded in through the windows as I placed the dish down next to Jimmy on his bed. There was a little chair, salmon colored, next to his bed with several packs of Export “A”s, old coffee and rings on the orange seat from other coffee cups”(272). As in his work, the silence in Schuyler’s room is full and resonant: “The silences here in the room, the spaces that linger and fill the air when we speak are what I know about Jimmy more than the things he says” (273).

What is perhaps most interesting about this scene is Myles’s description of the poles of Schuyler’s attention. It is either entirely absent or entirely focused. Myles writes that “[t]he presence of his attention was so strong, so deeply passive — such a thing to bathe your tiny desperate words in that when it was gone you had to stop and hover in that silence again”(274). Myles describes his inattention in an equally dramatic way: “You’d be hesitatingly starting your story, or like a cartoon character running right in when you realized the long wharf you were taking a short run on, his attention was not there. It was hopeless. The yellow of his room became brighter”(274). It is the yellow light in this story and in this room that becomes a short of shape in which the vicissitudes of Schuyler’s attention are perceived and felt and allowed to shift, and it is the elasticity of that attention that Myles adopts in order to attend to the work of her beloved predecessor and also let her work move in its independent directions. Myles brings the history of her own sexuality to the thick and visible light of room 625. She reflects, “The first time I was in bed with a woman it was also in morning light and so was the first time Christine had her head between my legs” (270).

The attention, intimacy, and seduction that “Chelsea Girls” transcribes is not completely or thoroughly sexualized sexuality; it is also of the “literary” or even “artistic” kind, revealing that the sex of lust and bodies can inform literary encounters, and the impersonal and imaginative possibilities of literary encounters share the materiality of response and attachment and ardor normally reserved for sex. In other words, there are portrayals of sex in literature, and there are also erotic dimensions of literature and literary, artistic, and personal encounters that are not physical and explicitly sexual, but still involve a sensuality of intimacy, attention, and care. Where does the sensuality of intimacy and care end and where does sex begin? Are there as many differences as we think between the intimacy we receive from and bring to books and the intimacies and care we receive from and give to people? In his study Beyond Sexuality (2000), Tim Dean develops Leo Bersani’s and Ulysse Dutoit’s explorations of human relations to non-human forms. For these thinkers, reformulating human relations to non-human forms becomes a productive way to theorize about art. Dean writes that Bersani’s and Dutoit’s “understanding of relationality raises the possibility that some people ‘love literature’ in exactly the same way as others love sex”(277). Passionate attachments to literature can expand our understanding of sex, and an expanded understanding of sex can expand our understanding of the intimacy and connection writers represent and evoke in their work. Through Myles’s work, we might better glimpse the sexuality at work within Schuyler’s visual attention as well as the full and fluid range of that attention’s active and passive engagement. And through Schuyler’s work, we might better see and appreciate the Myles’s lyrical range. “Chelsea Girls” opens on to a room that suspends these possible connections within its light.

A recent essay by Juliana Spahr entitled “’Love Scattered, Not Concentrated Love’: Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets” calls attention to the deliberately unfocused intimacy of Mayer’s sonnets, unloosening entrenched notions of sexuality and their corollaries in entrenched literary forms. For Spahr, Mayer’s work is exemplary for its “refigur[ing] of lyric intimacy as collective and connective spaces” and their various means of “plac[ing] personal relations in a larger network of social concerns” which reconfigures intimacy beyond the individual and the couple (99). In Mayer’s sonnets, “Intimacy is not personal but part of a larger network of reactions and borders that blur, as it is no longer clear where a single person begins and ends” (101). One could say that that Schuyler’s work, particularly his lyrics, concentrate rather than scatter love, but there are moments of openness that blur the distinctions between the single person, the world, and others in Schuyler’s work. I am thinking of all the fading endings of Schuyler’s poems through which the speaker’s self — often barely present — disperses within its deeply focused attention. Consider the ending of “Buildings” (1972); the poem reflects on the choice between one perspective and the possibility of a diffuse multitude:

from among all of you
one can choose at a time only one
a woman striding the ragged grass
her fixed stare devouring the restless river
striding on the far side of the parkway
all those cars
all those millions of windows (87, 24-36)

This poem ends by articulating the structures of attention many of Schuyler’s poems engage with less explicitly. The figure of the woman and her desiring gaze are isolated against the sublime speed of the parkway and all the cars. The speaker of the poem seems suspended between fixed and dispersed engagements. Other poems allow the self to disperse and fade; natural scenes before the speaker become images for that dispersal. The conclusion to “Sleep” (1980), a poems that begins with the lines, “The friends who come and see you/ and the friends who don’t” (1-2) brings a quiet despair to the slowly ecstatic movement of a day closing:

A gold and silver day begins to wane.
A crescent moon.
Ice on the window.
Give my love to, oh, anybody. (13-16)

As I mentioned above, Dean’s Beyond Sexuality argues for a definition of sexuality that is not only beyond normative heterosexuality, but sexuality and sex as we normally imagine, practice, and elevate it: focused on genitalia, particular bodies and body parts, and the transcendence of orgasm. Dean uses psychoanalysis to emphasize the unconscious dimension of sexuality, which disrupts the Foucault-inspired nature/culture binary that informs so many discussions of sexuality. Seeing the unconscious dimension of sexuality “enlarges the scope of the sexual” and “troubles the border between the sexual and the non-sexual to the point of intelligibility” (270). For Dean, this troubled border points toward interesting ways of formulating relations between the non-human or objecthood of art and the subjective responses of individuals.

Both Myles and Schuyler attend to objects and discover emotional response through that attention. In a diary entry from May 20th, 1990 Schuyler cites the following quotation from the painter Vuillard’s diary: “‘The subject of any work is an emotion simple and natural to the author’”(272). What could be added to that journal entry is that the emotion “simple and natural to the author” arrives through attentive observation to objects outside the self’s subjective experience. Myles’s work often pares down to an emotional simplicity that emerges from clear observation. In “New York Tulips”(1982, 1995) we see Myles’s attention to ordinary details articulated with an honesty that is both tough and tender. In “New York Tulips,” the tulips are perceived with a clarity that enlivens the flowers themselves and the poet’s subjective and metaphoric response. The last line simultaneously narrows with succinctness and expands with the simplicity of emotional resonance:

Some tulips are completely
red, and some are terribly yellow.
Then the others shaded by both
maybe less clearly this or that.
But the mixed tulips
I love for their compassion.  
They soften the blows
of this and that.
I find them very beautiful. (155, 5-12)

Known as an American outlaw poet — Myles was a write-in Presidential candidate in 1992 — who writes about sex and desire with frankness and fearlessness, it is easy to imagine that moments such as this might be looked over in considerations of Myles’s oeuvre. I am not suggesting that the sex of Myles’s work needs to be ignored, or that the thoughtfulness of seemingly non-sexual moments found in poems such as “New York Tulips” are more important than Myles’s attention to sex. I am proposing that they be read as different points on the same continuum. I want to see a poet’s attention to objects and a poet’s attention to sex as two acts that are not radically different, but mutually reinforcing and involved with each other.

Myles continually upsets the distinctions between public selves and private sexual lives, and she employs the fluidity and shifts of poetry to render one’s movement into the other. Her work suggests that even though images and talk of “sex” permeates our public lives, the lines between public and private are continually redrawn and implicitly insisted upon, particularly for women and those whose sexualities diverge from heterosexual norms. The first line of “We the Living” (1995) develops, plays upon, and deliberately subverts the public and political language of the title:

As my platform I suggest
these really pretty fingers
which hold me up
a pretty cunt
splayed on the vivid couch. (107, 1-6).

For Myles, the body and sex are inextricable from writing. In a talk entitled “The Lesbian Poet”(1997), Myles states that “she came out as a poet and a dyke in one reading”(123) and goes on to underscore the importance of the woman’s body to her poetry: “It’s my poetic dilemma, it seems. To include the body, mine, the woman’s as I see it, to approach the blood as part of the score”(130).

In post-Stonewall poetry, Myles developed what Schuyler had begun: to acknowledge the quotidian dimension of sexuality and the ecceity of homosexual identity. [6] In The Morning of the Poem (1980), for example, notice how gracefully Schuyler weaves together desire, different forms of looking and intention, and the practice of painting. The sexuality demonstrated in one sort of seeing is weaved into other lines of sight:

you’re painting, or sketching
In big charcoal strokes what will become a painting:
I’m posing, seated
By the tall window of the Ming tree, and look
out across Chelsea street
And up to where a handsome muscular man in just
a towel leans into
The snow (it isn’t always July, you know) to see
what’s going on: my heart
Goes pitta-pat, but you, you won’t even down
your brush and take a peek:
I call that dedication. (266)

Myles’s work is dedicated to Schuyler’s, but it is a dedication free to diverge. “Chelsea Girls” exemplifies the fact that Myles brings her own sexuality, and her body, a woman’s “as [she] sees it” to the scene of his influence. Her honest, unveiled representations of sexuality and sex are not an intrusion into the thickly lit, absorptive spaces of Schuyler’s lyrics; her work continues in the direction Schuyler hoped his work would take. In “A photograph” (1974), Schuyler writes about “two sorts” of ecstasy: the sexual kind — “my strange scream/ last Friday night” and the tender, domestic kind: “’Why, that joy I felt/ and didn’t think about/ when his feet were in/ my lap” (186, 27-30). Reflecting on whether he believes in the “perfectibility of man,” Schuyler writes

do. I mean it,
I really do believe
future generations can
live without the in-
tervals of anxious
fear we know between our
bouts and strolls of
ecstasy. (187, 39-47)

“Chelsea Girls” suggests that bringing the various ways literary encounters engage our passions to our understanding of sex can help forge into visibility the relations between the intimacy of sexuality and the sexuality of intimacy and quotidian care. Perhaps this visibility mitigates the “intervals of anxious fear” Schuyler describes.

Works Cited

Dean, Tim. Beyond Sexuality. University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Guest, Barbara. “The Vuillard of Us.” Denver Quarterly 24.4 (1990): 13-16.

Myles, Eileen. Chelsea Girls. Santa Rosa, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1997.  

________. Maxfield Parish: Early and New Poems. Santa Rosa, California, 1995. 

________. School of Fish. Santa Rosa, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1997.  

Schuyler, James. Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1993.  

________, The Diary of James Schuyler. Ed. Nathan Kernan. Santa Rosa, California,1997.  

________. “Poet and Painting Overture.” Selected Art Writings. Ed. Simon Pettet. Santa Rosa, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1998.

Spahr, Juliana. “’Love Scattered, Not Concentrated Love’: Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets.differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12 (Summer 2001): 98-120.

Bio: Kimberly Lamm is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington. She currently teaches English at Pratt Institute and Women’s Studies at Long Island University.


[1]  Myles has pointed out to me that the “subjective, delicate states” Guest rightly finds in Schuyler’s work is also applicable to film, photography, video, performance, and even animation. She cites Bill Viola, the video artist, as someone who “moves through those states and more.” Many thanks to Eileen Myles for her generosity and enthusiastic help on this essay.

[2] All of Schuyler’s poems cited in this essay are taken from Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1993). After each cited poem, I refer to the publication date of the collection in which the poem first appeared. The cited page number refers to the place where the poem appears in the Collected Poems.

[3] In her comments on this piece, Myles writes: “I wonder if . . . the dialogue snapping between selves is important. The mise-en-scène of the dialogue itself is a thing I probably learned from Jimmy, or advanced his use of or something. But its another sort of blurring . . .”

[4] See Myles’s essay “The End of New England,” in the recently published collection of poetry and prose entitled on my way (Cambridge, MA: Faux Press, 2001).

[5] Responding to the word “ordinary,” and the idea of “ordinariness” in Schuyler’s work, Myles suggests “ecceity”: “I also thought of ‘ecceity’ so I hand it to you, because J’s ordinary all-overness seems greater than ordinary. Chris Kraus gave me ecceity as a concept, a tingling ubiquity.”

[6] See note 3 about “ecceity” and ordinariness.

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