March 30, 2010

Review by James Benton Eleanor, Eleanor by Kathryn Cowles

ELEANOR, ELEANOR, NOT YOUR REAL NAME
by Kathryn Cowles

Bear Star Press
185 Hollow Oak Drive
Cohasset, CA 95973
ISBN 9780979374517
2008, 88 pp., $16.00
http://www.bearstarpress.com

Kathryn Cowles (her real name) challenges our assumptions of identity and constancy in an inconstant world in an engaging book of lyrical poems that are sometimes whimsical, most often poignant, and always well-crafted. The book’s cast of likeable characters includes childhood pals, mothers, uncles, husbands, lovers, and co-workers, all rendered simultaneously familiar and unknowable. The question of identity is thus suspended, even denied, and suggests the reason why so many of the relationships in the poems are incomplete or ambivalent.

On first reading, our persistent question is “who is Eleanor?” The title personage (we cannot precisely call Eleanor a character) seems to occupy more than one woman, at more than one time, and in more than one place. In poems such as “About Eleanor,” and “Eleanor is Generous,” Cowles gives us a numbered catalogue of attributes, some of which would be contradictory or mutually exclusive in a single person. She is young, matronly, adventurous, angry, lost, found, arguably insane, and never quite who anyone thinks her to be. In the end, the way to identify Eleanor is not to identify her at all. Instead, like Cowles, we must accept her as the amalgamated “others” in our lives. Eleanor stops eluding us when we stop trying to pin her down. She is, ultimately a synecdoche for the multifaceted, energizing impulses that the poet relies upon to drive her poems.

Eleanor is not the only personage whose identity is suspect. The author questions her own in “Here it is my secret,” wherein she declares she wants her bowling alley avatar to be called “Circle K” because she hates her own name. She identifies, so to speak, with a woman who has defiantly named herself “Pregnant Bowler” and wears her bra on the outside of her clothes. The narrator wants to be outrageous, but is not. She wants to create for herself an identity independent of the one imposed upon her by others, but she does not.

Cowles writes in a voice unique for its truncated, recursive syntax and homespun vocabulary. Note titles like “Here it is my secret,” and “It is hot outside and inside as well,” for example. The effect is a pleasant, shy wispiness that invites the reader’s empathy. In the first of several poems titled, respectively, “No Name #1,” through “No Name #4,” Cowles has this to say:

Don’t worry, I am OK
OK, OK, you caught me–
I’m still lifting my feet
When I drive over cow catches.
OK, so long as I can run off.

None of this language, or for that matter any of the language in any of the poems, shouts Poetry!, yet the work it performs is to establish a poetic narrator with whom we can easily connect. This technique grows increasingly familiar as the poems progress. Later in “No Name #1,” for example, we learn something about recurring character Andy Smith and the speaker’s distant intimacy with him:

And everyone knew I didn’t believe in marriage.
And kicking and screaming.
And Andy Smith is still mad.
and he couldn’t save me.
Oh, the Milky Way. Lovely, lovely.
So many stars.

As easy as it might have been to blame Andy Smith for the fractured relationship, Cowles instead chooses to implicate the speaker, thus complicating and energizing what otherwise would have been merely sentimental. The language she employs in this effort never becomes brittle or cynical, relying on broken syntax and the repetition of “Lovely, lovely” words to soften the impact.

Our understanding of the various relationships we encounter throughout the book emerges from the accumulation of linguistic mosaic tiles like these. Even the cover art—an image of a woman standing in front of a halo-like mosaic of concentric circles—reinforces a theme of fracture, separation, and reconnection. A collage of eyes, hands, feet, song lyrics from the 1970s, and checkerboards marks each chapter. Absorbing these as a kind of gestalt leads the reader to internalize a sense of the poet’s (shall we say Eleanor’s?) world as assembled from the fragments of a nostalgic past.

In “All of this is connected, I tell you,” an extended elegy for her uncle Paul, Cowles relies on five vaguely interconnected motifs ranging from Gypsy fortune tellers, a broken watch, The Beatles (in mono), Houdini, to Uncle Paul himself. Though connected, the individual sequences readily function independent of one another. The Gypsy fortuneteller sequence, for example, questions the role of destiny in determining identity. The watch sequence explores both the urgency and the intransigence of time in the face of dire events. The poem, if not the book as a whole, reaches an emotional climax in the following section involving Uncle Paul’s death:

Uncle Paul’s last months
day in day out
dress eat mac and cheese maybe
watch some TV undress bed
sometimes sleep on the couch
each day, disconcertingly
exactly the same
then came the day
with the squirrel
Paul said talked to him
good sign he’d run
out of time, talk
about a bad omen fuck

The honesty of the sentiment, the holding back of overt emotionalism, the sadness of the particulars makes this passage simply heartbreaking. That the talking squirrel is a “good sign” brings into focus the ambivalence of emotions surrounding a loved one’s protracted death: unbearable sadness on the one hand, relief on the other. Cowles here has earned the right to her utterly non-gratuitous use of the familiar epithet.

In avoiding the grand rhetorical gesture, or the ultimately self-indulgent reach for philosophical profundity, Cowles’ likeable poems optimize themselves in the world we all know. Contemporary American poetry has been accused of irrelevance because of its narrow appeal to a specialized crowd of insiders, to say nothing of its too-often opaque language. The counter to this argument, of course, is that no respectable poet would permit “Hallmark” versification to escape his or her pen. Fair enough on both counts. Cowles successfully avoids both charges. By crafting poems filled with image and ambiguity (the good kind), she invites repeated readings and rewards the attentive reader with new insights on each subsequent pass.

The final postcard to Eleanor expresses how one feels about the book upon reaching the end—a good friend resists connecting, much is going on in her life we are eager to know, she leaves traces, we like her very much. We reach out to her: we end with a comma,

Dear Eleanor,
I know you were here earlier
today some signs you left
on my porch chair
a hair a page from the Bible
the core of an apple
and you threw dandelions into my yard
next time stay longer at least just until I come back please don’t go.
xoxo,