“First of All I’m Naked”: On the Collected Poems of Michael Lally


On Poetry

Michael Lally reading at Folio Books in Washington, D.C., c. 1977, with Doug Lang and Terence Winch.


Michael Lally’s Another Way to Play, out next week, is an awesome book and you should read every word of it. You won’t do it in a day or in many days, but during the passage of reading it you will learn something about time. Another Way to Play seems to offer advice—and it’s advice from self to self, which might be the only way to enact advice truly. Plus, who is that “another”? Somebody else?

As I’m climbing over the rocks, the poems of Michael Lally, this incomplete utopia, a rugged landscape of a book, it occurs to me that what Michael takes on is nothing less than the feat of being alive and the exploding and strewn nature of that exactly on its own terms (living in a body) while this writer keeps trotting out his own arrogance like a family joke, and deep humility is in there, too, humility is the gas station of so much of what Michael Lally does and is, poet and man. Lally is mostly a straight guy, but you may viscerally experience the embrace of another man in “Watching You Walk Away,” which was dedicated to Gregory Millard, one man who died collectively—of AIDS, so there’s an imputation here—of being a survivor of love, even being a man of a certain age or moment who knows that being a loving man and loving men now has both its glory and its price:

The world is all around us, even at night, in bed
in each others arms
distilled & injected into the odor we leave on each others
backs & thighs, between the knots & shields of all we lay
down in the dark to pick up in the morning
I like your brown eyes when you talk

This collected poems or collected poem is constructed of similar yet all different mostly brave moments. It’s a compendium of what one is possibly brave enough to do—to labor, to fail, to lounge, to love. Lally’s not fessing up, but he’s proud. This is undoubtedly the book of a proud man. Proud to a fault, and he’s the first to tell you that as well. I mentioned family before. Yet what one more likely feels throughout the four-hundred-odd pages of Another Way to Play is that you’re kind of in a relationship with this guy. Whether you’re male or female. Which is kind of octopussy, but stylistically Lally is a dancer, habitually reeling from form to form. It’s a broken book in the best sense. There’s no whole here, the self is never resolved, but what’s delivered, weltered in poem form, is a novelistic series of impressions. It’s a real thing and a changing thing. An aesthetic and a biographical one. Years ago I read in James Schuyler’s “Morning of the Poem” that Schuyler approved of Michael Lally because he looked you straight in the eye. Here we’ve got an extended Lally poem (“The Jimmy Schuyler Sonnets”) that tells us much the same thing—that “Jimmy knew what mattered.” The men’s mutual admiration, their like for one another has a special feeling, a leveling affect. They invite us into their intimacy. Their public “like.” Which makes me want to step out too and acknowledge that I’m discovering that I’m extremely influenced by Michael Lally and I hadn’t thought so much about that until I was dwelling in Another Way to Play. Because his affect occurs through so many different gestures. In the most existential way, his poem is an act. 

He starts one like this:


First of all I’m naked
while I’m typing this,

I mean I know I tried it. Was it after him. Perhaps. I think I tried fucking myself while writing. Inserting a dildo and then writing an art review. I’ve read in Chris Kraus’s biography of her that Kathy Acker sometimes wrote naked. And I kind of remember Peter Schjeldahl telling me a long time ago that he wrote naked too. And Peter wrote long naked poems. So naked that he stopped writing poetry entirely. The trick is to manage to stay in. And this, Lally’s, was a way. Michael began his poem like that. Naked. Yet it wasn’t about it at all. It was another way to begin again. Which Lally is always doing. Here nakedness kind of invented the studio of the poem. Just matter of fact. Which is the constant position in the work. He’s a working-class man so it’s a chore. To be real. And to make that new.

Open my brain, poems fly out.

And it pretty much looked that way when I first met or really laid eyes on Michael Lally in about 1975.

Two poets I knew, Harry and Larry, invited me to go up with them to the Gotham Book Mart to hear some famous poet from D.C. Or maybe the poet had just moved to New York. Harry and Larry explained that Michael was more than a bit of a showman, a sham perhaps but winning finally, definitely worth going to see. I was a new kid in town and female so these guys, all men, were responsible for my education. Harry and Larry admired Michael Lally, they blushingly admitted. They had a boy crush on him. They also loved Janey Tannenbaum of the Gotham Book Mart and she had made a little chapbook of Michael’s My Life through her own Wyrd Press. That publication was the reason for the event. The room was packed. This good-looking dark-haired Irish guy—someone who had run for office in that counterculture way (and lost!), who slept with men and women, and the breadth of Michael’s living absolutely impressed the two guys who invited me. It’s true, they gasped, exasperated, delighted, and there he was seated at a table in a clean blue (I think) shirt presenting his poem in a low-key almost cowboy way. Like you all know this. I am a ritual. He calmly looked up. Lally looked like someone I might have grown up with, very Irish, cute, but carrying himself like a man, not a pretty boy yet someone firmly planted in his own affect. The Gotham being at its zenith at that time only hosted stars. Ntozake Shange gave a solo reading as well around then and saintly Patti Smith had read to this glamorous room a few years earlier. Mid seventies was a moment of poetry stars. These people were not so apart from the wider culture yet they were ours, each an example, pamphleteers in a way, speaking for the vitality of small culture then. They were not larger culture’s absence but its depth. And each of these cults opened onto other cults of sex, politics, and race, music and painting. It was acidy. It was a wide counterculture then, and poetry was the mouthpiece of it, and Michael was that day’s star. He refers to “My Life” in other poems in this book as his famous poem and it is and was plaintively that. The poem revels in its own facets. Contradictions. Though the poet’s not too hard on himself. The poem’s sort of funkily buffed like Just Kids. I like “My Life” as an example of how a poet can occupy space and stand as pure legend, yet it’s by far not his most interesting work. You can see the echoes building up to it within this book and poems later on audition a similar stance in short and long versions for the rest of his writing life. What I love about Michael’s writing is that he really isn’t trying to do it again. His most famous poem is his emptiest poem. He knows that. That’s its joke. His last poems in this volume are his best poems and so are his earliest ones. He’s so big as a flawed human, as the apologist of Michael Lally, as the St. Augustine of Michael Lally, so endlessly expansive in his context yet still not ever breaking into prose. He’s holding the line, so that finally if you just wanna talk about Lally as a poet, he’s a sonneteer. A guy with a lute. A maker of that precise little form that spawns so many multiples of itself, “The South Orange Sonnets,” “The Village Sonnets” reveal the classiness of a poet. He’s the novelist who just wouldn’t bother he is so busy living and dreaming. He is real because he’s courting the myth. “My Life” is such an arrival, here’s the boat, that he exhausted the approach in a one off, sort of ended his life early on so he could keep going ’cause so what. Why be a star really? Isn’t that missing the point. This is a wise book. And a book of life has to be a book of wisdom. It’s really so much more moving to read a love poem to a woman or man–or talking to his children. Or going to Ireland to find a few Lallys and not be corny about it and it’s not. Or to read the much older Michael’s sonnets about the village when he was a kid. This is a poet who is probably more shaped by his love for black girls than being Irish. Or is it both. Part of the wonder of Lally’s work is that he is the performance of how race and class dovetail. One punk kid who makes poetry all his life about a black girl who he loved all his life and she him is the living coalition. What I mostly finally love about Lally is that like Gertrude Stein he insists we all stand with him while he’s living and writing. Which is easy to play. ’Cause it’s your book too.

No, all I want to do
is sound like what I am always becoming,


Eileen Myles is a poet, novelist, performer, and art journalist.

Excerpted from Another Way to Play: Poems 1960–2017, the definitive collection of verse from the poet and activist Michael Lally, published by Seven Stories Press on April 24, 2018.