Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments.
Elise Cowen, edited by Tony Trigilio
(Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2014)
Derek Jarman on finishing reading a biography of Allen Ginsberg: "I do love Howl, but I couldn't help thinking [the Beat phenomenon, the bio] was all a palaver, America scrutinizing its navel, and the myth-making Beats? Quite an ordinary little bunch seriously cultivating slender legends."
There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the '50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up. There were cases, I knew them, someday someone will write about them.
--Gregory Corso, from Stephen Scobie's account of the Naropa Institute tribute to Ginsberg, July 1994
Why do the Beats continue to fascinate, and does the special denominator "Beat Studies" do what we want it to do? What, for that matter, is the relationship of beat literature (lower case) and Beat Studies? Given these questions and the incontrovertible evidence that the Beats are what we would call, in contemporary terms, a "brand," around which "buzz" was created due to the efficiency of then-new media, as well as the indefatigable efforts of Allen Ginsberg to publicize his friends as a "boy gang" of raw but paradoxically well-read geniuses (Ginsberg cited by Johnson, xx), how is Beat writing to be valued or made meaningful in the context of the literary? Is this even a worthy endeavor? It seems to put those who identify as Beat scholars on the defensive, claiming on the one hand that the writing is good/ great literature as conventionally understood, and on the other hand that beats were up to something new, a soi-disant "uniquely American" take on the European maudit tradition (avec some U.S. transcendentalism thrown in), with a dose of African, via African American jazz, underworld culture, and what has come to be called "oraliture" (Petrilli and Ponzio 2001). Further, how are the lesser-known names and Beat members from aggrieved populations--people of color, minoritized genders and sexualities--to be treated within this still-wobbly, still-being-born movement from scholarly periphery to centrality and legitimacy? If Beat culture was, as is generally acknowledged, one of white men who embraced the underworld, how are the actual denizens of the underworld (by which I mean the world of under-privilege as well as the conventionally understood criminal edges of the demi-monde) to be treated?
As some readers of this journal know, I have a highly ambivalent relationship to the Beat Studies project, much like Derek Jarman whom I cite above. Some of the literature is thrilling, some of the hype is unbearable; some of the literature is trying too hard; some of the pathos of life-stories transcends the hype and the half-realized literary project. The half-realized is part of its appeal to my perhaps idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibilities. What has opened up for me the possibility of talking about the Beat movement in a way that does not aim to canonize its major writers, and that turns meaningful attention to the raw, the fragmentary, the broken, the unfinished, the underside of this underside of the canon is the legacy of cultural studies. This frankly partisan approach eschews literary evaluation altogether in favor of exploring and analyzing the "structures of feeling" (in Raymond Williams's influential phrase) and cultural artifacts (letters and other texts, fashion styles, domestic arrangements, and other para- and/or extra-textual phenomena) of historical moments and their subcultures of resistance, in order to draw attention to and valorize that resistance. While this might appear to diminish what is, in conventional litcrit and lithist terms, the "literary achievement" of the participants, the point is not so much to achieve, or to be recognized as having achieved, as to have the ambition to do so. (Iggy Pop's definition of a punk, for example, as someone whose glorious, heartfelt ambitions transcends his/her abilities, seems to resonate strongly with the double meaning embedded in the word "beat": blessed and defeated, as the example of Neal Cassady demanding that his collegiate friends teach him to understand Nietzsche suggests.) Let us be free from that debt to achievement as conventionally understood. Likewise, a critical approach that prioritizes neither the finished work nor authorial intention fully justifies publishing work that may not have been intended for publication. For aesthetic as well as ethical reasons, one can once again invoke Walter Benjamin's mandate that "nothing that has happened should be lost to history." One might ask, rather, why so much of the work is unfinished. Could it be that, because Elise Cowen was a woman, there was no network of publishers or influential mentors who took her seriously enough to help her? Or, for the same reason, her material resources did not offer her enough respite from daily chores or work for money for her to be able to write as conscientiously as she might have wanted? Or simply that, for the same reason, she lacked the confidence and self-esteem that publication or a higher artistic profile were ambitions that she was entitled to and/or could achieve? Or that, as a person with desires and yearnings illegible to the majority culture, she had few internal or external resources for even articulating a clear-cut path to literary recognition? These are among the puzzlements and challenges of confronting the work of a partially realized literary life, a partiality that mirrors the half-realized nature of the work itself as presented here.
With this in mind, we can read Elise Cowen's Poems and Fragments as a bit of legend made real, spirit and myth given tangible, palpable language that helps us grapple with the history of women poets in the U.S. twentieth century, women in the Beat scene, the treatment of mental instability--especially depression and drug psychosis--at mid-century, and Elise Cowen in particular. Ever since initial interest in the women Beats emerged through anthologies of critical essays and imaginative work in the mid-1990s, Cowen has been an appealing and enigmatic figure, legendary as one of Allen Ginsberg's few women lovers and typewriter transcriber of Ginsberg's masterpiece "Kaddish," warm and faithful friend to many women on the scene, gifted thinker and writer (years after Cowen's death, writer Janine Pommy Vega, herself a high school valedictorian, called Cowen the "smartest person [she] knew"), a rare and fine soul lost to some sort of psychosis or depression (possibly induced by alcohol, opiate and/or amphetamine overuse, though it is impossible to say with any certainty) and suicide (dramatically jumping through a seventh-storey, locked window) at 28.
The collection has been sensitively and thoroughly edited by Tony Trigilio, whose exhaustive research turned up a handwritten copy of the poems, circumventing Cowen's notoriously protective friend Leo Skir, who, believing himself to be Cowen's literary executor, alternately co-operated with and obstructed younger scholars wishing access to the dead poet's manuscript, of which Skir's was presumed to be the only copy. Of course, no such discovery is made solo, and Trigilio's accomplishment is no doubt the end result of many attempts by scholars involved in feminist reclamation projects, Beat aficionados, and other interested parties. Beat materials occupy a peculiar space along the continuum of popular/ mass culture, powerful fandom (Johnny Depp) or familial interests (the Sampas family), hagiography and serious scholarship, and as many people who could be useful to these folks are dying or still living but either deliberately laying low (William Burroughs's step-daughter, for example) or are just now being seriously researched (Cowen or LuAnne Henderson, one of Cassady's wives), when hard artifacts surface it is usually the result of much networking and cooperation among interested parties, delicate negotiations, and good timing. Trigilio has presented his amazing discovery--the handwritten manuscript--the poems and fragments (which include snatches of unsent letters which appear on the same page as drafts), not in chronological order but in groupings according to theme, ending, of course, with death, a prominent figure in Cowen's work, as it is for many chronic depressives.
Cowen writes in the tradition of Emily Dickinson, Joanne Kyger, and Larry Eigner in her gravitation toward short, cryptic, intensely felt verses made up of arresting images, sensory perceptions, and often acute longing, the latter quality reminiscent of John Wieners. All evidence of a powerful, even ecstatic, interiority is here, albeit one that cannot seem to express itself with full abandon. There is a thwartedness to the language, which is both its power and its pathos. It seems to pull back at the last minute, perhaps in the interest of creating an interesting verbal artifact, from saying what needs to be said.
You Stand in my heart as headlight The brown livingroom wall disappears And I Am a brown haired schoolgirl The is a regal word ... (62)
And yet that half-formed verbal shard twinned with obliquely named torment--dare one call it love? Loneliness?--is what pulls me in. As with so much raw, unfinished work, the appeal lies in its appearance of being caught mid-process. It is quivering with life because the poet has not let it go yet, possibly cannot reconcile herself to the notion of anything being finished, because such a state approximates death, which is longed-for but at the same time dreaded, in case its arrival pre-empts the possibility that this overwhelming love-loneliness may be alleviated through a healing experience of requited emotion, which never arrives and might likely not be recognized if it did.
Much of the poetry addresses the liminal spaces between life and death, spaces in which dead materials can be brought back to life or otherwise made meaningful for everyday living.
I took the skin of corpses And dyed them blue for dreams Oh, I can wear them everywhere I sat home in my jeans. I cut the hair of corpses And wove myself a sheath Finer than wool or silk I thought And shivered underneath. (33)
Despite its macabre aura, this poem spells out precisely what clothing is: made from skins, wool (sheep living and dead), silk (silkworms killed in the cocoon), and other matter. On the one hand, Cowen, in an era in which new synthetics are being hailed as miraculous alternatives to organic fabrics, reminds us of the gendered labor and routine "upcycling" involved in caring for the human at the most basic level. On the other hand, this is not a happy poem about domesticity as one might find in Gertrude Stein's descriptions of "Objects," "Food," and "Rooms," in which an unorthodox but stable and loving household is celebrated through close attention to the material adornments of that arrangement; or in Elizabeth Bishop's celebration of the "homely" and awkward female "Moose" as muse, in which animal spirits subtly aid humans to survive emotionally their confrontations with loss, parting, and displacement. The haunted ghoulishness of "I Took the Skin of Corpses" rather inhabits the world of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as Trigilio points out, and also Cowen's contemporary Helen Adam's murder ballads, specifically "I Love My Love," in which a uxoricide is in turn murdered by the animate strands of his dead wife's lush tresses ("the living fleece of her long bright hair"), which slips out of her grave and under his door, devouring him to the bone. The uncanny, uncomfortable underside of everyday practices in seedy bohemia comprise Cowen's domain, but in a far more intimate and personal way than similar material is handled in Ginsberg's or even Bob Kaufman's work. The emotions are rawer, the pain more directly addressed (again, Wieners is the closest analogue in the male panoply). In each of the earlier stanzas, attempts at survival and self-reliance (the latter a famously American virtue explicated in great detail by Emerson, one of the spiritual forerunners, in some senses, of the Beats), traditionally gendered-female skills (sewing, refashioning and mending) turns out to have been deployed in the interest of a futile and self-deluded vision that is as mundane as it is hopeless: going outdoors, finding companionship, keeping warm, enjoying the sun. As the poem progresses, the resiliency and cleverness of having been able to repurpose through grave-robbing turns into a vision of imprisonment by these very attempts at self-rescue: "Now when I meet the spirits / In whose trappings I am jailed / They buy me wine or read a book / No one can go my bail." While it is tempting to read this poem as an allegory for the futility of the newfound materialism of the 1950s and '60s, which was founded on imperialistically-expanded markets and the corpses, real and metaphorical, of subordinated Others, the abjection of the narrator suggests rather a sense that none of her bodily being ever really belonged to her; that she is living a life assembled from burdensome, carnal detritus (herself and not-herself) that enslaves her to the grave. While this type of dissociation (my body is / is not me) is not unusual in Beat writing, it takes on a particular valence when gender is brought to bear on the analysis.
And given the gendered realities of the 1950s and early '60s, when firstgeneration immigrants were under tremendous pressure to assimilate to their parents' desires for their upward social and economic mobility, Gregory Corso's intervention in the 1994 Naropa Conference cited above as counterpoint to Derek Jarman's rueful ambivalence about the Beat legacy, comes, sadly, as no surprise: as a rule, in a ubiquitously hostile situation, the disenfranchised fare worse. Of course, Wieners, Ginsberg as well as his mother Naomi, Bob Kaufman, Carl Solomon, and many others were locked up, given shock treatments, or lobotomized; but in the intervening decades, a heroism has coalesced around the myth of Ginsberg's tale of encounter with Solomon in the psychiatric hospital that has fueled rather than stifled legend. Cowen's story has heretofore garnered no such heroic aura.
Among the many ways in which Cowen's work inhabits liminal space, this impulse toward the inside/outside, assimilation/refusal, upward/downwardness, and so forth, is the ghostliness, the hovering between the living and the dead. Trigilio devotes the entire final section to death-oriented poems, and given the poet's suicide, this is appropriate. But I also read this in-between-ness as a form of deterritorialization, a state of being semi-embodied. "I Took the Skin of Corpses" is only one of many poems that position the poet in a haunted continuum of life/death. "Your Fate Awaits Outside the Door" parlays an innocent, random fortune cookie fortune into an eerie auditory encounter with the other side; after answering two sets of knockings at her apartment door, the poet tugs at the door fumblingly to find "no one-but empty blue light weird on the tile floor." Through its skillful placement as the last poem in the volume, Trigilio connects the poem with a beckoning to/ from death, a summons from the other side; however, it also functions as one of many poems that dwell in and on the interzones between embodiment, dissociation, and disembodiment. Middle class women during the 1950s and early '60s were alienated from their bodies through multiple mechanisms and discourses, including the medicalization of childbirth combined with the ongoing prohibition on legal and safe abortion, the prohibitions on breastfeeding and the commercialization of infant-nursing products, prohibitions on working "outside the home," i.e., earning an income that might enable them to control their material circumstances independently, and so forth. Women are not the only demographic who experienced this alienation: among others, African American Bob Kaufman writes about the split between consciousness/body movingly in "Would you wear my eyes?" and the queer, working-class John Wieners suggests it throughout The Hotel Wentley Poems; Earl Jackson has suggested that Burroughs's cut-up technique could be rooted in the dissociation of traumatic-because-strictly forbidden early same-sex encounters. Cowen's work shares with other Beats mentioned above (Wieners, Kaufman) the sense of deterritorialized, decentering self-othering that accompanies a traumatic relationship to the mainstream. But in Cowen's work, the interplay between the living and the dead, the extent to which birth and death are types of each other (for women both experiencing childbirth and being born themselves into a world of severely cramped possibilities, and in an era in which, while the reality of death in childbirth had much diminished, women routinely underwent total anesthesia--a simulation of death--for the birth process), the surrealism of floating between these worlds and sometimes inhabiting them simultaneously is palpable and powerfully affecting. Exploration of the body, and sexual relationships with (unattainable) men, becomes a way for an overprotected, bookish, Jewish girl to experience herself as redeemed ("Teacher--Your Body My Kabbalah" is a marvelous instantiation of Cowen's attempt to heal the rifts between language, gender, sexuality, the body, and the sacred), and then inevitably betrayed. Another powerful poem, "I wanted a cunt of golden pleasure," also strongly places Cowen among the ecstatics, yearning for a complete synthesis between mind, heart, soul and body in the act of love that is a "golden pleasure / purer than heroin ... or heaven." The cunt, a very old word in English and still one of the most shocking when seen in print, becomes a holy grail, a vessel of alchemical transubstantiation from the mundane to the sacred through secular consummation of a love/sex relationship. The poet's body/heart/imagination becomes a series of spaces: a cunt, a couch, a double bed, a meadow, tidepool, a city.expanding to accommodate the lover, in whose arms in turn she rests "all night long." The plaintive "I wanted" and "Oh that I was" suggest that only in the poem does this come to be. Like her muse Allen Ginsberg, Cowen's response to postwar social death and alienation was to seek the velocity of a heavenward flight of desire that necessarily took its path through the muck and squalor of the illicit.
In this unfulfillable desire for disalienation, the broken rawness of the work, combined with the clear intelligence of the writer, forms a poignant and meaningful portrait of women's predicament in a bohemia that both welcomed and exploited them, that ambivalently recognized and suppressed their literary talents and ambitions.
--Maria Damon, Pratt Institute
Petrilli, Susan and Augusto Ponzio. "Telling Stories in the Era of Global Communication: Black Writing: Oraliture." Research in African Literatures 32:1 (Spring, 2001): 98-109. Print.
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|Publication:||Journal of Beat Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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