Elise Cowen (1933-1962)

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 1994
Elise Cowen, though dead more than a quarter century, is in many ways more
Allen Ginsberg and Elise Cowen
tangible than many of the other Beat women. She is alive in the pages of Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters and in the memories of many of the survivors of the Beat Generation whom she marked forever with her generous friendship. Janine Pommy Vega with whom Elise lived for a time, says, "I still think about her every day. She was the smartest person I knew."

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).
alike during that time.) They dated for a while, but when Allen moved on, Elise was never quite able to let go. Ironically, Allen and Elise both met Carl Solomon whom Allen would eventually write "Howl") in separate stays at mental hospital which Elise took as a sign that they should be together. Allen went to a psychiatric ward instead of jail after the infamous wreck in the stolen car with Herbert Huncke, Vickie Russell, and Little Jack Melody. Elise was in Bellevue Hospital during one of her episodes of depression. When Allen became lovers with Peter Orlovsky, Elise took a woman lover named Sheila and, at one point, the two couples even shared an apartment.

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.

two poems by Elise Cowen

Teacher--your body my Kabbalah


The aroma of Mr. Rochesters cigars
among the flowers
	  Bursting through
	  I am trying to choke you
	  Delicate thought
	  Frankenstein of delicate grace
		posed by my fear
	  And you
	  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
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
French logic
Black daisy chain of nuns
Nous sommes tous assasins
Keith's jumping old man in the waves
	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 
					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
Fearing making guilt making shame
	making fantasy & logic & game &
	elegance of covering splendour
	emptying memory of the event
	covering splendour with mere elegance
	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 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.