Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments, edited by Tony Trigilio
reviewed by Becca Klaver
Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments is a welcome, fascinating, and thoroughly researched critical edition of the poetry of Elise Cowen (1933-1962), a Beat generation poet who, as Tony Trigilio points out in his introduction, has thus far been best known as the girlfriend of Allen Ginsberg (they dated in 1953, the year before Ginsberg met his life partner, Peter Orlovsky), and as the typist of the final draft of Ginsberg’s long poem “Kaddish.” The poems and fragments included in Elise Cowen come from Cowen’s only surviving notebook, dating from 1959-60, which has for decades been in the possession of her friend Leo Skir, who has falsely represented himself as the executor of her estate and limited others’ access to the poems. Cowen’s parents’ neighbors burned her other notebooks, whose references to sexual behavior and drug use challenged 1950s notions of propriety, as a favor to the family after her death by suicide. But as Trigilio’s introduction explains, the family of Cowen’s cousin Ellen Nash, who was close to the poet and supportive of her writing, in fact owns the rights to Cowen’s work, and has granted Trigilio permission to publish them in this volume. With the publication of Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments, we finally have, over 50 years later, a definitive and legitimate collection of Cowen’s poetry.
While Cowen’s life story, what little we know of it (see Joyce Johnson’s memoir, Minor Characters, for the most extensive account), brings to mind other American women poets of the same generation who ended their own lives (Sylvia Plath was born one year earlier and died a year later), and while Cowen can be read in the context of other Beat women writers such as Johnson, Diane di Prima, Hettie Jones, and Janine Pommy Vega, in many ways Cowen’s closest peer is Emily Dickinson, whom Cowen addresses repeatedly and after whose themes and forms—such as ballad meter, cryptic imagery, and metaphysical questioning—Cowen often models her own poems. The ghastly, wry poem “[I took the skins of corpses],” which also borrows from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is written in Dickinson’s typical meter (a variation on ballad meter where all lines are written in trimeter except the fourth, written in tetrameter), as is “[The body is a humble thing]”:
The body is a humble thing Made of death & water The fashion is to dress it plain And use the mind for border (25)
Dickinson even seems to haunt some of the editing choices in Elise Cowen: as in the two titles above, Trigilio titles the many untitled poems and fragments by putting the first line in brackets, a common titling practice for Dickinson poems; the appearance of textual variants in the notes also recalls Dickinson scholars’ preservation of, and attention to, variants. Thomas H. Johnson’s three-volume Dickinson variorum was published in 1955: this was the first time her complete poetic production was available the public, making the “shy white witch of Amherst” (60), as Cowen calls her in one poem, not only her predecessor but also her peer. Belated publication or discovery has often affected the work of women writers, who must sometimes make peers out of ghosts, as women writers in the 1970s and 80s did when reclaiming modernist foremothers. In “[Emily],” Cowen imagines Dickinson as her contemporary in midcentury America, where Emily will “take off your / jeweled bees” and Elise will “strip my stinking / jeans” and the pair will “run outside” and “get tan” (26). The compelling fragment “[I had a dream of mercy]” also brings Dickinson into the present as it swerves from one of Cowen’s major influences to another, as the rhyming opening lines in ballad meter shift to a contemporary reference to “a green automobile” (the title of a Ginsberg poem, as Trigilio points out):
I had a dream of mercy It was grey simplicity Never one of love until you made for me a plum scroll a green automobile and better-than-peaches (88)
Other poems that read as less Dickinsonian on the surface because of their setting in bohemian tenement life and their use of free verse recall Dickinson through a sense of domestic confinement. Cowen refers to her apartment as a “dungeon” (12, 53), and several poems describe the experience of observing the airshaft outside her window, a circumscribed view “of the secret shaft / where spring snow fell” (96) that becomes a space for inner reflection. Elsewhere, what I came to think of as Cowen’s “cockroach poems” recalled Dickinson’s attraction to bees and flowers. Cowen expresses a kinship with these household pests that is alternately funny, creepy, abject, and reverent. In “[A cockroach],” she tells one, “You’re not really welcome / to use my shoe / For a roadside rest” (14), then later admits her compassion for the creature: “I treat you / seriously affectionately as a child” (15). Cowen’s tenderness toward the lowliest creatures and the plainest views can be read as a spiritual or ethical position. She wants to honor them (“not to forget / the cockroach” (21), “Respect the cockroach centuries” (55)) and even to emulate or join them: “Teach me to be a makeshift cockroach,” “Cockroaches / Prepare / I’m coming in” (56). Elsewhere she does, apparently, kill cockroaches as well as treating them as pets, but still tries to redeem them from squalor by poeticizing them: “killing cockroaches again this morning / Who six-digit up my leg / Who makes flower shadow on the open petal” (16). Trigilio’s chronology notes that Cowen and her roommate Vega moved to a new apartment in 1960 at least in part because their former apartment was “infested with cockroaches and Cowen [was] hesitant about killing them” (168).
Elise Cowen's 1956 passport photo
As a recovery project, Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments joins the other books, mostly anthologies published by university presses, that have emerged in the last 20 years to collect work by and about Beat women writers, such as Richard Peabody’s A Different Beat (1997), Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation (1996), and Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace’s Girls Who Wore Black (2002) and Breaking the Rule of Cool (2004). But unlike these projects, Trigilio presents a critical edition of a single woman poet, and one published by an independent press, Ahsahta, which thus far has almost exclusively published poetry collections by living writers. Together, Trigilio and Ahsahta have constructed a volume that combines the excellent research of a critical edition (introduction, notes, appendices, chronology, bibliography) with the reliably elegant design work of Janet Holmes. I point this out because I am interested in this “small press critical edition” as a potential model for future recovery projects, of women and others, that will bring lost U.S. poetry and poetics documents into the hands of the many younger poets reading widely in small press publishing. I have heard many lamentations that there is so little critical writing on the work of post-1945 experimental women poets, and that so much of this poetry is out of print or was never published to begin with, but in recent years there has been work toward increased critical and (re)publication efforts. (I think of the early works of Bernadette Mayer that have been (re)published recently, for instance, and of CUNY’s Lost & Found series, as proof of this energy and interest in the last five to ten years.) The assumption that feminist recovery had its moment in the 1970s and 80s—Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, Barbara Guest and H.D.—and that we’ve already discovered all the interesting poetry by women that there is to be discovered is swiftly disproved by Elise Cowen. Ironically, contemporary poets might now have the same “belated peer” relationship to Cowen as Cowen herself did with Dickinson. Trigilio’s project also proves that you don’t have to be a woman to undertake this important feminist work. At the same time, his account of trying to get access to Cowen’s poems, which reads like a cautionary tale in the kind of detective work editors and scholars might encounter when undertaking such a project, gives a clue to the many reasons why these projects never come to fruition—reasons that have nothing to do with the value of, or interest in, the poetry itself.
As Trigilio reports, many poets and scholars have contacted him since his article on Cowen first appeared in Girls Who Wore Back—“The interest in her work was enormous”—and Knight informs him that Cowen’s work has generated the most attention out of any of the women in her anthology (xvii).
While it could be argued that Cowen’s relationship to Ginsberg propels that attention, spending time with Cowen’s poetry proves that it adds an important missing piece to the body of Beat writing that stood in defiance of midcentury bourgeois conformist culture. One of my favorite poems, “The Time Clock,” whose ten lines all begin with the anaphora “Stamps 9:00,” enacts an assault of the imagination against the stifling, routinized state of mind produced by punching a timecard at work every morning. The apparent redundancy of the title (are there clocks that tell something other than time?) reinforces the sense of stifling mundanity, of day-after-day-ness. It opens:
Stamps 9:00 on the finger that stroked a cunt last night Stamps 9:00 over the most important words of the book you were reading Stamps 9:00 on both your eyeballs Stamps 9:00 on your new shoes Stamps 9:00 through your secret thought Stamps 9:00 on your back where everyone sees it but you (70)
“The Time Clock” slyly reminds the reader that the same hand that becomes instrumentalized by labor might have been, the night before, an instrument of desire. Cowen resists turning “the finger that stroked a cunt last night” into a tool in service of capitalist profit, and instead insists on announcing what it did the night before: this synecdochic play reminds us that a worker is not simply “a part for a whole” (whole as factory, corporation, economy), not simply a dupe with that timestamp on her back, but a human being who brings an array of experiences, many of which are not welcome in the workplace or 1950s culture more broadly, along with her. These are her stowaway desires, trespassing into the workplace with her as she refuses to completely shift into laborer-drone mode. But inevitably, the workplace’s demands pull “you” away from preferred activities, which also happen to be the work of the poet—reading books, perhaps even thinking a “secret thought.” And these secret thoughts are precisely what, for so many Beat writers, became a new idea of what poetry could be. I’m reminded here of how di Prima, upon reading “Howl,” realized that there were other poets like her of Cold War resistance, of the bohemian artistic underground:
All the people who, like me, had hidden and skulked, writing down what they knew for a small handful of friends—and even those friends claiming that it “couldn’t be published”—waiting with only a slight bitterness for the thing to end, for man’s era to draw to a close in a blaze of radiation—all these would now step forward and say their piece. Not many would hear them, but they would, finally, hear each other. I was about to meet my brothers and sisters. (Memoirs of a Beatnik 127)
Elise Cowen was an important one of these brothers and sisters, and with gratitude and pleasure, we can finally hear her.