Elise Cowen: A Recovery

Elise Cowen: Poems And Fragments edited by Tony Trigilio
Ahsanta Press
170 pages, $28

Reviewed by Clara B. Jones

Because of the success of male poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso, the Beat Generation of the 1950s and 1960s is a prominent project in post-war American literature. Beat poets challenged social, cultural, political, psychic, and literary conformity, advancing oppositional world views. Many of these writers were tragic figures, and, in his controversial poem, “Howl,” Ginsberg stated, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by/madness, starving hysterical naked.” In a 2014 interview with Jonah Raskin of San Francisco Gate, Diane di Prima, often called “Queen of the Beats,” defined “Beat as a state of mind not bound by any particular time or by a single generation. Beat belongs to the great American counterculture.”


Elise Cowen (1933-1962, suicide) was peripheral to the Beat community in New York City, a woman burdened by severe mental illness necessitating periodic hospitalizations and by episodes of depression as well as psychosis. She struggled to support herself and to sustain her fragile social life. Though Cowen had a fling with Ginsberg in 1953 and served as his typist in 1960, their relationship seems to have been superficial—exploitative on Ginsberg's part, idealized on Cowen's. Her poem, “Love” (68), exemplifies this ideation:


Not the neon sign
             of heaven & earths
But done with nots

Not the neon Lover
            reflected off my dreams
Or not that only
But you
With chest hair growing cross


None of the Beats, including, Ginsberg, seems to have taken Cowen seriously, and she does not receive even passing mention in di Prima's 2001 memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman. Di Prima's book should be read concurrently with Tony Trigilio's edited volume of Cowen's writing for documentation of the women active in the Manhattan and San Francisco Beat communities and for a first-hand, cogent record of the place of women in those projects. In her memoir, Di Prima characterizes a woman's role among the Beats as, “To be available [to men], a woman's art I saw as a discipline, a spiritual path. To be available, but stay on course somehow.” Though her friend, Leo Skir, remained intensely committed to Cowen's memory and to her writing, her depression must have been magnified by her exclusion from the affairs, writing conferences, parties, book readings, and coffee shops that Di Prima so vividly recalls.


As documented by Trigilio and by Cowan's body of work, she was incapable of “discipline” or focus, though, aspiring to mimic Beats, she exhibited an interest in Eastern religions. Her own Judaism is featured in several of her pieces, suggesting that she was attempting to define a “spiritual path,” arguably, worth comparing with other female Jewish poets who have employed their religion as a theme. Alicia Ostriker comes first to mind. 


Cowen was a “poor soul” who Trigilio attempts to resurrect as a serious poet in his generous and scholarly Introduction. In her 2014 review of Trigilio's edited volume in Sink Review, Becca Klaver notes that numerous female writers have received attention in “recovery projects” and that the collection of Cowen's, mostly fragmentary, writings is representative of this genre. Trigilio highlights Emily Dickinson's influence on Cowen, evident in many titles (e.g., “Sometimes in my dungeon there comes a crawling thing;” “If I never saw the snowfall”) as well as her preoccupation with death. Dickinson's poetics is, also, reflected in Cowen's use of horizontal and vertical lines, soft and hard rhyming, and unconventional punctuation, as well as, perhaps, her habit of preparing handwritten “fascicles” in notebooks. Trigilio, also, points out that Cowen's writings show her respect for Ezra Pound and Dylan Thomas, and, indeed, her writing is, often, imagistic and musical (“A cockroach/Crept into/My shoe/He liked that fragrant dark”). It can, also, be noted that, like Gertrude Stein, Cowen's pieces employ copious white spaces and, less frequently, repetition.


Trigilio erects an organizational framework based upon four “recurring motifs” in Cowen's writing: “a revisionary response to matters of the sacred;” a “simultaneous continuity and revision of literary tradition;” “affinities with the form and content of Beat generation literature;” and, “frank portrayals of the psyche.” Examples of each of these “motifs” can clearly be identified in Cowen's pieces; yet, it seems exaggerated for Trigilio to suggest that the architecture and meaning of her work rises to the level of poetics. On the other hand, some of the pieces are convincing poems, though, for the most part, not noteworthy ones. Exceptions would, in my opinion, be, “The Time Clock” (70), a haunting poem that Klaver, also, highlights; and, the precious and heartbreaking, “No Love” (116). As Trigilio sensitively suggests, Cowen needed more time to develop her craft and to revise her work.


As a woman with bipolar disorder who has struggled to accommodate serious work with a serious medical diagnosis, I identified with the symptoms and effects of illness in Cowen's writing, a “motif” worthy of systematic investigation and comparison with other female poets who committed suicide, in particular, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and, from an earlier generation, Sara Teasdale. In her poem, “Phenomenology Of Anger,” Adrienne Rich wrote, “Madness. Suicide. Murder./Is there no way out but these?” Rich and di Prima found ways “out” in radically different ways, and it might be productive to analyze their poems and biographies with Cowen's. Di Prima's memoir explores in depth the ways that she and other women managed the stresses associated with demands upon female artists. Extending the idea of mental illness as a “motif,” Rich, in the same poem, points to “the freedom of the wholly mad,” suggesting that scholars should study licentiousness and humor in Cowen's writing, particularly, as they may relate to compromised impulse-control.


Trigilio reports that, in 1960, upon submitting a typed manuscript to Ginsberg, Cowen said, “You still haven't finished with your mother.” It seems of import to observe that Cowen might have been speaking of herself since a number of her fragments address, directly or indirectly, unresolved feelings for and continuing conflict with her own mother. The degree to which Cowen's writing is that of a self-absorbed patient whose work expresses unconscious motivations could be addressed by a psychoanalytically-inclined scholar as another “motif.” Finally, in di Prima's view, the pervasiveness of drug use ended the Beat generation, and this theme, also, might serve as another “motif” to explore in Cowen's biography and preserved body of work. It is impossible to know what her destroyed notebooks might have revealed or what we might have discovered if more details of her life were available. It is, however, a credit to Trigilio that he has collected and commented upon the work of a sympathetic figure worthy of recovery from a complex period of American literary history.    


About the Reviewer: 

Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, Clara writes about the “performance” of identity and power and conducts research on experimental poetry. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous venues, and her collection, Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin' Kitsch Chapbook Competition. Clara studied with Adrienne Rich in the 1970s and has studied recently with the poets Meghan Sterling and Eric Steineger.