Well by now you’ve probably heard about VICE’s suicide fashion spread, “Last Words.” If not, here’s the low down: The lifestyle magazine with the apparently ironic tagline “The Definitive Guide to Enlightening Information” launched The Fiction Issue 2013 featuring all women fiction writers. So far, so good. In fact, almost exemplary considering VIDA’s stats that women authors aren’t equally published. The issue features works by Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Gaitskill, a story on Marilynne Robinson … and a fashion spread on female writers who have committed suicide. Following the public’s uproar, the staff has issued a “statement” explaining their “unconventional” and “artful” approach and “apologiz[ing] to anyone who was hurt or offended.” They have taken it down from their website but not recalled the print publication.
I’m not going to belabor the point about the dangerous implications of “Last Words”—it used self-violence to sell clothing, it said nothing about the writers’ actual work, it glamorized death, it suggested the hysteria of women, oh just to name a few things—but I do want to point out a few things that I haven’t seen the many other critiques point out (though they may certainly be there; I didn’t have time to read every single article): the fashion spread is just one of the many troubling aspects of the issue. Let’s start with the cover: it’s a picture of a skinny woman—her hip bone and clavicle jut out—in a bikini, with her hands behind her back and her legs cut off. Granted it’s a photograph by Ellen Page Wilson of Carole A. Feuerman’s 2008 sculpture Francesca, and Feuerman works out of a feminist perspective, but at quick glance, and when featured on the same page as a link to the Vice “most popular” list that includes “VICE Meets: The Biggest Ass in Brazil,” it would seem to fall in line with the usual negative portrayals of women in the media and representing women as body parts instead of a whole person—even if the artist intended it to show women’s connection with nature and their strength. Oh and that Joyce Carol Oates story I mentioned? It includes a mother on “Xanax or OxyContin.” The one by Mary Gaitskill? About a woman who wonders if it was a mistake not to have children. Hannah H. Kim’s story is about dealing with sadness. Amie Barrodale’s “A Ghost Story” opens with a woman who doesn’t accept a marriage proposal and is disowned by her father, her mother a shut-in with eczema. Zelly Martin’s story “Jailbait” is just what it sounds like: a story about a teenager who drops out of high school after becoming involved with her parents’ friend. They may have literary merit just as the artwork does, but collected together these stories position women as sexual objects and depressives. Based on the staff’s statement and the fiction and art selected for the issue, “Last Words” was not an “oops” moment for Vice. It was an insidious attack on women.
So just who were these suicidal women portrayed in Vice’s “Last Words”? The spread included Iris Chang, Elise Cowen, Charlotte Perkins, Sylvia Plath, Sanmoa, and Virginia Woolf. Much could be said about any of these writers and why perhaps these particular writers were selected (for instance, the fact that Sanmoa hanged herself with silk stockings and not a rope). The inclusion of Elise Cowen is an interesting one, though, and while I’m by no means endorsing Vice’s tactics, maybe we can turn a negative into an opportunity to discuss the life and legacy of this poet.
Vice’s inclusion of Elise Cowen is an interesting choice because she’s not very well known as a poet. As far as I know (a search for her name on BN.com only brings up a DVD), there is no volume of poetry written solely by her. Her work has appeared in various collections but has not appeared on its own. In fact, the first book by her won’t be published until 2014. Tony Trigilio, an English professor at Columbia College Chicago, is editing the first major collection of her writing, entitled Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments, for Ahsahta Press. Fourteen of those poems were published last year in Court Green, a literary journal Trigilio edits with David Trinidad.
The fact that Vice chose Cowen, when they could have selected more widely published women writers who have committed suicide—for example, travel writer Gertrude Bell, poet Ingrid Jonker (“the South African Sylvia Plath”), or literary critic Beatrice Hastings (Katherine Mansfield’s lover)—suggests the Vice team is either very well read or they were going on cult following more than literary recognition. The reason I am familiar with Elise Cowen, and presumably most other people are as well, is because of her circle of friends.
Elise Cowen dated Allen Ginsberg. In case you’re confused, yes, Ginsberg did date women here or there. He met Cowen through Barnard philosophy professor Alex Greer, and they went out on a date together. They got to talking and discovered they had a mutual friend in Carl Solomon, whom they’d both met while spending time in a mental hospital. Needless to say, Ginsberg and Cowen weren’t the best match: shortly after their romantic involvement, Ginsberg began seeing Peter Orlovsky, who became his lifelong partner, and Cowen began dating a woman with the pseudonym Sheila. The foursome apparently ended up living together after Cowen graduated from Barnard in 1956.
In New York, Cowen supported herself as a typist until she was fired, and then she went to check out the poetry scene in San Francisco, where she lived with an alcoholic painter. She became pregnant and had a late-term abortion and hysterectomy. After she returned to New York, she wound up in Bellevue to get treated for hepatitis and psychosis. Against the doctor’s orders, she checked herself out and went to go live with her parents up in Washington Heights. There, at their Bennett Avenue home, she jumped through the glass of the seventh-story window. Elise Nada Cowen was only twenty-eight years old.
Known at Barnard as Beat Alice, Elise Cowen may not have published a volume of poetry in her lifetime but her story and poetry is known today because of her friends. Her poetry references other great female writers such as Emily Dickinson and Mary Shelley. It is bold, experimental, and sensual.
For more information on Elise Cowen, her poetry, and her friendships, visit:
Elise Nada Cowen ’56 (Barnard College)
The Lady is a Humble Thing: Elise Cowen (Beatdom)
Elise Cowen: Sappho-Dickinson Hybrid with a Beat Sensibility (Jacket 2)
Black daisy chain of nuns (Jacket 2)
On Elise Cowen (1933-1962): poetry on the margins (Wake Your Mind)
Elise Nada Cowen (Cosmic Baseball Association)
Elise Cowen (UPenn)
Women of the Beat Generation (Knight)
Minor Characters (Johnson)
A Different Beat (Peabody)
Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties (Ginsberg)
I Celebrate Myself (Ginsberg)