What We Talk About When We Talk Rot: Eileen Myles and an Obsession with Spoilage
By Emma Komlos-Hrobsky
In her conversation with Mike Albo for the World Voices Festival’s Obsession series, Eileen Myles told this story about her lifelong fixation with spoilage: As a younger, poorer, person living alone in the East Village and feeling invisible, “a lot of what was going on in [her] apartment was wrapping bread very effectively.” Myles described the ritualistic way in which she’d “buy a roll for like thirteen cents, and beer with the rest [of her money],” wrap the bread in plastic bags to keep it fresh and store it in the fridge, “and right there, you’d have this incredible future.” “What I wanted,” said Myles, “was just to be free for a long time.” With these perfect supplies thus protected, Myles “knew everything was okay,” that some future happiness was secured and waiting for her in the bread.
Myles’s story hit on two of the threads that made all of her talk so provocative: spoilage’s intersection with class and privilege, and the way it works as tangible—even tastable—reminder of time’s creep and the declines that come with it. Thinking about spoilage in connection to class yielded some of the discussion’s hardest moments, including Myles’s brush on the pain saddled to the working class kid compliment of being “a good eater.” Being poorer means more encounters with spoilage, more of the secret calculus that weighs just how bad something’s gone against its costs; having more comes with the guilt and anxiety of waste. Discussion of both sides of the equation seemed to eddy around the night’s undercurrent, shame: the shame of being hungry, the shame of finally having enough and letting some go to waste, the shame of being overindulged.
How, then, to deal with this shame? In the course of talking, Myles bumped up several times on the notion that the fix to spoilage is having someplace to unload our excesses before they turn bad—a dog to eat the half of the hamburger we won’t finish, a stoop on which to leave the cup we wake up hating, a kid to act as “little dumpster.” All these potential fixes seemed to share the important ability to help “make invisible” the that excess, to physically relocate it, possibly to the benefit of someone else but first as a sort of personal psychic offloading—fixes maybe as fraught as confronting rot and waste.
But the very way Myles spoke about her obsession also suggested generative to be mined in decay. The particular weirdness of the nature of the spoiling of food seems to echo this sentiment. As something goes bad and moves towards some kind of expiration (be it one that’s spiritual or moral or as simple as a date stamped on a carton), it also transforms itself and in some way becomes suddenly animate and living. In fecundity, there’s power and creative energy ripe to be tapped. Myles seemed to confirm this when she mentioned, towards the end of her talk, a rotting mess of a house that had caught her attention and that she’d considered living in. It seemed like a place, she said, where she could imagine doing good writing.
Myles described her present self as someone who “traffics in loaves.” While she’s come up in the world since the era of the carefully guarded rolls, her spoilage obsession persists. Albo as amateur shrink prescribed for Myles a course in composting and fermenting; I’d point us all to that rotting house and its spiritual doubles, to see what work we might do there.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky’s writing has appeared in Bookforum, Web Conjunctions, The Story Collider, and Hunger Mountain. She is assistant editor at Tin House magazine.