When Elise Cowen is brought up at all, it’s usually to briefly note that women did indeed exist (and write!) among the macho romantics of the Beat movement. A lifelong New Yorker in her 20s as the century entered its 60s, Cowen drew poetic energy from the same taps as the writers that attracted her — her enduring love for her ex, Allen Ginsberg (for whom she typed the “Kaddish” manuscript), rivaled his own for Peter Orlovsky.
But during her life, she guarded her poems with a privacy uncommon of that wave. As poet/editor Tony Trigilio remarks in his introduction to “Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments,” she’s been “remembered more as a typist than as a poet.”
Given the boys-club legacy of the Beats and the scarcity of Cowen’s extant work, you could say she’s lucky to be remembered at all, though this volume suggests that luck may be ours. After her suicide in 1962 at the age of 28, neighbors of Cowen’s family burned most of her poems in an attempt to comfort her parents, who found them (and their bisexual frankness) disturbing. Only one notebook survived, composed between 1959 and 1960, and but for a few poems salvaged from journals, her work remains largely unread and easily misunderstood.
ELISE COWEN: Poems and Fragments
Trigilio’s treatment presents full text of Cowen’s poems and not-quite-poems, often alongside facsimiles of the original typescripts, as well as annotated notes elucidating his editorial decisions when confronted with Cowen’s own redactions and additions.
Smartly, he shuffles together Cowen’s often shifting modes, each with its own evocative vector. As Whitman led the Beats, Cowen’s brightest star was Dickinson (even her strikethroughs recall Dickinson’s sweeping dashes). Measured verses like “[The Body Is a Humble Thing]” may give this crush away too easily, but the lulling, mechanical anaphora of “The Time Clock” and the fleshy city snapshot of “[The Sound Now in the Street]” bear signs of the times that make Cowen seem briefly at home among Ginsberg & Co.
But there were signs that Cowen was slightly ahead of that pack: loose, confidently searching poems like “Morning Blessing from Elohim” suggest Cowen would likely have been a presiding voice over the New York school’s second generation — that is, she’s naturally a little more Alice Notley than Denise Levertov.
Trigilio’s decade-spanning determination to restore and share Cowen’s slim output feels fully justified when you feel the poems’ potential energy. A crucial bloom fallen too early in feminism’s spring, Cowen wrote lines that push boldly ahead like cracks in the culture, and at times they threaten the heart: “Let me out now please — / — Please let me in”
While Cowen was furtively filling her notebook, a young Maxine Kumin was sprouting up in the pages of Poetry, at that time mourning her “One Dead Friend”: “Now you are ash and chips of bone/ and your maimed wife lies down alone/ and there is only left to curse/ the random clock of the universe.’’
It would be misleading to say that Kumin, who passed in February at 88, ever happened upon a gentler path into that good night while walking her New Hampshire farmland. But time did cool her fury toward death somewhat, providing fertile ground for years of poems — and far less cursing of the universe.
In her final collection, “And Short the Season,” Kumin is as graceful and unsparing as ever, tenderly lamenting our violations against nature and each other. Across five sections, Kumin dips in and out of forms — sometimes they seem like a way to sustain composure against the outside world’s absurdity.
After 50 years, though, the cruelties of both life and death have softened each other’s signals in Kumin’s poems. Time is passing, and her vision is failing, but even when death storms her garden, she finds beauty: “The onions rotted, the carrots were raddled/ with root maggots, the purple pole beans collapsed.”
Along the way Kumin gives glimpses of her process — chasing words to their origins, squabbling with spell-check — as well as a reflection on her own place in poetic history through a series of “Sonnets Uncorseted,” which trace a lineage of female writers from Margaret Cavendish to Virginia Woolf to Anne Sexton and Carolyn Kizer and Kumin and forward.
She tangles with pollution, politics, war, and abuse; her mind nimbly darting from sweeping panoramas to tiny details throughout, like one of the birds she watches. As bad as things get, ours is never a world she seems eager to leave.
One of Kumin’s best aspects as a poet was her regard for words, which she held as precious as any other living thing. She forages for them — regolith, mycorrhizal, eohippus — wasting not, wanting not, finding context in compost. “Saving is a form of worship,” she writes in “The Path, The Chair.” It’s an attitude toward life that changes death from an end to a beginning. And in her last poem, “Allow Me,” it prepares her for an exit she can live with: “Sudden and quiet, surrounded by friends/ — John Milton’s way —/ But who gets to choose this ordered end/ Trim and untattered, loved ones at hand?/ — Allow me that day.
AND SHORT THE SEASON
By Maxine Kumin
Norton, 112 pp., $24.95