Thursday, February 5, 2009


Kathryn Cowles’s Eleanor, Eleanor, Not Your Real Name is a book in which a good deal of effort is made to carve out a space for a person who does not exist. Or does she? The main concept guiding the book is whether the imagined Eleanor (who emerges little bit by little bit over the course of the book as an imagined character rather than a real person whom the author is addressing) is not the same as the author herself. The question that lingers is whether Eleanor is the author’s alter-ego or not. The details of Eleanor’s life are so closely observed and confidently enumerated that one assumes an intimacy between the author and Eleanor that hints at the lack of distance between the two.

About Eleanor

1) was small and is still for all I know
2) the wart under her lip looked like a beauty mark
3) was a beauty ad still is for all I know
4) a beauty with a limp
5) was always dusted with dirt; during a stint at a bakery it was flour
6) could climb trees well; her smallness was an asset
7) one leg nearly always broken
8) broken or with a limp
9) brown hair
10) at leant one of her bones came from a donor
11) legs unshaven, like trees in the wild
12) could ride her bicycle downhill when her leg was broken, but not back up
13) not a swimmer, but able to swim; superior floater
14) on Sundays we would float down on a mossweedy stream and when churchgoers walked by, we’d duck under the water and breathe through reeds
15) they could still see us, of course; that was not the point
16) was a knitter, scarves and hats
17) one summer we planted a purple petunia behind some bushes in memory of our favorite swingset, removed for safety; we watered the petunia at night in secret until someone found it and pulled it up as a weed
18) green eyes, greeeennnn, with extra eeeeees and nnnnns, slivers-of-triangle iris her strongest muscle of all
19) needless to say
20) was allergic to cashews; craved cashews
21) was a painter and is still for all I know
22) purchased thrift-store paintings just to paint over the canvases
23) sometimes all white or all red or all green
24) was not really called Eleanor
25) that part’s mine

Preceding by several years the current Facebook craze of listing 25 random things about oneself, Eleanor is treated to an eerily bio-like exposé here. The knowledge of detail about Eleanor’s life spans quite a bit of time. The author has known Eleanor through many life instances, activities and preferences. Already from this poem that appears early in the book one is assuming that the author has practically lived inside of Eleanor’s pocket.

The tension between author and Eleanor is continued on the next page in a poem entitled “Eleanor is Generous” that begins “She gives me a Catholic upbringing. She gives me a father who couldn’t read and a grandmother with hard candies stuffed in her bosom. She gives me a toy truck.”

The equation between Eleanor and the author-speaker is established here. Eleanor is physically and psychically present. The lists of items about Eleanor lengthen, and one begins to see the I is an other held at arms length yet lovingly observed.

The following poem “Letter To Reuben #3” reveals the following information: “Some things I remember that you don’t.” This sets up the expectation that there is not an exact equivalence between speaker and Eleanor. One is teased back into the notion that Eleanor is a third party, perhaps a real person whom the speaker knows exceptionally well.

In following poems we learn that Eleanor is a “painter of portraits,” laying another scrim on the game of identity tag we are watching. Who is it? Are we watching a portrait being painted? A self-portrait? The instability of the self that is Eleanor is writ large.

The biographical details keep coming about Eleanor and Kathryn (which we can presumably map on to the author . . . or can we?). There is Paul and Andy, a former friend/lover to Kathryn/Eleanor. Brian is the husband of Kathryn. We learn the speaker is not herself . . . that she is “the same yourself.” As a reader, one feels trapped inside a soap opera that is trying to be a lot like the movie Syriana with its many different personas and personages interacting with each other. However, unlike the movie, the strands of self are never completely sorted. One must persevere as reader with the uneasy feeling that a conclusion will not be wrung out of the book as it weaves its labyrinth of persona and projection, split personality and hard identity.

This is either annoying as a reader or a great liberation. For some readers I suspect that the inability to pin down who is who will frustrate the way it frustrated my wife when she watched Syriana. After 45 minutes she decided that the task of washing the dishes was more urgent and certainly more comprehensible.

For me, the thing that made the book most compelling during this game of pin-the-tail-on-the-author is how Cowles racks up personal detail to portray the sense of a life lived. The experiential is magnified and submitted to the thrills of the kaleidoscope. One is not sure how the pattern will change with each poem in the sequence.

However, as its strength, the details (in many poems just flat out listed) make for an interesting display, a racking up of mileage points in the body of another. However, as singular units the poems are not particularly exciting to read on the level of language used. Many read as laundry lists of self or to-do lists for the newly inhabited persona.

At times I found it discouraging how poems would end with another detail instead of trying to bring the speaker to a more reflective place about the nature and condition of being within the hall of mirrors that is the self. Of course, it is quite fashionable to resist making the big statement, the philosophical entreaty which might provide some distance on the self that has been created. Cowles’s depiction of self seems to say: just give me the stuff of self, the mounds of experience, and I’ll sort it out later when I have time.

Over the course of the book, though entertained as I was, I began to long for a more canny speaker that was self-aware of the predicament and willing to risk commentary on it, to attempt a psychological review. Perhaps to do so would have meant the game was up, that a centered self had been identified and pinned down. Eleanor and her many manifestations, however, do not wish to be pinned down. The game is to be played until the final buzzer.

The poems work within the concept of the book, but standing alone, they do not make much of an impact. [In fact, only two of the poems appeared in literary journals . . . this could be a result of Cowles’s not sending them out]. I can’t remember one particular piece in my readings that struck me as the poem that a reader could step back and say “That was the quintessential poem in the book in the way it summed up all the rest.” Each poem is an integral part of the overall effect. This is why the book hangs together so well. Each poem seems crafted to further the central idea of a slippery persona that may or may not be the author herself

As I think about the flatness of language and the accumulation of detail in the poems, I wonder if this strategy (if it is a strategy) has the effect of not making any of the poems “identifiable” in the same way that neither Eleanor/Kathryn in the poems is clearly distinguishable from each other.

Cowles very successfully chooses different modes by which to approach the concept of the slippery Eleanor. At the end of section 1 Cowles employs and interview with Eleanor in which the interviewer lobs a question at Eleanor that she is supposed to answer with full candor. The Eleanor character is not up to the task. She purposefully evades the sincere answer, then at the end arrives at the mock conclusion that “you can learn a lot about a person by asking.” Of course, the aim of the poem is to illustrate that she is not sincere about this claim either.

As events unfurl during the course of the book, Cowles takes great effort to level all events to the same level of impact. None has any greater impact than any other. In “Poem with Real Historic Event at its End” she says “Here is my historic event: One of my hairs got stuck to your shoe.” Later she confesses that this historic event wasn’t so historic. Finally, the poem ends on the note of the death of a famous person. The speaker realizes, “I never had to hang around my house with him dead before.” One can almost hear Mike Myers in the background saying “No big whoop.”

So, Cowles has killed off the singular psychology and the historical event . . . or at least brought them out onto the field of play.

The very next poem after “Poem with Real Historic Event at its End” finds the poem “Requiem in Five Parts” which is dedicated to Paul Cowles. Is this a family member? one wonders. The poem is delivered in first person and there is no winking at another voice in this poem. It is told with an affection for the dead man. The speaker effects some lovely details about this man before his funeral, but the final parting comment on the poem is about how the speaker’s will to see him flags because she assumes he had died heavy. While the word heavy here is loaded down by several valences, it is hard not to read this at face value as another attempt to reduce the life down to biographical detail found on a driver’s license: height, weight, eye color. The other meaning of heavy suggests that his life was one full of pain and burdens carried. The superficiality that pivots with heartfelt empathy on this use of “heavy” draws one back to the notion that there is duplicity in a single word.

The multiplier effect continues in Section 3 of the book. The title of the poem “Telling Eleanor from Eleanor” suggests that finally the author will reveal the real historical truth about the identities of Eleanor. The subtitle even states this explicitly.

in which the author describes how, though she has not seen them in the same room together, she knows they are not the same person.

The author, of course, like a good trickster, does not describe this at all. She makes comparisons between two Eleanors which enhance the confusion. Again she turns to equivocation; this time with the word “them.” One is left to wonder who the them is referring to. The two Eleanors? the father of Eleanor? Cowles is letting the conundrum hang out there, reveling in the lack of definition.

A sample page from a dictionary then intrudes on the next page of the book masquerading as “poem” with the definitions of the words Elamite, elán, elapsed time, elastic, elasticized, elect, electric. Through this juxtaposition Cowles raises the prospect of words having as multiple and slippery definitions as people. Eleanor, Eleanor is definitely rich with different media representations. Despite its adherence to largely experience in the content of the poems, the forms and strategies she employs inform the reader that she is savvy about how the structure of texts impacts experience, how one’s life becomes mediatized by the page.

The leveling of events in the book roots itself in a touch of graphomania. The speaker/author is aware of this in “No Name #3”

A handful of decimated raspberries
and I am writing it down again all of it
I can and you are peeling
oranges in the kitchen

And on the eighth day god said: Everything shall be reported. Cowles is aware of this tendency, and she seems to champion it from the perspective of a generation that understands every bit of information is weighed the same as every other bit of information. In the digital age everything has the same value as information as any other information.

Is this a tip of the hat to Kenny Goldsmith?

What seems psychologically false about this is that with experience one tends to value certain experiences over others. One selects on the basis of their curiosity, their emotional impact. Then one goes to sleep at night and the counters are reset. Still, certain experiences leak through to the next day, to the next week, the next year. Enough of them leak through and you have the semblance of a “self.” Perhaps this explains why the self has become so diffuse, so dissipated in Eleanor, Eleanor. In the absence of giving priority to events, in selecting out for some value, the self withers on the vine.

Without insight can the health of the self ever be improved? Consider:

Poem containing a line from a song

Let’s say I broke up my heart again. Let’s
say it’s my own idiot fault. Let’s say that
although it was my heart, when it broke, I
felt it in my stomach, like when I see a
snake, and that it lasted for half an hour, and
that I saw it coming.

Let’s say I got stitches in my side again for
the first time in months when I was running
the next day, like leftover slivers stuck on
m insides, let’s say, it’s the aftershake that
wrecks the weakened sidewalk hours later.
Not the earthquake.

I saw the Northern Lights for the first time
from an airplane flying over an ocean, green
and cold and cold and moving arbitrarily.
Brian was asleep.

Aurora Borealis, the icy sky at night

That’s right.
That’s it exactly.

The last line seems to agree with Neil Young and not with any of Young’s pithy insights in his song but with just a bit of his description. This is what a poem delivers, description? Clearly Cowles is expressing a fatigue with insight. In this world a thing is exactly what it seems. A cigar is just a cigar, of course, except when it isn’t, like with Eleanor. Is Cowles deliberately hinting at this tension with this strategy?

Section 4 of the book becomes much more lyrical. An unaffected I begins to appear in full form. There is even a heartfelt poem to Uncle Paul entitled “Wake” which provides a little more back story to the man who was grieved previously in “Requiem in Five Parts.” The tone is much more nostalgic here. The speaker seems much more codified. The scenes remain intact without intrusions from the contemplation of Eleanor. But right after that piece Eleanor does intrude again in “El El El Eleanor”:


Eleanor is a stutter I keep spitting her
Ella el Elenea N nn nor either or
everything I say

The alter-ego as stutter. Persona is speech impediment. Given the penchant for flippancy from Cowles, we can hardly believe this is a serious declaration. And so we move on.

Section 5 of the book is the conclusion to the drama of whether Eleanor is who the author says she is or whether the author can continue the ruse that she is wholly other than distinctly real. Will ephemeral Eleanor materialize in the back of a pickup headed towards the Mexican border wearing another woman’s boots and clothes? Confused yet? Stay tuned. You are beginning to enter entirely into this book’s aesthetic.

The soap opera aspect of the book continues. Brian, whom the speaker was married to earlier in the book gives way to Geoff, who is clearly the new love interest in the speaker’s life. Meanwhile, Eleanor is sighted with a body. She is beginning to materialize again as she had in the 1st section, not just a phantom lingering in the margins. The speaker is writing postcards to her as Eleanor ambles off in a distant land (is that New York City?). We are told that the speaker and Eleanor are two ships that passing the night at the very end of the book:

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.

So it is unresolved, this specter of Eleanor.

The first time I read the book I was confident in my reading that Cowles had signaled a congruence between herself as author and Eleanor, but on 2nd reading I’m not sure that Cowles, in her insistence in distancing herself from Eleanor at the end, isn’t positing her as a real entity whose imagined form holds sway in the material world. The immaterial, like language, is made manifest as concrete entity. It constructs reality, even a persona or two . . . maybe one for a friend if you’re feeling generous. This is the constructivist view of language as opposed to the evidentiary view of language that has language specifically relating to the tangible world. While arguably both views are important and mutually reinforcing, it has been suggested that the constructivist notion of language should enjoy primacy as the main part of the poet’s concern. Some suggest that perhaps the constructivist approach should be the exclusive domain of the poet. Poesis should prevail over mimesis. To dwell in such an outlook for too long, it seems, is to risk the physical health of the poet. A solely linguistic construction simply doesn’t have enough fiber, and then later on in the day, you’ll see that avoiding the dictates of the tangible is what causes so many poets to fare poorly in a fistfight.

More pointedly, in the case of Eleanor, Eleanor the elaborate construction of Eleanor that Cowles has endeavored to create is alluring in how it attempts to carve out a place for the imaginary alongside the ordinary pots and pans and potted plants. My questions is whether it does so at the expense of how selves apparently function in most functional adults. Are there not many stable points in the construction of the self that allow for one to get through the day? I think I’d get pretty confused at the grocery store if I thought Eleanor was going to tag along and interrupt my thoughts, to appear and disappear, as it were. In the end I wonder if this notion of alter-ego/constructed persona in continual flux has veracity.

I’d venture that Cowles is not trying to leave the reader with some big gestalt at the end about what the experience of the whole book was about. This would probably strike her as beside the point, perhaps even absurd.

Cowles, who might be watching (or is it just my construction of Cowles who is watching?) steps back and says, “Dude. You missed the whole point. Just relax and enjoy the book. Let your thoughts flow into it, into the moment. You don’t have to fake an intellectual orgasm for me.”

But if no intellectual orgasm, what then is the use of all this foreplay?

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