Archive for May 9, 2022

Monday 9th May 2022

Posted in Uncategorized on May 9, 2022 by uppyalf

Elsie Cowen

To live your life as a caged bird
To sing only to yourself
To be used so cruelly
By so called friends
Your song so sad and soft
Easily ignored by the shameful
Seven floors up locked away
Behind thick glass
Such a disappointment to mom and dad
Beyond the effort of even trying
A skivvy so easily coaxed
Into kitchen or bed by your mentors
Because you needed to be loved
Because you needed to escape your head
You broke through that glass
Attempting to fly or die
Only to fall unnoticed
Even then they were ashamed
A minor character
And they attempted to erase you
A minor character
A displaced soul

The Lady is a humble thing
Made of death and water
The fashion is to dress it plain
And use the mind for border

Bish May 9th 2022

Elise didn’t have a chance. Queer, Jewish, and mentally ill, she couldn’t fit into the oppressive values of mid-century America. Other’s couldn’t either — the Beat Generation was built for people like her. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Karr, Cohen, Burroughs, they all found a home within the counterculture. But as a woman writing poetry, she couldn’t flourish here either. Life handed her a pretty piss-poor set of cards.

In life, she was disregarded. In death, she was almost erased. This article is about what we know of the 28 years she did spend here and the work she left behind.

Early life
Elise Nada Cohen was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Washington Heights on July 31st, 1933. I haven’t been able to find much information on her early life beyond that. One source (where I also found that fantastic Scobie quote to describe her) seemingly disputes even this much, asserting that she was born to wealthy parents in Long Island and implies that she was an only child. I couldn’t find anything to indicate that Elise had siblings, so this may be true. Another source also backed up her birthplace as Long Island, so this may also be true. With so little information available, it’s hard to say for sure.

Her parents were apparently neurotic and had high expectations for their daughter, who didn’t do very well in school and quoted the likes of T.S. Eliot and other rebellious, individualistic poets. I get this picture of a couple who had climbed the ranks and desperately wanted the respect and status of the WASPs around them and daughter who didn’t seem interested in any of it. I can only imagine the kind of tensions this must have created in the Cowen household.

After high school, her parents sent her off to Barnard College, a private (and pricey) liberal arts university for women in New York City. Perhaps her higher education was a status symbol for them, or perhaps they hoped she would meet a suitable man nearby. Maybe, they thought college would help sort herself out and settle in the society that still held them as lesser-than (yet not as lesser-than as others). Whatever they wanted her to do, it didn’t happen. Barnard didn’t institutionalize her — instead, it introduced her to the Beatniks.

A freak among freaks
It was at Barnard that she met Joyce Johnson. The two were a lot alike — both from New York, both rebelling from their Jewish family’s expectations, both writers, both eventually dating famous Beatnik men — but Joyce went on to far outlive Elise, enjoy a successful career, and became somewhat of a historian for some the people who didn’t make it out of the era. Joyce’s writing on her paints a picture of a very lonely, disconnected girl. In her book Minor Characters, Joyce describes her as “beyond the effort of even trying.” Yikes.

I’m not saying that description is particularly cruel. While blunt, it could very well speak to how others saw Elise — lost, confused, the odd duck even in the counterculture. Perhaps she had some desperate need to connect that overwhelmed others and made her susceptible to exploitation.

This could have made her vulnerable to the inappropriate relationship she fell into shortly after she started college. In a common (and incredibly unethical) student-teacher hookup, Elise apparently “got involved” with her married philosophy professor, Alex Greer. While she seemed very much against the traditional expectations for women at the time, she fell right into the exploited housewife role for him, reportedly cleaning his apartment for the many people that came over and babysat his children. One poem that she wrote during this time may give some insight into her frantic attempt to win him over and his apparent apathy toward her, a coolness that she may be describing unwittingly (at least, that’s how it reads to me).

Excerpt from “Teacher — Your Body My Kabbalah…” by Elise Cowen

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

A dynamic that would define her later relationships, Elise was seemingly happy to do anything she could to get his attention and try to win over his love. For the most part, he seemed to just use her as a free assistant/maid/nanny that he also slept with.

It’s not exactly a surprise that the Beatniks were pretty sexist. I will admit I love Kerouac’s novels and Ginsberg’s poems as much as the next person, but I also can’t ignore how much of the most famous work to question society’s standards still reduce women to be either subservient idiots, promiscuous lunatics, or beautiful mannequins to wax poetic on. The men of this movement may have rebelled against most cultural norms, but they sure did benefit from the patriarchal ones. Allen said it himself: “The social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.” Everywhere a woman went, it was always still a boy’s club.

Most of the women in the movement are known firstly for who they provided with sex, food, and housekeeping services to. Joyce Johnson is too often called “Kerouac’s girlfriend,” Elise as “Ginsberg’s experiment.” Their work is shadowed by these titles, their struggles dismissed as trivial. Much of Elise’s legacy is unfortunately marked by her brief involvement with Allen Ginsberg, whom she soon met through Alex.

Elise and Allen
Elise and Allen had some odd similarities that, if one were lacking a sense of self and looking for some kind of sign, could be read as destiny. They looked alike — short dark hair, thick-rimmed glasses, a bookish sort of face — and had similar backgrounds. They both had met Carl Solomon (yes, the Carl Solomon Allen wrote Howl for and is apparently with in Rockland) while being hospitalized for mental health episodes at different times. They seemed like twin flames. At least, Elise thought so.

Elise Cowen with Allen Ginsberg circa 1953. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Once Elise met Allen, she was all about Allen. She got into everything he did — Buddhism, Eastern philosophy, mysticism, anything he liked, she decided she liked it too. These new influences started to permeate in her work as it did in his. She idolized him as a genius, a mentor, someone she could throw herself to. As obsessive and unhealthy as it was, she loved him.

And he? He used her, mostly. While they did seem to get along, her affections went mostly unrequited. Allen slept with her, utilized her secretarial skills (most notably typing Kaddish, another one of his lengthy epics), and likely let her take care of him the way she did for her professor. Their relationship is not entirely clear, but most label it as a fling, so he probably didn’t take it too seriously. Within a few months, he was off to San Francisco, where he met Peter Orlovsky. Allen fell in love with Peter, and they remained together for the rest of his life. As for Elise? Well, that was over.

After Allen
Elise stayed in New York, soon after meeting a woman named Sheila and moving into an apartment together. She got a job as a secretary, typing up other people’s words by day and drinking at lesbian bars and writing poetry at night. That didn’t mean she necessarily moved on, though. When Allen came back to New York, Elise still wanted to retain a connection to him in some way. The two couples even lived together for a time, although it’s not clear for how long.

Elise and Sheila broke up after a year. The rest of her life plays out short and sad from here. She was fired from her secretary job and removed from the office by the police, who assaulted her. When she told her father, he reacted with disappointment, making her promise to keep it a secret from her mother. It doesn’t seem like she had much support from anyone around her.

She continued to spiral. Friends noted her degeneration — a filthy apartment, cuts on her wrist. Elise was deeply unwell. She decided on a change of pace, following other Beatniks out West by moving to San Francisco. But this move only made things worse. She struggled with money, with socializing, with everything. She became pregnant and got an abortion, receiving a hysterectomy and hepatitis in the process. She came back to New York even worse than she had left it, ending up in the hospital once again shortly after returning.

Her hospital stay didn’t seem to help things. She quickly got back into drinking and drug use after being discharged. Her life continued to fall apart. Leo Skir would later write about how evidently “mad” Elise had become during this time. Her work grew darker and darker — more about death, desolation, her confusion with the world. She was paranoid, depressed, and increasingly untreatable by the lacking standards for mental health care of the time.

Elise moved back home with her parents. She was hospitalized once again, and discharged once more. Her parents planned a trip to Miami, hoping a change of scenery and warm climate might help her. But Elise would never get there. On February 27th 1962, Elise Nada Cowen jumped through a locked window in her parent’s home and died on impact. She was 28.

After Elise
Much of her work was destroyed by her parents after her death. She wrote about sex, death, religion, and melancholy, topics that were considered taboo in her day. They were embarrassed by the way their daughter’s life ended and horrified by what she left behind. In their eyes, it was probably better for her to be forgotten than for others to remember any of that. If it weren’t for people like Joyce Johnson and Leo Skir, her legacy likely would have been erased entirely.

Leo salvaged and published what he could. Bits and pieces of her work were eventually gathered into Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments, the one and only collection to make it into print. Joyce wrote about her in her own memoir of the generation, Minor Characters. Some of her poems are available in corners of the Internet, there for anyone happening to look her up.

Born the wrong way in the wrong time, Elise had drawn the short stick in life. She suffered. She struggled. She sought desperately for a love she never quite found. Still, she wrote — melancholic, restless, oftentimes beautiful things. Her words and their survival stand as a testament to that life. A life that, while tragic, was far beyond that of a groupie for a man who became famous. Elise was so much more than that. She was confused, ill-fated, and unfulfilled, yes, but she was a poet just as much as the rest of them. With what’s left of her words brought into the light, that can’t be denied. In some way, she’s been carried into a kinder century and achieved success in her own right. That’s the best ending that a story like hers could have.