A woman from the audience asks: 'Why are there so few women on this panel? Why are there so few women in this whole week's program? Why were there so few women among the Beat writers?' and [Gregory] Corso, suddenly utterly serious, leans forward and says: "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." --from Stephen Scobie's account of the Naropa Institute tribute to Ginsberg, July 1994Elise Cowen, though dead more than a quarter century, is in many ways more
|Allen Ginsberg and Elise Cowen|
Elise was born to a wealthy family on Long Island who were given to high-strung histrionics interspersed with brittle attempts at normalcy. Her parents had achieved the American Dream with the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood and the perfect job. More than anything, they wanted the perfect daughter to complete the ensemble and Elise became the focus of their rages.
Although Elise didn't make good grades, she was extremely bright and read exten- Poetry, especially the works of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, were particular favorites she could quote them at will, just at the right moments. She favored the darker poetry most of all, suggesting a shadow side to the good-friend persona she kept on display.
She attended Barnard in accordance with her family's plans, but didn't flourish in the ways they had hoped. Instead, she met Joyce Johnson and Leo Skit, among other Beat players, and got involved with her philosophy professor, Alex Greer. Elise doted on Alex, who led an exciting life and had a child but no apparent wife. He also lots of friends traipsing in and out of his messy apartment while Elise cleaned up baby-sat for his two-year-old son.
Alex proved the portal to Elise's future; when his friend Allen Ginsberg arrived on the scene, Elise recognized a twin soul. (Joyce Johnson mentions how they even looked
|jacket of Women of the Beat Generation, ed. Brenda Knight, 1996; the photo is of Janine Pommy Vega (b. 1942).|
After her graduation from Barnard, Elise became depressed never completely free of the shadows. She took a job as a typist and had a dismal career, typing at night, drinking red wine, and writing poetry in secret. After being fired from her job, she ran away to San Francisco, disappearing from view. The Elise that returned to New York a year later was changed: thinner and quieter, she seemed, 1 even more haunted than before.
Elise was admitted to Bellevue and released a few days later into her parents' care. Their intention was to take her to Miami, for rest and recuperation. Elise never made the trip. On February 1, 1962, she jumped out of the window of her parents' living room in Washington Heights. She died instantly. The police noted that the window was still locked--Elise had jumped through a closed window.
None of her poetry was published in her lifetime, but eighty-three poems have rested in a box in her friend Leo Skir's basement in Minneapolis; her remaining poems and journals were destroyed by her family after he death. Over the years, Leo, a still-loyal friend, has sent some of Elise's poems to Evergreen Review and several small literary magazines. For this book [Women of the Beat Generation] Leo provided Elise's never-before-published poems from the box in his basement.
TEACHER--YOUR BODY MY KABBALAH...Teacher--your body my Kabbalah Rahamim--Compassion Tiferete--Beauty The aroma of Mr. Rochesters cigars among the flowers Bursting through I am trying to choke you Delicate thought Posed Frankenstein of delicate grace posed by my fear And you Graciously Take me by the throat The body hungers before the soul And after thrusts for its own memory Why not afraid to hurt elig-- couldn't hurt me except in wit, in funny I couldn't, wouldn't art in relation but with a rose or rather skunk cabbage Just--Mere come I break through grey paper room Your Frankenstein What is the word from Deberoux Babtiste the Funambule I Desnuelu (who's he?) to choke you Duhamel and you De brouille Graciously Deberaux Take me by the throat Decraux Barrault Deberaux Delicate French logic Black daisy chain of nuns Nous sommes tous assasins Keith's jumping old man in the waves methadrine morning dance of delicacy "I want you to pick me up when I fall down" I wouldn't and fell not even death I waited for stinking with the room like cat shit would take me Donald's first bed wherein this fantasy shame changing him to you And you talking of plum blossom scrolls and green automobiles Shame making body thought a game Cat's cradle & imaginary lattices of knowledge & Bach system Fearing making guilt making shame making fantasy & logic & game & elegance of covering splendour emptying memory of the event covering splendour with mere elegance covering sneer between the angels Wouldn't couldn't Fear of the killer dwarf with the bag of tricks & colonels picture To do my killing for me God is hidden And not for picture postcards.EMILY...Emily white witch of Amherst The shy white witch of Amherst Killed her teachers With her love I'll rather mine entomb my mind Or best that soft grey dove.